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In the Newsroom

May 18, 2009
Gay men in Jamaica must lead two separate lives

A gay Jamaican man shares his story, but conceals his identity for fear of attacks. Photo: Lisa Biagiotti

Lisa Biagiotti is reporting on HIV/AIDS, sexuality and young gay men in Jamaica. Her interest in the subject began when she met Alex Brown* 18 months ago. The story below is his — of a gay Jamaican who received asylum in the U.S. because he was persecuted on the basis of his sexuality. Though Alex is free from persecution, he still wrestles with issues of secrecy and religion, and his family in Jamaica still doesn’t know he’s gay.

It’s no secret that homophobia crosses class lines in Jamaica. From the inner cities to elite high schools, homosexuality is not accepted in Jamaican society. Pastors preach against the sin of homosexuality from the pulpit and dancehall lyrics glamorize gay killings.

Mob violence and attacks against gays have earned Jamaica the mark as one of the most intolerant nations for homosexuals. And the act of sodomy is still illegal, holding a 12-year prison sentence of hard labor.

Hurling stones in Jamaica

Alex Brown knew he had to leave Jamaica after back-to-back anti-gay attacks at work and home. On a Saturday evening in August 2002, two young men knocked on Alex’s cottage door in Kingston, shouting, “We know you’re a battyman (gay man — batty means buttocks) and you better pay us.”

“I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about, I’m not a battyman. No, I’m not,” he cried. The 6-foot-3-inch Alex shut the front door, cowered beneath a window of his one-room hut and watched five men hurl stones at his home, shattering windows and alarming neighbors.

“Are you going to come pick up my dead body?” Alex pleaded to the female police dispatcher. Alex feared he would end up like his gay uncle, who was beaten to death in downtown Kingston in the late 1990s.

The police were stationed two blocks away, but it took more than an hour for them to arrive. They rounded up the men at a corner store. When the men accused Alex of making a pass at them, an officer turned to Alex and said, “If we find out you’re a battyman, we’ll come over there and lock you up.”

“The police don’t protect gay people in Jamaica,” Alex said. He feared reporting other anti-gay incidents where he was punched in the face, threatened to be run over by a car, or robbed at gunpoint at Portmore Plaza. “I could not go back to the same police station that threatened to lock me up because I’m gay.”

In 2002, Alex left his 9-year-old son, the offspring of the only opposite-sex encounter he has had, and his job of 13 years as a wharf warehouse supervisor. With a fellow gay Jamaican, he headed to London to complete his bachelor’s and earn a master’s degree in business administration.

“I had to move from one place to the next,” Alex said. “I was accused of being gay. I learned my lesson.”

When he couldn’t pay his tuition bills, he was forced to return to Jamaica in June 2006. The anti-gay sentiment seemed more hostile. Alex’s best friend Emil and ex-lover Robert had been murdered earlier that year. Six months of further harassment ensued and Alex decided to board a plane to the U.S.

In 1994, former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno expanded asylum law to include immigrants who could prove government persecution based on sexual preference. Asylum applications must be filed within one year of entry into the U.S. Immigrants must prove persecution in their home country on the basis of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group — gay asylum cases fall under this category.

While gay asylees make up a small percentage of the 12,000 total asylum cases per year, the severe situation in Jamaica against homosexuals proved grounds for asylum.

Immigration Equality, a national U.S. organization that works to end immigration discrimination, handles about 100 gay asylum cases a year. They are seeing a steady stream of applications from Jamaicans, which make up about 20 percent of their caseload. Their stories always seem similar.

Living a double life, again

Gay Jamaicans abroad still face challenges in reconciling two parts of themselves — being gay and being Jamaican. Despite the freedom from persecution that asylum offers, they are frequently drawn into communities of other Jamaican immigrants, including the very same people that persecuted them. They find themselves see-sawing between gay isolation and keeping up appearances for the Jamaican community at home and abroad.

“You live a double live,” Alex said. “Sometimes living two or three lives; that’s how it is.”

After spending a year on a cot in a New York homeless shelter, where he shared a room with two other men, Alex now has his own subsidized apartment in the Bronx. He received his Greencard and is working on his nursing certificate.

But even with asylum and a new start, some Jamaican roots cannot be forgotten completely. So, he hasn’t told anyone about his asylum — not his 13-year-old son, his family in Jamaica or his church communities.

“When you’re gay, you’re isolated,” Alex said. “Once you interact, it opens up a gate for your own downfall.”

– Lisa Biagiotti

*Alex Brown’s name has been changed to protect his identity.

  • Watch all the Worldfocus In the Shadows video signature series
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  • For more information on homophobia and HIV in Jamaica, visit The Glass Closet, a multimedia project produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

See more Worldfocus coverage on Homosexuality Around the World.

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Comments

11 comments

#11

I know the fretfullness some Jamaicans go through. Before intergration it was extremely taboo in the Africna American community as weel, and even afterwards it is really not accepted in the African American Community only tolerated. As a kid I knew I was different, but I wouldn’t dare act on it, because my family and community looked down on gay men and bulldaggers as the women were called during those times. Funny thing is, my first relationship and experience was with a Jamaican guy. We loved one another and we talked about battyman issues and religious issues in the black community as a whole. Hearing of the culture and attitude towards the gay in Jamaica makes me not want to visit. Buju Banton is one of my favorite artist but his song Boom bye-bye is the anti-gay Jamaican anthem, and you can hear it pounding in cars booming down ths street.

#10

This is such a touching account. Coming from the Philippines, I certainly have had less of this hatred toward Jamaican gays. Especially, with situations such as Haiti’s earthquake, people must remember to stand together rather than fight over color or sexual preference. I believe in looking at all people respectfully and I hope the government does something before it loses international tourism appeal and financial support.

#9

I am Jamaican born in Kingston, knew I was different form age 10, I was attracted to boys. I never acted on my feeling until I was about 19; I really did not know what it meant at first. I was first called a homosexual by a girl in 11th grade that was when I researched and found out that was a part of a denounced group of people. I never had friends until I met a young man who was my age 20. I started to visit his home and met two of his friendshe lived with his mother. We all lived in the same town. That was when all hell broke loose. Suddenly I was branded batty man, I meet hostility form all handle, stoned twice, punched in the face twice, accused of embarrassing the family, blamed by other parents that I am miss guiding their sons, my family members was attacked verbally and physically. I lived in fear all my life form then on. The sad thing is that all the people that I became friends with migrated to other countries. I got out of Jamaica at age 35. I endure even an attacked from a mob that was called on by the mother of the guy that I was dating and sharing a house with. To this day I have no idea why she did that horrible deed. I was spared by god the mob ripped my shirt and tried to drag me out of the house someone had called the police who interrogate me inserted video that I had of gay men in the vcr, people broke the windows to see. I guess she was searching my stuff when I was not around. The police escorted both her son and I to safety. They did not chastise or abuse us. Jehovah was on my side. I still get nightmares form all the abuse i endured. I suppress a part of me to survive. Even as I lived here in the USA I still love my country but the people I despise with a passion because of their lack of compassion. I would recommend that any gay Jamaican who is experiencing brutality to get out if they can.

#8

Wato/ PROUD Jamaican
October 9th, 2009 | LINK
“Hate is Hate and Violence is Violence”. It sickens me as a Jamaican to know that my country and citizens are participating in violence and hate against homosexuals. We are suppose to be a God loving and fearing country. We are no better than those who commit heinous acts against others because of their race, religion or gender. No one is dictating that Jamaicans embrace the notion of homosexuality. What is being asked is that the degradation of gays in Jamaican-music cease, that the violence perpetrated on the homosexual community must be stopped and prosecuted to the fullest. Also, that the governing heads of state of Jamaica must stop marginalizing the need for human rights protection for homosexuals in Jamaica. Isn’t it ironic that the most popular dance hall phrases during a concert/stage show are “Who love God?…and… Who hate batty man? If only Jamaicans would take that displaced hatred and anger… and fight the real demons destroying our beautiful and proud country… POVERTY, VIOLENCE, AIDS, UNEMPLOYMENT, POOR-EDUCATION (ILLITERACY), INADEQUATE HEALTH CARE, and GOVERNMENT CORRUPTION. IF you really want to fight or even kill take on one of the aforementioned demons, and leave the homosexuals alone. “OUT of MANY ONE PEOPLE”.

#7

I am a gay Jamaican, with the naked eye you would never think that, I been among the worst worst and they still do not know.

#6

[…] that if you’re gay and Jamaican, you’d qualify for asylum. I then spent a year profiling Alex Brown, a gay Jamaican who received asylum in the U.S. In all honesty, this portrait of Jamaica was […]

#5

[…] Caribbean have never been a safe haven for gay  men, and places like Jamaica force gay men to live two lives out of fear, there is something to be said about this case in particular. It involves a group set […]

#4

This story calls to mind an incident in Jamaica during the 1970s when my best friend at the time in high school was attacked and called a “sissy” (read “faggot”) by some other boys in our class and they stoned him. The boys were promptly expelled from school and others were suspended.

I denounce hate crimes and I denounce bigotry and I denounce disregard for the life and welfare of another human being because of sexual orientation.

But at the same time I take issue with the way in which Miss Biagiotti has presented her story. For if you didn’t know better you might perhaps assume elsewhere in the Caribbean or even right here in most parts of the United States there exists a higher degree of tolerance, acceptance, or even police protection for gay men and women.

There is indeed a need to shed the brightest lights on the way people in Jamaica are treated and simply because they are who they are. As a people, Jamaicans are more likely to respond to what they see for themselves.

But let the light shine and there isn’t a need to be glaring. Portray Jamaicans as a backward, inhumane, heartless, uncivil people and in a story that seems tightly packed for a particular effect but at the cost of its credibility and the Jamaican people might likely not give the time of day.

“Out of Many, One people,” the Jamaican national motto. To effect change, you must speak into their listening and to have their listening you must at least be fair in presenting these many people as one.

#3

I am truly sorry that there are some Jamaicans who are persecuted because of their sexual preference…sexuality is no ones business but the couple concerned – adults are free to do as they like.
Things are however nowhere as bad as some persons would want you all to believe. for the record i am a straight Jamaican man with many gay friends. there are many popular gays in theatre and the media. the average jamaican is more likely to laugh at someone gay than hit them. it is more likely for gays to be attacked in some parts of the usa than jamaica.

#2

all too familiar a story, thanx for posting this

#1

Here is an e-mail received from Calcutta today:
“A a big storm in west bengal. The communist party has been ousted. indeed out of kerala too. the only 2 states they had hold over.

i went to vote at 6.30 am. Last year one woman i knew got there at 5 pm just before the booth closed and someone had voted under her voter’s id.!!! The booth manager told her it was her fault. She should have come earlier!!

but the replacement in bengal isn’t all that great. She is like george bush but with a bad temper. So low IQ, muddle headed, arrogant, difficult, willful, and power hungry, and also a bad attitude. I fear she just might hurry the communists back in again !

more later.

i will put up a pic of my inked finger!!”

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