Trouble in Paradise�The Complete Story

7.9.2006

By Out.com Editors

In St. Maarten, early in the morning of Thursday, April 6, a young islander screamed 'Faggots!' and, brandishing a tire iron, smashed the skulls of two gay men from New York City.

The Caribbean island of St. Martin has two sides.

St. Maarten is part of the Netherlands Antilles, an autonomous country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands; St. Martin is part of Guadeloupe, a possession of France. The island's surface covers only 37 square miles, and its population is about 70,000, but the two sides have separate governments, separate law enforcement systems, and distinct though entwined cultures. Tourism is the economic livelihood of both. License plates here are stamped with the phrase 'Friendly Island.'

Bamboo Bernie's, on Maho Bay on the Dutch side, has a thatched roof and a cartoon mural depicting black cannibals carrying a plump white man to be roasted on a fire. As in many places on this island, everything looks small and whimsical, almost like a toy.

Early in the morning of Thursday, April 6, under a breezeway by the bar's outdoor pool, a Rastafarian-looking man from the French side'who, according to several sources, once had been convicted of assault with a machete'stood face-to-face with a stick-thin woman he had known since elementary school. He was flirting with her, she was having none of it, and that made him angry.

She dared him, 'If you hit me'I don't care if I'm a girl'I'm gonna hit you back.'

Breaking eye contact, he glanced away and saw a man with an arm around another man.

'After that,' the woman says with relief and regret, 'he completely
forget about me.'

The previous night, down the street from Bamboo Bernie's, five gay men from New York walked into Sunset Beach Bar, where a sign reads 'Topless Women Drink Free.' They had cocktails, and Ryan Smith, a 6-foot-7, 26-year-old researcher at CBS News, made out with his boyfriend, Justin Swensen, a 6-foot-3, 23-year-old fashion model with a faux-hawk. A bouncer warned them, 'You have to stop doing that. This isn't a gay bar.'

Their friend Dick Jefferson, 51, a senior broadcast producer for CBS Evening News, remembers that Smith 'went off on' the bouncer and said, ' 'We can do whatever we want wherever we want. You can't take that away from us,' and that's where I said, 'Ryan, shut up,' ' and persuaded the group to leave.

Jefferson says he told Smith, 'Their country, their rules.'

On the way back to their rented villa, the argument continued. Did they, as gay men, have an obligation to adapt their behavior to the standards of this foreign culture, even if they believed those standards were wrong?

The next evening at Bamboo Bernie's, when the Rasta guy spotted Smith and Swensen embracing, he and several friends began harassing the couple. Those present have slightly different memories of the scene.

Smith recalls, 'They were saying things that apparently meant 'gay,' and they were saying, 'You shouldn't be here, you should be dead.' ' In response, Smith adds, 'I said nothing'. We came to the realization that we had to be very careful. We would never want our life jeopardized by being gay.'

Swensen says the men were not speaking English. 'The only thing that I could understand was 'batty boy,' the Jamaican slur for 'gay,' or 'faggots.'' All of these guys started making fun of us, and I looked at one of the girls in their group and I was like, 'What is their problem?' and she just shrugged like, 'I don't know.' ' Bouncers separated the two groups.

A local woman who saw the altercation heard the islanders holler, 'Oh, what kind of a bullshit is that? We don't like that kind of shit. We don't promote those type of stuff, having gays here.' She says that after security arrived one of the gay men said to the harassers, 'I hope you are happy with what you did now.' One of the islanders then picked up a chair, she adds, 'Like, Get off my face'I thought he would have thrown it.'

Swensen acknowledges he teased the man who was threatening him with the chair: ' 'What are you gonna do? Give me a lap dance on that?' And he said, 'No, I'm not gonna give you a lap dance.' '

After that, security ejected the islanders from the bar. One witness heard them complain that the reason they, not the tourists, were being ejected was that the tourists were white and they were black.

As they were being thrown out, witnesses also say that Swensen blew them a kiss. 'I honestly don't think that I did,' Swensen says, 'but I'm not gonna put it past me.'

'That maybe was not a smart thing to do,' says Taco Stein, a pale, bearish Dutchman with a walrus mustache who serves as St. Maarten's chief prosecutor. 'But is that bad? No, it's not. But it's stupid. In the end that might have been the thing that got this guy so fucked up that he decided to beat him up.'

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