Having lost in love yet again, a white gay friend used my shoulder to cry on. "Vernon, you think you know discrimination as a black man," he said. "Well, try being an ugly gay man. Now, that's no piece of cake."
"Things could be much worse," I suggested. "You could be me. Remember? I'm both black and gay. My cake's dough on both sides."
He then dried his tears. When you've been trumped, you've been trumped.
With Caribana's 40 mas bands and 1.5 million spectators ready to again claim Canada's largest city for the Caribbean, many black gays and lesbians are wondering why a culture that revels in its sexuality -- the bump 'n' grind, the meringue, the dollah dance, the winey-winey -- has so little tolerance for them.
However, next to none are prepared to ask the question publicly.
I phone around to other "openly gay" blacks in Toronto, and find that while they may waddle and quack, they're by no means ducks. "Sorry, I couldn't comment. I'm not gay, I'm everything."
Another, who hasn't missed a Gay Pride Day in 12 years, shocks me with his response. "I m attracted to both women and men," he says on the phone from his Church and Wellesley apartment. "I reject the term gay."
More comfortable At Black CAP, the Black Coalition for Aids Prevention, executive director Juanita Smith offers an explanation. "In the black community we are still devoted to a squeaky- clean image of moral probity, and instead of affirming our gayness, we are more comfortable denying it."
Smith comes up against an implacable homophobia in her work to promote safe-sex practices in Toronto's black communities, where AIDS is still considered a gay disease. This year, Black CAP will once again distribute tens of thousands of condoms to Caribana crowds. But people still see the group, she says, as promoting homosexuality, something many are completely unprepared to accept.
"I'd say 80 per cent of the black gays and lesbians in Toronto are extremely closeted," Smith tells me.
As Black CAP's education coordinator, there's no place Trevor Gray hasn't been to promote AIDS awareness -- Metro's high schools, its community centres and, yes, its bathhouses. "On Saturday nights I'll go into the bathhouses to hand out condoms, and I meet black men who are never seen in the gay village before midnight. They're married men living in Scarborough or Oakwood, with kids and wives.
Take kids "Some even have to leave early so they can take the kids to Sunday school in the morning," says Gray, a longstanding gay activist and a founding member of T.O.'s black gay support group, AYA (recently disbanded), and its predecessor, Zami.
In order to explore this taboo topic, I decide to go straight -- directly, that is -- to the epicentre of any West Indian community, its barbershop.
Many have suggested I'd be doing so at my own risk, but, undaunted, I enter Castries Barbershop on Eglinton West, where other Canadians may think the men are arguing, but I know they're just having a debate, albeit a 10-decibel one.
As usual, it's packed, and I patiently wait for the right moment to ask some tough questions. A swirl of Jamaican patois surrounds me, and I hear the word "batty man" (the Jamaican equivalent of faggot, except 10 times worse) repeated again and again: "Him some kind of a batty man, yah know," "She's dating a sort of batty man," "Twaaa! You a batty man or what?"
After 15 minutes, I'm certain my right moment is never going to come, at least not with this crowd, and I leave. While a gay man can get his head bashed in just about anywhere, attitudes such as those in the barbershop seem out of step in a city with the largest gay population in Canada.
On the phone with Alejandra Sarta of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission in Buenos Aires, I ask if homophobic attitudes in the Caribbean are as strongly entrenched as here in Toronto's West Indian community.
"There have been no fewer than 20 murders of gay men in Jamaica in the last two years, killed for no other reason than their sexuality," says Sarta, "and those are just the reported cases.'
Sarta's job is to track homophobic violence in the countries of the Caribbean, Central and South America and to support their burgeoning gay rights movements.
"To put it in context," she says, "in Puerto Rico it's overzealous police that rigorously enforces its buggery and sodomy laws -- laws still on the books in all but one of the region's countries.
"Yet there are relatively few attacks on gays by the public, perhaps because of the American influence.
In Jamaica and Trinidad, you'd rather the police did come for you, because there it's the civilians who mete out justice. "A very strong homophobic belief system exists in these countries," says Sarta. "The Church actively promotes it, the government turns two blind eyes to it and the media incites it."
Barrister Lawson Williams of Kingston, Jamaica, agrees. As legal counsel for his country's only gay rights lobby, J-Flag, founded in 1998, he's spearheading a campaign to draw attention to the discrimination gays face on a daily basis.
"With reggae artists such as Capleton writing songs like Batty Man For Dead, which incite fans to burn gays or otherwise kill them, we had no choice but to come out from our well-developed and hidden network and into a strong political campaign."
Each year, a murder of a gay man is so grisly that even the largely antipathetic Jamaican population is enraged. "Just last year a homosexual man was chased out of his bed in the middle of the night and shot on the steps of his church," says Williams. "That was a rallying point for J-Flag's members, and now we are getting bolder.'
The two-year-old organization has just petitioned Jamaica's parliament, he says, to amend its human rights code to extend protection from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Still, even in a culture that Williams calls the most homophobic in the region, wealthy gays can find tacit acceptance behind the walls of their gated communities.
In 1998, Jamaican-American Thomas Glave, on a Fulbright scholarship, moved in those circles, dividing his time between the University of the West Indies at Kingston and the American embassy. Yet one step outside of those rarefied environs almost cost him his life.
"It was the middle of the day, in front of the supermarket," recalls the gay activist and associate professor at Binghamton University in New York State. "I was walking with the town fag, so to speak, when a group of Rastafarians surrounded us. My gay friend managed to get away, leaving me there to literally beg for my life.
"These guys see killing auntie men (gays) as obeying a kind of jihad or holy war, and I knew I'd have to deny everything I am if I wanted to live. I looked into their black faces and saw the kind of hatred I thought only whites reserved for blacks."
A mere two days' journey by sailboat from Kingston's harbour will wash you ashore on one of the white sandy beaches of the beautiful Bahamas, my native land (OK, I'm a little biased), and to the best place in the West Indies to be gay or lesbian, according to IGLHRC's Sarta.
"The Bahamas is the only country in the region to have removed buggery laws from its books, and its PM, Hubert Ingraham, is the only West Indian leader to have denounced homophobia," she says.
Back in the north, I share my barbershop tale with Jamaican-Canadian Courtnay McFarlane, one man who says without equivocation, "I am gay."
He empathizes with my hair salon hesitation. "It's all well and good to talk about being out in the black community, but it's so hard.' McFarlane is one of the brave few who hand out condoms for Black CAP at Caribana. "We went around in pairs for protection,' he tells me.
But that's nothing compared to coming out to his family, although McFarlane's certain they always knew. "When my mother eventually dug up my angst-filled journals and my copies of Blue Boy and Numbers, the jig was up."
Leave community Then, like many others, McFarlane endured months of psychiatric counselling as prescribed by his parents. A complete and utter failure. He eventually found himself on a bus out of his parents' Scarborough neighbourhood and, for a time, out of their lives.
"Really to affirm my gayness I had to leave my community." But the gay ghetto isn't the most inviting place either if you're not white, 20-something and buff, he says.
"It's a bunch of white boys run amok. There's no analysis around class, race or gender, just sexual freedom."
And here are its bad points. "Black men are fetishized by whites as either drag queens or big dark men with big dicks," he continues. "A black man left in that kind of environment will eventually have to come out again, this time as black, not gay."
I speak with Dionne Falconer, a first-generation Jamaican-Canadian and a self-branded bisexual, who has found herself carrying placards with such slogans as "Black while driving no crime" and "Justice for Wade Lawson."
"Some black people would like to toss the 10 per cent of their population that is gay and lesbian," says Falconer, "but I'm going to keep working in my community.' Her commitment is questioned when others meet her lover, who's neither black nor male. Falconer isn't certain which of those facts people find more objectionable.
She believes that blacks ultimately want her to choose sides --black or queer, but not both. "When I walk into a room, they see my colour first, and then after a while they notice the short hair and think, 'She's butch.' So I can't say one is worse than the other -- oppression is oppression."
While Falconer and McFarlane had black gay organizations with which to share their concerns, today's venues have changed. Having set my alarm clock for 12:30 am, I get up and head out to meet more of the city's black queers.
A short distance from the heart of gaytown, I enter the club that on Saturday nights turns black courtesy of 2-Divas Promotions' Janet Campbell and Polly Watkis. "We don't own the space, we just use it for our black gay and lesbian nights," says Campbell. "But our patrons (80 per cent male) see it as a social club. It's the only place in the city to meet other black gays."
As I'm toured around, I begin to wonder if I'm in the wrong place -- rugby players are more fem than this lot. Watkis, the other diva, explains, "Seventy per cent of the men are completely closeted. The first time they come here they just drive by to get a look. The next visit might be to walk by, but on the third, they're in and dancing."
Recognize man Working my way out to the front of the club for some fresh air, I bump into a man I recognize from Castries. Since he was one of the butchest guys in the barbershop, I find it hard to disguise my amazement at finding him here.
I ask for an interview, and he agrees to meet me outside. In the cold, I wait in vain... but not alone. I chat with two professional guys in their late 20s. And wonder of wonders, they're out -- well, outish. But "first names only, please."
"The club scene is pretty depressing. Most of these guys are gay by night and straight by day," says Paulton, a mental health worker.
Reggie's and my head bob up and down in agreement. We decide, given the small selection of eligible black gay men -- the ones who are actually out -- that we should probably find ourselves white guys. They certainly couldn't be any more high-maintenance.
We manage to laugh and cry in our beer at the same time. And when the lights come on at 3 am, we've done the impossible -- made friends at a nightclub.
Devastating part My wimping-out at the barbershop is starting to get to me. But a wise man knows his limitations. When all is said and done, the most devastating part of being a black gay. People smile at you like a brother until they notice the high voice or the "gay" clothes. Then their smiles turn to sneers, their sneers to blank faces, and before you know it, you're invisible.
I accept an invitation to talk with the Juiceman, Jonathan Shaw, on York University Community Radio, CHRY -- 105.5 FM, to discuss what he bills as the most controversial subject in the black community: homosexuality.
But it's not going to be just the two of us in the studio. Brother David Graham of the Church of God Seventh-Day will share the mike.
On the air, the evangelist and I square off. First caller: "Yes, I am more accepting (of gayness)," she says with a heavy Jamaican accent. "The life of a gay black man is hard -- he has three strikes against him. Black people out there should check their family closets before they start condemning people."
Brother Graham reaches for his Bible, but I beat him to the punch and pull out mine. "Mark 13:30 says to love thy neighbour as thyself," I read."( I'm the grandson of a Baptist minister -- you can't preach verse to me. ) Graham counters with Sodom and Gomorrah.
Only two of the nine callers are prepared to "condone" the love that, today at least, dares to speak its name. But the general feeling is clearly that the black community should live and let live. After the war is over and Goliath (Graham) has been carried off the battlefield, Jonathan lets me in on a little secret.
"Honestly, Vernon, if Brother Graham hadn't been here with all that fire and brimstone, my callers would have eaten you alive."
That's my Caribbean people -- they'll always back the underdog.
BASHING in the JAMAICAN DANCE HALL
* Capleton, More Fire: as in "Put another fag on the fire, boys!"
* Buju Banton, Boom Bye-Bye: as in shooting "batty" men -- although he has since disowned this point of view
* Sizzla: has attacked gays publicly
* Bounty Killer, Can't Believe Me Eye: says he can't believe how "batty" men so bold
* Ward 21, Bloodstain: threatens gay men with violence