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What's It Like to Be Gay and Jamaican in 2013?

Jamaica has often been regarded as one of the most homophobic places on earth, but after a recent trip to the island I’m beginning think those who maintain this ideology are out of touch, writes Nadine White

Homosexuality is illegal in JA, as per articles 76, 77 and 79 of the ‘Offences Against the Person’ act, implemented in 1861.

Additionally, Jamaica is a ‘Christian country’ and has more churches per square mile than any other country in the world. Being that Christianity teaches against homosexuality, the overall stance of the people is one of disapproval.

I didn’t go to Jamaica to conduct any kind of journalistic or sociological investigation surrounding homosexuals. But fate would have it that on several occasions, evidence found me.

At the end of a day out in the capital town of Kingston, I boarded a bus and sat down at the front. It was the first time I had been on a public bus in any country, other than England, and I was completely enwrapped in that momentum.

So enchanted was I that I appeared to miss the beginnings of what was an open-forum conversation about homosexuality between the driver and the first few rows of passengers. It was the driver’s passionate lament which grabbed my attention and caused me to eavesdrop.

‘Ah full time people rise up now, man! Soon, it’s going to be abnormal to be straight and living in Jamaica!’ I heard him say, and murmurs of agreement enshrouded his outburst.

A mother, who sat immediately in front of me, went on to describe what she deemed as one of the many challenges of rearing a child within a society which is fast becoming accepting of homosexuality. Drawing reference to the media, she asked the rhetorical question:

‘If I turn on the TV and my son sees a man kissing another man, what am I to tell him? How will he understand that it’s wrong and unacceptable, when he sees it on television and happening all around him?’

This conversation led me to believe that general attitudes towards homosexuality are changing, and homosexual interactions and relations are perhaps becoming more overt than it once was in JA.

A Jamaican actor known as Keith Ramsey is another example of the arguably more liberal country. Having made a triumphant burst onto the scene in 2006, he has had a resoundingly successful acting career touring the world as his alter ego character Shebada. This character is argued to be a gay one, and by extension a manifestation of Keith’s true sexuality (although this has never been confirmed).

However, what is made plain to see is that Shebada certainly does emulate the stereotypical gay male. Despite this, the act is a huge success both in Jamaica and abroad. He is obviously not everyone’s ‘cup of tea’ and some do speak out against him and his character; but we have never heard that Keith has come to any harm nor that he has had to avoid carrying out his rather feminine onstage persona for fear of attack.

Also on my journey, whilst out in the vibrant town of Maypen (Clarendon), I saw many effeminate-looking males walking around – most of whom were donning tight clothing.

Whilst this is not enough of a confirmation of their sexual persuasion, the fact is that this type of fashion is usually a connotation of homosexuality in Jamaica. As Movado’s Money Changer tune goes: ‘Nuff bow long time fi Versace/and a wear tight pants ah trace like Mumma-lashy/luv people tings so dem rear dem go dashy’ (Translation: A lot of people have forfeited their self-respect, in the name of acquisition/Some wear tight clothing and talk like women – engaging in homosexual activity).

But like the character of Shebada, these tight-clothed men seemed to walk around untouched and, equally, unfazed. In fact, I soon learned that while Jamaica’s attitude to gays is changing, a lot of gay men are also unafraid of being attacked because they’re either armed with guns for protection or have some kind of patronage.

The idea of patronage makes sense; it is alleged that some notorious area dons, who are each patrons of a particular area or parish in Jamaica, are ‘undercover gays’. We came across the only confirmed example of these via former Matthews Lane don Donald ‘Zekes’ Phipps, who was charged and incarcerated for double murder in 2006, after his DNA was found in one of his victim’s mouth, despite the body being burnt. Yes.

On Tuesday 4 June, I re-visited Kingston to attend the Jamaica Vs Mexico World Cup Qualifier match at the newly refurbished National Stadium. Everyone, including myself, was rooting for a victory from the Reggae Boyz, and I was inspired by the sense of unity in the vicinity; ‘out of many, one people’ is the national motto after all.

What further surprised me was the number of lesbian couples there were being openly affectionate towards one another amongst the crowd who, again, seemed not to notice or care.

On my way back from the trip, I popped into a building to use the bathroom and re-emerged to witness a white van screeching down the road. A bystander animatedly told me and a friend how the van contained a band of men, armed with baseball bats, who unleashed upon about 15 unwitting male prostitutes who were standing around.

Sure enough, I looked over at the scene of the crime and saw quite a few allegedly gay prostitutes still about; some were picking up large rocks anticipating another attack, and others were scowling down the road at the billow of dust left behind by the van.

Apparently, I was staring for too long as I soon became inundated with confrontational barks, such as: ‘Wah!? Wah you ah look ‘pon!?’ It was such a feral and, for me, unconventional experience.

This display reminded me that homophobia is still very much alive in Jamaica, as much as it is still present in places like France (‘the least tolerant country of homosexuality in Europe’, World Values Survey 2013), Pakistan, Nigeria (‘the most homophobic country in the world’, American Pew Research Centre) and even in some facets of the UK, where it was only made legal in 1967! I think there’s a long way to go until homosexuality is totally accepted in any country.

The Jamaican government may not be discussing the idea of gay marriage in their parliament like they are in Britain, but JA’s Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller did pledge to review the anti-gay law during her election last year.

My overall experiences in Jamaica tell me that the sunny place is not exempt from the ‘winds of change’ like the rest of the world, and it is certainly more accepting of homosexuality than it once was.

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Tags homosexual, Jamaica, kingston, gay, Homophobia, nadine white, christian country, Keith Ramsey, Shebada, Maypen, Clarendon, Matthews Lane, don, Donald Zekes Phipps, National Stadium, Reggae Boyz, homosexuality, Portia Simpson Miller, lesbian
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COMMENTS (23) Add your comment
Mikey Massive, 1/07/2013 17:12

Jamaica’s reputation for homophobia is mainly based upon the declarations of a cadre of dancehall artistes, rather than a reflection of the attitudes of the society as a whole. As the writer notes in her articulate observation, Jamaica is a deeply conservative Christian country which rigidly adheres to the statutes handed down to the nation from former colonial Spanish and English overseers; there is widely held suspicion of homosexual activity but, until recently, there was little evidence of any violence aimed at homosexuals as a result of misogyny or bigotry. Contrarily, “queer-bashing” and “fag bashing” offences were common across the UK and the USA up until approximately five or so years ago. The alleged homosexuality of prominent individuals, such as the late Professor Rex Nettlefold and the actor Oliver Samuels provided no obstacle to Jamaican working class people showering affectionate embrace and reverence for their work. Yes, the dancehall fraternity includes a strain which appears to be particularly antagonistic towards gays, but no more so than American hard rockers (such as Gunz ‘n’ Roses). How many pickets did gay campaigners organise against Axl Rose when he played London in the years following the release of his contentious song ‘One In A Million’? Why have prominent gay celebrities, such as Boy George and George Michael repeatedly espoused their love for Jamaica and recommended our beautiful island as a desirable place to visit? As a society, we remain suspicious of homosexuality (and tattoos and skimpy swimwear), but the “live and let live” maxim is a benchmark of the Jamaican ethos, so while no-one envisions the endorsement of same sex marriage in the foreseeable future, the widely disseminated myth of Jamaica as a bastion of intolerance is a misnomer which has been repeated despite there being a host of evidence to the contrary.

Nadine White, 26/07/2013 15:11

Well put, Mikey Mssive. Thank you for your thoughts and observations & thank you for taking the time to read this article. Respect








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