At 29 he was having his first sexual experience, in my shower, with a guy he just met that day. A group of us had gone to the beach, in those relatively carefree days when life was young and full of promise, on the south side of the Palisadoes spit where, vehemently un-tourist-poster-like, the sand is black, the sea rough and dark with high waves, coming in directly from the southern Caribbean, the sea floor uneven and rocky, and the beach itself is strewn with flotsam and jetsam and construction debris dumped there illegally in the night. Nobody in their right mind would choose to go to that beach so it was deserted, yet only fifteen minutes drive from home. We’d cook over an open fire, or wolf down Errol’s fried chicken he’d made that morning, with lots of ice and cold drinks to counter the effects of the strong sunlight, unmitigated by any trees that could have provided shade. We would literally burn. It was our private world, relatively isolated and safe where we could be ourselves under an open sky. I named it Batty-on-Sea.
It was Clive, I think, who had invited Brian to join us that day and that was how we met. After beach it was customary for everybody to come to my yard to cool off and lime (today’s equivalent, chill and hang), so that’s how Brian ended up in the shower with Renee. When we heard the sporadic peals and gales, so characteristic of Brian but then startling to us, each took position on a tread of the stairs leading up to the bathroom. One was appointed to clamp his ear to the door to provide us with running commentary on the proceedings within.
Brian never looked back. His virginity could be attributed to an innocence, a naivete, that he never quite lost. Sex had never entered his mind. Until the wake-up shower. Then he had to make up for lost time, undo the years of prolonged celibacy.
I never gave much thought to just how parallel and intertwined our lives were; I just took it for granted. Bri was always there: to offer a cheery, if often inane, word; to move a crowd or stuff in Betsy, his blue Volkswagen minivan, or later, Hortense, the white panel van; to fix the phone and run wires when the telephone man wouldn’t come; to disturb the peace with his police-car siren cries. When he ran the drapery business, I used his services on design projects. Then he went off to serve in the Catholic Church while I served at the Temple of Light. While in Mobay he convened a fledgling gay group, drawing on the experiences he had shared with me in GFM community work. Later, we became founding members of J-FLAG, from which he distanced himself after we turned down his request to ask Tulip not to hold parties on Saturday nights or his club would suffer. So we had our differences but remained close friends.
At one point, we became business partners in The Workshop Company Limited, him overseeing drapery and me design services. There were four directors. Jim Nelson committed suicide; Paul Williams was murdered in his apartment in Brooklyn; likewise Brian. Now only I am left. By virtue of that fact, sobering thought, I will be next to go.
Both Brian and I exiled ourselves from Jamaica in 2000, him to Canada and me to the US. I had an open invitation to stay with him in Toronto that I never got to take up. He chose to return while I continue awaiting approval of my application for asylum. I never heard from him for months giving me to wonder if this was silent reproach that I had not followed his example to return and rejoin the struggle, or maybe it was guilt that I had abandoned ship. But I was never cut out for martyrdom, and if I had remained or returned to Jamaica, his fate surely would have been mine also. Now I am left with the bitter consolation that cowad man kip soun buon; I am here and he is not.
As horrendous as his demise was, based on reports I have read, it was not a hate crime per se, but more a result of Brian’s kindness and trusting nature.1 His colour, class, relative affluence, accessibility and familiarity with lumpen elements made him an easy target, as so many other Jamaicans are today, regardless of sexual orientation. That he was compassionate, considerate, genteel and non-violent, would have reinforced the notion that gay men are saps to be exploited by alpha males who rationalize their sexual exchanges with them as economic exigence. When demands for payment are not met or deemed inadequate, they resort to extortion, threats and violence to get what they believe is rightfully theirs. After all, they have placed themselves at great risk of social ostracism and persecution in turn, by associating with and thereby becoming tainted by the pariahs of society, unanimously condemned by church, state and popular opinion. For this, they must be paid well. We do not know if this is the case here, but ef it neva go so, it nieli go so. If hate was a motivating factor, it was self-hate on the part of the perpetrator, a denial of self and projecting onto the victim the despised attributes, and removing them by destroying him. It’s a form of self-exorcism, and of course, it doesn’t work. I daresay this is the model, with slight variations, applicable to the spate of gay-related murders that have occurred.
The attraction of one man to another is a primal force, not fully understood. Almost every society has tried to grapple with it by proscribing it or pretending that it doesn’t exist and will therefore go away. A few have tried, with varying degrees of success, to accommodate it by creating a special class of person with a defined role, usually associated with the priesthood, the creative and healing arts, (the African gatekeeper comes readily to mind here,) or dedicated warriors like many of the samurai, the Knights Templar, or the Sacred Band of Thebes, the ancient Mediterranean world’s equivalent of today’s suicide bombers. There is a lot of potency, male energy that is not heterosexually driven or derived, that must go somewhere. We cannot all be an Akhenaton, an Alexander the Great, Michelangelo, Oscar Wilde or James Baldwin, but we are all capable of magnificence and great accomplishments were we not shackled by prejudice and homophobia.
Who knows what prompted Brian to leave the freedom, comfort and security of Canada? Had he stayed we would still be able to hear his ear-splitting cries, read his letters to the press, share a cup and his dream of having a gay resort cum health spa in Jamaica.
But then we would not have had a champion advocate, a public face and name of a real human who was also Jamaican and gay. He knew the danger involved, yet he continued to serve his family, his community, his people. He gave his life that we should live. If this sounds sacrificial, it is. With regard to his Roman Catholic upbringing, his endless compassion, patience and humility, yet with an in-your-face pride and unswerving courage against oppression and homophobia, he put himself at risk for martyrdom.
Whereas the bundle of energy we knew as Brian was focused and encapsulated in a paunchy, middle-aged body clad only in shorts and nothing else, if he could help it, and mostly located on Haughton Avenue, it has now been released into the universe. His elements are diffused in the air we breathe, the water we drink, in our blood, our cum; his intangible qualities, or spirit, if you will, are now lodged in our hearts, minds and thoughts. He has passed through the gate of death into immortality. He belongs to us now more than ever, in a way he never could have before.
Death results in simply a different form of belonging to the community. It is a lesson from nature that change is the norm, that the world is defined by eternal cycles of decline and regeneration … Death is not a separation but a different form of communion, a higher form of connectedness with the community, providing an opportunity for even greater service.
When we are touched by death, we become more cognizant of the fragility and impermanence of life. We appreciate more the gift of awareness and presence, the time and opportunity we have now to be and to do. Are we expending that energy in frivolous pursuits or are we being and doing the highest and best? Each has a gift, an opportunity, a responsibility to offer her or his unique individuality to life, in whatever field or role, to push it to the limit, to savor, to celebrate.
It's funny how death draws us (the living) closer ... we as men who love each other need to reach out all the time, love each other fiercely, touch each with care and be there for each other ... we band of rebels, we designated pariahs must celebrate and exult in our majesty, our beauty, our fierceness and our right to be here, to live, to love, to kiss, to make love … to be.3
Brian would approve. Indeed, he continues to live through us.
Death gives value, and in a sense almost infinite value, to our lives, and makes more urgent and attractive the task of using our lives to achieve something for others … which apparently embodies more or less what is called the meaning of life.
I may never attend the Calabash Literary Festival but we have our own paki to fill, our own songs to sing. We have many stories to tell; Brian’s death has given me the impetus and focus to tell this one.
His last words to me, in an e-mail entitled “Things that matter,” a week before his death, were “How about a cup of tea and some wholewheat biscuits?”
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