A black lesbian writer travels to one of the most homophobic countries
KINGSTON — Like millions of Americans, Jamaica is my number one destination in the Caribbean. But unlike millions of Americans, I don’t just come to Jamaica to vacation and soak up the sun. As a black lesbian, over the past year I have traveled across Jamaica witnessing a modern Underground Railroad while speaking to LGBTQ people about what it is like to live in a country who apparently encourages their murder.
Beyond Jamaica’s carefully designed and guarded tourist corridor lies a very different Jamaica that is rarely talked about in America. A country filled with people who defend and then ignore the murders of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. I believe Americans and our government are choosing to ignore Jamaican state violence against LGBTQ people because, unlike Russia and Iran, the only people hurt are black people, and acknowledging what is happening could mean having to vacation in one of the other less than 12 popular countries that make up the Caribbean.
Guess who’s coming to dinner
People always ask me if, as a black lesbian, I’m afraid to go to Jamaica. Yes, but not for the reasons most would think.
Away from the beach, outside the tourist area, catcalling by men is apparently expected and accepted as a way of life by women in Jamaica.
No one knows I’m a lesbian unless I divulge that information, and I usually don’t. In Jamaica, like in the United States, people notice first that I am black and female, and if I open my mouth and speak – American. It also doesn’t escape me that I’m a bit more protected as a queer cisgender black woman. As long as I keep my sexual orientation to myself, no one is the wiser.
What frightens me most are the stories told to me by women I interviewed in Jamaica about being raped and victims of gender-based violence. Violence that is often accompanied by gaslighting from the perpetrator, the police and even the victim’s own family and community.
So the American in you is probably wondering, if it’s so bad, why is she risking her life going back and forth to Jamaica?
The Murder She Wrote
The 2013 murder of Dwayne Jones, a 16-year-old Jamaican boy killed by a violent mob in Montego Bay after attending a dance party dressed in women’s clothing, changed everything for a friend of mine living in the United States but originally from Jamaica. As a black gay man, the murder of Dwayne Jones inspired Nevin Powell to leave Los Angeles and move to Florida to be closer to Jamaica.
I saw Nevin begin by feeding out of his own pocket young homeless gay men living in the gutters of Kingston, called The Gully Queens. He then rented a house in Jamaica to help hide and shelter gay Jamaicans who had been physically abused and persecuted because of their sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics. The shelter has helped more than a dozen LGBTQ people find safety through emergency relocation and other forms of assistance. Nevin did all of this with the help of a small but dedicated team of people in the United States and Jamaica and mostly out of his own pocket.
I can tell you that Nevin is never more passionate than when he talks about what is happening to LGBTQ people in Jamaica. It made me want to go see for myself. While there, I met the residents of the safe house as well as other gay Jamaicans. Hearing their stories and seeing the physical scars of what they survived really put my struggles in America into perspective.
Rape, torture, rape, hanging, stabbing, rape, stoning, shooting – did I mention rape?
After my first visit, the journalist in me returned to the United States determined to share the work Nevin was doing and to help find more support. I decided to produce a special podcast called “Ring the Alarm” featuring the stories and voices of the men and women I met in Jamaica. With each subsequent trip to Jamaica, I was introduced to more and more people. Eventually, I had men and women in Jamaica contact me to tell me their stories. Many of those I interviewed were able to flee Jamaica to seek asylum elsewhere, but most did not. Those waiting for emergency resettlement or for their country to change its laws and views on LGBTQ people face mockery, threats, firing, eviction from their homes, beatings, stoning, rape and even murders.
So many problems in the world
Do. If Jamaica treated the United States the way we treat Jamaicans who want to visit here, we could never vacation in Jamaica. I have observed this modern underground railway closely over the past year. It’s not easy to relocate gay Jamaicans to black-accepting countries, let alone black LGBTQ people. And while America rolled out the red carpet to welcome people from other countries, Jamaica was not one of them. With its own Wikipedia page dedicated to discussing LGBT rights in Jamaica, one could argue that gay Jamaicans seeking asylum in the United States could easily prove they have both a credible and reasonable fear for their lives.
Let’s be clear. WNBA player Brittney Griner was not detained in Russia for being a black lesbian. She was detained because she is American and is being used as a pawn. Griner, unlike gay Jamaicans, has at least the attention of the US government and media, and there are people actively fighting to bring her home to America. Unfortunately, vacation photos of celebrities in Jamaica are more likely to be shared on social media than murders of LGBTQ people there.
You may be wondering why I am so focused on Jamaica. Sure, there are human rights abuses against gay people in other countries around the world, but not where more than 4 million Americans vacation every year. This only happens in Jamaica. It’s hypocritical of people in the “land of the free and homeland of the brave” to turn a blind eye to what is happening to LGBTQ people in Jamaica and have the audacity to call on other countries to similar atrocities.
As one of the founders of the National Black Justice Coalition, America’s first black LGBTQ civil rights organization, and most recently someone who helped escort Democratic donor Ed Buck to a jail cell for his role in the deaths of two black gay men, I have implemented locally and nationally on behalf of black queer people.
Last October, I pledged to spend a year working with LGBTQ people in Jamaica and using my platform to help bring attention to the United States about what is happening to queer people there. From my podcast to my safe house support, I’m proud to say I’ve delivered on that promise. It was very important to me that as an American I did not come to Jamaica with the sense of entitlement that Americans are known to bring with them wherever they go. I came, I listened and I followed the example of gay Jamaicans.
When I post on social media about my travels to Jamaica, I get a lot of comments decrying my visits. My favorite comments are from people telling me all about LGBTQ rights violations in Jamaica – because obviously I don’t know them. And while I don’t usually respond to comments, the ones where someone tells me they never visit Jamaica are my favorites. I expect this attitude from white LGBTQ men and women. But when it comes to my own people, members of the black LGBTQ community, I push them back and challenge them to come to Jamaica and get out of the tourist area and meet their Jamaican counterparts instead of writing the country as a whole.
Welcome to jamrock
It is very easy to look at the situation and blame Jamaicans for the discrimination faced by LGBTQ people.
Do. Jamaica holds the record for the most churches per square mile than any other place in the world.
Jamaica is a former British colony and, like most of black Africa, has been heavily influenced by established white conservative Christian churches, particularly Pentecostals and Seventh-day Adventists. Where their anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and policies have failed in America, these same churches have succeeded in underdeveloped black countries. The county still punishes the “abominable crime of buggery” and acts of “gross indecency” between males by up to ten years in prison with hard labor.
Similarly, Rastafarianism, a religion as homophobic as fundamentalist Christianity which is followed by large numbers of Jamaicans, including many reggae artists, believes in a strict interpretation of the Old Testament – when it comes to all things queer. .
None of this forgives Jamaica today for its gross human rights abuses and state-sanctioned killings of LGBTQ people. What it does do is put things into perspective and provide context. A context that many white-led gay civil rights groups failed to understand when they generally vilified the treatment of LGBTQ people by black countries. Which, by the way, usually does more harm to queer people living in those countries than it actually helps them.
I see it as the Jamaican version of post-traumatic slave syndrome and the continuation of the mental slavery of Christianity brought to Jamaica by British colonizers and continued by white American evangelical Christians.
Arming religion is not a new concept. So knowing and understanding this, the response for me was not to boycott or vilify Jamaica, but the opposite. I chose to visit Jamaica as much as possible and in doing so, this past year has been one of the most fulfilling years of my life. The friendships I made, the stories I shared, the people who were helped, and the support I was able to give my friend Nevin made it all worth it.
Get up, get up
My travels in Jamaica are by no means all games. It’s never easy for me to listen to stories of rape, abuse, discrimination and physical violence. I have developed my own self-care routine to help me cope with the trigger effects these interviews have on me.
That said, I look forward to continuing my work in Jamaica and supporting Nevin. Through my podcast, I have even heard queer people from several African countries interested in bringing me to amplify their struggles. So for now, it’s work, save, travel, repeat. My passport will have to be ripped from my cold, dead hands to stop this black lesbian from visiting homophobic black countries.
Jasmyne Cannick is an award-winning journalist based in Los Angeles. His podcast Ring the Alarm is available on Apple, Spotify and Amazon Music.
For more information about the Jamaica LGBTQ Podcast and Shelter, please visit iamjasmyne.com/ringthealarm. Follow his travels on Instagram @hellojasmyne and Twitter @jasmyne.