The relentlessly hostile media reinforces the homophobia on the street, where queers face everything from taunts to machetes. Several gay men and transgender people die each year in Jamaica at the hands of mobs that beat, stone, and stab them. Lesbians face verbal harassment and rape, and sometimes death. And those are just the known cases.
Even more potent is the gay-hating trend in Jamaican popular music, a central element of the island's culture. The musicians Elephant Man, Bounty Killer, Beenie Man, TOK, and Capleton have variously encouraged their audiences to shoot, burn, rape, stone and drown lesbians and gay men. In a huge January 2004 concert in St. Elizabeth, Jamaica, almost every single song denounced gay men.
Roots of Hate
Some of the biggest foreign critics of Jamaica's homophobic dancehall music have come from Britain, the former colonial power in Jamaica, and home to a large community of Jamaicans and their descendants. Demonstrations have been held in London, musicians successfully boycotted, and recording contracts cancelled.
In January, Britain's The Guardian published a story by Decca Aitkenhead in which she chastised the British left for the outcry against Jamaica's violent homophobia, and, erasing the support of Jamaican activists for the protests, declared the British should keep their mouths shut. It was all their fault, from the colonial-era sodomy law, to poverty and the emasculating legacy of slavery. Debt relief, fair trade, and investment would take care of it.
She also brushed aside the role of fundamentalist religions, both Christian and non-Western, which play a huge role in the homophobic violence and is another essential component of Jamaican culture. The macho, homophobic, fundamentalist Rastafarian sect Bobo Dread, known by critics as the Jamaican Taliban, is a direct influence on Rastafarian musicians like Capleton, who sings, "Blood out ah chi chi/ Bun out ah sissy." Kill the fags, burn the sissies. He has reportedly been part of anti-gay mobs. Fellow Rastafarian singer Buju Banton allegedly took part in a gay-bashing last June.
Christians are equally bloody. In April 2000, an attack actually occurred inside a Baptist church hall in Kingston. A mob accused a man of being gay, cornered him in the hall, then shot him several times while he begged for his life; his boyfriend had to flee the neighborhood. Christian preachers are the first to fill the letters to the editor sections with exhortations against LGBT people as the demonic architects of Jamaica's downfall.
British colonialism is old news and Jamaica's elite is off the hook when you can blame queers for the country's corruption, police brutality, crime, and violence.
That is the crux of the problem: that the homophobia which suffuses the music, religion, society and government has combined into a peculiar nationalism, rallying around queers as the source of all of Jamaica's problems. For people that believe this, gay-bashing has become a kind of patriotism, an act in defense of the nation, and an integral part of the Jamaican identity. Like anti-Semitism for Hitler's Germans, this pathological hatred of queers is the tie that binds.
Last year I saw it at work uniting some Jamaican immigrants in New York City. Nurses from the island were attending a gay, African American friend of mine as he lay dying in a nursing home here. All he heard were endless terrifying exhortations about queers and how God wanted them to be killed -- by fire or the machete or whatever. It was the first time in thirty years the tough Bronx Viet Nam vet stayed in the closet. The bloodthirsty, proto-Christian rants seemed to affirm the nurses' cultural identity. Twenty-four seven it was hellfire and death to queers. He was afraid and humiliated on his deathbed.
The state in Jamaica is a pillar of this homophobic nationalism. Cops instigate the violence themselves, ignore it, or cover it up. The government laughs at the mobs and refuses to discipline the cops, overturn the British-era sodomy law, or even consider the idea that homophobia is compounding the growing problem of AIDS in Jamaica.
In this context, taking action can be both dangerous and demoralizing. In February, I spoke with Gareth, a young gay activist on a US tour sponsored by Amnesty International. He is only twenty-seven, but already a seven year veteran of J-FLAG, the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays.
I wondered how he managed to keep working so long. One of J-FLAG's members was murdered last June. The police investigation was a mockery. Gareth himself was physically abused by a police officer in 2002, and has witnessed a gay-bashing so bad that the victim later died. The more visible J-FLAG is, the more threats they all receive, both in the press, and in letters and emails.
Gareth told me that he was able to remain an activist because the members all stuck together and supported each other with phone calls and visits, and tried to make educational meetings fun.
When the damning Human Rights Watch report, "Hated to Death: Homophobia, Violence, and Jamaica's HIV/AIDS Epidemic," was distributed last November, unleashing a tremendous backlash on the island, they just kept reminding each other that it was all part of the process. "You just have to work through it and let it go," he said, his eyes downcast.
With such a virulent, pervasive strain of homophobia in Jamaica, Gareth is lucky that he has his grandmother on his side. She doesn't accept his homosexuality -- when she discovered him as a kid messing around with another guy she beat the crap out of him -- but she doesn't let his male cousins or brothers say anything at all against him, much less touch him. Thankfully, they are all afraid of her.
Male family members often rely on violence to enforce gender roles and sexual identities, even when people try their best to stay in the closet. In one documented account last February, a father encouraged a group of students to attack his own son after he went through the boy's backpack and discovered a picture of a nude man.
Gareth's aunt knows, too, though they never talk about it. The only person he's really out to is his sister. She learned by accident. Once, when she was staying with him in Kingston, some of his friends assumed she knew he was gay and talked openly around her. She was shocked at first, then accepting. She sometimes goes with him to gay parties and isn't afraid to dance with girls. She even vets his boyfriends. "It's wonderful to have her know," he told me.
The Jamaican closet is more confining than most. Gareth lamented how hard it was even for gay men to get to know each other. Meeting in public is risky. The internet has its own problems. Homophobes sometimes use chat rooms to lure gay men into real world places where they can be assaulted. No one can date normally. It's like being in a war zone.
I knew it was a mistake when I asked Gareth about how homophobia fit into the overall picture of poverty, police corruption, and the breakdown of law, along with Jamaica's fundamentalist religions and violent culture. He looked like he wanted to throw up. Even thinking about how it all conspired against queers was an overwhelming challenge for an embattled activist.
Gareth told me he and the other at J-FLAG kept their eyes on a more modest prize. "Our priority right now is processing stories of abuse, and working closely with other groups to provide safe spaces. We are also working to get attention. We appreciate support from anyone." They offer hotlines and educational meetings, and are also working to repeal the sodomy law.
One big accomplishment was a regional meeting they had last December in Kingston for activists working on queer issues, human rights, and HIV/AIDS. Nineteen activists came from all over the Caribbean and J-FLAG gave workshops on how to build advocacy organizations. J-FLAG is the oldest queer rights group in the area and they have a wealth of experience to share. That means a lot in a place where existence itself is a victory.
Amnesty International Rally, Friday, April 15, 2005, 3 - 4 p.m. at the Jamaican Consulate in New York City (47th St. and 3rd Ave.) to protest homophobic violence and call on the government to abolish the sodomy statute.