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...
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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.

But some of Fisher's friends don't enjoy the same independence. "What you do here gets back there," forecasts 35-year-old Shawn, who won't divulge his last name even though everyone close to him, including his parents, already knows he's gay. "But the maids don't know," he says, explaining his secrecy. "The gardener doesn't know."

Mark's cynicism always returns when talk turns to his homeland. "We're doomed there," he says glumly. "Jamaicans are violent and ignorant."

Mark, who left Jamaica in 1982 at 21 years old, has serious reservations about returning to his birthplace, even for a visit, and vehemently insists he will never live there again. "I'm afraid to go back," he says. "They make one step forward and three steps back. With the crime and the savagery, it's a vicious circle. They're 100 years behind us in thinking.

"It will never get better," he says dejectedly. "Jamaica is a lost cause. I don't think it could change, not in this century."

"You don't really believe that," chides Fisher, ever the optimist. "I think it'll get better. I think there's a chance, anyway."

The good news is that, after decades of oppression, some gays are starting to mount a resistance, putting into motion changes that one day may bring about better lives for those unable to leave the country. Because of pressure from gay activists, Grammy-winning reggae superstar Beenie Man, whose patois lyrics are laced with homophobic diatribes, lost the opportunity to perform at the MTV Video Music Awards in Miami last week, and gay rights groups have hounded his current world tour into the ground. Beenie Man was also forced to cancel a series of concerts in Europe and the States. A lukewarm, nonspecific "apology" was issued last month by Beenie Man's record company that activist groups dismissed as "insincere and opportunistic."

International civil rights groups are beginning to take notice of the situation in Jamaica. In June, Amnesty International launched a Global Action to combat homophobic injustice in Jamaica, demanding that Prime Minister P.J. Patterson "condemn such violence." Groups like J-FLAG (Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals, and Gays) are increasing pressure on the government to address the issue.

On a more modest level, gay Jamaicans from Broward do return to the island regularly and make contributions to Jamaica AIDS Support, a Kingston-based advocacy group. Fisher and his fellow flight attendants collect small items from hotel rooms -- shampoo and other toiletries -- and Fisher takes them to JAS headquarters when he visits. "I'll be careful, like I've always been, but I won't stop doing what I do for the organization," he insists.

But he still can't tell Jamaica's customs officials what he's really doing with all those rolls of toilet paper. Volunteering for an AIDS organization is too close, in the minds of many Jamaicans, to homosexuality, and Fisher doesn't need the worry. Often, he feels the same way here. For instance, when he ventures to Lauderhill for real island cooking at a popular Jamaican restaurant, he always finds himself taking his earrings out beforehand.

"I can either make a statement," Fisher says, "or think, 'Do I really want to fight over this?'"

Bill Peters, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Fort Lauderdale on North Andrews Avenue -- just a few blocks from Fisher's house -- says that he knows of no gay Jamaicans who have sought his center's services or counsel.

"I wish more did," he sighs. "I'd love to be able to give them an audience or a place to come and openly identify. Or if they need space or neutral ground away from their communities or families. That's what we're here for." As Peters notes with regret, "I wish some were brave enough. But they're up against a lot, and it's very, very hard to come out if you're Jamaican. I feel bad for what they're enduring."

The fear is far from unwarranted. Almost every gay male from Jamaica has a story about a friend or acquaintance being beaten or threatened. In February, the Jamaica Observer reported, an 11th-grader carried some nude male magazines home with him. When his dad discovered the evidence, he promptly hauled his son down to the schoolyard so his uniformed classmates could kick the living daylights out of him -- which they did, as his dad drove away. The boy was finally rescued by cops and school officials -- who were in turn set upon by the mob of students and pelted with rocks.

Because of incidents like these receiving prominent press in the U.K., Jamaican homophobia is occasionally in the headlines. Nobody really knows how many Matthew Shepards have been slain there.

"With J-FLAG, we've been figuring out strategies for Jamaicans to seek political asylum, mostly in the U.S. and the U.K., based on that sort of persecution," reports Michael Heflin, director of Amnesty International's program on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights in New York City. "Jamaica's a very violent place overall. Gay Jamaicans are more visible than before, but they're scared. There is a backlash to that kind of openness. There's a lot of general desperation, and gays are an easy scapegoat for religious and political leaders."

Just give a listen to local Jamaican talk radio, where it's apparent that rigid expat mindsets do not soften easily in Lauderhill or Miramar. "It doesn't change one iota for the majority," notes newsman Winston Barnes, who hosts a weekday call-in program on Davie's WAVS-AM (1170). "The sentiments are as strong or stronger than they are in Jamaica. I think part of what has happened is that a number of attitudes have been hardened by how open gay practices and behaviors have become in Jamaica."

Most of the opposition justifies its antigay behavior behind the historical component of the law. "Buggery" and even "attempted buggery" are serious crimes on the island. Dating from 19th-century colonial days and approved by Queen Victoria, Section 76 of Jamaica's "Offences Against the Person Act" specifically bans anal sex between men. Those convicted face as many as ten years in jail with hard labor. Even lesser acts, which fall under Outrages on Decency statutes, can bring up to two years of imprisonment.

In Jamaica, the church shores up the foundation of Jamaica's deep-rooted hatred of homosexuals. "That is the foundation upon which it is built," Barnes says. Amnesty's Heflin agrees. "Religious leaders in Jamaica have made very harsh, homophobic statements," he says. "In 2001, the Catholic bishop came forth and said the church was strongly opposed to the decriminalization of consensual sex between adults."

Christianity cultivated on the island is essentially the same strain developed here by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Take Lauderhill's Don "Rico" Ricketts, a self-described Rastaman and former columnist for the local publication Caribbean Voice. "Most of the major religions have strong prohibitions against homosexuality," he says approvingly. Today, Ricketts works with INIversal MARCUS InstiTRUTH (IMI) Inc., a nonprofit group dedicated to black activist and Rastafarian icon Marcus Garvey. "It goes against millions of years of evolution."

Ricketts doesn't always fall back on Scripture to defend his views. "There are more useful ways of looking at it," he explains. "One question I would ask [gays] is what if they were able to convert a whole bunch of people? What would they expect the logical results to be? Just look at the animal kingdom." In that light, Ricketts argues, it isn't hard to view homosexuality as representing the destruction of the human race.

"What if society were to say, 'Look, we don't like the way this is heading. So we'll give you a continent or an island over there, and all of you who are like that, go there.' What I'm trying to suggest," he says quietly, "is that only heterosexuals can reproduce."

The men in Egbert Fisher's backyard bristle at attacks from fundamentalists like Ricketts, though some of the hard-core rhetoric elicits laughter. They find it amusing that Ricketts' idea of homosexuality is predicated on the belief that gays have collectively undertaken a mission to convert straight people. "Yeah, like we're recruiting," laughs Mark. Even after a chortle, Ricketts' statements about moving all gays to an island stand uncomfortably close to talking about internment camps or extermination -- and goes a long way in removing the veil from the "One Love" misnomer at the core of Jamaica's tourism and music iconography.

"You have an image of sitting under a palm tree with a drink on the beach," Mark says sadly, "but that's not true."

Selwyn quotes the Bible -- Leviticus, Romans -- the way a drunk searches through verses for an excuse to avoid the bottle. He grew up very religious, in the countryside near Montego Bay, and was ordained a Pentecostal minister at age 22. But even as he preached to his congregations of 100 or more islanders every Sunday that "you can either be a Christian or a homosexual, not both," his life proved that maxim a lie. Because he was both.

Still is. Every Sunday, Selwyn -- friendly, clean-cut, straight-acting, a bit shy, and still youthfully handsome at 45 -- attends a nearby church, which inevitably leaves him guilt-racked and depressed. "Sometimes I feel like not going to church and just having my faith in God," he says bitterly over the dinner table at a friend's home in Wilton Manors. His personality threatens to split under the weight of his biology as he tries to balance his indoctrinated religion and reconcile the two. "I don't believe God would have made a mistake," he is certain. And yet he's lived almost half a century within a church that teaches he is condemned to hell, that he is an abomination, that he is worse than a thief or a murderer. He might have stayed in Jamaica, working at Montego Bay's hotels and serving as assistant pastor at his church, had a fellow parishioner not outed him to his minister, who then forced him to leave the church.

Even after making the move to Florida, Selwyn has lived a life of duplicity. Partly in an attempt to conceal his orientation, he has fathered three daughters, the last two with his young wife back in Jamaica. Yet his true yearnings are for men; he says he fantasizes about them while having sex with his wife. And as soon as he fathers a son, Selwyn says, he'll stop having sex with women.

Selwyn does give thanks for his current surroundings, a home he rents in Progresso, a mixed African-American and Caribbean neighborhood between downtown Fort Lauderdale and Wilton Manors. He has lived there since 1990, working as a home-duty nurse and sometime church official, at one time even holding weekly services in his home. "Here, you can live with a man and nobody will even think anything," he notes.

But go back and live in Jamaica as an openly gay male?

"You want me to get killed?" he shouts, his suddenly excited voice reflecting his fire-and-brimstone training in the charismatic church. Then he settles back down and nearly chokes up as he remembers a Jamaican friend who worked at a Montego Bay hotel with him back in 1986. Some of the guy's "friends" discovered he was gay and lured him out of his apartment. He was found hacked to pieces by a machete. "Nobody was ever charged," Selwyn recalls. "Once the police found out he was gay, they didn't even bother to investigate."

Jamaican youth who stay in school and go to church are fed a diet of fire, brimstone, and intolerance straight from the pulpit. So, islanders say, the "good bwoys" take those attitudes with them into adulthood. The "bad bwoys" who fall into street life and thuggery hear the same message. And if they don't hear enough of it out on the curb, dancehall music -- an outgrowth of reggae in which MCs "toast" often risqué lyrics over booming sound systems -- does the rest.

Naturally, on the world's loudest island, reggae music always plays an enormous cultural role. Dancehall, the populist, crowd-pleasing staple of radio and nightclub alike, is almost compulsively homophobic. Ruled by chart-topping singers like Elephant Man, Sean Paul, Beenie Man, and Bounty Killer, the prevalence of their songs often provides the oxygen needed to keep the antigay fire roaring. "It's certainly connected to the violence gay and lesbian people experience in Jamaica," Heflin posits.

Buju Banton's 1992 "Boom Bye Bye" escalated the violence level with its chorus, "Any time Buju Banton come, battyboy get up and run/Ah gunshot inna head, man."

TOK's 2001 album, My Crew, My Dawgs, featured a track called "Chi-Chi Man." The song advocated shooting up a gay bar: "Dem a-drink inna chi-chi man bar/Blaze di fire mek we dun dem!/Rat-atat-tat, chi-chi man haffi get flat/chi-chi man fi dead, and that's a fact!" More recently, the ever-popular Beenie Man instructed fans to murder gay DJs on the island with "Bad Man, Chi-Chi Man" which predicts that "It should be a showdown/Yuh run off the stage like a clown/Kill dem, DJ!"

In late July, on top of Beenie Man's troubles, a planned Bounty Killer show at a European music festival was abruptly canceled after intense lobbying from OutRage!, a British gay activist network that has been targeting dancehall homophobes with defiance.

During the early '90s, crossover artists like Shabba Ranks saw their careers derailed when similar sentiments made it to mainstream ears across the world. Ranks brought most of the heat on himself when he spouted invective during TV interviews. But many of the recent hits like "A Nuh We Fault" and "We Nuh Like Gay" by Elephant Man, "Log On" by Beenie Man, and Capleton's "Bun Di Chi-Chi" make it onto BBC airwaves in England -- and on Broward pirate radio -- because the patois is indecipherable to authorities. The irony is, the most notorious tunes aren't heard on Jamaican radio. But on Broward County's clandestine network of pirate stations, anything goes. Songs advocating the wholesale slaughter of gays sneak onto the airwaves all the time.

Gilbert Dunkley became incensed when he'd tune into Sounds of the Caribbean, the late-night reggae program on public radio station WLRN, which is heard from Jupiter to Key Largo. When the Herald entered into a partnership with the radio station, Dunkley e-mailed Program Director Ted Eldredge. "I point[ed] out to him that a lot of the music played on that program is virulently homophobic, mostly because the people who run the station don't understand the lyrics."

Eldredge now professes ignorance of Dunkley's e-mail, as well as any intolerant slant to the lyrics heard on Sounds of the Caribbean. But Dunkley thinks WLRN got the message. "They seem to have gone to a very mellow, old-school sort of reggae music," Dunkley observed the last time he tuned in. Instead, he heard "Bob Marley, lover's rock, and the inoffensive reggae that doesn't encourage anybody to go out and kill anybody else. I would like to think the letter made a difference."

It's true that songs like "Bun Out the Chi-Chi" may not register in American consciousness as hate speech. But evidently, even for many Jamaicans who can understand the patois, it doesn't either. "A lot of people don't listen to the lyrics; they're just into the whole hype," says Bruce Britton, who runs a Miramar record shop called Strictly the Best. "DJs coming in to buy music are buying it for the rhythm, not the lyrics."

Britton contends that, in fact, many of the producers and record executives at the top of the reggae chain are themselves gay -- not to mention the fashion designers who create hip clothes for dancehall's superstars. Britton and his employees even point to a subset of dancehall aficionados called "the dainty crew" who dress in styles considered less macho and more effeminate.

That's not much consolation to Dunkley, who freely acknowledges that he left his homeland because he is gay.

"It was a great struggle, and during those last several years I was down there, I was deeply, deeply depressed," he says now. "The siege seemed to be closing in on all sides."

In Jamaica during the 1970s, Dunkley found himself a gay teenager in the midst of an extremely conservative society, navigating precariously through a hostile world. He resented having to closet himself. "I must have been among the handful of people who didn't pretend quite as much as other people did," he recalls. "I was always intensely irritated that people would feel loathing toward me. I always felt I should be able to live as I am."

Spurred to serve his country, Dunkley joined the Jamaican military in 1987 until he was outed and forced to resign. "The gay thing followed me everywhere I went," he says. So he emigrated to the U.S. and got a journalism degree at Texas Tech. Compared to Jamaica, the Bible Belt locale "was a carnival," Dunkley says. Now he lives in northeast Miami-Dade. But even in South Florida, he quickly learned that old attitudes don't change among the island's émigrés.

Five years ago, Dunkley, writing for Caribbean Today, reported about four Jamaican men who were arrested near Kingston International Airport and dragged in handcuffs to a holding cell at the airport, where police announced to the crowd that they'd "picked up four battymen."

After the article was published, Dunkley got a phone call from a Jamaican man living in Broward County. "He didn't identify himself, of course," Dunkley says, "but he was excoriating me in the worst way, telling me that I was promoting nastiness and a dreadful lifestyle. And he made threats -- threatened to bomb the place -- and then he called our advertisers and threatened them."

Because of situations like these, Dunkley says, "the bulk of the Jamaican population I stay away from with great determination. I left Jamaica for a reason, and I don't want to find myself enmeshed in that nonsense anymore."

Dunkley's solution -- which he says saved his life -- was to change his location. Once every few years, however, he does return to the island to visit family, passing through the same airport where he knows gay men have been terrorized in the past.

"There is always trepidation, always connected to the arrival moment," he says. "I always feel extremely vulnerable and say to the people who are picking me up, 'Please, please get there ahead of me.' It doesn't take long for people to look at the way you move or speak and make a judgment about you. It has never happened to me, but I always have the fear. You always run the chance of being confronted."

Dunkley and Fisher are the only two gay men interviewed for this story who weren't afraid to use their last names or have their photographs appear in the paper. In that sense, they share a common bond with Brian Williamson ("Gay in Jamaica," June 24, 2004), the gay activist from Kingston who was murdered early this summer. Becoming a poster boy for gay suffrage in Jamaica -- or in heavily Jamaican communities like Broward's -- is a radical, even dangerous act. On the island, it can even make you a target. J-FLAG, which Williamson helped found, itself has come under attack. "Get ready and get guns out!" went the verse of a popular Jamaican riddim from three years back. "J-FLAG dem a brag and talk bout/Out a di closet dem go walk about/But man nuh inna dat, dem betta stay inside an' hide/For if dem come out, they might be shot."

It all comes back again to the currency of dancehall reggae, which is difficult to avoid in South Florida. Geography has allowed its influence to infiltrate black and Latin hip-hop in sound if not fury. Florida radio loves hot tracks like "Gimme the Light" by Sean Paul, one of VP Records' biggest stars. VP, a reggae powerhouse with a corporate office in Miramar, released the aforementioned album from TOK as well as compilations featuring vocalists like Capleton, Beenie Man, and Elephant Man. The proliferation of pirate and underground stations -- illegal by virtue of broadcasting their weak signals -- is the main outlet for antigay sentiment on local radio. And the rapid-fire patois explaining that during "bashment" parties at the Sunrise nightclub Hibiscus, "no chi-chi man gwaan be deh" isn't likely to be understood by FCC authorities anyway.

Some gays find ways to accommodate themselves to the larger culture.

"I love Buju Banton, TOK, and Beenie Man," says Michael, naming artists who have all released songs calling for the murder of homosexuals. "I ignore the lyrics. If you want to go to a [Jamaican] club, you're going to have to dance to that music or not at all. It doesn't bother me one bit." With copper skin, gold-brown eyes, and tailored threads, 40-year-old Michael from Miramar looks like a Caribbean yuppie. He's even been dancing at Hibiscus, where no one blinked, because he doesn't look out of place. He attracts no attention to himself whatsoever. "People sense fear," he notes. "If you act flamboyant, they will react."

Just act cool, advises Michael. "I have friends who get off the plane in Jamaica and they're wearing a shawl or they have dyed hair. And of course, they get comments or worse. But you just can't do that."

But when his friend Richard takes a ride in his car, "He tells me, 'Don't play that stuff -- I don't want to hear it,'" Michael attests. Tellingly, neither he nor Richard wanted their last names used for this story. Richard, a burly, 40-year-old mortgage broker from North Lauderdale, considers himself "not all the way in or all the way out" and proclaims he'd "rather be known as a Jamaican, not a gay Jamaican." He wears a gold band on his ring finger, and over the ear-splitting shrieks of spoiled toddlers noshing at Wolfgang Puck's in the sprawling Oasis at Sawgrass Mills, his big, booming voice projects above the muddy mix. He definitely doesn't want to blow his cover, since his friends, family, and business associates aren't certain he's gay -- though he's never been with a woman -- and isn't ready to officially come out to them.

Richard prefers to hang with a small, inner circle of friends -- mostly gay Jamaicans in Broward and Miami -- but typically avoids Jamaican expats and gay bars. His sexuality stays on the down-low. He wouldn't, for instance, consider moving to queercentric Wilton Manors. "Personally, I think it's too gay for me."

Michael feels the same way. After living undercover in Jamaica and making an art of it, he's comfortable living an ambiguously anonymous existence. "I'm not advertising anything," he shrugs. "But I've accepted who I am, and this is the lifestyle I want to lead." So covert is his gayness, Michael claims, that he could return to Jamaica to live. "I'd go back tomorrow," he says without hesitation.

Barely audible above the roar of Puck's lumpen customers, Stewart, a fragile, balding real estate agent of about 50 from Lauderhill, says he's not a fan of President Bush, though he does appreciate his stance against gay marriage. Wait -- what did you just say? Stewart confirms that, yes, he is in fact gay himself.

"And I'm a Christian. I might be confused," he says, with a wry half-smile. "I don't like flamboyance. I don't believe you have to wear it on your sleeve. I had a lover who was young, very effeminate, and it embarrassed me." Stewart sports a few gold chains and a graying goatee. To really throw the curious off the scent, he married his best friend, Carol, in 1986. She's a Fort Lauderdale social worker and lesbian. "I like our arrangement," he says, "because it confuses people. I enjoy the mystery."

Maintaining these covert lives isn't without hazards. Battered by conflicted and uncertain emotions, many gay Jamaicans collapse under the weight of the secret they're hiding. They burn with anger at being labeled sodomites, at being equated with thieves, killers, and drug addicts. They live in dread of abandonment by family, harassment from employers, scorn from friends. There's denial, and plenty of guilt, but it's tempered by occasional rushes from the illicit pleasure of living clandestinely.

It's too stiflingly hot and muggy near Fisher's pool for commiserating. The air conditioning and the Olympics offer a refined contrast to the brutality outside. Retreating into the kitchen feels like returning to civilization's base camp after a slog through the rain forest. But the civility is short-lived: before the afternoon is old, Fisher gets a nasty taste of homophobia from an unlikely source. An old friend, a woman from Jamaica who served as both protector and playmate when he was a child, has been trying to contact him. Forty-eight-year-old Beverly has lived in New York for years now, but she capably illustrates how hard those old habits die. In fact, she makes it clear they don't die at all.

They grow fangs.

After playing phone tag for a few days, Beverly has had a chance to absorb Fisher's outgoing message, which reveals that two men live there. When she puts two and two together, she calls back to allow her incredulous brother to hear the damning outgoing message for himself. Except, unbeknownst to them, they fail to hang up the phone when they're finished, and Fisher's machine records their "private" conversation.

"How could two men live in the same house?" Beverly is heard asking, her voice rising to an alarmed, angry pitch. "Two men should have different phones in these technological times." Fisher is labeled everything from a battyman to a bumboclaat. "I'm sick in my ras brain!" she cries. "All these years, the way he would talk an' carry on," she continued, "I should have known!"

"That was a very vitriolic message," whispers Fisher, brow creased with concern. Always jovial and quick with good-natured insults and comebacks, the laugh's been knocked out of him, and even though the subject matter has been serious all day, he's careful never to misplace his perma-grin. For those not versed in pissy, long-distance patois, Fisher translates the gist of her feelings: "You motherfucking faggot. You have all this money but no kids to leave it to, and that's disgusting."

Fisher suddenly looks like he's taken a punch to the gut, realizing his friendship with someone he's known nearly all of his 42 years is in ashes essentially because of the person he is. Of course, he can't change that.

"I've ripped my clothes for her," Fisher says. "She's dead to me." If Beverly ever does call back, he says, he'll simply play back the message she doesn't know she inadvertently left and let that speak for itself.

On second thought, Fisher concedes, maybe it will take longer for the island to change. "We won't see it my lifetime," he now thinks. "But I haven't given up on Jamaica."

Keith Hollar contributed to this article.

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