3 min

Under siege, now and then

On the eve of WorldPride, a mob gathered in Jamaica

This TV report from Jamaica shows the crowd that gathered on top of cars and crates to catch a glimpse of the man who allegedly put on lipstick in public. Credit: Prime Time News screenshot

The crime? A “homosexual” allegedly applying or wearing lipstick in public. It might even have been lip balm for all we know.

The details didn’t seem to matter to the incensed people who chased him into a store in a southern Jamaican parish and held him under siege for more than an hour.

As I watched the TV Jamaica report, I almost forgot about the man holed up in his refuge, so entranced did I become with the mass of people so willing and eager to hold him hostage. They clambered on top of cars and crates for a good sightline to the door. With mobile phones at the ready, they clamoured for him to come out and face their censure.

It was reminiscent of a scene from a Roman amphitheatre. All that was missing was a Caesar-like figure to turn his thumb up or down. And for what? Putting on lipstick, or possibly lip balm? Brushing his lips with his fingers? Why?

Even a hint of “scandal” or a snippet of gossip fuels the rhythm of island life, and I don’t say this patronizingly. It often takes very little to arouse excitement and titillation, and before you know it, you have an audience angling for the best vantage point to hear, view and provide running commentary on the unfolding theatre of the day.

I use “theatre” deliberately, because even in the midst of their outrage, laughter and remarks are bandied back and forth among the spectators, demonstrating a profound lack of concern for the terror they are unleashing.

In a way, the level of aggression and violence that is prevalent in countries like Jamaica and my own, Trinidad, where the murder rate is staggering, provides an apt backdrop to what went down in that carpark.

Not to draw a glib connection between a homophobic siege and the murderous violence that’s a byproduct of drug- and gunrunning. But it’s no surprise that such an act of casual aggression is possible, particularly in a climate where leaders lack the political will to address the long-festering issue of anti-gay discrimination.

What would have happened had the store turned the man away, instead of providing sanctuary and calling the police? Would he have suffered the same fate as teenager Dwayne Jones, who was chased, shot and stabbed in Montego Bay last year? Or as that hapless young man who was beaten and kicked by security guards at Kingston’s University of Technology, where yet another crowd gathered to jeer and cheer?

Maybe I looked in the wrong places, but I found no follow-up stories or editorials in the island’s media condemning the “no lipstick” crowd’s actions. No expression of disgust, however empty, from the minister of justice, nor from the prime minister, who can’t or won’t give “a timeline” for her plan to address the buggery law.

Lest we forget, gay Torontonians — who just hosted the world for Pride — have been in the same boat as that still-nameless lipstick man who fled his tormentors.

In October 1980, Xtra’s predecessor, The Body Politic, carried an editorial on the annual siege of Toronto’s gay St Charles Tavern, where thousands of people — “most of them young, most of them straight” — annually descended for Halloween with chants of “Kill the queers!”

The editorial concluded with a call to action that still applies to many of the world’s citizens who just gathered in Toronto to celebrate: “Every citizen, every elected official should share every gay person’s dismay at having to face, each year . . . humiliation and hate . . . passed over in silence, that has drawn no criticism, no condemnation, that has not moved one single elected official to say, ‘This is appalling and disgraceful. This must be stopped.’”

Happy WorldPride to the nameless Jamaican man and to everyone else still struggling to live freely.