Jamaica has a reputation for being one o the most homophobic countries in the world, so before embarking on our mini-vacation we did some research (as we always do) to find out exactly what we might be up against and to decide whether or not to be out as a lesbian couple while exploring this beautiful Caribbean Island.
I came across reports of incredible violence towards lesbians, involving brutal beatings and gang rapes. The most disturbing stated that a group of men cut a woman’s vagina before they raped her, claiming that she must have been a lesbian because her vagina wasn’t large enough to receive a man’s penis. Other reports state that citizen rights are often taken away from lesbians, denying them healthcare, among other things, and lesbians are discouraged from reporting attacks against them for fear of being outed in society. The pages accounting discrimination and violence against lesbians went on and on and it became clear that being out in Jamaica would be detrimental to our safety and so the decision practically made itself.
Jamaica’s First Pride
My continued research eventually led me to this piece of wonderful news: In early August 2015, only two weeks before our visit, Jamaica held their first Pride celebration that included five days of events, including an open mic night, art exhibition and a coming out symposium, between August 1 (Emancipation Day) and August 6 (Independence Day). I was so happy to read such positive accounts of the celebration and this statement in particular by Latoya Nugent, one of the Pride organizers, brought tears of joy to my eyes:
PRiDE JA 2015 commenced with a flash mob on the morning of Emancipation Day at the historic statue by Emancipation Park. It was perhaps the most exciting and inspiring activity for me because it required so much bravery and boldness of the participants. It was open. It was public. It was being filmed. And for the 15 or more minutes that we danced, ran, posed for photos and shouted “Happy PRiDE!” all the last minute fear and nervousness vanished. Like all our other PRiDE events it was also incident free, and the feedback from onlookers was purely positive. On our journey back to the Rainbow House following the flash mob, rainbow flags were flown through every window of all the vehicles that transported participants, organisers, supporters, and filmmakers. It was unbelievable and magical! I couldn’t believe that this was Jamaica.
Despite the Pride festivities going so smoothly and that this might be a sign of change for Jamaica, after considering the possibility of such extreme brutality towards us, we still decided not to be out while visiting the country, knowing that we could change our minds once we were there if it did seem safe after all.
Moving Back Into the Closet
The day of our travel to Jamaica we took off our wedding and engagement rings and lay them on the dresser before heading to the airport. We often remove our rings before travel for fear of them getting stolen so we were fully prepared for our fingers to feel naked for a few days. But what we hadn’t realized, is just how difficult it would be go move back into the closet. We had become so complacent and relaxed about calling each other “Babes” and referring to each other as “my wife”. I wouldn’t think twice about putting my arm around Mindy in public or giving her a kiss.
Visiting Jamaica as a lesbian couple meant all that had to change, but our undesired return to the closet was harder than we thought. We kept forgetting not to call each other by our endearing pet names for each other in public and always breathed a sigh of relief when no one “caught us”. Once I called her “Babes” and immediately got nervous, but then remembered we were in private so it was ok. We became constantly on guard.
We also had the foresight to never ask people we met about their familes for fear this question might come back to us. I felt particularly limited by this because normally I enjoy speaking with the locals and getting to know them. Once, I saw a man wearing a Blue Jays baseball cap and so I went to talk with him and it turns out that he was Canadian and lived in Guelph, a town outside of Toronto. My instinct was to tell him that my wife was from Toronto and that we had lived there for 5 years, but my new guarded self sensored me and I came out with, “the other person I am traveling with is from Toronto and she’ll be happy to hear that I met another Blue Jay fan”. This, I realized, made me feel like our relationship was downgraded to “just friends”.
On our second day in Jamaica Mindy wasn’t feeling well while we were out exploring the town. I managed to find a quiet place for her to sit inside and away from the heat but I felt so limited with how I could comfort her. I wanted to rub her back and put my arm around her and kiss her forehead and be loving. So, instead, I began telling her the caring ways I would treat her had we not been in Jamaica. I told her, “I’m rubbing your back”, “now I’m kissing your forehead” and “my arm is around you”. Mindy imagined each loving statement.
We also found that while exploring Jamaica’s beautiful beaches we couldn’t frolick and play around in the water the way we would at home. Even on the private beach we had access to, each time we moved towards each other, we found ourselves being starred at by the local men working construction nearby. It just wasn’t worth the risk. So we appreciated the beautiful water separately as we watched straight couples enjoying the freedom to which we had grown so accustomed.
All this change in behavior, however, could not have prepared us for what we were about to experience on our last evening in Jamaica.
Being Confronted with Homophobia
After eating yet another delicious ital meal at one of our favorite restaurants in Ocho Rios, we decided to check out some sort of open air event happening in town, right next to the market where we had bought fruit only the day before. We heard a mixture of lively music and an impassioned woman’s voice over a loudspeaker as we neared the crowd.
We stood in back of the exicted group and watched. Coming upon local events like this is one of the aspects I love the most about traveling! I leaned in and asked the woman in front of me what this event was and she explained that it was a church service and pointed to the church just to the left of the group. So when the music came on, I danced (terribly I’m sure) with the locals and clapped when others did – I wanted to enjoy myself and experience the moment.
The woman up in front was speaking a mixture of Jamaican English and Patwa (a local language) so it wasn’t always easy to ascertain what she was saying. But every once in awhile I could make out phrases about Jesus and can she get an “Amen” etc. Once I picked up a statement about Obama visiting Jamaica and she seemed disappointed by this visit but I couldn’t pick up why. I knew I would have to look this up later.*
Then I heard, “Some people think these two women should be married” and at that same moment the crowd was such that I could actually see the front and so saw the minister push two women together. “I think this is a lesbian wedding”, I said into Mindy’s ear and I got so excited thinking we had just happened to stumble upon something so extraordinary. Perhaps our fears about being out were unfounded?
After another short song, I heard the statement, “At the bank the other day, I saw a man that was behaving like a woman” and all I could make out after that were the words, “sin”, “unnatural” and “not how god made us”. Cheering ensued and people held their hands up high. It was beginning to be clear what the message was.
As travelers we are used to being stared at, especially in places like China and Thailand, but we, mostly Mindy, began to receive looks that did not seem to match the innocent but curious looks we’ve received elsewhere. The next thing I heard that I could make out was “batty man die” (“batty man” is Jamaican for “homosexual”). Although this comment was directed towards gay men, it was clear from the context of the entire sermon that lesbians were lumped into this statement and I felt hurt and was suddenly reminded of the statistic I had read that 84% of Jamaicans polled believe that lesbians are immoral (87% for gay men).
I turned to Mindy and saw a mixture of hurt and fear on her face as the frenzied crowd continued to cheer. It was time to go. As we quickly walked back to the car, I quietly told Mindy, “I’m putting my arm around you”.
Respect To Our Jamaican Lesbian Sisters
During the somber car ride back to our accommodation we talked about leaving the next day and how badly we felt for the many Jamaican lesbians who face discrimination, brutality and intolerance as a matter of course. Our respect for women like Angeline Jackson, Latoya Nugent and other organizers of the Pride events as well as all the participants grew with the realization that we had seen first hand a small example of the very in-your-face homophobia they were up against.
As soon as we passed security in the Montego Bay airport, I put my arm around Mindy and kissed her, no longer caring who saw us or what anyone thought. I had missed having a wife. I had missed her.
This was the first time that Mindy and I were arriving to the United States as a married couple since the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage was constitutional and it somehow seemed appropriate that we should be arriving from Jamaica as it highlighted the “where we’ve been” and “how far we’ve come”. We filled out only one customs form and walked up to the immigration booth together. The conversation was as follows:
Officer: How are you two related?
Both of us answered together: We’re married.
Officer: How long?
Mindy: Nine years in September.
Officer: Oh, so you got married even before it was legal?
Me: Yes. She’s Canadian so we got married in Canada.
Officer: Oh, it’s legal there?
Me: Yes, since 2005.
Officer: Well, it’s about time we caught up.
Mindy: And now, we can live in Ligeia’s country.
Officer: It’s your country now too.
He handed us back our passports, having asked us no questions about our travel. We felt safe, welcomed and supported for who we are, even by a government official, and I realized just how important the recent US Supreme Court’s decision was. I truly did not think this would happen in my lifetime and yet, there it was, proving to me that change is possible and can happen even more quickly than I thought. Thanks to the hard work of strong Jamaican lesbian leaders, I have faith that one day we will be able to visit Jamaica as a married couple.
*Obama visited Jamaica in April 2015 and in a speech he commended Angeline Jackson and the work she’s been doing to highlight the plight of the LGBT communities in Jamaica.