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How homophobic is the Caribbean? Find out where you can be gay and "feel irie" on your next island hop.

"You don't go to a Caribbean island for a gay vacation." Period. So warns this year's Spartacus guide--and, if asked, few gay and lesbian travelers might disagree. The guide's authors have a point, because let's face it, Grand Cayman is not Palm Springs. And ne'er the twain shall meet.

Or will they? There are signs the Cayman Islands--infamous for denying docking fights to a 1998 Atlantis Events all-gay cruise--are set to join a handful of other Caribbean destinations in, if not openly courting gay travelers, at least challenging reputations for rampant homophobia.

Even in Jamaica--which Amnesty International describes as "suffering from an appalling level of homophobia"--there's been some movement, though incremental: The couples-only resort chain Sandals, with several locations in Jamaica, lifted its longtime shunning of gay couples in 2004.

Still, if by "gay vacation" one means a tropical holiday in a seaside resort town packed with gay clubs, saunas, a Hamburger Mary's franchise, and same-sex couples openly engaging in PDAs, the Caribbean region offers slim pickings. And the March barring of a gay cruise to St. Kitts and Nevis highlights the ongoing struggle of gay tourism in this diverse region.

The closest Caribbean approximations of gay life will probably be found-ironically enough--in American territories such as Puerto Rico or St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, or on French or Dutch-speaking islands, including the "ABCs" (Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao), St. Maarten, and Guadeloupe. But even in these chore hospitable destinations, resorts and nightlife that are gay-specific or-exclusive tend to be few and far between, perhaps with the exception of Puerto Rico's capital, San Juan.

However, it is possible to be "gay" and to "vacation" (if not "gay-vacation" per se) happily and safely in much of the Caribbean--provided you're realistic about your expectations and reconcile yourself to the cultural, social, and political realities of your island destination.

Generally speaking, the gay-friendliness (or, more accurately the degree of homophobia) of each Caribbean island today is largely tied to its cultural heritage. To paint with admittedly very broad strokes: French or Dutch equals friendly; Spanish less so; British not at all--in fact, often openly hostile.

Politics also plays a role. Islands ruled from abroad, such as U.S. territories or the Dutch dependencies, tend toward tolerance. Mother England has also called on her commonwealth islands to be more tolerant. But independent or home-ruled islands sometimes spell oppression fbr local Caribbean homosexuals and can pose problems--and possible peril--for out gay and lesbian travelers.

THE GOOD Some destinations that buck the homophobic Caribbean stereotype and get an A for gay-friendly effort include Puerto Rico, St. Maarten, St. Croix, and (new to the pack) the Netherlands Antilles island of Curacao. Earlier this year the Curacao Tourist Board teamed with 11 local hotels and resorts--five of them openly members of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association--to launch, a resource-packed Web site aimed at courting gay and lesbian vacationers. "Our society is used to different cultures and approaches to life, and part of that broad acceptance is a specific acceptance of the alternative gay lifestyle," says Curacao's executive director of tourism, Jim Hepple.

THE BAD Here we'll find most of the English-speaking Caribbean--save the U.S. Virgin Islands--and Cuba. Despite the best advocacy efforts of mother country Great Britain, gay sex--if it's between males, mostly--remains illegal in most "English" islands. But enforcement is said to be lax; in fact, Atlantis Events includes Grenada on cruise itineraries. However, in March of 2005, a gay nudist Windjammer cruise was stopped from enterting the English-speaking country of St. Kitts and Nevis. Jamaica, with some of the region's best landscapes and cultures, is at the bottom of the tolerance pile. Homophobia is rife: in religious discourse and lyrics for popular "dancehall" music. The murder last June of outspoken gay activist Brian Williamson, founder of the gay rights group J-FLAG, was met with official and public indifference. Public beatings of local gays have also occurred, so out gay and lesbian visitors should be cautious. Yet surprises abound even there: Huge private gay parties for locals happen regularly, and a well-known but discreet lesbian couple runs a respected local hotel and eco-tourism company.

Cuba is a separate case; despite a booming underground gay scene, its communist penal code makes "public displays" of homosexuality illegal.

THE EVOLVING The Cayman Islands would have once been a sure bet for the rotten-apple list. But the country's new director of tourism, Pilar Bush, has made it her one-woman mission to undo the damage to her islands' reputation.

"The perception [of homophobia] in the Caymans is very different from the reality," she says, noting that scores of gays and lesbians live, work, and vacation in the archipelago without incident. "Don't get me wrong, we have a vocal [antigay] minority,, but they don't reflect the attitude of most residents."

The Cayman Islands should probably be promoted to the "watch" list, along with other improving destinations, such as the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas. The latter nation was scene to religious protesters who picketed both an Olivia cruise in 1998 and a gay R Family cruise last year. Yet in both cases the Bahamian government condemned the protesters and reaffirmed the country's stance of welcoming gay tourists, Let's hope this reaction becomes a model for the Caribbean as a whole.
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Title Annotation:INVESTIGATION
Author:Kiesnoski, Kenneth
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:50CAR
Date:Apr 26, 2005
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