Last Saturday while walking in Liguanea with my boyfriend, I had an encounter with a windscreen-wiper that sent me reeling. We had just left the salon where we added blond highlights to our hair and we were in high spirits. As soon as we walked by the Total gas station on Hope Road a windscreen-wiper asked, “Yow, a how unu a move like fish so?” (Hey, why are you behaving like gay men?) We turned to look him in the eye before continuing on our way. He beckoned to his colleagues at the intersection as we walked toward them, “Look pan dem fish bwai deh!” For a moment I thought the time had come. I would get just what I deserved for daring to be myself as I sought to cross Barbican Road to get to Sovereign Mall.
Another windscreen-wiper wanted to know, “Indian, why yu look like fish so?” (Indian man, why does it seem like you’re gay?) By this time, three of them were shouting at us while onlookers in traffic waited for the traffic light to signal ‘Go’. My boyfriend urged me to ignore the men so I did but unable to control his rising temper, he turned to face them and asked mockingly, “Would you like fifty dollars?” Without missing a beat one of them shouted, “Go suck yu mada! Is a knife mi want fi push ina unu chuot!”(Go suck your mother! What I would really like to do is push a knife in your throats!)
I walked ever more confidently to not betray the sense of dread that fell over me. A few minutes later, we crossed Hope Road to the Post Office Mall. I went to a printery and he went to a photo shop. While I waited for my order, I decided to visit him to see how he was doing.
I looked through the glass exterior and scanned the store but he was not there.
My boyfriend has a penchant for revenge and I wasn’t sure of the extent of his hurt.
Could he have gone to confront the windscreen-wipers at the intersection?
Is he dead?
I dug my phone out of the right front pocket of my jeans shorts and called him as my eyes welled up with tears.
He was safe. Seated in the store, hidden from my view.
I returned to Jamaica in July 2012 to work with J-FLAG. Since then, I’ve received a number of threats online in response to my advocacy. However, last weekend was the first time in a year that someone accosted me as I went about my business. Even while my friends encourage me to hire taxis to go from place to place, I insist on walking when I can because I refuse to live in fear of my own people.
Anti-gay attitudes are not as pervasive as they once were. Most Jamaicans still believe homosexuality is immoral and unnatural but they would never actively try to make a gay person feel unwelcome. However, there remains in our midst a self-righteous minority that believes it is their duty to rid Jamaican streets of the abominable sodomites that dare to defy arbitrary standards for gender presentation. They are brash, crass and bloodthirsty. When questioned about their opinions on homosexuality you find that their views aren’t that different from the religious folk who warn of the ‘gay agenda’: homosexuality is unnatural and immoral and gay people are a public health risk to ‘the [heterosexist] nation.’ The majority may never strike or threaten to strike a gay person but through their silence, they allow for the periodic deployment of violence by the few who think they are God’s servants on earth and protectors of our cultural heritage.
Jamaican heterosexual men have embraced a metrosexual aesthetic. They wear skinny jeans, neon colours, shorts, and some even change the colour of their hair with impunity. Popular wisdom tell us that verbal harassment has decreased because it’s impossible to differentiate gender non-conforming gay men from the average heterosexual man, but this is not true. The sexuality police have developed a sophisticated understanding of what a fish looks like, and last Saturday my boyfriend and I were too fishy for their liking. Even while some lines that once separated the fish from the mammals have been erased, others have been drawn. Jamaican gay men know these ever-evolving demarcations well and comport themselves accordingly.
Time and again, I see good people stand by as violence is inflicted upon defenseless victims. A man beats a woman who we assume to be his partner, but we do not intervene because we don’t want him to visit his wrath upon us. Instead of speaking out we question, “A weh shi kuda du so fi deserve dem lik deh?” A mother physically assaults her child in a public venue but we say nothing because we remind ourselves that Jamaicans don’t take well to critique from strangers. The onlookers in traffic may have sympathized with us but they dared not defend us. If these windscreen-wipers had assaulted me, many Jamaicans would have called in to radio programs and would sound off on social media to express that while they don’t ‘condone the homosexual lifestyle,’ they don’t feel it is appropriate to physically harm gay people. Some may even graciously offer a word of caution that we should be mindful of the cultural context and shouldn’t do anything that might trigger such a violent response from the sexuality police.
There are more voices championing tolerance for gay Jamaicans today than ten years ago, but these voices become mute when needed most: when a raging tyrant decides to act on a firmly rooted disdain for the sodomites that call Jamaica home. We acquiesce to the demands and values of the most uncivilized citizens because the culture still endorses and allows for the affirmation of their point of view.
I want to live in a Jamaica where eyewitnesses do more than bear witness to my shame and vulnerability. I want to help to create a Jamaica where voices of reason and love triumph over voices of ignorance and hate. Until then, these streets that my tax dollars help to pave are not safe.
But my hair remains blond in defiance.
About the Author
Javed Jaghai is an alumnus of St. Mary High in Jamaica, Lester B. Pearson United World College of the Pacific in Canada, and Dartmouth College in the United States. Starting Fall 2013, Javed will be a doctoral student in sociology at Yale University.
Follow Javed on Twitter: @Chatimout