Sometimes it is the stories you hear of people who you know the least about, who you are furthest connected to, that touch you the most deeply; suffering or tragedy of another that makes you pause momentarily- and alters your sense of perspective thereon. This handful of little stories shared by LGBT+ Jamaicans exposes their struggle to live, love and be treated equally in a homophobic homeland, and sheds light on the key to survival that strings them together.
In a vast number of regions around the world, violent discrimination and intolerance is a pervading toxicity. Being gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, or any other non-straight identity (LGBT+) in Jamaica incurs a costly existence.
Anti-gay laws were introduced to Jamaica under British colonialism in 1864 and have to this day fostered and perpetuated an environment which significantly marginalises those who engage in same-sex relations. In 2006, the island was recognised as possibly 'the most homophobic place on earth'.
To help address the issue, the photography project Where Love is Illegal was launched by Witness Change. By working with groups and individuals around the globe, the campaign creates safe spaces for LGBT+ stories of discrimination and survival to be documented and disseminated. In Jamaica, Where Love is Illegal has partnered with J-FLAG's #IAmAnAlly initiative, which offers an online platform for those wanting to support LGBT+ Jamaicans by writing letters of solidarity.
Some have chosen to use #IAmAnAlly as an opportunity to come out to their loved ones and twenty-four-year-old Zion Cole is one of them. In March this year he wrote a heartfelt letter to his mother, urging her to try to understand that she has a son, not a daughter: "A son that wants nothing more than your love", he writes.
After Zion came out as a transgender man, he gained an ally in his sister and has since been determined to assist others with finding their voice.
He has been collecting stories for the campaign in hope that it, "reaches those without support and provides them with a platform full of people who are ready to welcome them with open arms."
"I just need people to understand that us LGBT people are loving, caring and wonderful. So, this is my little story."
The first time Bobby tried to kill himself was following a traumatic incident with his uncle, after which his family refused to believe him. Filled with shame, he headed to Kingston's Downtown Waterfront and tried to jump.
"I was raped and given an STI and it was that moment in my life I felt I was going to kill myself because no one was there for me to comfort me and to say it was going to be okay", Bobby recalls.
He was forced to leave home and had little choice other than to sleep with men in order to stay in a bed at night and earn money for food. When there was no one to sleep with, Bobby stayed out on the road until daylight.
"People bash me and call me names such as battyman, fish, queer, homo, faggot and the list goes on. It's hard to get a job when persons know your sexuality" he explains.
For Bobby, the project is "a beginning" as it is the first communal space he feels comfortable in and so far, it has helped him to establish himself as "a proud gay man living in Jamaica".
Elton describes his school days as "the rawest deal". He was physically attacked and frequently had to play catch-up by teaching himself all the work he had missed from not attending class out of extreme fear and discomfort. Growing up he says, was "like a lifetime of slavery and torture".
Striving to turn his experience of bullying into something positive, Elton began working with civil societies and currently finds himself at J-FLAG, eager to "see a better Jamaica where everyone can feel safe to be themselves."
He pursues this mission with an earnest understanding of the very people who persecute him. Elton reflects:
"I am happy with the man I have become; LGBT and brave and paramount to my development of self. I would want to encourage others to never give up, be your best self and remain true to who you are. That bully might just be somebody lacking love and attention."
Trans woman Noelle was "crippled with fear" of disappointing her family. While they accepted her sexuality as a gay man, she struggled to reveal her gender.
Before her grandmother passed away however, Noelle recalls that in her final few days she left her with advice that empowered her identity:
"Be 'be-you-tiful'; be you - because the real you is beautiful and you're not here for the approval for anyone. So, give yourself a break and be Be-You-Tiful."
Noelle has since stated, "I am Jamaican, trans is beautiful, and I am beautiful."
Looking beyond a homophobic homeland
I question what motivates Zion to remain where he is so often rejected, to which he replies:
"Some days I am tired, but for the most part I want to stay to help change things. If we keep working how we are working now, then I don't think it's impossible."
Zion believes the project has been therapeutic for those involved, and "having a platform full of people ready to accept and support you has been amazing."
Navigating around Jamaica as LGBT+ is an obstacle course met with a manifold of challenges. For LGBT+s everywhere, being able to share their personal testimonies engenders a platform upon which they can find refuge and display their humanity.
The stories of Bobby, Elton and Noelle in Jamaica have been heard because others have told them they are lovable and their voices are valuable. It is time we all step up to the role of being allies, so that every unheard voice has a listener. Take a stand - raise your hand and show some support for a stranger whose life depends on it.
Photographs: Robin Hammond