Simone in her dorm room at a refugee camp in Holland. She shares a room with three other women. Image by Micah Fink. Netherlands, 2009.

Editor’s note: This post was written in July 2009, but was not published in order to protect the safety of Simone’s daughter who remained in Jamaica. Simone and her daughter have now been reunited.

We just finished our third and final day of shooting with Simone at Camp Crailo in the Netherlands.

It’s been a good visit. We were able to film around the camp with Simone going about her new daily life – shopping, cooking, and worrying about Khayla, the young daughter she left behind in Jamaica.

Simone also introduced us to her new girlfriend, Charleen.

Charleen is a character. She has multiple tatooes, facial piercings and a large jewel pierced through the middle of her tongue.

She also seems to really care for Simone.

In one scene we filmed, Simone told Charleen for the first time about the violence she had suffered in Jamaica. It soon became clear it wasn’t just the physical violence she had experienced that was shaping her world view.

The conversation began the night before, when they had gone out to Amsterdam’s famously gay-friendly red-light district.

Simone’s body language had made it clear just how uncomfortable she felt being openly gay in public. Even walking with her girlfriend seemed like a challenge.

Charleen kept trying to hold her hand – and Simone kept drawing back. Simone explained that she was afraid someone would see them and attack them.

“You just have to get over it,” Charleen told Simone. “You are here now in Holland. You are safe.”

Simone just looked at her.

Charleen, who has been through some pretty tough times herself, just didn’t understand.

It occurred to me that you don’t get over a lifetime of cultural training in a few months – no matter how safe it seems.

In Jamaica, I had met dozens of gay men and women who explained how being out and openly gay – or even looking gay – in Jamaica can quickly lead to a beating, or rape, or even murder.

I was told stories about people chopped up into pieces by angry mobs made up of their neighbors and schoolmates. Stories of people set on fire by family members. Stories of people attacked on the street for “looking” gay or “walking” gay.

Simone just looked at Charleen.

How do you explain the psychological effects of a lifetime of fear?

How do you tell someone how it feels to be rejected by your own brother? Or your father or mother? To fear members of your own family?

How can anyone explain what it's like to live in a country that has declared open season on gays and lesbians?

How do you explain to a gay person raised in Holland, where gay marriage is legal, what it's like to live undercover as a lesbian in Jamaica?

Time magazine has said that Jamaica may be the most homophobic society on earth – and it is almost impossible for outsiders to comprehend the vortex of violence and hatred that has defined Simone’s life since the day she declared to herself that she “liked women.”

Jamaica is a country where even young children quote the verse from the Bible that says that gay people should be killed. Where preachers say homosexuality is evil and goes against the will of God. Where most people believe that homosexuals are made by other homosexuals and that homosexuality is a moral virus spread by physical contact.

The scars on Simone’s body from the gunshots she survived tell part of the story. As does her slight limp and the loss of one kidneys.

But the rest of the damage is purely psychological – and those are the kind of wounds that may never fully heal.

“I’ll change,” Simone finally told Charleen. But it was clear it wouldn’t be easy.

Project

Jamaica has the reputation of being one of the most violently anti-gay countries on earth. Male homosexual acts are criminalized – and can be punished with up to 10 years of hard time in prison. While this law is not actively enforced, it is widely seen as a bulwark against immorality.

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