Jamaica — it’s an island paradise, splashed across television ads, billboards and brochures, promising a vacation that one will never forget.
However, many are trying to get away from the white sand beaches, rum, and reggae tunes: LGBT people.
In May, two men were shot and killed at a home they were staying at and rumors circulated that the two were gay. In 2015, a video was released of a young gay man tied up as a crowd stoned him to death, all the while yelling homophobic slurs. In 2015, a 16-year-old transgender girl was stabbed, shot, and run over by a car after she attended a party in a dress. She was buried in a suit and tie.
Because of these horror stories, many Jamaicans make their way to the U.S. in hopes of seeking asylum. When they arrive, many of them meet Grace Gomez, a Miami immigration attorney.
“Jamaica is definitely the worst in the western hemisphere,” she said about the country’s treatment of LGBT people.
A graduate of Florida State University and Stetson Law School, Gomez knew she wanted to specialize in immigration law, which sent her back to her hometown of Miami. She opened her practice in 2008 after a stint as a public defender, and shortly after was introduced to the reality of life in Jamaica for LGBT people.
It seemed like a normal case of meeting a potential client at Krome Detention Center in Miami. Gomez went through her normal list of questions, receiving the same answers until she asked the man, “Do you fear going back to Jamaica?”
She was shocked when he said, “Yes, I’m gay.”
“To be honest with you, I didn’t believe him. How is this on the world stage and I’ve never heard about this?” she remembers, sending her back to her office to research his claims.
Homosexual acts are illegal in Jamaica under the island’s 1864 Offences Against the Person Act, which illegalizes anal intercourse and is punishable up to 10 years of hard labor. Jamaica’s Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms was passed in 2011, but it does not include protections for LGBT people.
“I actually went back to that guy and apologized,” Gomez said.
Since then, she has represented more people seeking asylum to stay in the U.S. because they come from countries where being LGBT is illegal. Now, 25 percent of her practice is representing LGBT people, namely from Jamaica but also from Ukraine, Saudi Arabia, and Ghana.
Asylum is “very difficult” to get, Gomez said, because it requires so much documentation and testimony. For her LGBT clients, she has to prove that they are gay as well as show that they would experience harm should they return home. For people who were in heterosexual marriages, proving that they are gay is even harder.
“If you understand Jamaican culture, they would not pretend to be gay,” Gomez said. “It’s so frowned upon over there. They wouldn’t take the risk of alienating their family and friends.”
Despite the country’s egregious human rights violations, the Caribbean nation continues to be a top tourism destination. According to the World Factbook, tourism accounts for 30 percent of Jamaica’s gross domestic product (GDP).
Last year, President Barack Obama was criticized for making a visit to Jamaica, but was also applauded when he hosted a town hall and invited LGBT activists and called for equality. This included telling the story of Angeline Jackson, the executive director for Quality of Citizenship Jamaica, who as a lesbian was kidnapped and sexually assaulted when she was 19.
“You’d think as a country that depends on tourism, they’d be worried about giving the public this persona,” Gomez said. “They hide it well. They don’t attack foreigners who are homoseuxal. They reserve that hatred for their own people.”
Well known within the LGBT Jamaican community, she has also experienced part of the hatred. When asked if she would ever travel to Jamaica for vacation or otherwise, the answer is no.
“I have very much a death threat on my head,” she said. “I’ve received quite a bit of hate mail from Jamaicans from organizations saying I’m a gay lover and hurting their communities. All anonymous, nothing is ever attributed to anyone, but I’m sure it’s gotten out.”
“Thank you, but no thank you. I would not go to Jamaica.”