Dwayne Jones and the Dangers of Tragedy Tourism

“If every single LGBT left Jamaica, then the situation would not change. And so I have to be there to show the face of a professional LGBT willing to fight for his liberation. Otherwise, nothing will change.”
– Maurice Tomlinson

In our third article for Black History Month, we will be moving to a more difficult topic, and discuss the life and murder of Dwayne Jones. Before we begin, we want to give a trigger warning; we will be discussing violent homophobia, transphobia, and death, so anyone who finds those topics potentially triggering- our next article will be out in a couple of days, and we'll make sure to find a happier topic. We will indicate where we explicitly discuss the details of her death with an asterisk when we start, and one when we move on from the details, but there will be discussion around the event for the entire article. Please do what is best for yourself, whatever that may be.

Dwayne Jones was a transgender woman who lived in Jamaica, a country Times dubbed “The Most Homophobic Place on Earth” in 2006, and has since then been the sight of many violent homophobic and transphobic murders and mob killings. When researching her story, it can feel at first like a wide display of the homophobia and transphobia in the country. She dropped out of school because of bullying, and her father kicked her out of the family home at the age of fourteen because of her “effeminate” behaviour. She was then run out of town by the neighborhood, including said father.

From that point, Jones was forced to try and find a way on her own, and like many queer youths who have been kicked out of their parent’s homes, she was homeless for a time. Also like many queer youths, she found a new family, this time a chosen one. In this family was Khloe and Keke, two women she eventually lived with in an abandoned government building. She was the youngest of the group and reportedly a “diva,” and her friends loved her. In time, it seemed Jones had found a place in the queer community in Jamaica, making friends and building a life. You can still find videos of her dancing and enjoying herself, and she had dreams of becoming a performer, reportedly looking up to figures such as Lady Gaga. So portraying her story as only a sad one is dishonest. She was happy, she had friends, and while her biological family rejected her, she found something better.

*

But to say her story is a completely happy one is just as dishonest. While she experienced discrimination for her whole life, the event most people know best is her death. Dwayne Jones was 16 when she was killed at a party on July 22, 2013. It was the first “straight party” she went to dressing in traditionally female clothing. While dancing with a man, a woman reportedly outed her to him. He and a few of his other friends demanded Jones tell them if she was a man or woman. Jones repeatedly told them that she was a woman, but they attacked her and found that she did not have the genitals they expected a woman to have. It was at that point when Khloe tried to intervene, wrapping her arms around Jones and leading her away whispering in her ear “walk with me, walk with me.” Jones pulled away to tell her attackers that she was a woman one last time, and to our knowledge, those were her last words. Khloe and Jones tried to run, but while Khloe was able to escape narrowly, Jones was beaten, shot, stabbed, run over by a car and found dead in the morning.

*

When international news outlets got a hold of this story, it caught like wildfire. Just like wildfire, it quickly got out of control. It became a story to prove the Times’ assertion that Jamaica is the most homophobic country on earth. The conversation was filled with condemnation of a country that would allow something like this. We cannot fault that horror; it is true that no one who was involved in Jones’ death has been punished, and though there were reportedly over 300 people at the party, none were willing to testify.

A more damaging narrative that was very clear in reports of this story was the narrative that Jamaica was just a place where things like this happened. Though the international media indulged itself thoroughly in tragedy tourism, they quickly moved on. It was easy for people who are not from the country to shake their heads at the atrocity of this act, but also inwardly shrug because Jamaica is “the most homophobic place on earth.”

We can dissect why that is the wrong reaction for years. We could discuss the history of colonialism in Jamaica and how that is partially responsible for the attitudes that exist there today. While that is a topic that deserves a full exploration, that is not what we will be looking at today. Today, we look at the harm that form of sensationalism does. While Jones’ story undoubtedly needs to be told, one must be very careful of the framing. It doesn’t help to portray Jones’ story as a wholly tragic one because it wasn’t and it denies something that is very important to acknowledge in Jamaica: the queer community.

Jamaica has a queer community, a community that Jones was a part of and found comfort in. It also has a strong community of allies and activists, including politicians. When one ignores those people, they ignore what will someday stop what happened to Jones from happening again, and what stopped Jones from being completely alone and possibly dying even earlier. While news outlets could have used this story to push forward Jamaican queer activists, which would help them in raising money and gaining support both internationally and in their own country, they instead used it to dismiss the country entirely. When Times called Jamaica “the most homophobic place on earth,” and when news source after news source confirmed this assertion, they made change seem impossible. They portrayed the country as irredeemable, and if it is why one would spare more than a moment of thought for the country? 

Then when activists come out and ask for support, it will seem that their cause is hopeless, and money and support will go to places people think it will make a larger impact.

When Jones’ story is shown as a tragedy alone, it is hard to fully absorb the impact, because people’s minds immediately go into self-defense mode. Our brains try to shield us from the sadness of it, but when you tell the full story, the story of her happiness, of her friends, of her love for dancing, it is easier to fully understand the weight of the loss. Not only does this sensationalism directly hurt the people who are trying to create change in the country people are dismissing, but it is also taking away the full impact of the event.

Of course, this does not mean that we should deny the existence of homophobia in Jamaica, because it exists, and it is violent, and it is different from the homophobia other countries deal with. However, it is important to also acknowledge that just like every country has a different culture, and different queer communities, the oppression is different. No country has the same type of bigotry as another country, and putting them into degrees from worst to greatest can be an oversimplification at best. 

While discussing which countries have the highest rate of homophobic or transphobic violence is important, the discussion can not end there. Just pointing at bad things happening and saying that they are bad doesn’t do much. We need to look at next steps and look to the communities who live in the country to tell us what they need, and help where we can. International shaming can only go so far because the people who did these awful things probably don’t care what some writer at the Times thinks of them.

So, you must work with the people who do care, who can affect change. Instead of scolding the entire country in a news piece and moving on, show the country as the complex multidimensional place that it is, and give people resources. Show people that there are ways that they can help because most people can’t fly down to Jamaica and personally fight every transphobe. What many people can do is sign a petition or donate money to Jamaican queer organizations. For example, one organization that people should look at if they want to pursue either of these actions is J-Flag, or they could look into the case of Maurice Tomlinson.

So there is a good way to report on these stories, and the primary components of this strategy are to amplify the voices of those who are trying to make a change and to be honest. Don’t ignore the positive aspects of a person’s life, or of a community, but also don’t ignore the negative aspects. Just recognize that countries are incredibly complex things, and show the people who are there working to make things better. Dwayne Jones does not define the history of Jamaica, but she is inextricably a part of it, and both of these things can be true at the same time.

Ours is not the final word on this subject, nor is it the most important one, so we encourage those who can to look at organizations like J-Flag. When discussing transphobia and homophobia in Jamaica, do proper research. Making Queer History should not be your only stop. In fact, there shouldn’t be just one stop ever. There is no end to what one can know about queer communities around the world, there is always more history discovered, and there are always things happening now that will be in our history books fifty years from now. So don’t stop listening and looking for diverse voices, and most importantly don’t ever trick yourself into thinking you have learned all you need to know.

[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]

David M. (August 11, 2013) In Jamaica, transgender teen murdered by mob. Retrieved February 24, 2017

http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2013/08/11/jamaica-transgender-teen-murdered-by-mob/2639995/

Toyin O. (August 26, 2013) Jamaica: Transgender Teenager Dwayne Jones Murdered by Homophobic Mob Retrieved February 24, 2017

http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/jamaica-transgender-teen-dwayne-jones-murdered-homophobic-498483

Maurice T. (August 28, 2013) Jamaica: I failed Oshane Gordon. I will not fail Dwayne Jones. Retrieved February 24, 2017

https://76crimes.com/2013/08/28/jamaica-i-failed-oshane-gordon-i-will-not-fail-dwayne-jones/

Annie P. (July 24, 2013) The Senseless Death of Dwayne Jones aka Gully Queen Retrieved February 24, 2017

https://anniepaul.net/2013/07/24/dwayne-jones-aka-gully-queen-no-words/

Scott R. (August 12, 2013) Murdered Jamaican trans teenager Dwayne Jones suffered bullying from father and at school. Retrieved February 24, 2017

http://www.pinknews.co.uk/2013/08/12/murdered-jamaican-trans-teenager-dwayne-jones-suffered-bullying-from-father-and-at-school/

Suzanne P. (May 2, 2016) Stop Calling Jamaica “the Most Homophobic Place on Earth”. Retrieved February 24, 2017

http://www.slate.com/blogs/outward/2016/05/02/stop_calling_jamaica_the_most_homophobic_place_on_earth.html