Jamaica Peace Corps Service Leads to Gay Activism
May 3, 2005
– Anthony Hron, RPCV
When I decided to become a Peace Corps Volunteer, I wanted a change from the teaching career that I was pursuing, but I never expected the direction this change would take or the personal satisfaction that would result. I had hoped to serve in the fairly new environmental program in China, but timelines prevented that so, of the choices left to me, Jamaica seemed the most suitable based on my meatless dietary preference. I had read that this small Caribbean nation was highly homophobic, but I figured it couldn’t be that much worse than Nebraska and Iowa 20 years ago when I was coming out. I figured wrong – it was worse in some ways, but much better in others – and I would soon find myself enmeshed in the issue on many levels.
Within weeks in-country, another trainee and I were in contact with the country’s primary gay rights organization, the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG), being managed at the time by a woman named Emily, a recent college graduate from, by coincidence, Minnesota. The coincidences kept coming when I was assigned a work site in the capital city of Kingston (much to my disappointment), where J-FLAG was located, and then realized that my housing was less than a block from Emily’s apartment. This began a 3 year affiliation with the organization first as Emily’s volunteer assistant (this was my official Peace Corps secondary project, much to some people’s consternation) and eventually as the Programme Director. During this time, I experienced a very complex and fascinating gay community and a cause worth fighting for.
Compared to my mid-western experience, my Jamaican gay experience was like a tight rubber band – the same core issues but stretched to the extreme. The anti-gay rhetoric and violence was much greater, but the cohesion of the community was greater as well, at least within the highly segregated social castes, a vestige of the colonial power distributions. While I was more closeted in Jamaica (I never revealed my sexuality to my host family during training for instance), I did find a degree of expression I had never experienced in the States. For example, as a representative for a gay organization, I routinely discussed my sexuality and issues related to homosexuality with complete strangers. I also became a member of a large gay community for the first time – the by-product of monthly social gatherings hosted by J-FLAG that drew hundreds of gay men and women. In fact, I had more dates in the first 6 months of my service than I had in the previous 6 years in Iowa! I was even asked to be a judge for two drag queen competitions, complete with formal dinners, swimsuits, evening gowns and live talent performances. Unfortunately, this expression was very tenuous beyond the gates of the compounds where gays gathered. Very few individuals were openly gay. Among the upper class, certain individuals were known and “accepted” but never publicly identified. Propriety and decorum precluded this, even for those whose social status would prevent any negative repercussions. For the well-to-do, working class, right down to the inner-city unemployed, fear of losing their homes, jobs, family or social standing kept nearly everyone in the closet and most from pursuing any kind of committed relationship. There were exceptions, like the male couple who lived together and had two adopted sons, the drag queen who performed for tourists by night and enjoyed his community’s protection by day, and the lesbian couple who ran a gay inn on the north coast. There were a few, but fear kept most in a well-protected closet. In this regard, the degree of fear, discrimination and violence was much more serious than in the U.S., and these were the issues that kept me very busy as a volunteer.
As I mentioned earlier, the idea that a PCV would be working with a LGBT advocacy organization didn’t sit well with some people, most notably a U.S. Embassy official who I had approached for assistance in finding a venue for a fund-raising performance (he didn’t even know it was a drag performance at the time). I found out from a supporter at USAID that within hours of faxing my request, he had sent a flurry of emails to various officials in Washington and Jamaica denouncing my efforts, despite the fact that he was in India at the time. My Country Director was forced to address the situation, and to his credit, he listened to my arguments and supported my continued involvement with J-FLAG. As I explained to him, the work I was doing directly enhanced the Peace Corps’ desire to help alleviate the HIV pandemic. Jamaica’s Ministry of Health and other regional and international organizations have repeatedly recognized the link between infection rates among the gay population and homophobic discrimination and violence. Supporting this minority group and educating the general public about the deleterious effects of homophobia was in everyone’s best interest. With my CD’s blessing, I was able to expand my work with J-FLAG and its parent organization, Jamaica AIDS Support (JAS). It became a nearly full-time effort, especially after Emily’s departure 15 months after my arrival, when I assumed her duties as the Programme Director, guided by a core group of Jamaican nationals who served on the Management Committee.
Along the way I was able to obtain several grants through Peace Corps, the most notable a US$10,000 award from America Online (during its more profitable years) to create a computer resource room. Ironically, even the U.S. Embassy provided funding for us to sensitize health-care providers regarding the needs and concerns of their LGBT patients. My work also required me to represent the organization on several committees and conferences since there were no Jamaicans willing to be publicly affiliated with the organization. After two years of Peace Corps service, I remained in Jamaica employed by both J-FLAG and JAS for another year. I resigned in early 2004 when my colleagues were prepared to assume my duties, but the experience whetted my appetite for advocacy work and soon led to new endeavors.
In June of 2004, I joined my Jamaican partner of two years, Jason, in launching a new LGBT newsletter, which was eventually named The Jamaica OutPost. It focuses on news and information of interest to the community and provides articles about international developments as well as religious and health topics. We have been able to develop a good-sized internet readership, as well as a few subscriptions for the print version. These subscriptions help pay some of the printing costs for free distribution of the newsletter at the offices of J-FLAG and JAS, as well as copies for the archive of the National Library of Jamaica, which we believe is critically important in documenting the history of Jamaica’s gay community. At the same time, I began working to launch a new LGBT volunteer exchange organization that would link activists in more liberal countries with their counterparts in oppressive countries. This eventually evolved into an organization, OutReach Caribbean, which has a broader set of objectives but a narrower regional focus. Jason has been a major contributor to this effort as well and we have received support from individuals in the U.S., Puerto Rico, Guyana, Trinidad, and Antigua. It has been quite a long journey from my conservative Midwestern roots to this multi-national effort!
When I accepted my Peace Corps assignment, gay activism was the furthest thing from my mind. I thought I would spend a couple of years away from academia and hopefully returned with a renewed interest and relevant experiences. I could never have imagined the path that I would eventually follow, and like many Volunteers, I left my tour of service with an entirely new perspective on life and the challenges faced by people in cultures much different than our own. Considering the extent of homophobia so common in the countries that Volunteers serve in, I consider myself very blessed to have found myself in such a supportive community, and one that has nurtured a new passion and focus in my life. I can only hope that all Volunteers will be equally blessed.
Tony Hron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.