`Lovers' Paradise Can Be Ordeal for Gays Caribbean Islands Show Intolerance, Say Rights Groups

Article excerpt

MONTEGO BAY, Jamaica -- The Caribbean sells itself as a `lovers' paradise,' a place where sweethearts can cuddle under tropical sunsets and cast their cares to a salty wind. Just make sure your lover is of a different sex.

For gay couples on vacation, a place like Jamaica -- where officials defend a century-old law against homosexuality -- strolls along the beach can be a gauntlet of insults. Holding hands can bring harassment. Sex is a crime.

The threat of tourism boycotts by U.S.-based gay rights groups has yet to influence Jamaican leaders, who term their anti-gay position a moral issue. Justice Minister K.D. Knight recently rejected a proposal to abolish the 19th-century law, saying it was "founded on a moral imperative that has not changed."

Although the law against homosexual sex is not enforced, some consider it a license to harass homosexuals.

"If you stroll along the beach and hold hands with a lover they would call it indecent behavior," said the founder of a new Jamaican gay rights group, J-FLAG, who refused to be identified for fear of harassment.

Jamaica "appears to be a leader in the region's emerging homophobia," charged Agustin Merlo, executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association in Fort Lauderdale. Gays face similar problems in many Caribbean islands, which despite their image as a sun-and-surf playground remain very conservative.

Britain, trying to adhere to rights standards established by the European Union, has tried unsuccessfully to persuade its Caribbean islands -- including the Cayman Islands and Anguilla -- to change their laws banning homosexual sex.

Last year, the Caymans refused to let a cruise ship carrying nearly 1,000 gay men to visit on the grounds that they might not behave "appropriately." A cruise ship carrying lesbians that docked in the Bahamas was met by protesters waving signs saying, "No gay ships. …