Jamaica Yes Problem

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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."

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Jeff Stratton
Contact: Jeff Stratton