Gay in Jamaica

The brutal slaying of an activist spurs an outcry against bigotry

When Desmond Chambers found the corpse of his friend, Brian Williamson, he couldn't believe the carnage. Blood was spattered on all four walls of the tiny bedroom in New Kingston, a well-to-do part of the Jamaican capital. The carpet was drenched from multiple wounds to Williamson's head and neck. The 59-year-old was facedown, in his underwear. A safe had been stolen, a television set tossed onto a bed, and drawers ransacked. Williamson's hyperactive little dog, Tessa, circled the room, yapping frantically.

Williamson had been alone on June 9 when an attacker entered through an unlocked door and killed him with a machete. To many, the murder appeared to be a hate crime. Williamson had been the first and only native-born Jamaican to publicly champion gay rights, appearing on television screens across the country and speaking on radio talk shows.

Williamson's decision to be so prominent was daring in a country some activists consider the most homophobic in the Western Hemisphere.

Candles, songs, and tears marked the memorial ceremony for Brian Williamson.
Keith Hollar
Candles, songs, and tears marked the memorial ceremony for Brian Williamson.
The house where Williamson lived and died.
Keith Hollar
The house where Williamson lived and died.

The island's "buggery laws" (making male-on-male sex a felony punishable by ten years hard time) have been on the books since Colonial days, and dancehall reggae songs regularly call for the burning and stomping of "chi-chi men" and "batty boys."

Gay-rights organizations claim 30 homosexuals have been killed in Jamaica since 1997, the same year 16 men were slaughtered in a prison uprising because other inmates thought they were gay.

Just eight days before Williamson was murdered, Amnesty International had released a public appeal to Prime Minister P.J. Patterson. It was titled: "Jamaica's Gays: Protection from Homophobes Urgently Needed. Gays and Lesbians Are Being Beaten, Cut, Burned, and Shot." The issue has particular resonance in Broward County, where Jamaicans are the second-largest immigrant group (after Haitians), and in Fort Lauderdale, the nation's second-gayest city (after San Francisco), according to the U.S. Census. New Times is the only American news organization to describe the murder and its aftermath in detail.


With brown wavy hair and an easy, open smile, the light-complected Williamson operated close to the top of Jamaica's socially stratified caste system. Born into an upper-middle-class family in the rural parrish of St. Ann, Williamson had studied to become a Catholic priest in Montego Bay.

By 1979, he had given up that calling to pursue another: gay rights for Jamaicans. No one else in the nation's history had addressed the topic so publicly. At first, he used his apartment in Kingston as a place where gay couples could gather every two weeks or so to converse in a safe setting.

By the early 1990s, Williamson had taken his crusade a step further, buying a large property on New Kingston's yuppified Haughton Street and converting part of it into Entourage, a gay nightclub. It was likely the island's only such hot spot, and police tried to shut it down. Many of the patrons were workers from foreign embassies in Kingston. Entourage remained open for two years until a knife-wielding patron attacked Williamson one night, slicing his arm.

Jamaica's homophobia is so deeply ingrained, few can pinpoint its source. It is part of early life, daily life, family life, and street life, taught by the church, condoned by authorities, supported by legislation, and hammered home in popular music. A letter to the editor of the Jamaica Observer after Williamson's death summed it up with brutal efficiency: "To be gay in Jamaica is to be dead."

Williamson and a few comrades saw the need for a group devoted to protecting gay rights. In 1998, he helped found the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All Sexuals, and Gays (J-FLAG). Soon, he became the group's public face, appearing on national television programs like Perspective and Nationwide with host Cliff Hughes and on radio talk shows to debate bigots, demand funding for AIDS, and decry homophobia.

Williamson was the sole Jamaican citizen willing to use his real name and show his face. Some J-FLAG staff are foreigners with much less to lose and a place to run. Jamaican volunteers must use pseudonyms, fearing abandonment by family and reprisals from employers. Williamson gave the group a native voice and realized that without that, the organization would remain hamstrung. But shortly thereafter, he relocated to Toronto, where he had relatives, and then to England. The knife attack at the club and the hostility he felt contributed to his decision.

J-FLAG continued in his absence as a kind of underground organization. No one kept a list of its members, who gathered in secret. It now shares office space with a nonprofit group just a mile from where Williamson was killed.

When Williamson returned to Jamaica in 2002, he moved into a small apartment in the compound where his nightclub had been. He decided again to take a lead role in the struggle -- because no one else could afford to stick his neck out so far. As one black Jamaican J-FLAG member puts it: "Brian Williamson is our Martin Luther King."

Larry Chang, who helped found J-FLAG, left the island to seek political asylum in the United States. He says Williamson was so committed to helping gay Jamaicans that he gave up his easy existence abroad to jump back into "the belly of the beast." Chang, who lives in Brooklyn, didn't hear from Williamson for months. "I wonder if this was silent reproach that I had not followed his example to return and rejoin the struggle," he says. "But if I had remained or returned to Jamaica, his fate would have been mine also."

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