Botty man

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The Jamaican Creole phrase often spelled batty man, pronounced ['bati'man] (also botty boy ['bati'bwai]), would be more easily interpreted by other English speakers if it were spelled botty man, since the first element is botty, a familiar British hypocorism for bottom. (My point about the spelling is not a prescriptive one; I'm merely pointing out that the first syllable sounds like Standard English bot, not bat.) The literal meaning of the phrase into American English would be "butt man" or "ass man", and the free translation is "homosexual" (trading, of course, on the juvenile assumption that all gays are ever interested in is bottoms). The phrase appeared in a note near the naked corpse of John Terry, found at his home in Montego Bay last week. It saddened me to see, in a week when one country atoned just a little for its homophobic past with a genuine apology from its government, another country continuing to forge a place for itself in the annals of intolerance and moral backwardness.

John Terry was a British citizen with three children who had been separated from his wife for three years. He had lived for forty years in Jamaica, where he was an Honorary Consul to the British High Commission in the western town of Montego Bay — he was an unpaid assistant diplomat helping tourists solve their travel problems. The Queen had honored him with an MBE for this work. One night last week a young man who had gone home with him repeatedly hit him with a bedside lamp base until the sheets of his bed were spattered with his blood, and then asphyxiated him with a drawstring pulled tight around his neck. He left a note calling Terry a "batty man" and threatening all gays with a similar fate. (See this news story for a newspaper account.)

Jamaican culture is famously and murderously homophobic. In 2006 TIME called Jamaica the most homophobic place on earth. The murder rate for the country as a whole is the highest in the world, but for gays things are much worse. As recently as 2007 there was a Google-hosted Jamaican blog (gone now) called "Kill Batty Man", devoted to such themes as documenting gay-bashing on camera. Jamaican Creole has no obligatory inflectional marking of plurality on nouns, so kill batty man should probably be translated "kill homosexuals". And the proposal is not just humorous hyperbole, it seems.

Many ordinary Jamaicans actually seem proud of their attitude to gays. The YouTube video here about a crowd that gathered to beat up an inoffensive cross-dresser is neutral in its attitude, but the hostile comments below it are not. Nor are the sentiments of some of the gay-hating reggae songs by Jamaican recording artists like Buju Banton, Elephant Man, and Bounty Killer.

The poet Matt Harvey, on Radio 4 on Saturday morning, returned to the earlier story about Turing, commenting more eloquently than I could on homophobia and the prime ministerial apology to Turing (the poem was published here):

Alan Turing

here's a toast to Alan Turing
born in harsher, darker times
who thought outside the container
and loved outside the lines
and so the code-breaker was broken
and we're sorry
yes now the s-word has been spoken
the official conscience woken
— very carefully scripted but at least it's not encrypted —
and the story does suggest
a part 2 to the Turing Test:
1. can machines behave like humans?
2. can we?

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