Jamaica Yes Problem

Listen up, Jamaicans. There are approximately 5 million of you on the planet -- 2.6 million on the island and another 2.5 million living in Toronto, New York City, London, and especially here in South Florida. Parts of Miami-Dade County and especially the Broward enclaves of Lauderhill and Miramar are home to huge pockets of Jamaican expatriates. And if widely accepted statistics are right and roughly 2.5 percent of the world's male population is homosexual, that means probably 125,000 gay Jamaicans are running around right now. Queer Jamaicans. Battyboys. Chi-chi men. Sodomites.

They say: Get used to it.

They're here to stay, and, in the face of naked oppression, they're increasingly assertive about their rights.

Jamaica, with its "buggery" laws dating back to Queen Victoria and a longstanding gay-bashing culture, has to be one of the most harshly homophobic nations in the world, gay Jamaicans contend. Amnesty International has documented at least 30 deaths on the island from antigay violence since 1997, and most Jamaican expatriates have dark tales of unreported acts of brutality against gays.

No wonder gay Jamaicans who can afford it are moving in greater numbers to Broward County, where the risk of violence against them because of their sexual orientation is minimal.

Says Gilbert Dunkley, a transplanted Jamaican now working as a copyeditor at the Miami Herald: "After years of living a sort of muted life where one feels under siege, where one feels endangered, I got to a point where I said to myself, 'OK, I'm in my early 30s -- is this how I want to live the rest of my life? Is this how I want to spend the rest of my young years?' Do I want to invest them in this environment or go somewhere else -- for a greater yield, more peace of mind, my well-being, for more personal freedom?"

Goodbye, Jamaica. Hello, Promised Land.

But the old deep-in-the-closet ways persist -- even in gay-friendly South Florida. Some ghosts can cross international borders.

Six hundred miles from Kingston, Wilton Manors is a virtual Disneyland for gay men. It's a safe haven where residents can shop, eat, and stroll while rarely encountering a straight person.

In Egbert Fisher's tropically lush backyard, where a large group gathers regularly on Sunday afternoons, the conversation rarely strays far from the dilemma of being gay and Jamaican. Even within the honeyed confines of Wilton Manors' neat lawns and tidy homes, with its Hamburger Mary'ses and Gay Marts and cruisy bars and rippling rainbow flags, there is little they can do to relax persistent attitudes that affect an entire nation.

Under a wide gazebo next to Fisher's small, sparkling swimming pool, friends still feel uptight.

A frequent visitor is Mark, a cherubic, Chinese/Jamaican flight attendant from Lauderdale Lakes who shudders as he contemplates the chalk-and-cheese difference between the "Island City" and the island nation. "Here, you can be free," he explains. "There, you're in shackles. It's not like it's 2004 down there. It's like the slavery days." No last names, please -- Mark has family in South Florida. Simply because of his Jamaican heritage, he believes, he lives much like gay Americans did in the 1960s and '70s -- opposed to leaving the closet for any reason.

It's hard to believe his family doesn't have a clue. This Sunday afternoon, Mark is mesmerized by a televised broadcast of the Summer Olympics in Athens. Watching a Grecian gymnast flex his biceps, he murmurs, "He is gorgeous."

There's no escaping Jamaican homophobia in South Florida, they all agree. "I think it gets worse," says Fisher, a jolly, irrepressible flight attendant (whose partner is New Times copyeditor Keith Hollar). "Because here, they have to deal with the battyman, so they're angrier than they were in Jamaica, where [gays] knew their place."

Fisher has had success playing the real estate game in Wilton Manors -- he now owns six homes in the area -- and that achievement allows him to live without playing by anyone else's rules. Since he retired from the U.S. Navy in 1999 and went to work for one of the biggest U.S. airlines, he's been out in the open and proud of it.

"The first time I could openly say, 'No, I'm not married -- I live with my partner and my dogs,'" he reports, "it was a huge weight lifted, and I never went back."

The acceptance Fisher found only grew. When his 53-year-old cousin moved from Jamaica to a nearby neighborhood, she warmly accepted his living arrangements. "Hey," she said simply, "you've got to live your life." Similarly, when Fisher's 83-year-old father visited last month, the son prepared for the worst. "If he even sneezes wrong while he's here," Fisher promised, "he's gone." The visit went without a hitch.