It’s only mid-summer but already the package-holiday books are being printed and readied for next winter?s Caribbean-holiday season.
Thinking of going south next winter? Before you do, consider the experience of Ryan Smith and his friends, then think about how you should be spending your money. I’m not going to advocate boycotting some place; I’m going to suggest that you avoid being grievously beaten and possibly dying.
Last April, just as the winter season was ending, Smith, his boyfriend Justin Swenson and a friend, Dick Jefferson, were drinking at the Caravanserai Beach Resort on the Dutch side of the island of St Maarten/St Martin. It was 3am and Smith had his arm around Swenson.
“We were not kissing or making out,” Swenson later told the Miami Herald. Suddenly several patrons, Swenson says, began screaming and shouting “butt boys” at them. The bouncer told the gay Americans to leave. A man tossed a chair at them as they were leaving and, as they were walking through the Caravanserai’s property, which is very dark at night, a car hit Smith, knocking him over. Swenson ran for help and when he returned he found his boyfriend covered in blood. The attackers had bludgeoned him and Jefferson with a tire iron.
Jefferson suffered a fractured skull and needed a titanium plate inserted into his head. Smith?s skull was fractured more extensively: surgeons removed pieces of bone in his brain and since then he has had difficulty talking.
According to the gay Americans, the St Martin police did little to investigate the crime, and it was only after US television ran stories on the attacks, embarrassing the St Martin government, that any real investigation began. Within days, police arrested a man from the nearby island of Antigua as well as two residents of St Martin, and charged them.
We all know that homophobia is not confined to the Caribbean. In June a gay singer was brutally attacked in New York. In early June, no less than the Dutch ambassador to Estonia felt he had to leave his post in that country after his Cuban-born partner became the target of local racist and homophobic slurs. The envoy and lover removed to the Dutch consulate in Montreal. And the first-ever Pride parade in Moscow ended in brutal fisticuffs delivered by religious fanatics and their skinhead allies.
So why single out St Martin? Officially, the island’s leaders were very concerned about the kind of Caribbean welcome dished out to Jefferson, Smith and Swenson. Regina La Bega, the director of tourism for the island, sent a letter to anyone who inquired about the case. “We are shocked and extremely disturbed that such an act could be committed on St Maarten/St Martin, which as a destination has long been recognized for its safety and friendliness. Our community is committed to being a welcoming environment for persons of all ethnic and religious backgrounds, and sexual preferences.”
I’m sure that Regina La Bega is a decent woman who really means what she says. The fact that she has spoken out against homophobia puts her leagues ahead of her political counterparts in other Caribbean nations, especially the notoriously dangerous islands of Jamaica and Trinidad And Tobago. In fact, if there is a sign from a government official that the state feels remorse for homophobic attacks on anyone, including tourists, there is sign for hope.
What I would suggest is that you think twice about holidaying in St Martin this winter. And, in doing so, you should write La Bega and tell her of your doubts. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Her concern is sign of available leverage: the more gay tourists who say they’re worried for their safety, the higher on the agenda the issue will be. There’s hope for change in St Martin.
The island’s official regret over the Smith bashing is in sharp contrast to Jamaica, where there is no political interest in stemming rampant, violent homophobia. Indeed, the government openly supports it by making homosexual activities illegal. The government of prime minister Portia Simpson Miller (an otherwise decent woman) can’t be counted on to keep you safe. Her government can barely maintain a healthy civic life much less reform the nation?s hideous, hateful culture of homophobia.
So not only are you not welcome in the most of the Caribbean, your safety is in jeopardy. Tell the tourism boards about your concerns. Not only will it go a little way toward reminding them of the economic consequences of homophobia, but in some small, indirect way, it may help the gay men and lesbians of places like St Martin to live, if not in freedom, than with a little more of a sense of security.