Jamaica, Island of Hate

Jamaica, Island of Hate|Jamaica, Island of Hate

The country‘s leading gay activist recounts the horrors

“Jamaica is not a safe environment for gay people to survive in, either physically, emotionally, or psychologically,” said Gareth Williams, the 29-year-old leader of the Jamaican Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals, and Gays (J-FLAG), the country’s gay group.

“The climate here is very, very hostile to gay people. We have been hunted and beaten and killed because of who we are,” Williams added. “Families turn against their own members because of sexual orientation.”

Williams spoke to Gay City News from Montreal, where he had gone to receive the International Award for Action on HIV/AIDS and Human Rights given every year by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network. Rebecca Schleifer of HRW’s HIV/AIDS program said that Williams was given the award because, “Against enormous odds and at great risk to his own physical safety, Williams has been a courageous campaigner against human rights violations targeting lesbians, gay men, and HIV-positive Jamaicans.”

His last name, Williams, is a pseudonym he must use for his safety. His predecessor at J-Flag’s helm, Brian Williamson, 59, was brutally murdered in his home in 2004 by anti-gay thugs, who mutilated his body with multiple stab wounds. An HRW researcher witnessed a joyous crowd that gathered outside Williamson‘s house to celebrate the murder. A smiling man called out, “Batty man,” using the Jamaican patois for faggot, “he get killed!”

Others joined the celebration; laughing and calling out, “let’s get them one at a time,” “that’s what you get for sin,” “let’s kill all of them.” Some sang “Boom bye bye,” a line from a Jamaican song about killing and burning gay men that was made a hit by reggae singer Buju Banton.

“Brian was the only out gay person in Jamaica who had the courage to put his face on television, I was very close to him,” Williams said with audible sorrow. “His murder was really a traumatic loss for our community. After his death I was motivated even more, and so when J-FLAG asked me to serve as its lead advocate I didn’t hesitate, and took on the challenge. I just won’t allow society to trample over us.”

Another Jamaican gay leader and prominent AIDS activist, Steve Harvey, was murdered last November. For a decade, Harvey directed the outreach program of Jamaica AIDS Support that targeted gays, lesbians and sex workers. A gang of at least four armed assailants invaded Harvey’s home. They demanded to know if Harvey and his two housemates were gay. Harvey said yes, the others said no. The thugs bound and gagged Harvey and bundled him into a car. He was found a few miles from his home, dead from bullet wounds to his back and head.

“Steve’s murder was a personal blow for me,” said Williams. ‘We were very close–we grew up together, and we even used to share an apartment. He has left a huge void in my life. We always feel hurt when a gay person is killed, but when it’s your buddy, your friend whom you talked to every day…”

Williams’ voice trailed off, and then he resumed with “There have been many other murders of gay men and lesbians whose lives have been taken because of their sexual orientation. Just two weeks after Brian’s killing, a young gay man named Victor Jarrett was killed in Montego Bay in a murder instigated by three police officers. I was there. The police had arrested Jarrett and were beating him in the street. A large crowd gathered, and yelled, ‘Hand the battyman over to us and we’ll finish him off.”

“I was standing only 80 meters away watching this, and I felt so helpless. The police handed the young man over to the crowd, and stood around laughing as the crowd beat him to death. If I’d opened my mouth, I would have been killed too, so I did and said nothing. When I got home, I called the police three times to report the murder. They simply hung up on me each time. I’m still living with the horrible memory of that day,” Williams said.

Williams relates other homophobic killings, one that happened “just three weeks after Steve Harvey was murdered last year. A young man named Nokia Cowan was chased by an angry mob that said he was gay. They chased him into the harbor, where he drowned.

And just this summer, in June, two lesbians, Candice Williams and Phoebe Myrie, were knifed to death, and their bodies were found dumped in a shallow septic pit behind a home they shared in Bull Bay.” A police investigator told a Jamaican newspaper a “lesbian DVD” had been found near the bodies.

The police, said Williams, “never qualify the anti-gay violence and murders as hate crimes, they always find a way to say it was not gay-related. But there is no question that these crimes are motivated by homophobia. Often, as in the case of the two lesbians, even when the police have a suspect and know who did the killings, they don’t really push the investigations.

“If a gay man is set upon and chased down the middle of a town, the people in the town are laughing and joining in, including everybody — young, old, both male and female, once a gay man is being beaten they bond together to do this. And if the person being assaulted goes to the police, they slam the door in their face, and the gay person is forced to look elsewhere for refuge.”

Incidents of anti-gay violence like this, Williams said, “happen on a daily basis, but the police turn a blind eye to it. I’ve had police officers turning up at my house, calling me ‘battyman’ and saying that I’ll be murdered like Brian and Steve. In February, after a gay man was killed, there was a gang of police outside my house saying the same thing would happen to me.”

Williams and J-FLAG provide care and support for victims of anti-gay violence, help document their cases and take them through the hostile justice system. J-FLAG also organizes parties to help break the social isolation of gay people, but has to take extraordinary precautions to prevent these social gatherings from being attacked.

“We usually have a once a week party,” Williams said, “but always in remote areas, and not under overtly gay auspices. They’re not publicized except by word of mouth. Some people are willing to take the risk of coming, because they are so desperate for social interaction. We have over 2,500 people with whom we have constant contact and, we have a strong female community.”

Homosexuality is illegal in Jamaica, and the so-called sodomy laws carry a penalty of 10-15 years in prison. But, said Williams, “even though it’s hard to convict under these laws, just being hauled into court and humiliated is enough to destroy people’s lives. For example, earlier this year two young men were arrested and charged with ‘buggery.’ The judge set their bail at $100,000 each. The somewhat older man of the couple managed eventually to make bail, but he lost his job, had to move, and later died of a brain tumor that may have been brought on or aggravated by the beatings he received in prison. The younger of the two, an 18-year-old boy, spent three months in jail and was beaten every single day. Although we eventually got the case thrown out of court, the younger boy has been rejected by his family, has nowhere to live, and survives by going from place to place where he can get refuge for a night or two. The destruction from being dragged into court, even if there is no conviction, is as great as prison would be.”

J-FLAG, said Williams, “is in desperate need of funds. As it is, most of what we want to do to benefit the community we can’t do because we don’t have the money. Our needs are great.”

Another urgent need is for expert help in modernizing and expanding the group’s website, “and gay-friendly computer experts are pretty scarce in Jamaica,” he adds with a laugh.

If you want to help J-FLAG, e-mail the organization at admin@jflag.org. Financial contributions may be mailed to: J-FLAG, P.O. Box 1152, Kingston 8, Jamaica, West Indies

DOUG IRELAND may be reached through his blog, DIRELAND, at http://direland.typepad.com/direland/