Producer Micah Fink of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting produced the Worldfocus signature story “Violence and venom force gay Jamaicans to hide.” He explains why we had to protect peoples’ identities.
For more information on HIV and homophobia in Jamaica, visit The Glass Closet, a multimedia project produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Reporting for television on anti-gay violence in Jamaica is tricky.
It is widely believed that being openly gay in Jamaica is essentially a death sentence. That eventually, if you put your face on camera and admit you are gay, someone, sooner or later, will come along and kill you. Or attack your family. Or kill you and your family.
So we had to accept that anyone gay would not be willing to appear on television talking openly about their life experiences. We also agreed before we began filming that if we did find people willing to tell their stories, we would conceal their identities.
And we met many people, more than we could film, who were willing to be interviewed – and who trusted us to protect them from retribution.
There were only two exceptions.
One was a young gay woman who had been brutally attacked by anti-gay thugs and who was planning to flee Jamaica forever and apply for asylum in the United States. She agreed to openly tell her story as long as she was safely off the island when the film was broadcast. Unfortunately, her request for an American visa was denied, and she remains trapped in Jamaica, fearing for her life. And the footage we shot with her will likely never see the light of day.
The other exception was Reverend Robert Griffin, a gay American minister with the Metropolitan Community Churches, who agreed to appear on camera to tell the story of his efforts to build an underground church for Jamaica’s gay community. He is aware that he is risking his life by showing his face to the camera – since he often travels back and forth between Jamaica and the US – but he believes this is a risk worth taking. He sees himself as part of a long tradition of fighting for civil rights that passes through Martin Luther King and connects back to the anti-slavery movement and the underground railroad. And he believes that fighting for tolerance and human dignity for Jamaica’s gay community is a cause for which he is willing to risk everything.
Everyone else wanted to appear in silhouette.
I wasn’t sure at first if these darkened features, shot against a bright window frame, would convey the emotional intensity that is so essential for effective television story-telling. But after we filmed several young gay men speaking about their lives, it was clear this was material we simply had find a way to use.
I now think that the absence of specific visual details makes you listen more closely to the humanity of these voices, and that their remarks may even be more chilling and more universal than if you were able to see a particular, individual face.
“If you are gay in Jamaica, people want to kill you,” one young man told us, explaining how he has to change how he walks and talks so that he doesn’t draw attention to himself when he walks outside. “So I try to walk thuggish,” he explains.
Another young man tells us that he is now living in hiding. “Where I live it is very dangerous,” he says. “Most of the time I can’t come out during the day because people want to kill me.” Why do they want to kill him? “Because I’m gay,” he says.
He also tells how his best friend was murdered and chopped into tiny pieces – and how another friend was locked into his parent’s home and then burned alive.
“People who live here, once they find out that you’re gay, Battyman, let me use the word Battyman, they want to kill you,” says another young man. He goes on to explain that the police are also a serious threat. Just last week, he says, he was searched by several police officers who “razzle dazzled” him up, and then told him: “Bataman fi dead around here,” which means, translated from Jamaican, “We kill gay people around here.”
How do I know they were speaking the truth?
Partly from my 15 years of experience as a journalist—my inner sense told me while we were filming that these men were speaking openly about their lives. Most were poor and had nothing to gain from making up stories. And then there were the common themes that run through their accounts—that make their stories similar, while still being unique. Most of these men said they were afraid to disclose their sexual identity to their parents, or families, or girl friends, for fear of being rejected or expelled from their homes.
And then there are the odd, but very human inconsistencies.
Listen closely to the young gay man who goes by the pseudonym Damion and who says he believes that homosexuality runs counter to God’s will. “I read the Bible for myself and see in the Bible where it says Sodom and Gomorrah is wrong and God destroyed them, so I believe the practice is wrong,” he explained. “So what we need to do is try and put that in a restraining order and stop doing it.” he says. “It is a big challenge for your lifestyle to be changed from homosexual, to be free from it. I believe you need to go through a lot of prayer and fasting, dedication, commitment, and counseling that would help to bring you through that process. It is very hard to do, but I believe it can be done. I’m trying to climb that ladder but I keep falling back because it’s very hard to do. It’s very difficult to change your lifestyle.”
This is the confession of a man struggling with himself—his conscience battling both his sense of morality and his innate sexuality. Given the social context in which he lives, this seems to me to be a battle that he can never really win. Which I find as profoundly tragic as it is profoundly true.
– Micah Fink
- Watch all the Worldfocus In the Shadows video signature series
- Listen to Worldfocus Radio on LGBT politics and gay asylum
- 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.
November 9, 2009
Say ‘goodbye’ to the Iron Curtain
My first image of the “iron curtain” came from a Nancy Drew novel The Captive Witness, in which our heroine Nancy, touring a communist country as a student, gets involved in a plot to help children escape to freedom. What was this iron curtain that separated east from west, I wondered—and what was so perilous and forbidding about the land behind it that made young people like me risk their lives to flee?
As I looked at a map of Europe, I pictured a sheet of metal, upright and extending for miles along the ground and high into the sky, a metal barricade topped with barbed wire, guarded by attack dogs, and surrounded by towers with roving lights. On one side—the world that I knew. On the other—a cold, dark menacing place where the sun never shone.
Fast forward a few years. I am sitting in my high school social studies class when our teacher tells us with tears in his eyes that the Berlin Wall is falling down. I run home and sit transfixed in front of the television, watching the thousands of people clambering up and over the wall, taking away pieces of brick, drinking champagne, celebrating. Exiled cellist Mstislav Rostropovich serenades united easterners and westerners with Bach. I can’t quite fathom what it means—the structure that surrounded the city of Berlin is no more—but understand that with the fall of the wall, the iron curtain is melting away.
In 1993, I venture for the first time behind the line that divided east and west. I’m in Moscow to study Russian for a semester. In part, it was the desire to discover for myself this previously “forbidden” part of the globe that drew me there. I arrive on a grey evening in February. As we drive from the airport to the city outskirts, I peer through the steamy window at the foreign scene outside. The grey sky seems an extension of the snowy landscape. Mammoth apartment buildings extend endlessly, and tiny figures scurry about in fur hats and coats. We pass row upon row of bare birch trees.
It was four years since the wall came down, and two years since the Soviet Union officially dissolved. Part of me always wished I’d arrived three years earlier, to have experienced life in the USSR. But even though I was too late, I caught glimpses of what life behind the iron curtain must have been like: watching my good friend Anastasia try her very first banana, listening to recordings of singers whose music had been circulated through samizdat, sharing a meal on an overnight train ride with fellow passengers who had never spoken to an American before, handing a mother a letter from her son who had fled to the west, and feeling the oppressive uniformity and lack of diversity in a city where everyone looked and dressed alike.
In the ten plus years that I spent studying Russia and the former Soviet Union, I’ve never ceased to be amazed by the monumentality of the events that transpired during the fall and winter of 1989, and by just how much the world has changed since then. In a sense I’m glad to have known a world in which there was an iron curtain, in order to appreciate a world without it. And so, on the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I propose a toast to the destruction of walls everywhere, walls that keep people apart and walls that keep people in.
– Christine Kiernan
November 5, 2009
Tonga’s traditional ways threatened by climate change
Megan Thompson, a Worldfocus producer, recently returned from a trip around the world to report on climate change. Read her earlier posts from Grenada and Antigua and Maldives.
We were some of the first people on earth to see the sun set on Saturday night. After about 36 hours of travel from the Maldives, we landed on a dot of earth that is the Kingdom of Tonga, greeted by a brilliant Pacific sunset.
Tonga is in the second-most-eastern time zone – the second to start, and end, each calendar day. But Tongans don’t seem too aware of its significance, and have a relaxed attitude towards the concept of time in general. “Time doesn’t play a major role here,” said one of our guides.
“Island time” is a bit of a cliché, but it’s true that the Tongan pace is mellow. I didn’t see a single stop light in this country – just a few roundabouts at the “busier” intersections, and a crossing gate in Lifuka, where the main road intersects the airport runway. The prevailing speed limit is about 25 miles an hour and sometimes there are more pigs roaming free in the street than there are cars.
Ha’apai, Tonga. Photo: Megan Thompson
Political change has been slow to arrive here, too. Tonga is one of the few absolute monarchies left in the world — though not for much longer. The recently-crowned King George Tupou V has promised to start handing power over to the people next year, transitioning the government from one dominated by nobles and political appointees to one run by the prime minister.
But adopting a more modern form of government surely won’t mean that Tonga will lose the many rich traditions that thrive here. Most Tongans still wear the traditional waist mats – the ta’ovala for men, and the kiekie for women. It’s a sign of respect – like a neck tie, as it was explained to us – and is required in most schools, government buildings and church. The Tongan currency is called the pa’anga, but large, hand-made tapestries called tapa are sometimes still used as a form of currency and wealth.
Tapa, made from pounded tree bark, is used sometimes as a form of wealth and currency. Photo: Megan Thompson
That’s not to say that Tongans need – or have – much money. This continues to be, by and large, a culture of subsistence living, highly dependent on the abundant nature here. Food is gathered daily from the sea and lush land, and the strong family unit supplies other basic needs. The material items and frivolities that most Westerners spend their disposable income on just don’t exist. On the island of Lifuka, I asked our guide what he did in his spare time.
“I go and cut crops on my land,” he replied.
But how about for fun?
“I take a walk.”
Tongans are intimately connected to nature, and most we spoke to have noticed that the weather seems less predictable and the sea level seems to be rising. But many weren’t familiar with the concept of climate change.
That will probably change soon as well. For just like the sunrise and sunset, climate change will arrive first in Tonga and other small island states. And unlike the leisurely rhythms by which most business is done here, this issue must be tackled with urgency and haste.
The government recently formed the new Ministry for Environment and Climate Change and has started a campaign to spread awareness. They are also gearing up to attend the climate change talks in Copenhagen in December. There, they will join other small island nations to demand that the international community pick up the pace to save this Pacific island paradise and its people before it’s too late.
November 3, 2009
For Google Maps, diplomacy trumps geography
In recent years, Google Maps have become a go-to source for web-based mapping. They provide visualizations of virtually any location on Earth to varying degrees of detail, depending on the region.
But as Google has gained a foothold in markets around the world, adapting its versions to different countries and languages, an inevitable problem has emerged: how do you delineate international boundaries when they are disputed by multiple countries?
This caused problems for the tech giant earlier this year, when its Chinese characters mislabeled an area called Arunachal Pradesh, which is under Indian administration.
While a simple solution to border disputes would be to stick to internationally recognized demarcations, Google has taken things a step further. Rather than risk antagonizing disputes among its partner countries– each with its own market potential– Google has customized its maps according to different countries’ official positions on their versions of its Google Maps application.
“This does not in any way endorse or affirm the position taken by any side,” according to a Google spokesperson, “but merely provides complete information on the prevailing geo-political situation to our users of global properties in a dispassionate and accurate manner.”
Take, for example, the Chinese version of Google Maps:
The disputed boundaries between India and Pakistan are indicated by dotted lines. But the border with China (to the northeast of India) is nevertheless solid.
Consider, then, the Indian version of the same region:
Here, it appears the only disputed area lies between Tajikistan and China, to the north of India. Indian territory itself, including the western part of Kashmir which is often attributed to Pakistan, is not in question. Furthermore, the area between China and India, which in China’s version belong to China, now lies within Indian territory.
Finally, compare these two version to the standard version of Google Maps:
Here, all disputed boundaries are indicated by a dotted line.
These border disputes predate the Internet — and are unlikely to go away any time soon. Google has at least managed a temporary diplomatic resolution in cyberspace.
November 2, 2009
Is polygamy good for women?
A proposal last week by Malaysia’s Islamic party argued that polygamy can be beneficial for women.
The conservative Islamic party has called for Muslim men in the country to marry single mothers instead of “young virgin girls,” said a state official. Al-Arabiya news channel quoted Wan Ubaidah, head of women, family and health affairs in a northern state, remarking that although Malaysian men usually prefer young and virgin girls as their additional wives, this new proposal would help single mothers and widows who are finding it hard to raise their kids.
Muslim men in Malaysia are allowed to marry up to four women under the approval of the Islamic courts but it’s not widespread in the country. The proponents of the practice say it helps disadvantaged women like single mothers and widows and discourage adultery and prostitution. But many women’s rights activists condemn it as an unequal and unjust practice against women.
The debate over polygamy has been going on in Malaysia for awhile now. In August, a “polygamy club,” was founded in the country to promote polygamous marriages. The aim is to help “single mothers, reformed prostitutes and women who feel they are past the marrying age” find the appropriate spouse to marry. The club claims to have 1000 members of which 700 are women.
A possible opening of a branch of the club in the world’s most populous Muslim nation, Indonesia, has provoked outrage among some religious leaders and women’s rights groups in that country. According to the Associated Press, analysts believe the number of men who prefer to marry more than one wife is rising in Indonesia, and includes some religious leaders and political figures.
Islamic law allows for a man to marry up to four wives under the condition that he can provide for all four of them fairly and equally. The practice is especially common in traditional Arab countries like Saudi Arabia. But it’s prohibited in more secular predominantly Muslim countries such as Turkey, Tunisia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and abhorred by many women’s rights activists.
Explore the legal status of polygamy with this interactive map.
October 23, 2009
Up close and personal with the Taliban
The Times reporter conducting an interview.
Photo: Tomas Munita for The New York Times
Edward Deitch is the consulting producer and head writer at Worldfocus. He looks at how one reporter describes an ordeal in Afghanistan and Pakistan — and what it may mean for U.S. policymakers.
It was unfortunate, even heartbreaking, how David Rohde gained first-hand knowledge of the Taliban. The New York Times correspondent went to Afghanistan last November to research a book, but before getting very far he was kidnapped by a Taliban commander who had invited him for an interview.
Held for more than seven months across the border in Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas, he lived to write about his experience. It’s the kind of story that no one would have wished for but that few will turn away from.
In a series of Times articles this week, Rohde recounts his experience and those of two Afghan colleagues abducted with him. You can see a related video segment from this Worldfocus partner in tonight’s broadcast.
Rohde’s perspective on the Taliban is particularly relevant. Pakistan is conducting a large-scale offensive against the insurgents in South Waziristan, one of the areas where Rohde was held. And President Obama is pondering whether to commit more troops to the effort against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
There will most certainly be a book and, inevitably, a movie. But I doubt Hollywood will do justice to the material. Rohde’s ordeal, in his own words, is the kind of story you can’t make up.
There have been countless dispatches on the fight against the Taliban from the American and British points of view. Following the troops in Afghanistan for a few days or weeks is routine for reporters, whether they are from The Times, American television news outlets, or foreign broadcasters such as Australia’s ABC or Al Jazeera English, whose reports we have featured on our program. Al Jazeera English has also provided glimpses into the Taliban side, especially in Pakistan.
By contrast, David Rohde, without a choice in the matter, experienced what might be described as the ultimate embed with the Taliban, and some of his revelations are worth noting as U.S. policymakers confront the growing dangers in Afghanistan and Pakistan:
- The group that held him “oversaw a sprawling Taliban mini-state in the tribal areas with the de facto acquiescence of the Pakistani military.”
- U.S. drone attacks on Taliban targets “killed many senior commanders and hindered their operations. Yet the Taliban were able to garner recruits in their aftermath by exaggerating the number of civilian casualties.”
- The Taliban “were more sophisticated than I expected. They browsed the Internet and listened to hourly news updates on Azadi radio, a station run by the American government. But then they dismissed whatever information did not meet their preconceptions.”
Even the surreal moments are instructive. Rohde was baffled, he tells us, by how his guards liked to sing with him, and their favorite song was none other than “She Loves You” by the Beatles. He recounts how he would sing the first verse and the guards and his fellow captives would join in for the chorus. “’She loves you – yeah, yeah, yeah,’ we sang, with Kalashnikovs lying on the floor around us.” One can only imagine it.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of Rohde’s story, with all its twists and turns. It is a thriller set in an unfolding and deepening conflict with no end in sight. It provides a rare and raw look at just what the United States and its allies are up against. It’s difficult to read but hard to put down.
– Edward Deitch
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