By Aileen Torres-Bennett
KINGSTON (Reuters) - Prince Jones says he will never go back to Jamaica, not even to visit.
The 25-year-old, who is gay and uses a pseudonym to protect himself and his family, grew up in Kingston and recalls how he was repeatedly harassed over his sexuality before moving to the United States in 2012.
The plight of gays in Jamaica has cast an ugly spotlight on the Caribbean island, famous for its beaches, speedy athletes and laid-back culture.
When Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller visited New York to attend the 68th United Nations General Assembly meeting in September, she was greeted by protesters who chanted: "Shame on you, Portia. Gay rights, human rights."
Such protesting is uncommon in Jamaica, where homophobia is a cultural norm. Yet despite the stigma attached to homosexuality, the push for equal rights for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community is gaining momentum.
The government says it plans to test the waters by conducting a non-binding "conscience vote" in parliament on ending the notorious Jamaican Offenses Against the Person Act, which makes anal sex a crime, regardless of gender or consent, and prohibits "acts of gross indecency" between men, in public or in private.
The Minister of Justice, Mark Golding, told Reuters that a vote in parliament would take place before the end of the legislative year in March, opening the door for the law to be reviewed, possibly later in 2014.
The prime minister, although she was the target of gay rights protesters in New York, reflected this increasing tolerance during her election campaign in 2011, when she advocated repeal of the law.
"No leader at that level had ever made that kind of statement," said Dane Lewis, the executive director of the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals & Gays (J-FLAG). "It would normally have been political suicide, but their party won."
Time and effort are needed to prepare for the vote, according to J-FLAG. If it were held now, the group fears the law would likely stand because there would not be enough time for MPs to get feedback from their constituents on the issue.
Barely a third of MPs could be counted on to support repeal, Lewis said.
Even so, in the last few years the LGBT community has been making public inroads, according to Lewis. "There have been shifts in terms of increasing pockets of tolerance," he said.
Simpson Miller's declaration to put the Offenses Against the Person law on the national agenda is a far cry from former Prime Minister Bruce Golding's stance. In 2008, Golding openly stated that he would never appoint a gay cabinet minister.
Analysts say Simpson Miller's decision to seek a conscience vote could be politically well-timed as pressure from the gay community has been building on the island, which is sensitive to its international image in the tourism industry.
Legally, there are no rights in Jamaica pertaining specifically to the LGBT community. Public tolerance is growing, as evidenced by the willingness of the press in the last few years to cover LGBT issues, but open expression of homosexuality is still frowned upon.
At worst, the intolerance can lead to murder. In July, a cross-dressing male teenager from Montego Bay was stabbed to death after being accosted while dancing at a party dressed as a woman.
As a teenager, Jones shunned the island's macho culture, wearing elegant clothes and speaking with more refined language than the patois of his peers.
He didn't have to say he was gay. People put two and two together, and branded him. "Perception is all it takes," he said.
Throughout high school, being harassed "was my daily prescription," he told Reuters. He came to be known in his community as a "batty man," common slang in Jamaica for homosexuals derived from the male posterior.
In 2011 he was waiting at the bus stop when a group of men approached him, spouting slurs. One wielded a knife and another held a metal rod. "My heart just sank," said Jones, before he hopped on a passing bus to make a getaway.
Jones said he also lost friends because of his homosexuality and has experienced discrimination in his own family.
He moved to the United States in November 2012 and now has a job raising awareness for LGBT asylum-seekers.
He has gay relatives and close friends in Jamaica who have become victims of violence. "My cousin was murdered on suspicion that he was gay. A friend of mine was stabbed to death," he said.
The Offenses Against the Person law is rarely applied by prosecutors, in large part because it requires someone witnessing the sexual act and reporting it. But its continued presence on the books is more than symbolic, analysts say, pointing to police harassment of gays.
The latest report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights points a finger at civilians and the police for committing violence against LGBTs. The report states that LGBTs experience "police harassment, arbitrary detention, mob attacks, stabbings, and harassment ... by hospital and prison staff and targeted shooting of homosexuals."
In the Caribbean, Jamaica is not unique in its homophobia. The former British colonies in the region all have a history of anti-sodomy laws from the colonial era, according to the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative.
Conservative groups, such as the Jamaica Coalition for a Healthy Society and the Lawyers Christian Fellowship, held a conference last December in Kingston where they advocated keeping the Offenses Against the Person law. They also took out a full page ad in one of the main daily newspapers, calling efforts to repeal the law an "international human rights scandal."
The Supreme Court is set to weigh in on the Offenses Against the Person law with a trial scheduled to start in November. Javed Jaghai Aajri, who used to work for J-FLAG, wants the Court to rule on whether the law violates the right to privacy under Jamaica's Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms.
Jagai Aajri declined to be interviewed for this story.
Jamaica's Ministry of Justice established and filled a human rights officer post within the ministry last year and is looking to establish a Social Justice Commission to promote human rights. The ministry is also in talks with the United Nations Development Program for assistance in formulating the case for reform of the law.
These government-led efforts represent progress for the LGBT community, but "legislation is just one piece," said Lewis. "That's not a magic bullet. There has to be community-level work. The bigger issue is increasing the understanding of Jamaicans. People still think it's a choice."
(Editing by David Adams and Ken Wills)