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.
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