Jamaica Yes Problem

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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."

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Jeff Stratton
Contact: Jeff Stratton