The Trials of Jamaican Gays

Can the national culture move toward tolerance?

AS HE SPRINTED THROUGH A THICKET of tall trees and vines, Khloe Kouture heard four gunshots. “I’m next,” he thought. All he could do was run and pray. “I was telling God to give me a chance.”

Khloe Kouture behind cover after the ordeal  (Photo by Bobbi Misick)

Khloe Kouture behind cover after the ordeal
(Photo by Bobbi Misick)

He rubbed at his makeup and tore off his shiny black wig, hot pink blouse and printed leggings as he ran through the darkness of the Montego Bay woods. Naked – except for the three pairs of panties he had put on that night to mask his male genitalia – he found a man’s red sleeveless T-shirt and a pair of boy’s denim shorts hanging on a clothesline. A pair of rubber slippers lay nearby.

Kouture, 23, emerged onto a narrow road dressed as a man, and began the long walk to the abandoned house that he and his friends had called home for the last month and a half.

Exhausted, he made his way past police officers who had gathered there. They spotted the blood on his face.

“What’s going on?” one officer asked.  That’s when Kouture saw the body.

The mob had caught his 16-year-old friend, Dwayne Jones. The attackers chased him down, beat him, stabbed and shot him, then drove over him in a car.

In weeks to come, Jones’ death in July 2013 became a new symbol of violence against homosexuals in Jamaica. The U.S. State Department’s most recent report on Jamaican human rights, issued in 2013, cited “serious human rights abuses,” including lesbians subjected to “corrective” rapes, and deaths of gays against a backdrop of general police indifference. The violence has caused some Jamaicans to flee their homeland and seek asylum elsewhere, including in the United States.

Jamaica is famous for its Caribbean beaches, waterfalls and mountains, a nation that promotes its relaxed attitudes with tourism ads basking in a soundtrack of Bob Marley’s lilting “One Love.” Now it has also gained a reputation as a hostile home for lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people.

For that reason, international gay-rights groups have targeted the country. Graeme Reid, director for gay issues at Human Rights Watch, urged Jamaican authorities “to send an unequivocal message that there will be zero tolerance for violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. The Jamaican government should be protecting everyone’s rights and safety, and that includes people who do not conform to society’s expectations of how each gender should behave.”

A year after Jones’ murder, no arrests have been made. Moreover, little has been done to ensure protection for Khloe Kouture and his other roommates,who all lived with Jones in an abandoned house in Montego Bay’s middle-class Porto Bello neighborhood. Not quite three months after Jones’ death, attackers firebombed the home where he had lived, and where four roommates still lived. The attackers dragged mattresses, clothing and personal documents into the front yard and burned them to a crisp.

Contents of the home firebombed by anti-gay attackers<br/>(Photo by Bobbi Misick)

Contents of the home firebombed by anti-gay attackers
(Photo by Bobbi Misick)

AT LEAST 20 OTHER GAYS  in Jamaica have been killed in the past 15 years. Those deaths include the 2005 murder of Lenford “Steve” Harvey, a former leader of the group Jamaica AIDS Support for Life. Harvey worked mainly to help sex workers and homosexual men. Gunmen attacked his home, where he lived with two male roommates, and demanded money and valuables. One of the assailants asked the men if they were gay. Harvey’s roommates said no, and they were tied up and left in their home. Harvey was kidnapped, stuffed in the trunk of a car and later shot.

In October 2011, 16-year-old Oshane Gordon tried to escape armed men who had barged into his home challenging what news reporters called “questionable relations with another man.” Catching Gordon halfway out of a window, the men struck him on his foot with a machete to keep him from running, then hacked him to death. They then attacked the boy’s mother, cutting her so badly that she needed intensive care at a hospital.

Gordon’s death came nearly three months after a man whom neighbors perceived to be homosexual was found dead in Torington Park, Kingston, his head nearly severed.

In October 2013, transgender 19-year-old and former LGBT Miss World (2012) Britney “Boudashious” Ebanks was found murdered in Central Village, St. Catherine, a neighborhood known for its high crime. While police have not yet determined the motive for Ebanks’ death, the teen joins the ranks of homosexual and transgender Jamaicans who have lost their lives violently.

Despite news reports like these, police continue to report that LGBT Jamaicans are not targeted in homophobic violent crimes. When questioned about the issue, police officials, including the head of the Constabulary Communications Network, Steve Brown, said homosexuals most often are attacked by other homosexuals in jealous “crimes of passion.”

Since July 2013, requests have been sent to a number of top officials within the Jamaica Constabulary Force for statistics on crimes against the country’s LGBT citizens and information on how these crimes are recorded. So far, the statistics have not been provided.

In the case of Dwayne Jones, one fact is clear: his death was not a crime of passion.

On that deadly night in 2013 Jones was hungry. Desperate, he decided to turn his first trick that night. His roommates said he had never been involved in prostitution before, but he made up his mind to dress as a woman and head out into the darkness to earn money to buy food for himself and his roommates, Khloe Kouture and Keke Masters.

Masters and Kouture decided to accompany Jones, to make sure everyone would be safe.

Kouture, Masters and Jones pulled on their tight blouses and printed leggings, concealing their male genitals with multiple pairs of underwear. They adjusted their wigs; Jones’ was short and black with bangs. They powdered their noses, applied red lipstick and stepped out into the Montego Bay night.

As they walked, they were approached by a group of men in a car who invited them to a party. They hopped in the car. At the party, which was spread out on a street near a tiny bar surrounded by tall trees and thick green flora, the three danced together. Jones flaunted the moves that he was known for until he spotted an old friend – a young woman he remembered from school. He revealed his identity to her.

A short while later a group of men surrounded Jones.

“A man!” one of the men asserted.

Another grabbed a lantern and shined it on Jones’ face.

Jones tried to play it off. “Da man ya seh mi a man,” he said to his friends – That man says I’m a man.

Masters stepped in. “Mi no inna dat foolishness” – I’m not down with that foolishness.

They weren’t buying it. When another man reached to lift up Jones’ shirt, Jones ran down the street.

“She must have said, ‘Oh God I’m gonna die,’ ” Kouture recalled.

Jones ran. The group of men and women followed him into the night.

Masters took off in a different direction, trying to lose the pursuers. Behind him he heard taunts, “Hey bomboclat” (a common Jamaican expletive), “battyman” (slang for gay man). “Come here.”

He jumped into a gully along a river. He lost the mob. Hours later, Masters had made the long trek home, hiding in the gullies and bushes whenever he heard a disturbing noise.

Kouture faced a more harrowing path. A gang chased him into an abandoned house. Holding him up against a wall, the attackers punched him in the face, bruising his left eye. He feared they planned to rape him.

“When they drew down their clothes, I kicked [the men] away and ran,” Kouture said.

He saw a church with a yard surrounded by a short concrete wall. Jumping over the wall, he listened as the noise from a crowd of men and women grew louder. Then it softened and grew distant.

Kouture climbed back over the church wall and dashed into the woods. He heard gun shots. He ran.

Eventually, he would escape, only to learn Dwayne Jones had not been so fortunate.

JAMAICA IS KNOWN FOR ITS FREE-SPIRITED reggae-infused Rastafarian culture. But that culture is openly homophobic and supports Jamaica’s anti-sodomy law.

Grammy Award winner Buju Banton was only 15 years old when he recorded ‘Boom Bye Bye.’ Its theme? Shooting gay men in their heads.

YouTube offers numerous videos of wild parties pulsating with dancehall, the popular club music on the island. The parties feature women clad in short shorts and brightly colored wigs spreading their legs and gyrating their hips. Listen closely to the lyrics. Grammy Award winner Buju Banton was only 15 years old when he recorded his first song, the infamous and wildly popular hit “Boom Bye Bye.” Its theme? Shooting gay men in their heads. Popular dancehall is often blared from the speakers of private mini-buses that shuttle Jamaicans around their towns. In 2002 Jamaica Labor Party leader Edward Seaga used T.O.K.’s anti-gay song, “Chi Chi Man,” in his political campaign.

Other top-selling dancehall artists – including Beenie Man, Capleton, Sizzla and Elephant – have recorded lyrics that encourage shooting, burning, or kicking gay men. Musicians argue that this type of speech is part of Jamaica’s culture and should not be taken literally.

More recently, homophobic dancehall lyrics from some of today’s popular recording artists like Vybz Kartel and Dr. Evil refrain from inciting violence. Instead they encourage separation. At dancehall parties in Kingston, revelers lift their hands and loudly sing Dr. Evil’s lyrics, “Battyboys, they need to stay far from we.”

Those sentiments permeate the streets. During my recent visit to Jamaica, men agreed that homosexuality was not right, yet they also endorsed the idea that gay men could remain in the country as long as they kept their sexuality private. One man said he would not risk tarnishing his reputation by talking in public to a homosexual man.

Dwayne Jones died because he crossed a line, some in Jamaica say. The young man’s mistake was to mask himself as a woman and to dance at a party for heterosexuals. That view appeared in public comments on sites such as those for The Gleaner andthe Jamaica Observer newspapers, the nation’s two largest news organizations.

At its heart, Jamaica is a conservative country. It is uncommon to see a man and a woman holding hands as they walk through the busy commercial districts of Kingston. It is even rarer to see two women holding hands in public, and it is unheard of for two men to behave like a couple in public.

The 2011 National Survey on Attitudes and Perceptions of Jamaicans towards Same-Sex Relationships, conducted by researchers at the University of the West Indies at Mona, found that 82 percent of Jamaicans believe that homosexuality is morally wrong. According to the survey, 85 percent do not think that homosexual behavior among consenting adults should be legal in Jamaica.

This is not new. A 2004 Human Rights Watch report on Jamaica, “Hated to Death,” said: “Verbal and physical violence, ranging from beatings to brutal armed attacks to murder, are widespread. For many, there is no sanctuary from such abuse.” Much of this abuse targets people between the ages of 18 and 29, according to the country’s leading LGBT human rights organization, the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians All-Sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG), which said that young people “continued to bear the brunt of violence based on sexual orientation.”

A State Department human rights report included the 2012 beating of a student at Kingston’s University of Technology. The young man ran from a threatening group of students. He got to the campus security guards, who, instead of protecting him, struck him repeatedly as a large crowd looked on. One student filmed the incident and it was later broadcast on national news stations.

A J-FLAG report in November 2013 recorded 231 reports of violent assaults, sexual violence, displacement, extortion and threats between 2009 and 2012.

The concept of living “openly gay” does not exist in Jamaica as it does in the United States. In Jamaica, gender norms, including how to dress and speak, are highly policed. Those who don’t fit the norm are suspected of being gay or lesbian – a way of life that is seen as reflecting chosen behavior rather than one’s inherent identity.

A report in 2012 by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights claimed that people who did not conform to gender norms were likely to “face political and legal stigmatization, police violence [and] an inability to access the justice system.”

“The laws reinforce the idea that there is something unnatural and changeable about homosexuality,” said Dinah Shelton, the commission’s rapporteur on the rights of indigenous people.

Under Jamaica’s Offences Against the Person Act – commonly known as the buggery law – anal sex, including sex between consenting adults, is illegal and punishable by up to 10 years in prison. While it pertains to anal sex between heterosexuals, it is most often brought up when discussing homosexuality and pedophilia, which sometimes go together in the Jamaican view.

LGBT rights advocates have made some gains in their fight to change the law, on the basis that it violates the right to privacy guaranteed in Jamaica’s Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms Act of 2011. Maurice Tomlinson, a human rights lawyer and legal advisor to the non-profit organization AIDS Free World, will represent a case challenging the buggery law in November.

‘As a children’s advocate, I am not in a position to support the repeal of the buggery law precisely at a time when buggery of children is increasing exponentially.’

Advocates for the buggery law argue that without it, young boys will be more susceptible to sexual assault. Betty Ann Blaine, a political organizer and founder of a lobbying group, Hear the Children’s Cry Committee, strongly opposes any changes to the buggery law. “As a children’s advocate, I am not in a position to support the repeal of the buggery law precisely at a time when buggery of children is increasing exponentially,” she said in an email.

Churches are a wellspring of these views. According to Jamaica’s 2011 Population and Housing Census, 75 percent of the island’s 2.7 million people belong to a Christian denomination. The Seventh Day Adventist and Pentecostal Churches claim the largest numbers of followers.

Jamaican churches bolster the belief that homosexuality is a choice. “We recognize that homosexuality is not a natural, normal way of relating sexually,” Reverend Everald Galbraith, chairman of the Jamaica Council of Churches, explained. “The church sees it as a deviant behavior.”

The council recently released a paper offering guidelines for how constituents of its member churches should treat homosexuals.

“The Council appeals to members of the church, clergy and laity, to make Church a welcoming and non-judgmental space; one that is sensitive to those who are dealing with issues of brokenness in their lives, which include homosexuality,” the paper read.

The paper warned constituents to resist pressure from the international “homosexual political agenda” to change Jamaica’s cultural values.

“In many places today – maybe not so much in Jamaica as yet I hope – if you declare yourself to be against homosexuality, chances are you’ll not be elected to an elected office,” Galbraith said. “I think the gay community knows that and that the gay community is using that weapon to either withdraw or support political candidates.”

Galbraith and other religious leaders, like the popular Rev. Al Miller, have asserted that the homosexual lobby is focused on legalizing homosexual acts in Jamaica in hopes that the island’s cultural and political influence on the region will cause a ripple effect around the Caribbean.

“These countries kind of watch what each other are doing,” said Shelton of the Inter-American commission. “You just never know where things are going to resonate and how things are going to change.”

FORMER THEOLOGIAN AND POLITICAL ADVISOR Jason Latty did not consider himself to be gay before he fled to the United States in 2001, after a number of homophobic attacks against him.

In one encounter in 2000, during an Easter fair, Latty and a friend were picnicking on the fairgrounds when farmers who had been watching them threw a pot of boiling food on them, leaving Latty’s legs scarred.

Latty remembers screaming and running for what felt like a mile because of the pain. He refused to go to the hospital out of fear that someone would ask him what happened. And why.

“I remember the skin coming off. I just used home remedies and kept it like that for a while,” Latty said. “I remember going to a store, buying some Vaseline, and putting it on the burns, and of course, that intensified the pain.”

For the next two months, Latty walked with a limp and continued to treat his burns with home remedies. He told his family that his burns came from his own clumsiness in the kitchen.

Then in April 2001, Latty left his off-campus apartment at dusk to purchase laundry detergent at a nearby store. As he walked on the lonely road he heard someone shouting homophobic expletives. A moment later a young man appeared from behind the bushes and, continuing his tirade, pointed a 38-gauge shotgun at Latty.

He flagged down a woman driver and jumped in her car to escape. As they drove, Latty heard a shot fired in their direction. The car wasn’t hit. After the woman dropped him off, Latty wandered the streets for an hour in a daze, still not quite realizing what had just happened.

He decided he couldn’t live in Jamaica. He renewed his travel visa to the United States and left home for good. He joined many gay Jamaicans who have sought asylum in the United States and other countries, including Canada, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Australia. Official numbers of asylum seekers from Jamaica are hard to come by, as U.S. law prohibits reporting asylum recipients to their home countries for fear of reprisals against relatives. However, Immigration Equality, a leading non-profit organization that helps individuals gain asylum in the United States on the basis of sexuality, reported that more than 30 percent of its asylum wins in recent years have come from Jamaica.

That list includes Dadland Maye, 28, a Jamaican activist and writer, who came to the United States in September 2001.

“There was always something in my mind saying, ‘I have to get out of here,’ ” Maye said.

As a boy Maye’s face was slashed. He received several stitches for the cut and the assailant was never charged. As a young man his home was set on fire, causing him to flee from his neighborhood in Portmore, St. Catherine.

Looking for a way out, Maye explored heading to the U.S. He didn’t have money for a round trip ticket, a requirement for getting a tourist visa.

“All I had was my personality,” Maye said. “I told the agent, ‘I want to go to America because I want to see this place that I’ve heard about all my life,’ and they gave me the visa.”

Maye landed in Miami in 2001. He traveled to Philadelphia and eventually New York.

He overstayed the six-month tourist visa and lived as an undocumented immigrant, cleaning homes and offices for money.

He often slept with men for shelter. “Men provided me with a way to survive,” Maye said. “The understanding was not discussed, but of course if I sleep in their beds at night and they try to have sex with me I know I can’t resist.”

He lived as an undocumented immigrant for years. Only after he met other gay Jamaican asylum seekers did he realize that he could seek asylum on the basis of his sexuality.

Through Immigration Equality, Maye met a lawyer who helped him win asylum in 2009. Without an attorney, he doubts he could have become a U.S. citizen.

That is not an easy expense for an illegal immigrant to bear. Furthermore, the burden of proving that persecution occurred – and would happen again if the immigrant returned home – is placed on the asylum seeker. “The process is very difficult to navigate,” law professor Sheila Velez Martinez said. “Statistically people without an attorney are more likely than not to be denied asylum.”

Maye was able to prove that he had attempted suicide and had received years of psychotherapy because of the abuses he encountered in Jamaica. For him, rejecting religion that condemned his sexuality, and becoming an atheist, was the first step in accepting himself.

“Religion had been my problem,” he said.

Once he received asylum and knew that he had no reason to fear deportation, he wrote on his Facebook page that he was a gay man. He said he was ostracized by many of his Facebook friends and family members back home.

Separating himself from Jamaicans, even friends and family, was crucial in his learning to love himself. “I had to kill a part of my past in order to make new associations,” Maye said. “When you want to be free, you cannot be in a place that doesn’t allow you to be free.”

Maye’s fellow émigré, Latty, has remained a Christian, although he does not believe that Jamaica’s attitudes toward gays are changing. “Good people with good intentions are saying that Jamaica is much better than it was 10 years ago for gays and lesbians,” Latty said. “I cannot see that because I’ve heard the stories. I’ve talked to people who have been abused. I’ve talked to people who are scared. I get calls from people who want to know how they can get their asylum papers filed because somebody has beat them or somebody has raped them, and they can’t report it. They can’t talk to anybody.”

He has chosen to speak out. Last fall Latty and members of his organization, Jamaica Anti-Homophobia Stand, protested outside the United Nations General Assembly. As Jamaica’s Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller exited the Ford Foundation building on 43rd Street in New York City, the protesters held picket signs and Jamaican flags and shouted, “Gay rights are human rights!” and “Shame on you, Portia!”

Latty himself is still seeking asylum in the United States. He expects to get his new status by October. He has married his partner and now lives in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

“I am grateful for the fact that the U.S. has offered me this opportunity to live my life, and I can be who I am,” Latty said. “Life for me as a gay Jamaican is better. I am living my life. I’m working. These are things I would never be able to accomplish in Jamaica.”

Now, he said, “I have true friends. Not just fake friends. I have people who know who I am and accept me for who I am. It’s a new feeling.”

A knife at the ready to defend against future anti-gay attacks(Photo by Bobbi Misick)

A knife at the ready to defend against future anti-gay attacks
(Photo by Bobbi Misick)

While many LGBT Jamaicans, including Dwayne Jones’ friends, hope to flee Jamaica and attain asylum in another country, as Latty and Maye did, Jones’ legacy may offer hope for them to live with dignity in their home country. Increased awareness – across the island and internationally – of the plight of Jamaica’s displaced gay and transgender youth has spawned the creation of Dwayne’s House, a non-profit organization that offers counseling, meals, showers, skills training and other resources for Kingston’s most vulnerable LGBT residents. The Gleaner features editorials that call for a change to the buggery law, and the newspaper endorsed same-sex marriage on June 5. Prime Minister Simpson Miller suggested that parliament would hold a conscience vote on whether to review the buggery law during her tenure. Taking another look at Jamaica’s anti-gay culture would be a big step for the government – and for Jamaican society. ■

Ashoka Jegroo provided additional reporting