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Winter 2007 | Jamaica: The Caribbean's No-Go Zone

Winter 2007 | Jamaica: The Caribbean's No-Go Zone

Should LGBT travelers boycott the homophobic Caribbean isle, or has a de facto gay ban already occurred?

(Pictured: Jamaican singer Elephant Man, known for his lyrics encouraging violence against gays).

The Jamaica Tourism Board's new slogan, "Once you go, you know," translates for many queer tourists as: Gays, beware. Not that homophobia is official JTB policy. According to its publicity team, individual vacationers of all stripes are welcome to the English-speaking isle, but they "are encouraged to respect Jamaican laws and community standards and take common sense measures to enhance their travel experience." Local law, through rarely enforced, threatens a sentence of up to 10 years' hard labor for what's still referred to there in quaint Victorian parlance as "buggery." Though Britain legalized gay sex in its Caribbean territories in 2000, Jamaica, an independent state since 1962, did not follow suit. And little has changed since then, even as the island elected its first female prime minister in 2006, the socially progressive Portia Simpson Miller.

There's no doubt about it: Life is dangerous for gay men and lesbians in Jamaica. Homophobia on this mountainous isle of approximately 2.75 million is rampant and sanctioned -- in church, government, and particularly in the gay-baiting lyrics of the island's popular dancehall music. In 2001 the group TOK topped the island's music charts for 13 weeks with the song "Chi Chi Man"-Jamaican slang for a gay man -- the lyrics of which commended the burning of homosexuals. All too often, antigay harassment, beatings, and even murders -- including the 2004 slaying of activist Brian Williamson, founder of the island's only gay rights group, J-FLAG -- go unpunished. This year alone, two young local lesbians were killed and mobs stalked and threatened men perceived to be gay on at least three occasions, including at a Carnival-season concert in tourist hub Montego Bay.

Why does Jamaica's homophobia stand out in the notoriously gay-unfriendly Caribbean? Some say it's the volatile mixture of island poverty, Christian fundamentalism, Jamaican machismo, and a leftover Victorian sensibility from (now-progressive) Mother England. That's not to say there's absolutely no gay and lesbian scene to speak of in Jamaica: There are private underground parties -- reportedly sometimes very large -- and gay male cruising spots, including a couple of beaches, but visitors not in the know should exercise great caution. Human Rights Watch has documented attacks on queers leaving social events -- with homophobic local police themselves often the perpetrators. In Jamaica, crime victims -- be they men who are gay-bashed or women who are raped -- are often blamed for what happens to them. To wit, J-FLAG refuses to disclose the whereabouts of its headquarters to hide from attacks or arrest. Fearing for their lives, LGBT Jamaicans have begun applying for asylum abroad, with varying degrees of success.

For LGBT tourists, is it advisable, or even possible, to vacation in Jamaica as an out individual, couple, or group?

Many travel agents specializing in queer travel, such as Richard Krieger, managing partner at Pride World Travel in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., advise staying away. "I cannot say anything positive about travel to Jamaica for LGBT clients," he says. "It's such a beautiful place, and it's a shame, [but] it's positively monstrous what goes on down there."

Cruises chartered by gay and lesbian travel companies such as RSVP Vacations [owned by The Out Traveler's parent company, PlanetOut Inc.], Atlantis Events, and Olivia shun Jamaican ports. But few gay groups have mounted any official boycotts. John Tanzella, executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association, also in Fort Lauderdale, says he'd caution against one. "Boycotts don't help gay people living there. I'd rather…go out and try to help Jamaicans become more welcoming to our community."

And whether Jamaica is ripe for a gay travel boycott or not might be an increasingly moot point. Kim Sherburne, manager of the gay and lesbian travel agency Now Voyager, finds in her experience, Jamaica might as well not exist where LGBT travel is concerned. "It's developed such a reputation for being gay -unfriendly that we just don't get requests for it anymore."

But reports of antigay incidents involving tourists are in fact rare. "It's much safer for [non-Jamaican] gay people, and for tourists of any [background], to go to Jamaica," says HRW researcher Rebecca Schleifer. She cautions, however, that's likely because most visitors stay in gated, all-inclusive resort complexes and simply don't mix with the locals.

Not surprisingly, gay-marketed resorts are few. The Hotel Mocking Bird Hill in picturesque Port Antonio is the country's only lodging that makes itself known as gay-owned. But India-born innkeeper Shireen Aga and her Jamaica -- born partner, Barbara Walker, say that, "Even though we have had [LGBT] guests who've had a wonderful time, there aren't that many," adding that the hotel once marketed to LGBT travelers "but stopped doing so because we realized we just couldn't fight the general [negative] perception of [Jamaica]."

Aga says that Jamaicans, while conservative, are warm and welcoming -- but discretion is a must. "If you can respect the fact that you shouldn't be overtly affectionate in public, you're going to enjoy a wonderful holiday," Aga says. "When you're out at the beaches or any of the attractions, [be] just a little bit more discreet…and no one is going to make an issue of it."

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