MONTEGO BAY, Jamaica (AP) — 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.