Travel
12 min

Dispatches from Kingston

Three days in one of the most homophobic places on earth

NUDITY NOT THE ISSUE. A sculpture at the southeast corner of Kingston's Emancipation Park memorializing the end of slavery belies any reputation Jamaica may have as sexually uptight. Credit: Matt Mills photo

The drive from Kingston’s Norman Manley International Airport to the centre of the city’s business district, New Kingston, winds through one of the Jamaican capital’s underprivileged neighbourhoods.

The taxi driver keeps the accelerator tramped to the floorboard as we speed through a maze of gritty, sun-baked streets lined with low, ramshackle buildings. People stare as we pass by. Urban decay is not the right description for this. Those words imply that a once-new prosperity somehow slipped away over time, but there are no obvious relics of better days here.

In this class-stratified city, Kingston’s various rough neighbourhoods are the childhood homes of dancehall musicians, heroes of the ghettos, some of whose lyrics call for and glorify the murder of batty men (Jamaican patois for “bottom men”).

We pass an intersection where, with no cover from the midday sun, a handsome young black man hawks newspapers to passersby. He makes me think of Brian Williamson. Williamson was a co-founder of the Jamaica Forum for All-sexuals and Gays (JFLAG). He was Jamaican, a well-heeled white man and an outspoken activist for gay rights in a city that some have dubbed the most homophobic place on earth. Buggery — sex between men — is still punishable by up to 10 years in a Jamaican prison. And what happened to Williamson is just one of countless horror stories involving gay men in Jamaica.

In 2004 his semi-nude and butchered body was found in his New Kingston apartment. He was reportedly stabbed and chopped at more than 70 times with a machete. Eyewitnesses to the aftermath say his neighbours gathered to gawk and celebrate his death in the street outside his home.

It was a young newspaper vendor who in 2006 pleaded guilty to Williamson’s killing. The attack came mere days after Amnesty International issued a report about homophobic violence in Jamaica that called on the island nation’s prime minister, then PJ Patterson, to do something. The Jamaican press derided activists from rich foreign countries who dared interfere in a complex and ancient body politic they know nothing about.

Amnesty alleged Williamson was killed because of his sexuality and his political activism. The official story is that he was killed over a debt gone bad. Ask anyone active in Kingston’s down-low society of men who have sex with men and you’ll get differing stories about everything. But the consensus about Williamson’s death seems to be that he had an ongoing sexual relationship with his killer that ended with a bloody disagreement over money.

But no matter the mitigating details, high-profile gay men and gay activists in Jamaica seem to regularly wind up brutally murdered.

A year earlier, for example, on the eve of World AIDS Day, openly gay Jamaican AIDS activist Steve Harvey was abducted from his home at gunpoint. According to eyewitness reports the assailants asked him and his roommates if they were gay. Harvey alone reportedly refused to answer and was taken away. His bullet-riddled body was found hours later.

Another high-profile gay murder occurred in 2006. On Mar 20 Jamaica’s highest-ranking trade official, Peter King, was found brutally murdered in his Kingston home. He was reportedly found naked with stab wounds to his upper chest. His throat was slashed and, according to several of the gay men I met in Kingston, his genitals had been hacked from his loins and stuffed in his mouth.

After his murder, allegations surfaced that King hosted regular gay sex parties at his home. Rumours swirled that more than 30 videotapes were found at the scene that showed members of the upper crust of Kingston society, including at least one high-profile dancehall musician, engaged in various sex acts with young men from underprivileged areas of the city.

I met men who say they spent time at King’s house when they were younger, that it was great fun, that King’s sexuality was no secret to anyone and that his friends in the Jamaican government told him to tone down his life in the weeks before his death.

My sources say one videotape was passed around in the gay community after King’s death, but the videotapes never surfaced, allegations of underage boys used as sex toys were never substantiated, debauchery that would require superhuman stamina has never been corroborated. It all sounds to me very like Project Guardian, the London, Ontario kiddie porn witch hunt that wrecked the lives of dozens of gay men in the ’90s and turned up nothing.

Only in Williamson’s case was a suspect ever identified. Like so much in Jamaica, the rest is rumour, innuendo and unsubstantiated gossip.

What is for sure is that Jamaica is a violent place and it’s getting worse. Incidents of burglary, kidnapping and rape are above the world average and rising.

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, Jamaica’s murder rate was 59.2 per 100,000 in 2007. It hasn’t dipped below 35 per 100,000 for the past 10 years, making it a world leader in homicides. It even outpaces Colombia, a country in the grips of a brutal 40-year civil war.

Organized crime and gang warfare fuelled by the drugs trade, colonial oppression, a brutal history of government and police corruption, a misogynistic culture of angry and dispossessed young men, disparity of wealth; these are just some of the abstractions bandied about to explain the violence. Whatever the causes, it’s not just gay people who are falling victim. It’s everyone, especially the poor.

At 17 storeys, the Pegasus Hotel sticks out conspicuously from the Kingston skyline. It’s one of three establishment hotels in the city that cater to visiting dignitaries and business people. Security is tight with only registered guests allowed on the guestroom floors.

The Pegasus was last in the international news in 2007 when the naked corpse of Bob Woolmer, the coach of the Pakistani World Cup cricket team, was found sprawled in the bathroom of a room on the 12th floor. Jamaican police initially announced that Woolmer had been murdered — strangled and likely drugged — but eventually declared that he died of natural causes. His case is closed but forensic reports are inconclusive and rumours about what really happened to him are still swirling.

The Pegasus lies in the heart of New Kingston, the neighbourhood where Williamson lived and died. New Kingston is also home to the JFLAG office. Williamson’s assailant was from a rough neighbourhood about two kilometres to the south. The tony enclave of Waterloo Rd, where many upper- and middle-class gay people live and where King died, lies two kilometres to the north.

Across the street from the Pegasus is Emancipation Park. It’s a well-policed three-acre plaza where the locals go to socialize and to exercise in a city with few safe outdoor social spaces. At the southeast entrance to the park is a bronze sculpture of a naked man and woman, their gaze directed skyward, his flaccid cock improbably disproportionately huge.

Emancipation Park has a reputation among the city’s men as a good place to cruise. Sure enough, late in the day men sit alone or in groups in various areas of the park catching the eyes of other men as they pass by. Cruising in Emancipation Park is just like cruising any other place in the world.

I’ve arranged to meet Jason MacFarlane, the current program coordinator of JFLAG at the Pegasus. I want to know what he thinks about the joint effort between Stop Murder Music Canada (SMMC) and Egale Canada to threaten the Jamaican government with a tourism boycott if it doesn’t take steps to put the kybosh on murder music.

Williamson was killed just a few days after Amnesty’s report. Gareth Henry, the man MacFarlane succeeded at JFLAG, fled to Canada in fear of his life. If I were MacFarlane, I would be nervous about SMMC and Egale’s tourism boycott deadline.

MacFarlane is clearly cautious of me at the beginning of our conversation. He relaxes a little in time. We talk at a table in one of the Pegasus’ restaurants. He knows at least some of the staff here but his eyes are constantly scanning the room. Several times as we talk he stops mid-sentence as people he doesn’t know seem to approach our table on their way by. He stares them down scanning their faces for clues to their intentions. It’s clear to me that he’s not worried about being overheard. He’s worried about being attacked.

I ask him about what it’s like to be constantly looking over his shoulder.

“I don’t think I’ve analyzed it thoroughly enough,” he says. “My partner is very afraid of this step that I have made. One of the things that Brian [Williamson] did was that he put his face out there. I have not done that. I actually operate under a pseudonym. I honestly have no clue how dangerous it is for me. We moved in different circles. Gareth [Henry] went to parties a lot and I’m not as visible as he was. Everybody knew who Brian was.”

MacFarlane says that SMMC and Egale’s campaign against murder music gets people talking and that is a good thing. But he’s opposed to the tourist boycott because he says it complicates JFLAG’s work.

“I personally understand where they’re coming from,” he says. “But [Egale and SMMC] are in a position where they can’t see what’s happening day-to-day. They are not facing the realities. If JFLAG had one case [of violence against gay people] a week, since the boycott we have three. They’re not seeing the reality. It is essentially bringing more violence on the community.”

MacFarlane tells me about a man who called JFLAG in a panic just the previous night. He says the man was attacked by two men, one of whom cut him. He agrees to put us in touch.

That man, Anthony (another pseudonym), talks with me later by phone.

“I went to Portmore to look at a house,” he recounts. “I passed two guys on my way in and on my way back out. One of them came up to me and said, ‘Oh, you’re one of dem batty bwoys of dem faggots in Canada want to get freedom in Jamaica.’ They proceeded to cut me in the face and on the arm.”

Anthony says he needed seven stitches in his face and nine in his forearm. He says he was house hunting because he was burned out of his previous home in Ocho Rios. He says he doesn’t know his assailants but that he’s a very out gay man in Jamaica and is not surprised they knew him.

“I just said to them that I loved them with the love of the lord and they moved,” he recounts. “There was a lot of blood.” At the end of our conversation Anthony eerily bids me to enjoy the rest of my stay in Jamaica.

It’s a terrible picture but I worry that a side effect to this story is that it will serve only to vilify all Jamaicans. MacFarlane acknowledges that vilification is a likely outcome but reserves his harshest criticism for foreign activists who jump to conclusions about Jamaica without doing their homework.

“A lot of us feel ignored in the sense that our own personal feelings haven’t been sought out,” he says. “They just decided to wreak havoc on a nation in which they are not physically present.”

I find copies of the Jamaican newspapers in the hotel gift shop. Most headlines lament the rising costs of living. Water rates are about to rise almost 30 percent. The government is starting a rice-growing program and encouraging Jamaicans to plant vegetable gardens, something it hasn’t done in years. The world food crisis is hitting people here.

The front-page story on the Sunday Herald is about an HIV/AIDS workshop held in Ocho Rios, the aim of which was to “inform journalists how to effectively report on HIV/AIDS.” I don’t think the workshop was completely successful. The Herald’s headline screams “Men raping men,” in a bright red font that takes up more space on the page than does the body of the story.

The article reads in part, “Reports emerging from the homosexual community are that members of that community are being ravished by sex-hungry homosexual and even heterosexual men. The disclosures have raised fresh concerns among local health authorities who are busy fighting the spread of HIV/AIDS among the homosexual community and the country overall.”

The papers are filled with stories of mysterious deaths and attacks. There are no stories about ongoing criminal investigations. That a suspect was even identified in Williamson’s case is the exception rather than the norm. The obituaries pages bear a conspicuously high number of memorials for women who “died tragically” in their 30s and 40s.

In preparation for this trip to Kingston I contacted a number of mainstream Jamaican print journalists. I zeroed in on Mark Wignall, a commentary writer for the Jamaica Daily Observer. Wignall has written pieces that are highly critical of dancehall musicians.

“Dancehall music is a bastardized, sick form of our local music,” he writes in an email. “It is fit only for the ignorant masses…. Dancehall is basically about carrying the realities of the inner city to music, if it can be called music. Homosexuality is just one of the topics in the ghetto. Frankly I suspect that some of these DJs are queer.”

The gay men I speak with off the record echo Wignall’s suggestion that some dancehallers may be on the down low.

“We usually say that those who speak out the loudest are trying to get the eyes off of them because of what they are doing,” MacFarlane told me earlier. “It seems to be a thing.”

Wignall has also used his column to lambaste gay men.

“If you yourself are ‘gay’ as it is so incorrectly dubbed, do you dress like one and affect an obvious queer physicality?” he asks in response to my request for an interview. “I ask this question because I do not ever interact with these types of individuals. I find them both distasteful and comical at the same time. Mainly, your journalistic exercise is an important one but I just want you to recognize the strong cultural norms you are operating against. Even as I write, my girlfriend is saying, ‘Don’t meet with them, honey. You will be labelled.’

“I can live with female homosexuality,” he goes on. “Male homosexuality is vile because of its very nature. One man inserting his penis in another man’s passage of evacuation! Should anything be more vile?”

This man is a respected journalist in the mainstream Jamaican press. Ultimately he preferred to keep our interaction limited to cyberspace. We never did meet in person.

“I don’t know if news reports are accurate,” says Agostinho Pinnock, a graduate student at the University of West Indies who examines sexuality, popular music and gender in his academic work. “It’s the problem. There’s too much that is not known. We don’t have witnesses, we don’t have corroborating evidence. Where do we get off making any conclusions?”

Pinnock says all the SMMC boycott business is nonsense. His message essentially is that foreign activists should just piss off and mind their own business.

“When people hear ‘human rights’ here, it’s a codeword for allowing homosexuals to walk up and down freely,” he says. “The contradiction is that they do walk up and down freely.”

Pinnock chides me for staying at the Pegasus and assumes I’ll be spending much of my time lying by the pool. He can barely contain his laughter as I ask him about gay life in Jamaica. He is clearly suspicious of my motives for visiting Kingston but he’s an engaging conversationalist and I can only treat him to dinner.

“Much of this hoo-ha is about sex tourism,” says Pinnock. “Guess what, Jamaica is constructed as a place where people come to smoke spliff, to walk up and down the beach and to have sex with the locals. ‘Once you go black you can never to back,’ this kind of nonsense. What it does is it constructs all of us as kind of natives with this permissive type of sexuality. Jamaica is just a convenient place to transfer a number of your issues.

“To me there’s no problem,” he continues. “People are having weekend orgies. Kids are having loads and loads and loads of sex without inhibition. We don’t give a shit who you’re sleeping with. But when the sex becomes political, when it becomes something to contend with, like a tourism boycott, then it becomes dangerous.

“Young black men are more often than not the victims of a great deal of abuse in this society, not just homophobia. It’s the kind of society where you could step on somebody’s feet and if you feel haunted enough today it might be the end of your life, or you could step on somebody’s feet and they’ll say, ‘Watch you man, everything is everything.'”

Three days after SMMC’s May 12 deadline passes, the Jamaican consul general in Toronto sends a snide letter to SMMC outlining the Jamaican government’s general efforts to combat violence. The letter makes specific reference to JFLAG’s opposition to the boycott, but there is no other direct mention of sexual minorities or homophobic violence. SMMC backs off its boycott plan but pledges to continue its campaign against homophobic music.

I leave Jamaica on Apr 30 feeling as though I have been on a great adventure. I’m so grateful for my Canadian citizenship but I feel vaguely embarrassed by my ignorance of the nuances and complexities of Jamaican culture.

It is entirely too easy for Canadian activists and journalists, like me, to write about homophobia in Jamaica from the soft security of our leafy Toronto neighbourhoods. It’s too simple to cluck our tongues and shake our heads at the tales of seemingly senseless violence that afflict gay people there. It’s not enough to visit Jamaica for three days, to stay in what, by that country’s standards, is a luxury hotel, and to then scurry glibly home under the illusion that I have some new level of understanding or that I’ve undertaken some noble or courageous exercise.

I met a dozen wonderful gay men — or men who have sex with men — in Jamaica. They are without exception funny, intelligent, sexy and determined to help their brothers. They are fiercely patriotic. They have diverse interests and opinions and lead lives not at all unlike ours. Some live lives of fear and desperation, others of privilege and comfort. Some will lead you down the garden path and then laugh at you for your foolishness.

Gay people are adaptable and Kingston’s men are no exception. It’s much different from gay life in Canada. There are no rainbow flags, no gay publications and almost no overt expressions of gay sexuality. But there is a nightlife scene for gay men. There are gay-friendly businesses. There is a rumour mill. They all seem to know each other and they squawk and back-bite on each other just as gay men do in Toronto.

If I learned anything from my time in Jamaica it’s that gay activists there take their lives in their hands every time they speak out for the benefit of gay people. Gay Canadians should be looking to them for leadership about what to do about homophobia in Jamaica, not offering to provide it. Gay people in Kingston should be making the decisions about boycotts, press releases, demonstrations and pressure on government officials because they’re the ones who are oppressed and because it’s their lives at risk.

We should offer them whatever help we can but ultimately they should be in complete control of their liberation.