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The arrest of a Palm Springs, Calif., couple on a gay cruise ship docked in Dominica is a crucial lesson for our times and a dire warning against complacency.
Despite incredible progress on the road to equality particularly in many western nations, despite bold proclamations in support of LGBT people by important world leaders such as U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, don’t forget that there are 76 countries around the world where it is illegal to be gay.
Dennis Jay Mayer, 53, a retired deputy sheriff, and his partner John Robert Hart, 41, were on a gay cruise of the Caribbean with 2,000 other gay passengers when their vacation and their lives were forever changed.
Someone standing on the dock, looking up at the giant cruise ship, the Celebrity Summit, claimed to see the couple, who have been together for 17 years, naked and having sex on the balcony of their cabin. Who really knows what happened on that balcony, other than the couple, and they deny being completely naked or having sex. But that “eyewitness,” who never has been identified, told a scandalous story to police in the Dominica, where sexual activity for gays and lesbians is a crime.
The men were soon arrested and accused of buggery, and could have faced up to 10 years in prison if convicted. They eventually were charged with a lesser count of indecent exposure.
The fact that any “eyewitness,” even those with incredible eyesight standing so far away from the alleged incident, can trigger an international incident is astounding ... and a dire warning to gay travelers visiting homophobic countries.
In interviews with KTLA in Los Angeles and with The Associated Press, the Palm Springs couple describe a harrowing ordeal in which they were subjected to a four-hour police interrogation without legal representation and threats of being medically examined for signs of sexual activity. Mayer told the AP:
"The treatment was inhumane. We were detained for approximately 26 hours, and 19 of those locked in a cement cell, which had no running water, no toilet, no lights. It stunk of feces and urine. It was infested with cockroaches, ants and bugs. …
"They paraded many people by to look in on us as if we were some type of animal, which was quite humiliating. People got great joy in the pleasure of taunting us."
The couple’s story was big news in Dominca, played up in local papers and online, in a very homophobic way. Crowds gathered along the route from the jail to the courthouse, and Mayer told the AP about the angry mob:
"They were chanting and banging on the police vehicle. They were screaming things. I've never seen anything like this in my life, other than in movies. Both my partner and I really feared for our safety. It was very frightening."
Wisely, the couple followed the advice of their local lawyer, who told them to beg for the mercy of the court and apologize for their behavior.
Chief Magistrate Evaline Baptiste chastised them in court, calling them “rogues and vagabonds,” and ordered each to pay a fine of $900. Not having the money, they were escorted through the mob scene to a bank as the crowds stared or jeered.
After paying their fine, the couple were driven by police to the airport, for their protection.
Time to wake up
What happened to this Palm Springs couple could happen to you. The world is not a safe place for LGBT people, and this is yet another reason to keep fighting for global gay rights.
I am reminded of a day long ago when I was young and naïve. I was about to make my first-ever trip abroad and got my first warning against being an “ugly American.” If you’ve never heard the term, it refers to a stereotype of arrogant and thoughtless Americans who go overseas and ignore local culture and norms, judging everything by American standards. Act this way in a foreign land and it is an invitation to trouble.
LGBT people are no different than other American tourists, and we often forget that we enjoy far more rights than our LGBT brothers and sisters abroad. We think we are invincible and that our mighty tourism dollars will protect us from harm.
Some gay and straight friends of mine are going to Uganda this summer, supposedly visiting only as tourists, but I think they want to see for themselves how bad it is for the LGBT community in that profoundly homophobic country. I am already worrying about this trip, fearing the worst for them.
Before you travel abroad, please study LGBT rights by country or territory. Abide by the rules of the country you are visiting. Observe the local customs. Don’t be an ugly American and find yourself in a situation that can put yourself in harm’s way.
Lastly, I have no idea why Atlantis Events, which organizes the Celebrity X Cruises, books passage to countries that are homophobic! Why spend gay dollars in countries that persecute gay people? I have no idea if Atlantic Events warns passengers ahead of time about the laws of the countries they are visiting.
Rich Campbell, president of Atlantic Events, has gotten heat from his comments to the AP in which he downplayed the incident involving the Palm Springs couple.
The couple said in a subsequent interview with the AP that the captain ejected them from the cruise ship after police showed up to arrest them and that they were told there was “zero tolerance toward your behavior.”
This, too, should be an important lesson to gay travelers.
Ken Williams is Editor in Chief of SDGLN. He can be reached at email@example.com, @KenSanDiego on Twitter, or by calling toll-free to (877) 727-5446, ext. 713.