Paradise Lost

Struggling to be gay in the land of 'one love'

In Ras Bobo's ultimate horror, Jagaica— the fantasy gay paradise that, in its heyday, rivaled resorts such as Negril, Montego Bay, and Ocho Rios in hedonistic delectation— is awash in blood. The gay world has been overrun by the third world: hundreds of homosexuals and their sympathizers are "cleansed" in the "mannish water massacre" on the eve of the millennium.

"Fire dey 'pon Rome!" Ras Bobo exclaims, deriding the incantation of the homicidal homophobes. "It was foolish of us to believe we could find security here."

That will be Jamaica's legacy, as Ras Bobo envisions it in his novel, a work in progress. The advent of the "gay apocalypse," the repatriated Yardie vows, will read like "the missing chapters" to The Satanic Verses. "I spare no one," the openly gay Rasta proclaims. "I expose the hypocrisy of the Jamaican religious elite and the stupidity of the slum dweller in whom the ruling class recruits its most effective 'gay killers.' For that, man, I'll be stoned," Ras Bobo predicts. "My dreadlocks will be sheared from my head and my body will be burned on CNN.

" 'Feel Jamaica touch you' ?" Ras Bobo sighs, mimicking the tourist board's mantra, which uses the song Bob Marley wrote to honor the Rastafari concept of "one love." But to Ras Bobo, the ad's refrain, "Come to Jamaica and feel all right," is "an alluring lie. On which day would a gay man or a lesbian wish to die in paradise?"

Homosexuality has been a hot-button issue recently in "the land of one love," with pressure building from gay groups to liberalize sodomy laws. Some gay holidaymakers have been warned to stay away as activists mount a campaign to bring the Jamaican government to its senses. But in this independent former British territory, where traditional Christian beliefs run deep, attempts to make homosexuality legal or tolerated have been met with outrage. Recently, K.D. Knight, the minister of national security and justice, said he would not advocate a change in laws against buggery, attempted buggery, and "indecency" between men.

Strong societal disapproval is reflected in the language of the popular dance-hall deejays. Many of their songs have homophobic lyrics, and gay bashing is a feature of the ubiquitous bashmentor concert. "If you no love di gyal dem, you love di man dem," goes a typical refrain. "Boom inna you head!" No one knows how literally people take this advice, since Jamaican police keep no statistics on antigay violence.

In 1997, 16 inmates were killed in penitentiary riots triggered by a suggestion from Corrections Commissioner John Prescod that condoms be distributed to guards and inmates to halt the spread of AIDS. The guards went on strike, claiming the proposal implied that they were gay. In several days of ensuing riots, inmates killed fellow prisoners who were targeted as homosexuals.

"Dem batty twitchin' in fear," a lesbian said nervously after the riots. "Everybody's scared shitless. Don't you remember what happened the last time there was a rumor— just a rumor that there was going to be a gay march in Half-Way-Tree?" she added. Hundreds of Jamaican men, armed with clubs, machetes, and stones, converged on the town and waited for "dem batty men." No gays showed up.

The condom controversy flared up again at the University of the West Indies after an administrator made an antigay remark that provoked a fight among some chancellors. One academician was struck in the face with a stone and received five stitches to close a wound above his eye. "Jamaican men may be said to be backward in that respect," says Rex Nettleford, the renowned Caribbean intellectual and vice chancellor of the university. "Anybody you disapprove of, you murder. It is true that people have very strong feelings about what homosexuals do."

With the proliferation of AIDS in Jamaica, there is a "greater justification for their feelings," says Nettleford. "Anywhere you turn, macca jook you," he quips, invoking an old Jamaican expression that means you will be stepping on thorns. Taking those words to heart, perhaps thousands of gay Jamaicans have left the island for the "free states" of Babylon. "They left in pain," says Brian Williamson, a spokesperson for the newly formed Jamaica Forum of Lesbians Allsexuals and Gays (JFLAG). "They still would wish to be here."

"Somebody has to do something," says an American-born lesbian who has encouraged the exodus while working on the island to put an end to the persecution. "Somebody has to take a stand." The activist has been thinking of starting an underground magazine to "out hypocrites," her own revenge against those Bob Marley called "the downpressers."

Last year, JFLAG held an unprecedented news conference to announce its existence. Debate raged over the airwaves and in newspaper columns and editorials. Some callers railed against the potential impact of such organizations on the larger Jamaican society, asserting that JFLAG would encourage homosexuality or a more tolerant view of "unnatural sex."

Others argued that they knew gay people and it would be okay with them if the homosexuals simply advocated their lifestyle among themselves, quietly. Why is there a need for an organization?

The founders of JFLAG say the time is right for the group since Jamaican homosexuals are having a hard time coming to grips with themselves and dealing with problems such as isolation, harassment, and discrimination. JFLAG runs a help line and organizes social gatherings.

Unlike the frustrated Ras Bobo, Williamson wishes gay and lesbian Jamaicans who have fled the island would return. "What is the price Jamaica has paid [for its homophobia]?" he asks. "Our families have been fragmented, the brain drain has taken place. A lot of homosexuals that have gone away are educated people. Those who are left here, who are fighting and have formed JFLAG, have mostly remained in the closet. We are imprisoned by our silence."

Additional reporting: Nazma Muller and Yvette Rowe

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