Dwayne Jones was relentlessly teased in school for being effeminate until he dropped out. His father not only kicked him out of the house at the age of 14 but helped jeering neighbours push the youngster from the Jamaican slum where he grew up.
By age 16, the teenager was dead – beaten, stabbed, shot and run over by a car when he showed up at a street party dressed as a woman.
“When I saw Dwayne’s body, I started shaking and crying,” said Khloe, one of three transgender friends who shared a derelict house with the teenager in Montego Bay. Like many transgenders and gays in Jamaica, Khloe would not give a full name out of fear.
Jamaica is often portrayed as the most hostile country in the western hemisphere for gays and transgender people. After two prominent gay rights activists were murdered, a researcher with the Human Rights Watch in 2006 called the environment in Jamaica for such groups “the worst any of us has ever seen”.
Local activists have since disputed that label, but still say homophobia is pervasive. Mr Jones’s 22 July murder has stirred calls in some quarters for doing more to protect Jamaica’s gay community.
Advocates say much of the homophobia is fuelled by a nearly 150-year-old anti-sodomy law, campaigning by evangelical Christians, and dancehall reggae performers who flaunt anti-gay themes. The island’s main gay rights group estimated that two homosexual men were killed for their orientation last year, and 36 were the victims of mob violence.
“Judging by comments made on social media, most Jamaicans think Dwayne Jones brought his death on himself for wearing a dress and dancing in a society that has made it abundantly clear that homosexuals are neither to be seen nor heard,” said Annie Paul, a blogger and publications officer at Jamaica’s campus of the University of the West Indies.
Prime minister Portia Simpson Miller’s government has vowed to put the anti-sodomy law to a “conscience vote” in parliament, and she said during her 2011 campaign that only merit would decide who got a cabinet position in her government. By contrast, former prime minister Bruce Golding said in 2008 that he would never allow homosexuals in his cabinet.
Dane Lewis, executive director of the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals & Gays, said there were increasing “pockets of tolerance” on the island.
“We can say that we are becoming more tolerant. And thankfully that’s because of people like Dwayne who have helped push the envelope,” said Mr Lewis, one of the few Jamaican gays who will publicly disclose his full name.
Yet rights groups still complain of the slow pace of the investigation into Mr Jones’s murder, despite the justice minister calling for a full investigation.
Even though some 300 people were at the dance party in the small riverside community of Irwin, police have yet to make a single arrest in the murder.
Mr Jones was the centre of attention shortly after arriving in a taxi at 2am with his two 23-year-old housemates, Khloe and Keke.
Like many Jamaican homosexuals, Mr Jones was careful of confiding in others about his sexual orientation. But when he saw a girl he had known from church, he told her he was attending the party in drag.
Minutes later, according to Khloe and Keke, the girl’s male friends gathered around Mr Jones in the dimly-lit street asking: “Are you a woman or a man?” One waved a lighter’s flame near Mr Jones’s shoes, asking whether a girl could have such big feet.
Then, his friends said, another grabbed a lantern from an outdoor bar and walked to Mr Jones, shining the light over him. “It’s a man,” he concluded, while the others hissed “batty boy” and other anti-gay epithets.
He did not run fast enough to escape the mob.
The teenager was assaulted and apparently half-conscious for two hours before another sustained attack killed him, according to Khloe, who was also beaten.
Mr Jones’s family declined to claim his body.