Monday, June 23, 2008
NO DUH! JAMAICA HATES THE GAYS!
'It was a total nightmare'
He is only 30, but already 13 of Gareth Henry's friends have been murdered. Now, far from homophobic mobs in Jamaica, the gay activist says he no longer looks over his shoulder
June 23, 2008 at 8:57 AM EDT
He's told the story many times. It flows now, where maybe the first time he would have wept, the narrative would have been halting and broken, and the terror and shame of it almost more than he could bear.
On June 19, 2004, Gareth Henry - the man I'm talking to in the easy safety of the more or less 100-per-cent gay Church Street Starbucks, the man who will be grand marshal at this weekend's Gay Pride Parade in Toronto - stood with a handful of friends mere metres away from a crowd in Montego Bay, Jamaica and watched that crowd "beat and chop and stone to death" a friend of theirs, a gay man called Victor.
They had first watched Victor being beaten by three Jamaican police officers. They saw a crowd gather. They saw the cops tire and turn Victor over to the mob. They watched the crowd kill him.
"It hurts," he says. "We couldn't do anything. We were helpless."
They knew if they tried to intervene, they would die too, and for one simple reason - they were all gay men, in one of the most homophobic countries on the planet.
The story doesn't end there. Less than a year later, on Valentine's Day, he found himself in a pharmacy, being beaten by four police officers, with a hostile crowd gathering outside.
"I immediately remembered Victor's situation," he says. "... And I said to myself, 'This seems to be it for me.' It's too similar for the same thing not to happen."
The same thing didn't happen. Mr. Henry says he was stronger than Victor, stood up to the police, used his cellphone to call for help, managed, finally, to escape, bruised and beaten but alive.
This past January, he fled to Canada. He is only 30, but 13 of his friends in Jamaica had been murdered. He is awaiting a decision on his application for refugee status.
He is not an effeminate man and he does not dress extravagantly. It may seem Jamaican thugs must have a more highly developed gaydar than most gay men, but it's more likely that it isn't easy to keep secrets in a small island society.
There are scarcely more than 2.5 million people in Jamaica (about 600,000 in Kingston), and you may become suspect simply by being seen talking to or hanging with the wrong person. That's what happened to Mr. Henry. He grew up in St. Mary's, a small town on the island's north coast, his mom still a teen when she gave birth to him, his father a man he doesn't want to talk about.
He was a studious, quiet lad who didn't like sports. He knew he was attracted to men and tried to stifle his desires by becoming a devout church member. It didn't work.
In his teens he befriended an older man who turned out to be gay, who became something of a mentor, and then, Mr. Henry remembers, the rumours started. It was whispered that the older gentleman was a "batty man" (a patois insult for gay). The whispers began to mention Mr. Henry, too. Though his family was far from supportive at the time, they decided, for his own safety, he should move to Kingston. He was 15.
He continued his schooling, got a college degree in social work, slowly discovered the underground that is gay life in Jamaica and saw the birth, in 1998, of J-FLAG, the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays. He began volunteering for the organization; would eventually become its co-chair (after the 2004 murder of its first public figure).
For a period he was a party promoter, searching out landlords who would look the other way and rent to "batty men" if the money was right ("they're few," he says). He took risks "because of how vocal I am and my ability to build relationships. Police raided our parties. There are some that we have to pay off, but there are some over time we could build a relationship with." (Jamaica has laws against sodomy and gross indecency that apply to everyone but are used primarily against gays.)
Mr. Henry says he never went into meetings with the police feeling like a second-class citizen. "I never sought permission from them to bring the community together," he says. "I tell them that we are going to meet at such-and-such a place and we're informing them, and should anything happen, I'm the person responsible, please contact me. We never asked permission."
Over all, Mr. Henry says, life in Jamaica was "miserable, with happy times, until the end of 2006. Then, in 2007, it became miserable with the absence of happy times. The worst I've ever seen homophobia in Jamaica. There were over 10 gay murders. Over 43 mob attacks. I received 8 to 10 threats from the police, turning up at my apartment and threatening me. Four lesbians raped that year alone. It was a total nightmare."
Why are Jamaican men and women so hostile to gays? (Even in Toronto, he says, he avoids areas frequented by his countrymen.) The island's religious figures preach against homosexuality. The law penalizes anal sex with sentences of up to 10 years. Songs frequently celebrate the beating and killing of gay men. The government is silent.
"The violence is there," he says, "because it's state-sanctioned violence and it's church-sanctioned violence."
And now? Mr. Henry lives in Toronto with his Jamaican partner, volunteers as a diversity and equity consultant, and, he says, is "still trying to adjust to a culture that speaks [of] diversity and inclusivity and freedom of expression. I don't have to look over my shoulder when I walk down the street. Canada is what I want to see Jamaica mirror."
He should look over his shoulder this Sunday. He will see some half-million people lining Yonge Street, cheering him as he leads the whole crazy, exuberant confection that is the city's Pride Parade. He won't be in a car. "I'm going to walk," he says. "I don't want to be chauffeur-driven. My partner may be with me. My best friend of 10 years will walk with me."
And what does he want to make happen, as International Grand Marshal? "Challenge Canadian gays and lesbians to support the many others who don't have their freedoms." He laughs out loud when he says this - he is so dizzily, unimaginably far from Jamaica, yet so very close to what feels like home.
SOURCE: GLOBE & MAIL
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