MONTEGO BAY, Jamaica -- Dwayne Jones was relentlessly teased in high school for being effeminate until he dropped out. His father not only kicked him out of the house at the age of 14 but also helped jeering neighbors push the youngster from the rough Jamaican slum where he grew up.
By age 16, the teenager was dead – beaten, stabbed, shot and run over by a car when he showed up at a street party dressed as a woman. His mistake: confiding to a friend that he was attending a "straight" party as a girl for the first time in his life.
"When I saw Dwayne's body, I started shaking and crying," said Khloe, one of three transgender friends who shared a derelict house with the teenager in the hills above the north coast city of Montego Bay. Like many transgender and gay people in Jamaica, Khloe wouldn't give a full name out of fear.
"It was horrible. It was so, so painful to see him like that."
International advocacy groups often portray this Caribbean island as the most hostile country in the Western Hemisphere for gay and transgender people. After two prominent gay rights activists were murdered, a researcher with the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch in 2006 called the environment in Jamaica for such groups "the worst any of us has ever seen."
Local activists have since disputed that label, but still say homophobia is pervasive. Dwayne's horrific July 22 murder has made headlines in newspapers on the island and stirred calls in some quarters for doing more to protect Jamaica's gay community, especially those who live on the streets and resort to sex work.
Advocates say much of the homophobia is fueled by a nearly 150-year-old anti-sodomy law that bans anal sex as well as by dancehall reggae performers who flaunt anti-gay themes. The island's main gay rights group estimated that two homosexual men were killed for their sexual orientation last year, and 36 were the victims of mob violence.
For years, Jamaica's gay community has lived so far underground that their parties and church services were held in secret locations. Many gays have stuck to a "don't ask, don't tell" policy of keeping their sexual orientation hidden to avoid scrutiny or protect loved ones.
"Judging by comments made on social media, most Jamaicans think Dwayne Jones brought his death on himself for wearing a dress and dancing in a society that has made it abundantly clear that homosexuals are neither to be seen nor heard," said Annie Paul, a blogger and publications officer at Jamaica's campus of the University of the West Indies.
Some say the hostility partly stems from the legacy of slavery when black men were sometimes sodomized as punishment or humiliation. Some historians believe that practice carried over into a general dread of homosexuality.
But in recent years, emboldened young people such as Dwayne have helped bring the island's gay and transgender community out of the shadows. A small group of gay runaways now rowdily congregates on the streets of Kingston's financial district.
Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller's government has also vowed to put the anti-sodomy law to a "conscience vote" in Parliament, and she said during her 2011 campaign that only merit would decide who got a Cabinet position in her government. By contrast, former Prime Minister Bruce Golding said in 2008 that he would never allow homosexuals in his Cabinet.
Dane Lewis, executive director of the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals & Gays, said there were increasing "pockets of tolerance" on the island.
"We can say that we are becoming more tolerant. And thankfully that's because of people like Dwayne who have helped push the envelope," said Lewis, one of the few Jamaican gays who will publicly disclose his full name.
Yet rights groups still complain of the slow pace of the investigation into Jones' murder, despite the justice minister calling for a full probe.
Police spokesman Steve Brown said detectives working the case are struggling to overcome a chronic problem: a strong anti-informant culture that makes eyewitnesses to murders and other crimes too afraid or simply unwilling to come forward.
Even though some 300 people were at the dance party in the small riverside community of Irwin, police have yet to make a single arrest in Dwayne's murder. Police say witnesses have said they couldn't see the attackers' faces.
Dwayne was the center of attraction shortly after arriving in a taxi at 2 a.m. with his two 23-year-old housemates, Khloe and Keke. Dwayne's expert dance moves, long legs and high cheekbones quickly made him the one that the guys were trying to get next to.
Like many Jamaican homosexuals, Dwayne was careful about confiding in others about his sexual orientation. But when he saw a girl he had known from church, he told her he was attending the party in drag.
Minutes later, according to Khloe and Keke, the girl's male friends gathered around Dwayne in the dimly-lit street asking: "Are you a woman or a man?" One man waved a lighter's flame near Dwayne's sneakers, asking whether a girl could have such big feet.
Then, his friends said, another man grabbed a lantern from an outdoor bar and walked over to Dwayne, shining the bright light over him from head to toe. "It's a man," he concluded, while the others hissed "batty boy" and other anti-gay epithets.
Khloe says she tried to steer him away from the crowd, whispering in Dwayne's ear: "Walk with me, walk with me." But Dwayne pulled away, loudly insisting to partygoers that he was a girl. When someone behind him snapped his bra strap, the teen panicked and raced down the street.
But he couldn't run fast enough to escape the mob.
The teenager was viciously assaulted and apparently half-conscious for some two hours before another sustained attack finished him off, according to Khloe, who was also beaten and nearly raped. She hid in a nearby church and then the surrounding woods, unable to call for help because she didn't have her cellphone.
Dwayne's father in the Montego Bay slum of North Gully didn't want to talk about his son's life or death. The teen's family wouldn't even claim the body, according to Dwayne's friends.
They remembered him as a spirited boy with a contagious laugh who dreamt of becoming a performer like Lady Gaga. He was also a street-smart hustler who resorted to sleeping in the bushes or on beaches when he became homeless. He won a local dancing competition during his time on the streets and was affectionately nicknamed "Gully Queen."
"He was the youngest of us but he was a diva," Khloe said. "He was always very feisty and joking around."
Inside their squatter house, Khloe and Keke said, they still talk to their dead friend.
"I'll be cooking in the kitchen and I'll say, `Dwayne, you hungry?' or something like that," said Keke while sitting on the old mattress in her bedroom, flinching as neighborhood dogs barked outside. "We just miss him all the time. Sometimes I think I see him."
But down the hall, Dwayne's room is empty except for pink window curtains decorated with roses, his favorite flower.
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Also on HuffPost:
1. Defining Transgenderism
The root of the word "transgender" comes from the Latin word "trans," meaning "across." A trans-Atlantic flight goes across the Atlantic Ocean; a transnational issue affects people all across the country; and so on. "Transgender" literally means "across gender." "Transgender" is defined today as an umbrella term with many different identities existing under it. <em>Image via ccharmon on <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/9439733@N02/4922468556/" target="_hplink">Flickr.com</a></em>
2. A Few Words Of Advice
When trans people reveal their trans identity to someone, it is a highly personal moment. It takes trust and courage to talk about gender identity or gender transition. The best-case scenario is probably to: 1) ask what questions, if any, are appropriate; and 2) give the trans person an out if he or she feels like you are overstepping your bounds (even though your questions may be born of an innocent curiosity). This makes it easier for a trans person to maintain privacy and integrity.
3. The Gender Binary
The gender binary exists for easy categorization and labeling purposes. For most people, it is something that is taken for granted. Females who identify as women use the women's restroom. Males who identify as men dress in suits and ties or tuxedos for formal events. It is the way it is, and that fits well for many people. But for trans people living in a culture where the gender binary rules all, it is a daily battle. <em>Image via kimberlykv on <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/kimberlykv/2681705695/sizes/z/in/photostream/" target="_hplink">Flickr.com</a></em>
4. Gender Expression
Out of the three terms -- "sex," "gender identity," and "gender expression" -- which do you think we notice most about people on a daily basis? If it were a person's sex, then we would have to see under that person's clothes or test his or her chromosomes (and even then we could get a conflicting report). If it were a person's gender identity, we would have to either ask that person how he or she identifies or somehow get inside the brain and find the answer for ourselves. By process of elimination, you guessed it: it's gender expression. <em>Image via MuLaN™ on <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/mulan5/1586972480/sizes/z/in/photostream/" target="_hplink">Flickr.com</a></em>
5. Orientation And Gender
If we look at society as a diverse group of individuals where heterosexuality might be the most common sexual orientation but not necessarily normal, then we can more easily see that human sexual orientation varies: some people happen to be straight, some gay, some bisexual, and so on. This does not necessarily have anything to do with a person's gender identity or expression.
6. Coming Out To Oneself
Realization that one is trans can take anywhere from a few moments to several decades. Usually, trans people have an inkling early on in their lives that their assigned gender feels out of sync with their bodies. The self-realization process is extremely complicated. The human mind does its best to help us survive, which can translate into triggering intense denial. Because of societal constraints, it is common for a person to try to ignore signs pointing toward transgenderism, whether consciously or unconsciously.
Health insurance covers transgender surgeries in very few cases. Some people have fewer surgeries than they would like because of the high prices. Still other trans people elect not to have surgery at all because they simply do not want to. For a long time, and still in many places today, people refer to some transgender surgery as "sex-change" surgery. Later on came the less-harsh sounding "sex-reassignment surgery." Today, more and more people are realizing that surgery for trans people is not a gender "reassignment" but rather an affirmation of the gender that a person has always been. Gender-affirming surgery seems to be the most accurate reflection of this.
8. Hormonal Transition
For trans women, taking hormones is a two-step process. To help feminize a genetic male, it is very important to suppress production of testosterone. The other step that transgender women frequently take is the administration of estrogen, which is the chief hormone at work in biological females. Unlike their male-to-female counterparts, trans men do not have to take any estrogen-suppressing substances as part of their hormone treatments. Testosterone (called simply "T" in the female-to-male community) is a powerful hormone. The raising of testosterone levels in a trans man overpowers existing estrogen levels.
9. Transgender Children
There can't really be transgender children, can there? Kids can't know for sure how they feel when they're really young, right? Wrong. Gender identity is thought to be solidified by age 6. This does not mean that children absolutely, positively know how they identify by that age. It simply means that their gender identity is there. If it doesn't match up with the sex they were assigned at birth, then that will start to manifest itself in different ways. <em>Image via libertygrace0 on <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/35168673@N03/3595145967/sizes/z/in/photostream/" target="_hplink">Flickr.com</a></em>
10. Sex, Gender And Nature
Many plants and animals can be both male and female, biologically speaking, at the same time or at different points in their lives. In a comparison of 34 postmortem human brains, scientists found that the part of the brain comprising a small group of nerve cells thought to pertain to gender and sexuality were similar in trans women and non-trans women. Although the study only had one trans man's brain, it found that group of nerve cells to be similar to that of a non-trans man. Perhaps Dr. Milton Diamond put it best when he said, "Biology loves variation. Biology loves differences. Society hates it."
11. Transgenderism As A Mental Health Issue
Gender identity disorder (GID) appears in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), which is the American Psychiatric Association's official diagnostic book. GID, soon to be changed to gender dysphoria in the DSM 5, is classified as a mental health condition in which a person desires to be the "opposite" sex of that assigned to him or her at birth. Due to its criteria, many trans people fall under this diagnosis. <em><strong>Update</strong>: The latest edition of the mental health manual used by psychiatrists to diagnose disorders reveals a change in thinking on gender identity. The perspective change is similar to a decision made in 1973, when the American Psychiatric Association eliminated homosexuality from its disorders' list. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/04/gender-dysphoria-dsm-5_n_3385287.html" target="_blank">See more here. </a></em>
12. The Bathroom Debacle
Imagine resigning yourself to not ever using the bathroom in a public place. For trans people, this is often a reality. Those who are in transition or do not pass on the outside as "clearly male" or "clearly female" are thrown out of both men's and women's restrooms on a daily basis. Some places provide "unisex" or "family" restrooms, but the majority do not. If a transperson wants to go out and enjoy a concert, sporting event, or simply a day outside the home, he or she must make concessions that most people never have to think about.
13. Lesser-Known Types Of Transgenderism: Genderqueerism
People often find the notion of genderqueerism difficult to understand. They may hear that a genderqueer person is in between male and female, or is neither, but they may continue to ask, "OK, so what sex or gender does that make them, really?" This is where it is perhaps most difficult to live as a genderqueer person. The constant explanations that sometimes get nowhere can be frustrating and disheartening for genderqueer people.
14. Transgender By The Numbers
Unfortunately there is no major consensus on the number of transgender people in the United States or the world today. Hard-and-fast statistics are lacking for a couple of reasons. One is that many trans people are not out and are either living as trans behind closed doors or living stealthily, meaning that people do not know that they were born differently than they appear now. Another reason for the lack of statistics is that so many different varieties of transgenderism fall under the umbrella term that it is hard to discern which subcategories should actually be statistically counted as transgender and which should not.
15. Parting Words
In America we have seen that teenage suicide because of bullying has reached epidemic proportions. Many of these kids are LGBT, and most of them are taunted due to some component of their gender expression. I hope that you will talk to others about what you have learned about transgenderism. No one should have to suffer because of who he or she is, but we know that reality tells us differently. People have been bullied and persecuted for who they are since the dawn of time. But we are not defenseless. The more education that is out there about what is means to be different, the better.