Jamaica Yes Problem

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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.

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Jeff Stratton
Contact: Jeff Stratton