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Jamaica's gays finding refuge by applying for U.S. asylum

By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 11, 2011; 7:59 PM

From the time he was in grade school in his native Jamaica, Andrae Bent was the target of taunts and attacks.

A classmate once stabbed him near his eye with a pencil for being effeminate. Another time, a man pulled a knife on him and asked if he was "one of them," Bent said, meaning homosexual. Fearing for his life, Bent denied his homosexuality.

"I was called faggot, gay, batty man, chichi man," he said. "This would be from classmates, from people on the streets when I was walking home. Wherever I went in Jamaica, it was a nightmare."

Five months ago, Bent, now 24, won asylum in the United States on the grounds that he had credible fear of persecution as a gay man if he were to go back to Jamaica. He joined what has become a small wave of gay Jamaicans fleeing homophobia in the Caribbean nation.

Despite its image as a laid-back island paradise for American tourists, Jamaica still criminalizes sodomy and has long been regarded by human rights activists as virulently anti-gay.

The federal government doesn't track how many people are granted asylum on the basis of homophobia or what countries they are from. But of the 92 gays and lesbians who won asylum in 2010 with the help of Immigration Equality, an immigrant gay-rights group, 28 were from Jamaica - meaning that nearly a third were from a single country ranked 138th in world population.

Advocacy groups say they also regularly see asylum seekers from other English-speaking Caribbean countries, such as Barbados and St. Lucia.

"The Caribbean is the part of the world where we see the highest number of cases," said Victoria Neilson, legal director at Immigration Equality, which estimates that it handles about half of all successful asylum cases brought on behalf of gay and lesbian foreigners.

Part of the reason, she said, is that those seeking asylum have to be in the United States when they apply, a formidable hurdle for people from more distant countries such as Uganda. Homophobia in Uganda is so virulent that the parliament is considering a bill to execute gays and a prominent gay activist was slain two weeks ago.

But while many Americans are aware of homophobia in Africa, fewer are aware of the issue in the Caribbean, Neilsen said. "There is a great deal of violence, and in many Caribbean countries there are laws on the books that criminalize consensual sodomy, which makes it difficult for people to report violence to the police."

'Hated to death'

Jamaica in particular, she said, "is one of the most violently homophobic countries that exist in the western hemisphere."

That Jamaican government sharply disputes that characterization.

"I don't believe we are more homophobic than anywhere else," said Cheryl Gordon, deputy chief of mission at the Jamaican embassy in Washington. "I believe we are more tolerant than anywhere else."

"We go after crimes committed against people irrespective of their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and political leaning, as long as people report there has been some crime against them," she said.

But Jamaica's most prominent national gay-rights group, the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians All-Sexuals and Gays, has a Kingston office that is unmarked - for fear of attack. Gays find their way to the group by word of mouth, said Dane Lewis, its executive director.

In 2004, Human Rights Watch issued a seminal report, "Hated to Death," about homophobia in Jamaica, where many people blame gay men for the country's AIDS epidemic. The report detailed numerous examples of assault and violence against gays, and widespread discrimination in the medical and criminal justice systems.

After the country's most prominent gay rights activist, Brian Williamson, was stabbed to death in 1994, the report said, a delighted crowd gathered outside the victim's home and people called out, "Batty man [homosexual] he get killed!" "Let's get them one at a time," and "boom bye bye!" a line from a popular song that celebrated the killing of gays.

Bent said those attitudes remain widespread in Jamaica.

"I would describe it as hell growing up there," he said. "I went through a lot of verbal and physical abuse."

At school, the harassment grew so bad that his mother pulled him out for a while. Bent's family was in denial about his sexual orientation, which they saw as a sin, he said.

But he knew that tolerance existed elsewhere. On TV, Bent watched American shows such as "Will and Grace," on which lead characters were gay, and listened to Oprah Winfrey talk about relationships among gay people in the same way she talked about straight people.

A changed existence

Bent ached to live a life where he could be similarly open about his identity.

Then he won a full scholarship to attend the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and left Jamaica at 18. Almost from the moment he stepped off the plane, he said, his life changed.

At UMES, he started wearing makeup and tight jeans, and hardly anyone seemed to care. On Facebook, Bent changed his profile picture - the new image showed him kissing a boyfriend.

"Most of my family members went, 'Oh my God, what is going on with you, are you demonic?' " Bent said. "Some of them de-Facebooked me."

After a cousin warned that his mother in Jamaica would face retribution for his action, Bent deleted his Facebook account. But he later re-created it - without links to homophobic relatives and friends from his former life.

The Eastern Shore wasn't a complete haven from homophobia. Bent said he sometimes heard other students tell his gay friends, "Homo, don't look at me!"or "Fag, don't look at me!" But it felt much less menacing than what he'd experienced in Jamaica.

Visitors to the island often have no idea what what life is like for gay men and lesbians, said Bent, who wants to write a book about his experience growing up gay in Jamaica.

"When you are in the tourist resort area, you are protected," he said. "Jamaica is dependent on tourism - they don't have a problem if you are gay and a tourist."

A year ago, while attending a seminar for prospective law school students, Bent learned there was a way to apply for asylum to the United States.

Since 1994, the U.S. government has allowed gays and lesbians to apply for asylum. Applicants have to prove they have a credible fear of persecution - usually via a combination of personal testimony and independent documentation by advocacy groups and the media about persecution and homophobia.

Bent, who graduated summa cum laude from UMES with a degree in accounting last May, was granted asylum in September. He can petition the government for a green card in a year. He is now living in New York and looking for a job.

Bent's family still lives in Jamaica, but he doesn't return often. The past two times he visited, the fear came flooding back as soon as he stepped off the plane.

"Now that I am comfortable with who I am as a gay person, I don't think I could go back and constrain myself to living I the closet again," he said. "I could never go back there and live as a gay person openly. I am afraid I would be killed."

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