Two Toronto women were attacked after walking arm-in-arm last month while vacationing in Curaçao, calling into question that island’s reputation as one of the most gay-friendly destinations in the Caribbean.
Bo Mah and her sister were on a weeklong spring break trip on the Dutch Antilles island off the coast of Venezuela when the incident occurred.
“What really disturbed me most is the police made a comment that the attackers suspected we were lesbians because we were walking arm-in-arm,” says Mah, explaining that the comment disturbed her because the island markets itself as a gay-friendly getaway.
According to the police report filed in Curaçao the sisters were walking on a dark street on Mar 21 at around 12:45am when a car stopped nearby.
“It all happened so fast and all of a sudden you see people running at you,” says Mah’s sister, who asked that her name be withheld. “I was screaming as loud as I could… if anything helped it was the screaming.”
Mah says she received cuts and bruises to both of her elbows and wrists, that her abdomen was sore and red from punches she received from the attackers and that her left rib was swollen and her tailbone bruised. Her sister says she suffered cuts to the lips and arms. The assailants robbed the sisters of US$450 as well as their hotel key, ID and a $700 cell phone.
Mah says she’s upset that Curaçao was recommended to her by a travel agent as a safe destination.
“I feel like I’ve been lied to, to purchase this product,” she says. “We were attacked because they thought we were lesbians, and Curaçao is being promoted to gay and lesbian travellers. It is very misleading information and it would be an experience that I would not wish for anybody to have.”
Pat Barry, office manager of Rainbow High Vacations — a travel agency that specializes in gay and lesbian travel — says he’s surprised that this incident happened in Curaçao but he notes that just because a destination is considered safe doesn’t mean your safety is guaranteed.
“It’s unfortunate that these two women were beaten up,” he says, “but then again when has someone been gaybashed in Toronto and Toronto is a gay-friendly place.”
After the attack the women were taken to hospital where they were at first refused medical attention. “We had to have money first before they could do anything,” says Mah.
Eduardo Winklaar, detective-lieutenant of the Curaçao Police Robbery Team, says he was equally frustrated that the women did not get treatment right away but attributes it to there being other patients in the queue.
“When I went to the hospital with the two ladies the doctor could not check them because they were other people waiting before,” he says.
A similar situation unfolded back at the resort, the Hotel Breezes Curaçao, where the sisters say they were denied the right to make a phone call since it is hotel policy to pay first.
The hotel manager at the Hotel Breezes Curaçao declined to comment on the situation, other than to note that the attack occurred on a public road and not on hotel property. Repeated attempts to reach the public relations contact for the hotel went unanswered.
According to a US consular report Curaçao police registered a spike in robberies in March.
Barry says that travellers need to be aware of their surroundings when travelling abroad. “Basically don’t do something there that you wouldn’t do here,” he says. “Even in Toronto there are gay people who would hold hands on Church St but they might not do it at Jane and Finch.”
A travel agents’ role, says Barry, is to steer vacationers toward destinations and hotels they would enjoy and advise them on what behaviours are generally accepted for a given destination.
“If you’re going to be in the Middle Eastern countries, they’re pretty strict,” he says. “I would not recommend it to my gay clients. The most obvious place in the Caribbean, Jamaica, is not the most gay-friendly island in the world and you would have to keep your PDAs [public displays of affection] to a minimum.”
The Curaçao Tourist Board markets the island as a gay-friendly destination with gay-specific webite GayCuracao.com. “With exceptional gay-friendly hotels and attractions the Curaçao Tourist Board encourages gay and lesbian travellers to visit the island and experience its ‘Live and let live’ atmosphere for themselves,” states the site.
Barry says that it’s important for travellers to confirm any destinations claims with a source they trust.
“It has to be a word of mouth for people who have been there,” he says. “We get every gay campaign out there and we need to learn to disassociate the ones that just cash in, and the ones where people get to know the gay community.
“People realize there is money to be made in gay tourism. Some of these places are in cooperation with their local community, gay bars and restaurants, and these places are the most likely to succeed [in attracting queer tourists].”
Multiple messages with the Curaçao Tourist Board went unreturned, however a letter apparently from the chief of police in Curaçao, CJ Ph Casseres, was passed on to Xtra from the Curaçao Tourism Corporation.
“Our current records, starting from 1996 and onward, indicate that there was never a case in which a gay or lesbian have become victim of (armed) robbery due to his or her sexual orientation,” states the letter.
“It so happens that in Curaçao (armed) robberies in the majority of cases are against all kinds of people no matter their age (young or old), race (white or black), sex (male or feamle), sexual orientation (lesbian, gay and bisexual) or other personal characteristics for that matter such as strong or weak, big or small. It is never against a certain person. In nearly all the cases, the opportunity to committ a robbery was the main reason, rather than the appearance or the kind of person.
“Furthermore rest me to assure you that since 1996 there were no cases reported on our island of a victim who had declared that he or she was robbed because of his or her sexual orientation. In addition there was neither a case of a suspect who has declared that he had robbed a person because this person was a gay man or lesbian.”