For these two men, every little thing really DOES seem to be all right. (Photo: Peter Cade/Getty Images)
Never mind the One Love thing or the fact that Noel Coward lived there for years. For many gay travelers, Jamaica is not on the list of places to visit. And so whenever I tell same-sex friends in New York that my husband and I are headed there for another vacation, I get looks of something between fear and disdain.
Call us ignorant and politically incorrect for giving our tourist dollars to a country that makes sex between men illegal and with a murder history that includes the recent death of a transgender teenager with the police not making a single arrest. Call us naïve or insensitive for checking into resort after resort as a same-sex couple in a country in which dancehall reggae and other national music genres have lyrics about killing batty boys, their slang for gay men.
Bob Morris taking in the Jamaican vibes. (Photo: Theo Morrison)
We like it there. It’s an easy nonstop flight to an old British-inflected island full of some of the liveliest and most articulate people on Earth that definitely needs the infusion of money that tourism provides. It doesn’t just have beaches, like Tulum and Anguilla. It has mountains and music. It has a burgeoning organic farming culture, too. And it has Chris Blackwell, the community-minded music producer turned forward-thinking hotelier, who is hopeful that things will turn around.
Jamaica’s Blue Mountains are just as beautiful as its blue oceans and skies. (Photo: Getty Images)
“It’s sometimes a fight getting people over negative perceptions,” Blackwell told me a couple of years ago when I visited him at GoldenEye, his sophisticated and inarguably gay-friendly resort near Ocho Rios. “But these are bright, talented, and funny people who love being Jamaican. We encourage all our guests to go out and get to know them. They are the greatest asset of this country, very special people.”
Related: An Insider’s Guide to Jamaica from the Son of a Reggae Legend: Rohan Marley
In fact, wherever we go on the island, Jamaicans engage us, and none seem at all put off by a same-sex couple. To be clear, we have not spent time in Kingston or other urban areas where there’s still pronounced crime and violence. We haven’t stuck our heads in any music clubs either. But insofar as we are on the same tourist trail as many of our friends, we have felt nothing but welcome by drivers, waiters, and the staffs at such places as Rockhouse, Round Hill, Tryall Resort, and the music-centric Geejam in remote Port Antonio. Meandering walks together poking around Negril and West Negril brought waves and smiles and nothing more.
In the off-the-beaten area around Treasure Beach in the south, my gregarious husband, Ira, and I once had to go to a health clinic in the mountains so he could get a tetanus shot after hurting his foot on a rock. The nurses there treated us like friends, and their broad laughter was infectious.
Boats and branches in Treasure Beach, one of the most remote fishing villages in south Jamaica. (Photo: Getty Images)
Perhaps our just being around and on good behavior will send a message that gays are not to be feared. Perhaps it’s a little more difficult to dislike people once you get to know them. We always come home happy about the Jamaica we experience, which is for us, of course, a privileged and protected one.
Related: Treasure Beach: The Hidden Gem of Jamaica
I’m not sure how much will change in the near future. Last spring the political news wasn’t upbeat. Despite Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller’s election promise several years back to review anti-buggery laws, she sidestepped. At the opening of Parliament last April, she said a review of the law isn’t a priority, because it doesn’t concern the majority of poor Jamaicans. And so human rights groups will continue to describe the island as one of the most homophobic places on Earth even though there are many other countries with similar laws in place and similar amounts of Christian-driven zealotry that presents itself as majority opinion when it isn’t.
Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller at her inauguration in 2006. (Photo: Rudolph Brown/epa/Corbis)
The truth is that most Jamaicans would just as soon live and let live and don’t necessarily support the vociferous minority raising its fist in hate-mongering displays. One person who is seeing a gradual improvement on the island is Dane Lewis, the executive director of JFLAG and an organizer of protests to demand equal rights for gays and lesbians. Although there is no official statistic and he knows there is a long way to go, he sees increased tolerance.
“When we have our political rallies,” Lewis told me, “I see the police now want to support us and make us feel comfortable. It’s really a daily stripping away of fear. I’m less afraid than I was three years ago, and that’s great.”
It’s encouraging to know. Let’s get together and we’ll be all right.
Bob Marley, shown here in 1979 in Montego Bay prior to his appearance at the Reggae Sunsplash festival, is known for the positive messages in his music, like “Let’s get together and feel alright” from the song “One Love.” (Photo: Denis O’Regan/Getty Images)