When I recently met Jamaican-American author Max-Arthur Mantle at a South Beach café, we talked about his engaging debut novel, “Batty Bwoy.” But we also chatted about the way he was sitting. That is, with his legs crossed.
“In Jamaica, if you cross your legs, if you’re a male, in a quote-unquote effeminate way, I would get my ass kicked,” Mantle told me.
“As soon as they see me their eyes would roll, then they would get red, and then the anger, then the whole hate will come. And then the slurs.”
As a gay man growing up in Jamaica, Mantle heard the slurs. The most hateful – not coincidentally – was “batty bwoy.” That’s what a mob called him one night as he stood alone on a street corner in Kingston waiting for a bus.
“Somebody pulled a knife on me,” he recalled. “And he said, ‘Oh, this is a batty bwoy.’ My life was in danger.”
Someone stepped in to rescue Mantle that night. But many gay and lesbian Jamaicans aren’t so fortunate.
Human rights groups say Jamaica is one of the world’s most violently homophobic countries. Countless LGBT people have been beaten or murdered there – most recently in October, when an armed mob attacked a group of homeless gay men in Kingston. One victim was in a coma for three weeks – and no one has yet been arrested.
Being gay in Jamaica, Mantle said, is “not a situation where you can exist freely. It’s like if somebody says in a crowd, ‘Kill the batty bwoy,’ everybody will advocate that. And it’s something the police will sanction.”
Jamaican police deny that charge. But Jamaica does criminalize homosexuality, using sodomy laws left over from British colonial rule. Conservative Christian church leaders fuel the homophobia – as do pop recordings like “Boom Bye Bye.” That song, by dancehall reggae star Buju Banton, openly declares that gays “have to die.”
And this isn’t just a Jamaican problem. Eleven Caribbean countries outlaw homosexuality – even though right next door in the U.S. the Supreme Court just legalized gay marriage.
But activists are taking their cue from that U.S. success. The old strategy was to change Caribbean attitudes toward gays by getting the sodomy laws repealed. The new realization: To change the laws, you may first have to change hearts and minds.
In Jamaica, for example, the gay rights group J-FLAG recently launched a video project, "We Are Jamaicans," which features LGBTs explaining who they are in an effort to sensitize their countrymen. This past summer J-FLAG took what many considered the risky step of holding Jamaica’s first gay pride festival. It paid off: Even the mayor of Kingston, Angela Brown Burke, attended the event.
Activists in other Caribbean countries are following suit.
“What we’re trying to do is warm up the society,” says Donnya Piggott, a lesbian college student in Barbados who heads that country’s gay rights group, B-GLAD. This year Queen Elizabeth named Piggott a British Commonwealth Young Leader Award winner – and it gave B-GLAD a major p.r. boost.
“It’s only through education,” Piggott says, “that people are going to understand the effects of these laws – and how ridiculous they are.”
Toward that end, activists like Piggott say one of their best assets are gay Caribbean expats like Mantle, who today lives in Miami Beach.
“Their achievements in the U.S. can influence people back here,” says Piggott.
“Being more visible can change things,” said Mantle, who titled his semi-autobiographical, coming-of-age novel “Batty Bwoy” in part to get Jamaicans to confront their homophobia head on.
Perhaps most visible right now is gay Jamaican-American author Marlon James, who spoke at last month’s Miami Book Fair International. This year his novel “A Brief History of Seven Killings” was the first ever by a Jamaican writer to win Britain’s prestigious Man Booker Prize.
BOTTLES AND STONES
But despite such marquee accomplishments, LGBTs in the Caribbean still face violence. Among them is “John,” who had to leave his life in western Jamaica.
“I was with a group of friends, and these guys come around and they begin throwing bottles and stones at us,” John told me. “They gave my sister a message to tell me if I don’t leave [Jamaica] they’re gonna kill me. They’re gonna shoot me because…I’m gay.”
They meant it. John is now seeking U.S. asylum in South Florida. More and more Caribbean LGBTs are winning asylum in the U.S. with the help of organizations like the Immigration Clinic at the University of Miami Law School.
That in turn gives countries like Jamaica a human rights black eye. Activists hope that will eventually embarrass Caribbean leaders – who “haven’t been stepping up to the plate,” says Piggott – into repealing the sodomy laws.
Gay pride can certainly be effective. But so can political shame.