As a homosexual, coming to Jamaica with the little knowledge I had about their attitudes towards the LBGT community, I was nervous about how locals would react to me. I am openly gay in every aspect of my life, from the way that I dress to the way that I carry myself–it is something that I hold close to my identity as a person. I have never been ashamed of who I am or who I love. So my choice to come to an island where there are laws forbidding homosexual activity and people who look down on the community, I wasn’t sure how this would influence my experiences in Jamaica.
One of the first things I started to realize was the looks I got coming here. Traveling as a multicultural group of young ladies, of course we get looked at out of curiosity and intrigue. In the Jamaican culture it is also not thought to be a rude gesture to stare, so that’s another factor that played a part as well. For me however, the looks that I received were much different, they were looks that go further than “where did this group come from”. The looks I got were more often then not accompanied with questions of “what are you”.
Beginning to work with the kids at the primary school, they all gave me this look but were actually able to muster up the courage to finally ask “are you a boy or a girl?” At first, out of shock the only thing I could say was “I am girl” and try to move on with a different conversation to avoid that question transforming more along the lines of my sexuality. It wasn’t until I had answered the question 10 more times that I had to accept that I stood out to them. During a conversation with a little girl who took special interest in me, made it clearer what many of the kids probably thought when they saw me. She boldly asked if I was trying to be a boy with the way I dressed, I told her “No I’m just trying to be Brittani.” I could tell this surprised her. Here I was a strange foreigner who strayed away from what they had developed an idea of what a women should be. She then said “Hmm I’m just trying to be Brittany too”—Brittany was her name too. This memory stuck with me when I would interact with the locals and hear some of the comments they had about me. For awhile I wondered “am I really a breed they’ve never seen?”
In the US, it is not uncommon to see androgynous girls walking around alone or with their girlfriends but being here I realize it is deviant from their cultural norm. And in turn seeing someone like me walking throughout the square or on the streets, I stuck out like a sore thumb. It wasn’t until our group trip to the University of West Indies when I finally received a deeper understanding of where homosexuality fits into Jamaican culture.
One of my favorite lectures was on HIV/AIDS; Sitting through the lecture, it touched on much more than just the topic of HIV/AIDS. The primary topics of discussion was homosexuality and how it relates to HIV/AIDS, but also in a cultural context, one area of Jamaican culture I was struggling to understand. Coming here I knew that it is not accepted, and generally not common either, but that was to the extent of my knowledge. Listening to the lecture, I was enlightened with more information and a deeper understanding of what it means to be gay or bisexual in Jamaica.
One of the big problems in Jamaica is the high-risk sexual activities that occur within the Commercial Sex industry here. She stated that statistics show that about 60% of men have multiple sex partners, which did not come as much of a surprise. But what was surprising was that it is some portion of those men who account for the spreading of HIV/AIDS that are contracted from prostitutes or from the LBGT community. She explained that there are men who engage in sexual activity with other men but also have a wife and kids—similar to what we refer to as down low men in the US. It is these members of the community who are acting as the drivers of the spreading of HIV/AIDS throughout Jamaica. She explained that because the LGBT community and how members involved are perceived to be a big cause of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, it stops equality and tolerance from happening. Hearing these statistics, I was really taken aback that the DL community could be so prominent that they can make up 1/3 of the cases of HIV/AIDS in a culture that acts oblivious to homosexuality.
Like many of the other Caribbean islands, Jamaica was established upon certain ideals that manifested from the church causing homosexuality to be a taboo topic in the culture. But after listening to the lecture, it is evident that it’s presence can not be denied. Homosexuals do exist in Jamaica and are living within communities of people who do not know or support their lifestyles. When I walk through the square or hear the question, “is it a boy or a girl?” I smile and proudly say I am a girl. Regardless of their intention in asking I answer proudly because it shows that they acknowledge me, and whether they know it or not, my sexuality as well. When there are norms for a culture, how does one begin to break away from them? It’s been said a lot since we’ve been here “there are many followers and only few leaders.” It is those individuals who are leaders that are deviant. I guess the bigger question now is how to build more leaders or individuals who are not afraid to stand up for their sexuality. I hope that my time here I am able to impact these young women who may be gay or just want something different for themselves other than the norm and provide them with the encouragement to stray away from the path of conformity and explore their own path.