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

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.

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