For many Americans, Jamaica is a tourist haven, but with numerous homophobic attacks, the island's gays and lesbians say they fear for their lives. ESSENCE Senior Writer Jeannine Amber investigates
Gareth Henry is haunted by a memory. When he tells the story, his voice starts to crack. It was a sunny day, June 18, 2004, and Henry, a slightly built man with a round, boyish face and quick smile, was relaxing on the beach in Montego Bay, Jamaica, with a few friends. From where he sat, he could see three police officers approach another friend, Victor Jarrett, who was farther down the beach. Henry vividly remembers one of the officers pushing Jarrett, 24, while another yelled at him that no battymen (local patois for faggot) belonged on the beach. Henry winced as the officers began to beat Jarrett with their batons and fists. A crowd quickly formed around the spectacle.
"I will never forget it," Henry, 31, says, speaking in the vaguely British lilt of a well-educated Jamaican. "There were about 100 people and they were saying to the officers, 'Hand him over; let us finish him.' " According to Henry and several eyewitnesses who would later report the incident to the international rights organization Human Rights Watch, the police walked away from Jarrett, leaving him to the angry mob. "Beat him because him a battyman!" said one of the officers. Men picked up sticks and stones and started pummeling Jarrett. Others kicked and punched him. Henry stood by, horrified. He wanted nothing more than to help his friend, but he knew that if he intervened he would become the mob's next target. "Victor saw us on the beach, but he didn't call to us," says Henry, his voice unsteady. "He'd rather suffer the hurt and humiliation alone than have all of us be victims."
Suddenly Jarrett broke free of the crowd and started to run, the mob fast on his heels. Henry prayed that Jarrett would somehow make it to safety. But the next day the newspaper reported: "Alleged gay man chopped, stabbed and stoned to death." The article (shown on opposite page) went on to claim that Jarrett had "molested" a young man. Henry, who is also gay, cried when he read the news. "Victor wasn't doing anything but walking on the beach," he says. "People make up stories to justify their attacks." Henry mourned the death of his friend and cursed the hatred that had killed him. What he didn't know was that he himself would soon be the target of another vicious mob.
Chased, Beaten, Shot, Killed
To many Americans, the island of Jamaica, with its miles of white-sand beaches and famously laid-back attitude, is a vacationer's paradise. But for those who live here, it is a much different place, plagued by economic hardships and one of the highest homicide rates in the Northern Hemisphere. While much of the violence is gang-related, there have been reports of horrific acts targeted specifically at the country's gay and lesbian population. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have published detailed accounts of machete-wielding mobs that have broken into private residences attacking men believed to be gay, and lesbians who have been raped by neighbors determined to "cure" them.
Both organizations note that in many instances the police have either failed to respond to calls for help by gay men or have participated in the attacks they were summoned to break up. Rebecca Schleifer, author of Human Rights Watch's 2004 report, Hated to Death: Homophobia, Violence and Jamaica's HIV/AIDS Epidemic, observes that "perpetrators of violence against gay men and lesbians are rarely arrested and prosecuted, making it even less likely that people will report the attacks." Even children are not spared the abuse: In one of the more shocking examples cited by Amnesty International, in February 2004, an eleventh-grader at a Kingston high school was assaulted when his father, suspecting his child was gay after finding a picture of a nude man in the boy's backpack, summoned other students to beat him.
The island's gay rights organization, Jamaica's Forum for Lesbians All-sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG), notes that between 2006 and 2008 more than 150 homophobic assaults and murders were reported to the agency. Gay men and lesbians have been chased, chopped, beaten, raped and shot. But despite the gruesome nature of the attacks, many Jamaicans, including those in politics and law enforcement, insist that the situation is simply not as bad as the activists and foreign media make out.
Bishop Herro Blair, one of Jamaica's most respected pastors, who presides over 22 churches on the island, dismisses the notion that men are being beaten for being gay. He offers his own theory for the violent killings that have been reported in Jamaican newspapers—that they are lovers' quarrels. "I can safely say, nine times out of ten, that when a homosexual is killed, it's by another homosexual," he declares, leaning forward over the desk in his stately office in the capital city of Kingston. "Homosexuals are the most jealous community you'll find anywhere in the world," he adds.
Minister of Justice Dorothy Lightbourne also isn't convinced gay men are being targeted. "There have been reports in the paper of incidences," allows Lightbourne. "But I wouldn't say it's so widespread. I don't know, sometimes it could be youngsters too-young boys-who carry on these acts. I'm just making a suggestion."
But as activists and local officials square off about the severity of homophobia in Jamaica, gay men and lesbians say they are struggling just to stay alive.
The Women Get Raped
Karlene, who will only give her first name for fear that someone will identify her, is a soft-spoken woman in her thirties who works for a financial company in Kingston. She has a bright, cheerful face, wears a crisp white blouse under her blue suit, and keeps her carefully styled braids in a high bun. "I don't understand how people can say this is not happening," she says, in response to the claims of local officials that J-FLAG is blowing things out of proportion. "Our help line is called every day by someone at risk. These are not lovers' quarrels."
J-FLAG, which is funded by anonymous donors and international human rights agencies, provides assistance to gays and lesbians who have been harassed or attacked, helping them find safe housing and making sure they get medical attention. According to the organization, gay men suffer the most abuse, but lesbians are not immune. In August, for example, Karlene was called to help Stephan, a young lesbian, and her brother, Karl, relocate after they were shot at by neighbors. (Both Stephan and Karl declined to use their full names.) The two were outside their home one night, looking for a set of car keys that had fallen in the dirt. Suddenly two men who were sitting on a nearby veranda opened fire. Stephan was shot through the abdomen, the bullet piercing her kidney and liver. Bleeding profusely, she fell to the ground and pretended to be dead. As she lay there, one of the gunmen shot her between her legs. "He was aiming for my vagina," she says, "but the bullet only grazed my buttock."
Read the rest of our eye-opening investigative story in the March 2009 issue of ESSENCE, on newsstands now.