“Gaycation” recap (1.3): Jamaica

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What I have found particularly compelling about Gaycation is that it has defied my expectations. What I expected to be a mostly fluffy travelogue is actually a hard-hitting look at the experiences and lives of our LGBTQ community across the globe. Instead of being centered on Ellen and Ian (who are capable hosts), they act as our proxies, allowing us to celebrate and understand members of our community who are often marginalized and mistreated.

This week, Gaycation takes us to the beautiful country of Jamaica, which has a long history of anti-gay politics and oppression. At first, Ellen and Ian are excited to meet with a Rastafari elder, to get his take on the faith’s views of homosexuality. Since the Rastafari religion is so welcoming and peaceful, the are particularly disheartened to hear from the man that homosexuality is very much frowned upon.

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Ellen asks the viewer if the elders’ views on homosexuality are actually from faith or the pervading anti-gay culture in the country. The rest of the episode aims to figure that out. Ellen cites a recent survey where 80% of Jamaicans surveyed said that they think homosexuality is immoral. That’s a hell of a lot. What’s even more shocking is that a third of Jamaicans seeking asylum in other countries are doing so because of their queer or trans identities.

Ellen and Ian move on to spend some time with a man named Leighton Mullings, who organizes travels to Jamaica for LGBT tourists. He brings up another fact that adds to the frustrating climate for LGBT persons. Class is important there. If you have money or are of the upper classes, being gay will be easier for you. Leighton also points out that a lot of the homophobia in the country stems from its patriarchal and colonial past. Leighton introduces Ellen and Ian to some LBGT Jamaicans, who tell the duo of some very frightening and ugly experiences they have had as LGBT citizens. When Ellen and Ian bring up the country’s upcoming first ever Pride event, one of the young men tells them that he doesn’t think the country is ready for it, and he fears for participants’ safety.

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Ellen explains that dance halls and dancehall music is a very big part of the young Jamaican experience. Dance halls music in particular has been notoriously homophobic in the past, so Ellen and Ian set out to meet one of the most well-known dancehall artists, Beenie Man. Beenie Man received attention here in the states when protests erupted in response to some of his most violent anti-gay music and prompted the cancelation of some of his appearances stateside. While Beenie Man claims that he takes no issue with the LGBT community, his conversation with Ellen and Ian would reveal otherwise. When Ellen brings up the violence and struggles that the LGBT community face, Beenie Man claims that they are actually exaggerating. “Seriously?” He asks. “No. They only tell you that. No. Stop it.” While Beenie Man does admit that the gay community doesn’t have any rights that protect them, he doesn’t exactly support them either. It’s a difficult conversation to watch, but it’s why Ellen and Ian are there: to see what the LBGT community is dealing with.

Since Jamaica is a deeply religious country, Ellen and Ian decide to meet with a Bishop at one of Jamaica’s many, many churches. Talk quickly turns strange when the Bishop starts talking about sexual practices that he thinks gay people are involved in. Ellen points out that not only gay people engage in things like fisting, but it’s pretty obvious that this man of God is very set in his belief that homosexuality is a choice and a deviant one at that.

From religion to politics, Ellen and Ian next meet with Jamaica’s Minister of Justice Mark Golding. They want to discuss the very old and still on the books, “buggery law” that makes sodomy a crime punishable by hard prison time. While Golding does think that one day the antiquated law will be overturned, he’s not in any rush to touch the controversial issue. He’s also a little nervous, but hopeful that the Pride event will go off without incident.

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It’s also not just about religion or politics; it’s also about health. HIV/AIDS is affecting over 32,000 Jamaicans, and those who identify as LGBT are being left out largely in prevention and treatment. Kandasi Levermore, who runs the Jamaica AIDS Support for Life organization, tells Ellen and Ian that LGBT persons aren’t just dealing with stigma within their families, but the community can also make it nearly impossible to be open and safe. They also speak to a young gay man who is living with HIV, and he spends most of his time avoiding other people in the community for his own safety. Thankfully, he is now receiving medical treatment and doing much better at managing the disease.

Next, Ellen and Ian meet up with some members of Jamaica’s homeless LGBT community. These young people live in tent cities, relying on each other for protection. Still, they are often targeted by violent homophobes, even having recently had their home firebombed. They talk with a young trans woman named Trina Bo$$ Bitch, who tells them about how she ended up homeless. While Trina’s family accepts her, it was the community that forced her to flee. She has been burned with acid, beaten and even shot. Trina wants to seek asylum elsewhere because it’s just becoming too much to take. With no job and nowhere to live, Trina and LGBT youth like her are just so incredibly vulnerable.

While things are bleak, there are people who want to help. Like human right’s activist Yvonne McCalla Sobers, who is trying to provide jobs and job training for the homeless LGBT youth of Jamaica.

 

Ellen and Ian meet up with a young lesbian activist named Angeline Jackson, who has even been honored by President Obama for her work in Jamaica. Angeline, who survived a violent sexual assault after she was tricked into meeting who she thought was another lesbian, now fights for the rights of LGBT people across the country. When Angeline was assaulted, the police did little except tell her to leave her lesbian lifestyle. So Angeline took to social media to tell her story, and that’s when the tide changed for her. She also thinks that change is coming to Jamaica, including anti-discrimination legislation and hopefully one day soon, same-sex marriage.

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Bad news comes out of Trina’s tent city, and Ellen and Ian go off to meet up with her and some of the other LGBT youth. They have been kicked out of their home and are once again alone and vulnerable on the streets. One of the young men was even violently attacked the night before. Feeling exhausted and hopeless, the group of friends feels there are few places that they can go now.

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From a deeply sad and frustrating situation, the show leads us to a glimmer of hope. It’s the kick-off party for the Pride event, and the music is pumping, and there are smiling faces all around. Ellen and Ian take a moment away from the festivities to talk with Simone Harris, the co-chair of Pride Jamaica. Simone came back to Jamaica after living in the States and has dedicated much of her time to promoting pride and acceptance in her home country. When Ian asks her about possible backlash, Simone tells him that you can’t live your life always afraid. Everyone participating knows the risks, but it’s important to them to take that stand.

The next morning, the Pride celebration takes place, and it is joyful and full of hope. They participants dance while draped in rainbow flags, singing a song of love and acceptance. It’s truly beautiful.

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Ellen reiterated what a few have already said, that this is a turning point for the country. Change is happening, even if it’s small. One change leads to another and more and more. Love and bravery must outweigh the fear and oppression. And it will, one day.Hopefully soon.

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