MONTEGO BAY, Jamaica (AP) — Dwayne Jones was relentlessly teased in high school for being effeminate until he dropped out. His father not only kicked him out of the house at the age of 14 but also helped jeering neighbors push the youngster from the rough 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. His mistake: confiding to a friend that he was attending a "straight" party as a girl for the first time in his life.
"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 the hills above the north coast city of Montego Bay. Like many transgender and gay people in Jamaica, Khloe wouldn't give a full name out of fear.
"It was horrible. It was so, so painful to see him like that."
International advocacy groups often portray this Caribbean island as the most hostile country in the Western Hemisphere for gay and transgender people. After two prominent gay rights activists were murdered, a researcher with the U.S.-based 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. Dwayne's horrific July 22 murder has made headlines in newspapers on the island and stirred calls in some quarters for doing more to protect Jamaica's gay community, especially those who live on the streets and resort to sex work.
Advocates say much of the homophobia is fueled by a nearly 150-year-old anti-sodomy law that bans anal sex as well as by dancehall reggae performers who flaunt anti-gay themes. The island's main gay rights group estimated that two homosexual men were killed for their sexual orientation last year, and 36 were the victims of mob violence.
For years, Jamaica's gay community has lived so far underground that their parties and church services were held in secret locations. Many gays have stuck to a "don't ask, don't tell" policy of keeping their sexual orientation hidden to avoid scrutiny or protect loved ones.
"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.
Some say the hostility partly stems from the legacy of slavery when black men were sometimes sodomized as punishment or humiliation. Some historians believe that practice carried over into a general dread of homosexuality.
But in recent years, emboldened young people such as Dwayne have helped bring the island's gay and transgender community out of the shadows. A small group of gay runaways now rowdily congregates on the streets of Kingston's financial district.
Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller's government has also 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 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 Jones' murder, despite the justice minister calling for a full probe.
Police spokesman Steve Brown said detectives working the case are struggling to overcome a chronic problem: a strong anti-informant culture that makes eyewitnesses to murders and other crimes too afraid or simply unwilling to come forward.
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 Dwayne's murder. Police say witnesses have said they couldn't see the attackers' faces.
Dwayne was the center of attraction shortly after arriving in a taxi at 2 a.m. with his two 23-year-old housemates, Khloe and Keke. Dwayne's expert dance moves, long legs and high cheekbones quickly made him the one that the guys were trying to get next to.
Like many Jamaican homosexuals, Dwayne was careful about 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 Dwayne in the dimly-lit street asking: "Are you a woman or a man?" One man waved a lighter's flame near Dwayne's sneakers, asking whether a girl could have such big feet.
Then, his friends said, another man grabbed a lantern from an outdoor bar and walked over to Dwayne, shining the bright light over him from head to toe. "It's a man," he concluded, while the others hissed "batty boy" and other anti-gay epithets.
Khloe says she tried to steer him away from the crowd, whispering in Dwayne's ear: "Walk with me, walk with me." But Dwayne pulled away, loudly insisting to partygoers that he was a girl. When someone behind him snapped his bra strap, the teen panicked and raced down the street.
But he couldn't run fast enough to escape the mob.
The teenager was viciously assaulted and apparently half-conscious for some two hours before another sustained attack finished him off, according to Khloe, who was also beaten and nearly raped. She hid in a nearby church and then the surrounding woods, unable to call for help because she didn't have her cellphone.
Dwayne's father in the Montego Bay slum of North Gully didn't want to talk about his son's life or death. The teen's family wouldn't even claim the body, according to Dwayne's friends.
They remembered him as a spirited boy with a contagious laugh who dreamt of becoming a performer like Lady Gaga. He was also a street-smart hustler who resorted to sleeping in the bushes or on beaches when he became homeless. He won a local dancing competition during his time on the streets and was affectionately nicknamed "Gully Queen."
"He was the youngest of us but he was a diva," Khloe said. "He was always very feisty and joking around."
Inside their squatter house, Khloe and Keke said, they still talk to their dead friend.
"I'll be cooking in the kitchen and I'll say, 'Dwayne, you hungry?' or something like that," said Keke while sitting on the old mattress in her bedroom, flinching as neighborhood dogs barked outside. "We just miss him all the time. Sometimes I think I see him."
But down the hall, Dwayne's room is empty except for pink window curtains decorated with roses, his favorite flower.
David McFadden on Twitter: http://twitter.com/dmcfadd