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Gay in Jamaica

Candles, songs, and tears marked the memorial ceremony for Brian Williamson.
Keith Hollar

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.

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."

Williamson was generous with money too, offering handouts and odd jobs to acquaintances. Says Chang: "His color, class, affluence, accessibility... made him an easy target. With his Catholic upbringing, his endless compassion, patience, and humility... he put himself at risk for martyrdom."

In the weeks before his murder, Williamson befriended a closeted gay man from New Kingston, according to J-FLAG members. He gave the man money and even purchased stacks of newspapers for him to sell on street corners. On June 11, two days after the murder, police arrested the paper vendor. Because the safe and other items were missing, Kingston police are investigating the crime as a robbery.

J-FLAG members have a short video of the scene outside Williamson's house on Haughton Street that was taken soon after the murder. The roof of a six-story building across the street was lined with spectators that morning, as was the street. Loud laughter makes up the soundtrack. "It was like a party to them," says Jason Byles (not his real name), who publishes a gay newsletter in Kingston. "They were laughing and making jokes, saying things like 'This is long overdue' and things like 'Batty man fi dead!' ['Faggots should die!']"

According to J-FLAG members, cops overlooked crucial evidence at Williamson's home. "I'm told 12 officers went to the crime scene," says Mark Clifford, program director at J-FLAG. "In the evening, some of Brian's close friends went back to help clean up the mess and found two more murder weapons laying in the blood -- an ice pick and a ratchet knife. That says something about the forensic investigations.

"Especially if it's a gay-on-gay murder, the police really don't investigate," Clifford continues. "If gay people are abused and take it to the police, it's very common for police to throw the people out of the station and become abusive themselves."

On June 13, the Sunday Gleaner carried the headline "OUTRAGE!" over a story about British concern over Williamson's killing. J-FLAG and Amnesty International called for an inquiry into the possibility that the murder was a hate crime. Regardless of whether that description fits, Williamson's death and the reaction to it are clearly watershed events -- a turning point in the history of Jamaica's gay minority.

The thought that Williamson may have been killed by someone within the tight-knit group hit the gay community hard. "No one I know is willing to step forward and take over that role now, so it is a big loss for advocacy in Jamaica," explains Tony Hron, who headed J-FLAG for three years, until January, and still volunteers with the group.

Hron, Byles' partner for the past two years, lives about a mile from Williamson's property; the two rent a small home together. Hron, a Caucasian from Nebraska, came to Kingston in 2000 on a Peace Corps assignment and stayed to help the beleaguered gay population. At five feet seven, Hron is dwarfed by his partner's thin, six-foot-six frame. Byles is gangly and coltish, with the physical poise and physique of Grace Jones. A soft, Michael Jackson whisper emerges when he speaks.

In his flat, Midwestern voice, Hron says of his experience in Jamaica: "I've never felt unsafe in this area. Only once have I heard a comment in the four years I've been down here." But local friends of his haven't been as fortunate. "I know a gay man who was attacked at a shopping mall -- within five minutes of this house. He and another friend were viewed as being gay, as the other friend was a little bit effeminate. They were punched and kicked and had to run into a store to get away from the attackers."

Byles looks longingly at a stack of glossy gay magazines friends have brought down from Wilton Manors. Poring through the pages of beefcake, he recalls his one visit to South Florida, where for the first time, he was able to show the world his true self. How did it feel?

 

Byles folds his arms behind his head, leans back against his living room couch, rolls his eyes back dramatically, and smiles. "Liberating!" he says.


On the sweltering Sunday evening four days after Williamson's murder, cars begin to line the swale in front of the converted house that serves as J-FLAG's headquarters. Across the front porch on this day -- and this day alone -- billow a huge Jamaican flag and, next to it, a rainbow pride banner. The yard fills with young males in skin-tight shirts, 60-ish white-haired Brits in khakis, dyed-afro lesbians in dashikis, and more. Men openly hug, weep, and hold hands. Some wear purple roses pinned to their shirts. A few women arrive dressed in work boots, Dickies, and lumberjack shirts.

Were they to walk around downtown Kingston dressed like this, what would happen? "They would be dead in the blink of an eye, oh yes," says Julia Lowe, who also helped start J-FLAG in 1998. Framed beneath loose, short curls, Lowe's brown eyes burn with anger. "I do not walk alone on the streets," she continues. "I'm one of these people who takes six or eight people -- my security -- with me."

Nearly 200 people are gathered for Brian Williamson's memorial. An ersatz piano melody crackles through the PA as J-FLAG's Joseph Robinson begins the ceremony on a solemn, respectful note. "Today is a new day for Jamaica," he says, "a day where we can go to our parents and say, 'Hey, Mom, I'm different' and they can celebrate with it. Then we can see that Brian lived for a purpose."

The next two hours include teary tributes, exuberant Marley covers, angry poetry slams, fond remembrances, lip-synched Whitney Houston tunes, and several playings of the Princess Diana version of "Candle in the Wind." Yet when the lights go out and the opening strains of Celine Dion's "I'm Alive" calls forth drag queen Diva, the party explodes. A collective scream goes up from the crowd, with young men springing to their feet and sprinting to the front to throw hugs, kisses, and money.

After that delirious peak, Robinson again takes the mic. Everyone in the audience is given a candle to light and hoist high in the heavy night air. He quickly returns the service to the tinkling piano plateau and releases his go-in-peace sermon.

"I see the prime ministers," he intones. "I see the police force. I see nurses. I see teachers. I see your parents coming together, all standing for peace. And if you see that with me, hold up your candles and let me hear you say Brian!"

The yard thunders with a deafening chorus of "BRIAN!" A jubilant man in dark sunglasses, dressed in red slacks, a red shirt, and a red hat, takes the mic. "May your soul rest in peace, Brian!" he shouts, holding a photo of Brian aloft amid a sea of blazing candles and cheering spectators.

Hron can't help but break out in a grin so wide, his dual dimples look ready to form smiles themselves. "Most Jamaicans have no idea this exists," he remarks. "They would be absolutely appalled."

Much as they undoubtedly were when Williamson first entered national conciousness. "Most Jamaicans were scandalized that one of their own would dare admit they were gay, and all the more so when he said he was proud of it," Hron says. "Once those words came out of his mouth, he became a hero to some and a demon to others."

As the crowd trickles home or toward the darkened house where booming bass emanates from within, Hron and Byles pull together, straining to hold a conversation amid the din. Byles touches Hron on the arm accidentally, only tonight, he doesn't have to pull away and look around to see who's noticed. He moves his hand down Hron's arm, softly takes his hand in his, and holds it. For now, behind the tall hedges separating the street from the yard, they are safe.


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