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The Inns and Outs of Jamaica

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Why should gay men or women visit a country where the laws, culture and often a majority of the people are hostile to us? The question may seem trivial, but it can also betray our own prejudices. Details of a case challenging laws which criminalize homosexuality in Jamaica should strike a chord with anyone who's ever thought of going there. At the centre are three men, one of whom has been forced to flee the island and seek asylum abroad. This inspirational man has worked tirelessly for some of the few organizations willing to brave abuse, threats, even murder to hold a mirror up to what has been called "the most homophobic place on Earth." I don't mean to single out Jamaica in this way, but its volatile mix of religious bigotry peddling Bible-bashed baloney (OK, homosexuality was classed as an abomination in the Old Testament, but hey, so were shellfish and shrimp) as well as gangsta band-waggonry encouraging dance hall revelers to shoot the "battyman" has drawn an understandably barbaric picture of this otherwise beautiful island.

Of course, the same question should be asked about any country that criminalizes homosexuality -- among tourist destinations, Egypt or Tunisia come to mind. North Africa at least hosts a barely concealed sexual counter-culture that is both older than and as prevalent as mainstream homophobia. At first glance there is nothing so casual about Jamaica or other countries of the Global South which adopted their homophobic laws as a legacy of that wretched beacon of hypocrisy, the British Empire. Should we, therefore, boycott places that consider us "criminals" in the first place?

Of course, homophobia is not confined to countries which still criminalize, but the stories behind the case mentioned above are horrific. One man was hounded from apartment to apartment by neighbors' threats and mob violence, his sexuality often broadcast by the police. Once he was required to identify the body of a friend abducted and murdered in a homophobic attack while the police made fun of his obvious distress. His testimony shows that gay people can't even mourn those they love: Bodies are often not found; funerals are attacked by organized gangs; and rather than investigate, the police prefer to abuse and humiliate friends and families. His story ends with a catalog of death and intimidation, his final departure determined by the words of a random stranger on the highway "... we're going to find you, kill you... "

There is a glimmer of rationality beyond all these night maneuvers of ignorance. Positive noises coming from Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller about gay rights during her election campaign last year may represent a turning point in the fortunes of Jamaica's LGBT community. Perhaps she will preempt the Inter-American Commission and decriminalize: It would be a start.

The truth is there's something about Jamaica. It isn't just that so many parents or grandparents left the island for the UK as part of the "Windrush generation" in the 1950s and '60s as well as the U.S. it's impossible not to feel a vicarious kinship at least. Our histories and cultures are blended with drops of a familiar taste. Whatever your thing is, there's some corner of this lovely island that will cater for it; and if embarrassments do occur in Paradise, you can take them on the chin. Checking into accommodations has an element of 'don't ask, don't tell' about it, particularly when it comes to double beds that's reminiscent of the experience here not that long ago. In a smart hotel in Kingston the staff insisted my partner and I would be more comfortable in twin beds, my partner demanded a king: He won, while I tried to look unconcerned either way. By contrast the ravishing Geejam Hotel near Port Antonio has seen everything and accepts everything with a discreet and unmistakably Jamaican smile. On one of those cool bamboo raft trips down the Rio Grande, which was local Hollywood legend Errol Flynn's favorite R & R, our pilot asked us if we were brothers: It seemed sensible to agree on "just friends" and do penance to the god of love afterwards. When we stopped for lunch on a beach, where "the best cook in Jamaica" had prepared a meal of spicy crayfish cooked in coconut milk, if she didn't believe the "just friends" story, it made no difference: She smiled appreciatively while one abomination devoured another. In a restaurant in Kingston, where the steak was jaw-achingly mouth-watering, our gay instincts were revealed when we asked if they had a cookbook. They laughed. All was sweet.

Signs have even emerged that reggae is beginning to peel off its hoary old skin. "The isle is full of noises, sounds and sweet airs that give delight and don't hurt," muses Caliban, the outcast in Shakespeare's The Tempest. Well, today if you're gay, not all Jamaican music hurts either. Last year Mista Majah P popped his head above the parapet to bring out an album of anti-homophobic tracks called Tolerance. He isn't gay -- straight but not narrow -- but another singer, Diana King, has come out on her Facebook page in what is probably one of the most profound and moving posts ever seen on that medium. Out Caribbean artist Nhojj in 2009 topped the MTV charts with his sweetest of sweet voices singing an overtly same-sex love song. Even arch-homophobe Beenie Man's opinions have apparently "evolved" enough to merit an apology.

LGBT exiles want one day to return to Jamaica, not the Jamaica of their terrified youth, but one which is more at peace with itself, one where politicians and public officials won't use them as a convenient whipping boy for the failures of corruption, one where pulpit panderers can't hide behind a gloss of religiosity, one where everyone, gay or straight, can enjoy the protection of the law. They don't have it yet. Violence against local gay men and lesbians continues unchecked, with three incidents in as many weeks recently, including a double murder. And why is this so? Tradition? Christ? A misplaced morality that is in fact immoral?

In a private garden in Kingston a meeting was being addressed by a well-known Jamaican activist. A young man, barely out of his teens, asked the speaker if the wider world knew that they, as gay Jamaicans, even existed. Initiatives such as the legal challenge to Jamaica's anti-gay laws and Simpson Miller's yet-to-be-realized policy shift, as well as courageous statements by high-profile Jamaican stars like Diana King, indicate that the wider world does know and cares enough to speak out about the bloody miseries of criminalization. One day soon we may all come to reconsider our relationship with this tremendous, troubled isle.