By Lisa Keen
A gay bashing incident that left two CBS news staffers seriously injured this month has now exposed a hostile underbelly to what once was considered one of the Caribbean’s most gay friendly islands.
CBS News producer Dick Jefferson said that police on St. Maarten island did not respond to his calls to report the crime until days after the incident and that the detective who did finally contact him discouraged him from filing a report. Then, just days after the widely reported incident, a newspaper in Philipsburg, where the assault occurred, ran an editorial lamenting that “American laws” have now made “beating a person over the head” for being openly gay “a no-no.”
Jefferson and another CBS News employee, Ryan Smith were severely beaten by four assailants outside a Philipsburg bar April 6. Both suffered serious head injuries requiring they be airlifted to a Miami hospital for surgery. Jefferson has since been released, but Smith is reportedly still in serious condition.
The attack is believed to have been perpetrated by four male patrons who were asked to leave the bar, Bamboo Bernie’s, because they were harassing Smith and a friend for being gay. Jefferson later told reporters he had not been in the bar when the harassment occurred and was walking some distance behind Smith when he first noticed the altercation. According to various reports, Smith, Jefferson, and four other friends were outside the bar about 3:30 a.m. when four men and two women in a car nearly hit Smith then jumped out of the car and attacked him. When Jefferson ran forward toward Smith to see what was happening, he was attacked.
While at least one local paper condemned the assault and the inadequacy of the police response, another suggested the victims brought the attack on themselves “after apparently offending the St. Martin locals by their gussying over each other in a bar just before closing.”
“Gay bashing has taken many forms over the decades. During and after World War II, it was considered common sport for military guys to let themselves be picked up by a faggot in a bar in Los Angeles or San Francisco…” said the editorial in the April 11 issue of the paper Today. “All that has changed, of course, largely due to American laws that are being spread around the world. Gay bashing is now a no-no. Slurs against homos, a no-no. And beating a person over the head for flagrant public behavior that once was considered criminal misconduct is a no-no.”
While the editorial concluded with an expression of “hope the police find the attackers,” it took its own parting short at gays in general, saying the “silly homosexuals” were using their media power “to trash a friendly island.”
After receiving criticism for that editorial, the paper then ran another one, on April 15, saying that “too often” in the Caribbean, “homosexuals have spun their tales to serve their own selfish interests and in doing so impugn the hard-earned reputation of Caribbean nations only because the majority of their people do not accept the homosexual way of life and the minority who choose to react violently.” It criticized Jefferson for calling for a boycott of the island, saying it would cause the majority of people on the island to suffer financially.
An article in the April 15 issue of Today reported that Jefferson returned to St. Maarten for a press conference April 14 and quoted him saying he has “not yet” called for a boycott but might unless police respond better to the crime. It also quoted Jefferson as saying, “I was not attacked because I was gay, my friends were.” The assailants, he said, did not know “if I was straight or gay, I just happened to pass by and got whacked on the head.”
But the Daily Herald reported that Jefferson also identified the attack on Smith as a clear gay bashing.
Jefferson told reporters at the press conference that he would discourage two gay-oriented cruises -RSVP and Atlantis- from visiting the island unless the people of St. Maarten “stop protecting” the four attackers from prosecution.
Websites for both RSVP and Atlantis cruises indicate the gay-oriented tour companies have planned stops in St. Maarten during tours early next year.
Bill Ward, a spokesperson for the Minneapolis-based RSVP Cruises, said the company is monitoring the situation in St. Maarten and that, while it has no plans to change its itinerary at this time, “if at any time, we feel our guests would be in danger, we would have no hesitation changing that itinerary.” Ward noted that the company has, in the past, dropped both Jamaica and the Cayman Islands due to anti-gay incidents.
Atlantis Events did not return this paper’s calls, but Olivia Cruises, which caters to lesbians, had a scheduled stop in St. Maartens on April 19. Amy Errett, chief executive officer of the company, said Olivia’s guests had a “great time” and experienced “nothing that resembled a problem in any way.”
“We always check things out,” said Errett, “and we concluded that this appears to have been a very isolated incident.” Errett said Olivia has never had any problems with anti-gay incidents in St. Maartens or elsewhere in the Caribbean. She, like Ward, agreed their companies would not include Jamaica on their itineraries.
At that same press conference, local prosecutor Taco Stein told reporters that he believes the assailants were simply motivated to beat up “someone,” not necessarily someone gay. He said authorities now have one suspect in detention, but he refused to identify the suspects except to say that “the majority of the suspects are French nationals, based on testimony of eyewitnesses,” according to the Daily Herald.
Meanwhile, although the St. Maarten office of tourism issued a public apology to Jefferson and Smith, gay organizations in the United States are steaming mad over the attitude expressed in the Today editorial.
Neil Giuliano, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, said the Today editorial “glorified gay bashing” and “trivialized the assaults.”
“This editorial is so grotesquely defamatory that it almost defies description,” said Giuliano, in a statement April 20. “This is the kind of malignant bigotry – pure, unfiltered hate – that leads to and causes violence.”
In an April 11 letter to the ambassador to the U.S. from The Netherlands, which governs the island along with France, Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese warned that the incident “will most certainly give pause to members of our community who are planning any future travels to the area” and urged the Dutch government to “take immediate steps to ensure a full and complete investigation.”