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For gays, a tropical paradise is also hell

Homophobia is intense on the Caribbean island of Jamaica, where

July 26, 2009|David McFadden | McFadden writes for the Associated Press.

KINGSTON, JAMAICA — Even now, about three years after a near-fatal gay bashing, Sherman gets jittery at dusk. On bad days, his blood quickens, his eyes dart, and he seeks refuge indoors.

A group of men kicked him and slashed him with knives for being a "batty boy" -- slang for gay man -- after he left a party before dawn in October 2006. They sliced his throat, torso and back, hissed anti-gay epithets, and left him for dead on a Kingston corner.

"It gets like five, six o'clock, my heart begins to race. I just need to go home, I start to get nervous," the 36-year-old said outside the secret office of Jamaica's sole gay rights group. Like many other gays, Sherman won't give his full name for fear of retribution.

Despite the easygoing image propagated by tourist boards, gays and their advocates say Jamaica is by far the most hostile island toward homosexuals in the already conservative Caribbean. They say gays, typically those in poor communities, suffer frequent abuse. But they have little recourse because of rampant anti-gay stigma and a sodomy law banning sex between men in Jamaica and 10 other former British colonies in the region.

It is impossible to say just how common attacks like the one against Sherman are in Jamaica -- the tormentors are sometimes the police themselves. But many homosexuals in Jamaica say homophobia is pervasive across the sun-soaked island, from the pulpit to the floor of Parliament.

Hostility toward gays has reached such a level that in April, gay advocates in New York City launched a short-lived boycott against Jamaica at the Stonewall Inn, where demonstrations launched the gay rights movement in 1969. In a 2008 report, the U.S. State Department notes that gays have faced death and arson threats and are afraid to report incidents against them.

For gays, the reality of this enduring hostility is loneliness and fear, sometimes even death.

Andrew, a 36-year-old volunteer for an AIDS education program, said he was driven from Jamaica after his ex-lover was killed for being gay -- which police said was just a robbery gone wrong. He then lived in Britain for several years, but returned to Jamaica in 2008 for personal reasons he declined to disclose.

"I'm living in fear on a day-to-day basis," he said softly during a recent interview in Kingston. "In the community where my ex-lover was killed, people will say to me when I'm passing on the street, they will make remarks like 'boom-boom-boom' or 'batty boy fi dead.' I don't feel free walking on the streets."

Many in this devoutly Christian nation perceive homosexuality as a sin, and insist violence against gays is blown out of proportion by gay activists. Some say Jamaica tolerates homosexuality as long as it isn't advertised.

Jamaica's most prominent evangelical pastor, Bishop Herro Blair, said he sympathizes with those who face intolerance but that homosexuals themselves are behind most of the attacks reported against them.

"Among themselves, homosexuals are extremely jealous," Blair said in a recent interview. "But some of them do cause a reaction by their own behaviors, for in many people's opinions, homosexuality is distasteful."

Other church leaders have accused gays of flaunting their behavior to "recruit" youngsters, or called for them to undergo "redemptive work" to break free of their sexual orientation.

Politicians routinely rail against homosexuals. During a parliamentary session in February, lawmaker Ernest Smith of the ruling Jamaica Labor Party said gays were "brazen," "abusive" and "violent," and he expressed concern that the police force was "overrun by homosexuals."

A few weeks later, Prime Minister Bruce Golding described gay advocates as "perhaps the most organized lobby in the world" and vowed to keep Jamaica's "buggery law" -- which carries punishment of up to 10 years -- on the books. During a BBC interview last year, Golding vowed to never allow gays in his Cabinet.

The dread of homosexuality is so all-encompassing that many Jamaican men refuse to get digital rectal examinations for prostate cancer, even those whose disease is advanced, said Dr. Trevor Tulloch, a urology consultant at Andrews Memorial Hospital in Kingston.

"Because it is a homophobic society, there's such a fear of the sexual implications of having the exam that men won't seek out help," Tulloch said, adding that Jamaica has a high rate of prostate cancer because men won't be screened.

The anti-gay sentiment on this island of 2.8 million has perhaps become best known through Jamaican "dancehall," a rap-reggae music hybrid that often has raunchy, violent themes.

Some reggae rappers, including Bounty Killer and Elephant Man, depend on gay-bashing songs to rouse concertgoers.

"It stirs up the crowd to a degree that many performers feel they have to come up with an anti-gay song to incite the audience," said Barry Chevannes, a professor of social anthropology at the University of the West Indies.

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