Being a sexual minority in the Caribbean can be a challenging existence to say the least, often fraught with invisibility and dehumanization. However, while having increased visibility can mean more acceptance and more opportunities for some, it can also be dangerous and isolating for others. With Gabrielle Bellot’s article “On Being Queer in the Caribbean” in the New York Times, and plenty talk and editorials about Jamaican novelist and Man Booker Prize winner Marlon James’ identity as a gay man living in the United States, the conversation about Caribbean LGBT people has once more been thrust into the forefront of the sociological imagination.
But who is still paying attention? And what does this mean for advocacy efforts to help improve the lives of Caribbean people belonging to these communities? For those not actively involved with, invested in, or belonging to LGBT populations, the social and new media maelstrom has already abated. But for those who are sexual minorities living in or trying to accept their truths, their lives and work are not merely ephemeral fads to be resuscitated for convenience or in the wake of a media storm.
Particularly missing from much of the general conversation about Caribbean LGBT peoples are the voices, representation, and work of women belonging to these communities. The Caribbean Women and Sexual Diversity Conference (CWSDC) was developed, in part, as a way to address this discrepancy –to amplify the voices of Caribbean lesbian, bisexual, and Trans women who we do not often hear from, to sustain and expand the conversation about issues that sexual minorities face, and to support capacity building of individuals and organizations working in the LGBT rights sector.
History of the CWSDC
The visionary behind the CWSDC is Kenita Placide, Executive Director of United and Strong, Inc., a human rights non-governmental organization representing marginalised groups in St. Lucia with a focus on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people. Her vision for the conference was guided by the fact that she often found herself to be one of the few women in LGBT advocacy in the region. Throughout her work in HIV and human rights, Kenita felt constant pushback from Caribbean men and saw that most advocacy efforts centered men’s viewpoints. She realized that there needed to be more women at the table, that there needed to be more focus on women’s issues within LGBT Caribbean communities. As such, she conceptualized the conference as a way for more women to get involved in the movement.
In February 2012, prior to the first CWSDC, United and Strong, Inc. held the International Dialogue and Training on Human Rights in St. Lucia. This was one of the few instances in which Caribbean activists were given intentional space to get together to connect and speak on their visions for global LGBT rights. At the time, it was the largest number of lesbian and bisexual women attendees in one space ever recorded in the Caribbean. Discussion from this international dialogue eventually led to the creation of the CWSDC.
The first CWSDC took place in Curaçao in 2013 from September 23-29. Its theme was “Strengthening the Invisible Woman and Empowering Her to Leadership”. Fundashon Orguyo Kòrsou/Curaçao Pride Foundation (FOKO), an organization devoted to LGBTI rights, hosted the conference in partnership with ARC International. 35 women attended, with representation from 14 different Caribbean countries.
The second CWSDC took place in Suriname from October 5-12, 2014 and was hosted by the Women’SWay Foundation along with United and Strong, Inc. and CariFLAGS. Its theme was “Inspiring Women to Leadership”. This conference had more than 30 women participating who represented 13 countries and 18 organizations. Suriname was a particularly intriguing location to host the conference, since as a former Dutch colony, it does not have the anti-sodomy and gross indecency laws (that contribute to homophobia/homoantagonism) that were instituted in many Caribbean countries via British rule.
At the end of each conference, organizations interested in hosting pitch their ideas, and attending delegates vote on who will plan the next convening. Having subsequent CWSDCs in different countries with women invited from all over the region invites different perspectives into the discourse, especially since even though countries’ laws might be different, stigma and discrimination against sexual minorities manifest in similar ways. The winning organization will have one or two additional partners that work on the conference in collaboration with them and United and Strong, Inc. This approach helps to build the capacity of small and medium-sized organizations in the Caribbean by encouraging them to develop partnerships.
United and Strong, Inc./CariFLAGS Eastern Caribbean Hub and WOMANTRA, with the support of the Women’s Caucus of Trinidad and Tobago, hosted the 3rd annual CWSDC last month from October 5-10, 2015 at the Kapok Hotel in Port of Spain, Trinidad.
The theme for this year’s conference was “Actioning Women’s Leadership”, which manifested itself through six days brimming with dialogue, community and capacity building, and action planning. Over 50 Caribbean and Latin American lesbian, bisexual, and Trans women, in addition to straight allies, all from various feminist, women’s, and LBT organizations, attended.
Topics discussed included: community grassroots organizing, negative stereotypes and violence, traditional and social media and advocacy to reach the community and wider population, creative activism, grassroots funding/fundraising, self-care and coping mechanisms to utilize in landscapes that are not accommodating of LGBT communities, CEDAW/Commission on the Status of Women, women’s sexual and mental health, security for women’s human rights defenders and how to mitigate risk based on context, afrocentric artivism, presentation skills, LBT women’s movement building and feminism, and the United Nations system and the different mechanisms within it that give local advocates access to international and regional spaces. The conference also exposed participants to a range of skills-sharing sessions intended to improve organizational or personal capacity. These included financial management and grant writing sessions, among others.
According to Latoya Nugent, Associate Director of WE-Change, participants were particularly grateful for the self-care session because it made the conference not just about strategies and ideas about how to do the work and how to do it effectively, but also about strengthening the bond of community and support among advocates and emphasizing personal wellbeing. Stephanie Leitch, Founding Director of WOMANTRA, expanded upon the importance of self-care for the advocates at CWSDC, saying: “We lost one of our own this year, Guyanese activist Zenita Nicholson to the strain of this work, and so it is important for us to remember that self care is a revolutionary act and one we must demand for ourselves and each other”. In addition to the self-care session, there were opportunities for physical activity such as yoga, swimming, and masala bhangra, giving advocates time to focus on their physical and spiritual wellbeing.
Hearteningly, a researcher from the Institute of Gender and Development Studies at the University of the West Indies Cavehill campus in Barbados utilized having such a large cross section of LBT women in one space to collect valuable data on their experiences as sexual minorities, data which traditionally has been lacking in both amount and quality. This will be a meaningful contribution to the growing body of research concerning LBT women.
Another remarkable aspect of this year’s conference was the availability of scholarships from WE-Change and United and Strong, Inc. to help those in need of financial assistance to offset the conference’s cost. The organizations did not want the conference to be economically prohibitive, and it was especially important for WE-Change to have access to funding so that they could show up with a strong delegation. Six of their eight participants were fully sponsored by the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Havana, Foundation Rights Now in Sweden, and J-FLAG in Jamaica.
In addition to increasing financial access, United and Strong also sought out information about the special access/mobility, dietary, and medical needs of participants, aiming for a more intersectional and invested approach to whom the conference served and included. This year advocates from Latin America also attended. WOMANTRA sourced translators for them, and ARC International, one of the conference’s sponsors, provided the translation equipment. According to Kenita Placide, the involvement of the Latin American participants “brought a wealth of knowledge that was not present in the English-speaking Caribbean”, which added to the CWSDC’s desire to invest in the development of South-South relations.
Additionally, with the participation of Trans activists this year, the conference planners realized that “Trans issues need to be prioritized in any future programming agenda” if they were to “aspire not to re-marginalize members of [their] community and be truly inclusive”. This is reflected by the practice of fine-tuning the agenda every year “based on the expressed needs of the community or where a lack presents itself”.
The Importance and Impact of CWSDC
In speaking to why the conference is important to the Caribbean, Stephanie Leitch shared that:
“The CWSDC is the only space solely dedicated to increasing the participation of women sexual minorities or LBTs in social justice activism. The removal of the ‘G’ from this acronym is significant and representative of a deliberate paradigm shift in ‘gay rights’ organizing, which has traditionally been dominated by men”.
Indeed, a lot of what is seen or written in the media is of Caribbean cis gay men. Representations and stories from lesbian, bisexual, or Trans women are not as popular or as visible. Moreover, women’s participation in various movements or organizations working with sexual minorities tends to be grossly underrepresented and obscure, which leads to the unfortunate consequence of having to compete for very limited resources. Furthermore, much of the available or proposed programming for sexual minorities tends to be centered around HIV, not just in the Caribbean, but globally. Yet, sexual minorities deal with myriad issues outside of HIV. But more than that, there are specific issues that LBT women face that are not being dealt with, and the conference highlights that these must be handled separately. This is why the CWSDC is both necessary and pointedly specific in its focus.
The existence of the CWSDC is also critical because it gives women who work either individually or with local organizations the chance to create networks on personal and social levels and get motivated to work on issues that directly affect them. The CWSDC is a sacred place where participants get to dialogue and share advocacy, research, challenges, and theories and empower each others’ work.
“This conference provides a space for like-minded individuals to come together and share their knowledge and resources, which must not be underestimated as a powerful source of inspiration and healing, especially when so many of us are working within hostile environments, where allies are often hard to come by” -Stephanie Leitch.
Future of CWSDC
Next year, the conference will be hosted by Liberty Place in St. Croix in either September or October. One of the many appealing aspects to Liberty Place’s pitch was that the proposed hotel for the conference’s location is owned by members of the queer community. This is powerful because part of the intention of this conference is to support and provide safe space for community, and this is indeed one of the most ideal ways to ensure a positive outcome on both fronts. The theme and agenda for the conference have not yet been decided, but the planning committee has ample time to deliberate and ensure that next year’s conference surpasses the already high standards set by United and Strong, Inc.
There needs to be more representation and greater visibility of Caribbean LBT women, and there are spectacular organizations doing the hard work of amplifying their voices and providing professional development opportunities to boost their advocacy. The planners of the CWSDC started something major with the first installation in 2013, and with continued support this conference can become a recognised platform that produces women leaders who are unafraid to take the reigns of leadership amidst silencing and erasure.
It should be noted that representation of and advocacy for Caribbean women affiliated with LBGT communities comes in multiple forms. This story by Nicole Dennis-Benn on a Jamaican mother’s support for and struggle with her gender non-conforming child is a heartwrenching example of the rollercoasters of allyship and depression. This personal account by Dominican writer Gabrielle Bellot is an honest and genuine portrayal of her Trans identity. And this call for submissions of LGBT Caribbean narratives is a much needed, long overdue effort to change dominant ideas about Caribbean sexualities. Let us continue to lift up and support the stories and work being done by sexual minorities in the Caribbean. Let us allow for the multiplicities and complexities of identities and highlight the work that is being done effectively and successfully. And congratulations to WE-Change, WOMANTRA, and United and Strong, Inc. on a brilliant conference that does all of this and more.
My sincerest gratitude to Latoya Nugent, Associate Director of WE-Change, Maria Fontenelle, Community and Advocacy Officer of United and Strong, Inc., and Stephanie Leitch, Founding Director of WOMANTRA for so generously sharing their stories, resources, and photographs of the conference.
To read personal accounts from participants of the 2015 CWSDC, please click here.