Jamaica: A grim place to be gay
Homophobia was the probable motive for the murder of a British diplomat. Cahal Milmo reports on an island where hate crime is rife
When neighbours of John Terry, the British honorary consul in Jamaica’s Montego Bay, were approached by a young man outside his home on Tuesday evening asking for a taxi, they assumed he was just the latest recipient of assistance from the voluntary diplomat who in his three decades on the island had become a pillar of his community.
As well as coming to the aid of hundreds of holidaying Britons, the genteel 65-year-old had served as a magistrate in St James, his well-heeled rural neighbourhood on the outskirts of the country’s tourism capital, and worked for a succession of charities, including a support group for the mentally ill.
But a team of detectives were yesterday investigating whether Mr Terry’s visitor that night, far from being a beneficiary of the honorary consul’s help, was in fact his murderer and a killer driven by the homophobia that plagues the country which the father-of-two had grown to love so much that he made his life there.
From the “murder music” lyrics of reggae stars exhorting the murder of gay men to a member of Jamaica’s governing political party who has described homosexuals as “abusive and violent” and called for gay sex to be made punishable by life imprisonment – the Caribbean island has long been beset by what campaigners describe as “institutional homophobia”.
And the manner of Mr Terry’s death provides harrowing evidence that such prejudice continues to thrive. At lunchtime on Wednesday, the gardener who tended the shrubs outside the New Zealand-born Mr Terry’s modest bungalow found his partially clothed body lying on his bloodstained bedroom floor. He had been badly beaten about the head and body, possibly with the base of his bedside lamp, and then strangled with a cord ligature and a piece of clothing left around his neck.
On the bed was a hand-written note which described Mr Terry as a “batty man”, derogatory slang for a homosexual. Signed “Gay-Man”, it added: “This is what will happen to ALL gays.”
Police sources said the note provided other details which could lead to the identification of Mr Terry’s killer, adding that the theft of personal items such as his wallet and mobile phone looked like an inept attempt to persuade investigators that robbery was the motive for the attack. More likely, says Deputy Superintendent Michael Garrick, is that “the person who murdered Mr Terry was close to him”.
The killing was brutal even by the standards of an island where gang warfare over drugs has earned it the title of one of the world’s most murderous nations. If it is proven to have been motivated by hatred of homosexuals, it will be one of the most high-profile and horrific examples yet of what campaigners say is a growing trend for extreme violence against gay people in Jamaica.
Official statistics are hard to come by, but evidence gathered by Amnesty International shows that at least 35 gay men have been murdered in the Caribbean country since 1997. They include Brian Williamson, the co-founder of the country’s main gay rights groups, the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG), who was hacked to death with a machete in 2004. A crowd was seen celebrating around Mr Williamson’s mutilated body.
In the last 18 months, at least 33 incidents of mob violence against homosexuals have been recorded, including an attack in Montego Bay where three supposedly gay men attending a carnival were chased in the street, and one of them was beaten about the head with a manhole cover. Elsewhere, mobs have gathered outside a gay man’s funeral and chased another man to his death off a pier.
Homosexual activity remains a criminal offence in Jamaica, punishable by up to 10 years’ imprisonment. Since 2007 Britain, the former colonial power which introduced the island’s sodomy laws, has granted asylum to at least five Jamaicans on the grounds that their lives had been threatened because of their sexual orientation.
Michael, a gay man in the Jamaican capital, Kingston, said the prevalence and virulence of anti-gay sentiment in the country had made his coming out as a homosexual an impossibility.
The 24-year-old, who is a member of J-FLAG but has kept his sexuality hidden from even his closest friends and family, told The Independent: “I know people who are called ‘batty boy’ or other taunts every time they leave home. They live in fear of being attacked. They don’t know if today is the day they are going to be set upon and hacked up.
“I could not take that step. My cousins are leading members of a local church where the pastor regularly condemns gays as the devil, as subversives. If anything, we are going backwards as a nation on this issue. You cannot even feel safe reporting things to the police. I have heard too many stories of police standing aside while a gay man gets a beating, or worse. I’ve heard of gang members shooting a gay man in the street as some sort of rite of passage.”
The literal mood music to such violence, according to campaigners, is the mushrooming of lyrics of reggae singers which glorify and lend legitimacy to homophobic sentiments. Among the performers most frequently pointed to as leading the trend is Buju Banton, a singer from one of Kingston’s toughest slums, whose 1992 hit, “Boom Bye Bye”, boasts of shooting gays with sub-machine guns and burning them with acid.
Another popular performer, Elephant Man, uses one song to say: “When you hear a lesbian getting raped/It’s not our fault … Two women in bed/That’s two sodomites who should be dead.”
The Stop Murder Music campaign in Britain and North America has brought the issue to international prominence, attempting to apply pressure on Banton and artists including Beenie Man, Sizzla and Bounty Killer, by calling for boycotts of concerts and the withdrawal of sponsorship.
A number of singers, including Beenie Man and Sizzla, have agreed to sign an undertaking not to repeat songs containing lyrics that advocate homophobia, but the effectiveness of the agreement has been brought into question after performers, including Banton, agreed to its sentiments only to then deny ever having made any such a commitment.
The Black Music Council, a UK-based group set up to defend the singers, has accused campaigners of censorship and racism by targeting musicians who are reflecting hardline views on homosexuality held across all ranks Jamaican society, from Christian churches and Rastafarian preachers to the country’s parliament.
Certainly, homophobia is openly expressed in the highest echelons. Ernest Smith, an MP for the ruling Jamaica Labour Party, earlier this year used a parliamentary debate to claim that “homosexual activities seem to have taken over this country” and gay men are “abusive, violent”. He added that “acts of gross indecency” between consenting gay men should be punishable by sentences of up to life imprisonment and J-FLAG, which does not disclose the location of its offices for fear of attack, should be “outlawed”.
Rebecca Schleifer, of Human Rights Watch, said: “Discrimination against people based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation is widespread and entrenched. It is expressed from the pulpit to the schoolroom to the parliament. It is very important that the voices of Jamaicans who suffer this discrimination and are trying to overcome it should be heard. This is not a case of powerful white countries seeking to impose their will and values on Jamaica.”
Those who knew Mr Terry, whose wife had separated from him and was living in Kingston with the couple’s grown-up son and daughter, confirmed that the hotel industry worker often socialised with other men, but said he had never come out as gay.
Instead, his friends focused on the unstinting decency of a lifelong volunteer in dealing with the problems of others, from Britons with lost passports to impoverished Jamaicans, whom he attempted to assist. Joy Crooks, administrator for the Committee for the Upliftment of the Mentally Ill, said: “It is very sad for us to know that John has passed in such a horrifying way. It is frightening. He was a kind and caring individual and did anything he could to help the less fortunate.”