playing for change

Nicely tying up my time in Jamaica with a rainbow, my final day on the island coincides with an announcement by the Jamaican LGBT rights group J-FLAG of a television campaign aimed at encouraging Jamaicans to love and support their LGBT family members. The US Ambassador to Jamaica, Pamela E Bridgewater, addressed a packed audience at the launch of the public service announcement, Unconditional Love, stating that “homophobia must be eliminated immediately, [because] as President Obama says, no one should be hated because of who they love.” Featuring Christine Straw, former Miss Jamaica World and Miss Jamaica Universe, and her gay brother Matthew Straw, the video is a public declaration of love and acceptance – not the typically bigoted rhetoric one has come to expect publicly from the island’s leaders. As a step toward greater visibility, the effects of the PSA can’t be underestimated. For too long people have dwelt in the fear of what they don’t know: when it comes home to roost that’s no longer a valid excuse. Change, it seems, is finally coming to Jamaica – whether people like it or not.

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church of the bad hair

For a small island nation, Jamaica has an inordinate number of churches; most of them squarely and scarily of the right-wing variety. It’s unsettling to think that the country’s endemic homophobia could emanate from such peaceably humble buildings – especially when all the ladies wear such fabulous hats. (Click the image for greater detail of that sartorial fact) Still, I couldn’t help but smile at the irony as I cycled past one church in particular.

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better a half moon than none at all

 

Touching down in Montego Bay, I am reminded vaguely of Cancun, Mexico’s sunny, all-inclusive answer to Tijuana. The hotels in Jamaica aren’t as monstrously immoderate yet the enfilade of one over-developed beachfront property after another radiates the same unsettling heat of population density. It appears as though MoBay, as the touristic area is called, has been developed in hopeful homage to the success story just across the Caribbean. More to the point, that means catering to the specific needs of an all-inclusive American tourist: cheap food, cheaper liquor, and cheap building. And while I certainly can’t begrudge anyone their right to a value-for-money vacation, I often question why anyone would choose a foreign holiday when their destination of choice seems purposefully built to shut out anything and everything that might qualify as foreign. Gated resorts, anodyne surroundings, food and drink in excessive quantity, if not quality – wouldn’t it be more economical to go to Florida? So you can imagine the smile that turned my frown upside down when my car turned into Half Moon, a 400-acre antidote to the rash of Cancunitis. Tucked away in the Rose Hall enclave of Montego Bay, the 56-year-old resort features two miles of empty, white-sand beach set against a lush and lengthy jungle landscape. In addition to spacious villa-style accommodations – and a dolphin lagoon – there’s Fern Tree, the spa at Half Moon, with signature beachfront spa suites and its very own Spa Elder. Plus, despite being booked to capacity it doesn’t feel remotely crowded. In fact, outside of the restaurant I don’t see a blessed soul, let alone a wristband reveler – or machete-wielding homophobe.

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a very visible visitor

The phrase “mixed feelings” doesn’t do justice to my long-held antipathy toward the island of Jamaica. Ever since dancehall artist Buju Banton had a late-80’s hit with the song Boom Bye Bye, which not only incited but also openly celebrated the murder of homosexuals, the country has been at the top of my shortlist of places to avoid. Jamaican criminal code prohibits sex between men (but not women, natch) and neither of the island’s political parties shows any support for gay rights. Moreover, according to both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, the country remains one of the most homophobic places on earth. What has long irked me, however, is the tourism industry’s perspicacity in the selling of Jamaica as a carefree, inclusive society – a marked contrast to the reported high incidence of anti-gay violence and a widespread social conservatism fueled by religious zealotry and the economic fallout from globalization. Yet as I mature – somewhat glacially, I’ll admit – I see in the last half of that sentence the unintentionally ironic parallels to our own social failings and am reminded of reading an interview with UK activist Peter Tachell, who claims that homophobia is a 19th-century concept brought by British colonizers and Christian missionaries and not an authentic expression of Jamaican culture. Perhaps if I stop my finger pointing long enough I’ll find out for myself. Which is why, dear readers, I am currently on a plane to a place I never thought I’d go. And feeling so very – visibly – gay.

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