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Story Publication logo April 21, 2010

Jamaica: Silhouettes and Anonymous Sources


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Jamaica has the reputation of being one of the most violently anti-gay countries on earth. Male...

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Reporting for television on anti-gay violence in Jamaica is tricky.

It is widely believed that being openly gay in Jamaica is essentially a death sentence. That eventually, if you put your face on camera and admit you are gay, someone, sooner or later, will come along and kill you. Or attack your family. Or kill you and your family.

So we had to accept that anyone gay would not be willing to appear on television talking openly about their life experiences. We also agreed with Worldfocus, before we began filming, that if we did find people willing to tell their stories, we would conceal their identities.

And we met many people, more than we could film, who were willing to be interviewed – and who trusted us to protect them from retribution.

There were only two exceptions.

One was a young gay woman who had been brutally attacked by anti-gay thugs and who was planning to flee Jamaica forever and apply for asylum in the United States. She agreed to openly tell her story as long as she was safely off the island when the film was broadcast. Unfortunately, her request for an American visa was denied, and she remains trapped in Jamaica, fearing for her life. And the footage we shot with her will likely never see the light of day.

The other exception was Reverend Robert Griffin, a gay American minister with the Metropolitan Community Churches, who agreed to appear on camera to tell the story of his efforts to build an underground church for Jamaica's gay community. He is aware that he is risking his life by showing his face to the camera – since he often travels back and forth between Jamaica and the US – but he believes this is a risk worth taking. He sees himself as part of a long tradition of fighting for civil rights that passes through Martin Luther King and connects back to the anti-slavery movement and the underground railroad. And he believes that fighting for tolerance and human dignity for Jamaica's gay community is a cause for which he is willing to risk everything.

Everyone else wanted to appear in silhouette.

I wasn't sure at first if these darkened features, shot against a bright window frame, would convey the emotional intensity that is so essential for effective television story-telling. But after we filmed several young gay men speaking about their lives, it was clear this was material we simply had find a way to use.

I now think that the absence of specific visual details makes you listen more closely to the humanity of these voices, and that their remarks may even be more chilling and more universal than if you were able to see a particular, individual face.

"If you are gay in Jamaica, people want to kill you," one young man told us, explaining how he has to change how he walks and talks so that he doesn't draw attention to himself when he walks outside. "So I try to walk thuggish," he explains.

Another young man tells us that he is now living in hiding. "Where I live it is very dangerous," he says. "Most of the time I can't come out during the day because people want to kill me." Why do they want to kill him? "Because I'm gay," he says.

He also tells how his best friend was murdered and chopped into tiny pieces – and how another friend was locked into his parent's home and then burned alive.

"People who live here, once they find out that you're gay, Battyman, let me use the word Battyman, they want to kill you," says another young man. He goes on to explain that the police are also a serious threat. Just last week, he says, he was searched by several police officers who "razzle dazzled" him up, and then told him: "Bataman fi dead around here," which means, translated from Jamaican, "We kill gay people around here."

How do I know they were speaking the truth?

Partly from my 15 years of experience as a journalist—my inner sense told me while we were filming that these men were speaking openly about their lives. Most were poor and had nothing to gain from making up stories. And then there were the common themes that run through their accounts—that make their stories similar, while still being unique. Most of these men said they were afraid to disclose their sexual identity to their parents, or families, or girl friends, for fear of being rejected or expelled from their homes.

And then there are the odd, but very human inconsistencies.

Listen closely to the young gay man who goes by the pseudonym Damion and who says he believes that homosexuality runs counter to God's will. "I read the Bible for myself and see in the Bible where it says Sodom and Gomorrah is wrong and God destroyed them, so I believe the practice is wrong," he explained. "So what we need to do is try and put that in a restraining order and stop doing it." he says. "It is a big challenge for your lifestyle to be changed from homosexual, to be free from it. I believe you need to go through a lot of prayer and fasting, dedication, commitment, and counseling that would help to bring you through that process. It is very hard to do, but I believe it can be done. I'm trying to climb that ladder but I keep falling back because it's very hard to do. It's very difficult to change your lifestyle."

This is the confession of a man struggling with himself—his conscience battling both his sense of morality and his innate sexuality. Given the social context in which he lives, this seems to me to be a battle that he can never really win. Which I find as profoundly tragic as it is profoundly true.

This reporting project is part of a global conversation about stigma, homophobia, and HIV/AIDS.

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