Longform

Jamaica Yes Problem

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"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.

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Jeff Stratton
Contact: Jeff Stratton