Last edited: July 11, 2004

"Paradise" Can Be an Ordeal for Gays

St. Louis Post Dispatch, June 13, 1999
900 N. Tucker Blvd.,St. Louis,MO,63101
Fax 314-340-3139

By Michelle Faul, The Associated Press

The Caribbean sells itself as a "lovers’ paradise," a place where sweethearts can cuddle under tropical sunsets and cast their cares to a salty wind. Just make sure your lover is of a different sex.

For gay couples on vacation, a place like Jamaica — where officials defend a century-old law against homosexuality — strolls along the beach can be a gauntlet of insults. Holding hands can bring harassment. Sex is a crime.

The threat of tourism boycotts by U.S.-based gay rights groups has yet to influence Jamaican leaders, who term their anti-gay position a moral issue. Justice Minister K.D. Knight recently rejected a proposal to abolish the 19th-century law, saying it was "founded on a moral imperative that has not changed."

Although the law against homosexual sex is not enforced, some consider it a license to harass homosexuals.

"If you stroll along the beach and hold hands with a lover they would call it indecent behavior," said the founder of a new Jamaican gay rights group, J-FLAG, who refused to be identified for fear of harassment.

Jamaica "appears to be a leader in the region’s emerging homophobia," charged Agustin Merlo, executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

That homophobia, critics contend, extends to some resorts.

In February, Frank Derby, a gay man from Atlanta, noticed an Internet sweepstake for a week’s vacation at a couples-only resort in Jamaica. The ad noted that "Sandals Luxury Resorts policies require male-female couples only."

Derby sent a complaint on the Internet, which prompted gay men to start calling a toll-free line for Sandals, owned by Jamaican entrepreneur Gordon Stewart, to make reservations. They were politely refused and directed to other resorts.

Sandals’ Web page has since dropped the "couples only" warning — but not the policy.

Chain spokesman Leo Lambert said Sandals resorts "cater expressly to the niche market of heterosexual couples."

"We believe that our opposite-sex, couples-only policy provides an atmosphere which many clients demand in a vacation experience," Lambert explained.

Gays face similar problems in many Caribbean islands, which despite their image as a sun-and-surf playground remain very conservative.

Britain, trying to adhere to rights standards established by the European Union, has tried unsuccessfully to persuade its Caribbean islands - including the Cayman Islands and Anguilla - to change their laws banning homosexual sex.

Last year, the Caymans refused to let a cruise ship carrying nearly 1,000 gay men to visit on the grounds that they might not behave "appropriately." A cruise ship carrying lesbians that docked in the Bahamas was met by protesters waving signs saying, "No gay ships."

The Caribbean in some ways is no different from several U.S. states that have outdated laws banning homosexual sex. Two years ago, gay Hispanics picked the U.S. Caribbean territory of Puerto Rico as a venue for their first international congress, in part because it, too, has a law making homosexual sex punishable by 10 years in jail and, at the time, police officers were in court facing charges of attacking homosexuals. The charges finally were dropped for lack of evidence.

In Jamaica, "coming out" can be dangerous and gay tourists can be harassed. Even a planned performance by The Village People in March 1998 was condemned as "repugnant" by the Jamaica Council of Churches.

As it turned out, the group, which has long had a following in the gay community, didn’t perform in Jamaica because a singer was recovering from surgery.

Merlo said his organization received numerous complaints last year from gay people who were "made to feel not welcome" in Jamaica.

Several involved gay couples being refused double beds at hotels. "In many cases the excuse given is that it’s against the law in Jamaica for health reasons," Merlo said.

One gay man wrote saying he "was called names in public, in the street" because of his apparently obvious sexual preference.

In December, Merlo’s organization - which says it has 1,350 members in tourism-related businesses - threatened to warn gay tourists not to visit Jamaica.

That could hurt Jamaica’s $1.2 billion tourism industry, the nation’s biggest source of foreign currency. The IGLTA estimated that gays and lesbians account for nearly 10 percent of the $200 billion U.S. citizens spend each year on business and vacation travel.

In Jamaica itself, gays are becoming more vocal - but they remain fearful of intimidation.

J-FLAG - which stands for the Jamaica Forum of Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays - has met ferocious opposition, including telephone death threats and homophobic remarks and hostile cartoons, its founder said.

Members provide their names to journalists, but ask that they not be published for fear of attacks.

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