KINGSTON, Jamaica, August 10, 2015 (AMG) — First dubbed by Time magazine as “the most homophobic place on Earth” in 2006, Jamaica’s evolving attitude towards sexual minorities has, by 2015, caused even Time to question whether the country was turning around.
Last week, the Jamaican Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG), an organization that self-identifies as “the foremost organisation advocating and lobbying government and policymakers for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons”, made history with the unprecedented staging of Jamaica’s first-ever LGBT Pride celebrations from August 1-5. Five days of well-planned events to celebrate the LGBT community and its allies took place during the period between Emancipation Day (August 1) and Independence Day (August 6), a symbolism that J-FLAG said was deliberate “to celebrate our freedom, independence, and pride as LGBT Jamaicans”.
We interviewed Latoya Nugent, J-FLAG’s Education and Training Manager, who provided deeper insight into the planning and execution of PRiDE JA 2015.
AMG: Where did J-FLAG get the idea to host a Pride celebration in Jamaica?
LN: In 2013 I had been hoping and wishing one day that Pride would happen in Jamaica. As J-FLAG came to the end of 2014, it became a part of our dialogue. The more we said it in passing, the more we realized that it would be something great and meaningful for the community, something that would be pushing the envelope, challenging stereotypes, increasing visibility, and challenging misinformation about the LGBT community as members stepped out and showed their faces.
AMG: How long has J-FLAG been planning PRiDE JA?
LN: Our first time discussing it in a meeting was the 2015 planning meeting in December 2014. Actual planning didn’t come until May after we had our IDAHOT (International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia) celebrations. When they wrapped up, we hit the ground running. The initial conceptualization was that on Emancipation Day there would be an entire day of different activities, starting at 7:00 in the morning and going until midnight. In early June, this idea soon changed to a full week of activities. We thought, why not go from Emancipation Day to Independence Day and host one activity per day?
LN: We selected “Emancipendence” week because we believe that this period is so symbolic, reflecting the resilience of people through oppression, the past, being shackled by people and legislation. It tied into the resiliency of LGBT people, and knowing or recognizing in that moment how much the community has been breaking some of those rules and pushing the envelope. The theme really was largely about what has been happening in the LGBT community and the fact that more and more we are willing to challenge the status quo of oppression.
AMG: What were some challenges and lessons learned that J-FLAG faced in the planning stages?
LN: The funding for one. We did not receive a lot of funds, and we are very grateful for USAID who supported one of our main activities for PRiDE –the coming out symposium on August 4). They have been a very supportive partner over the years and really contribute a lot to the programmatic work that we do as a team. We are thankful for all of the the agencies and entities that helped us to pull it together in such a short period of time.
We also had a challenge in terms of time, which was our own fault. Most of the planning was done in a 10-week period. Because time was so short and staff was small, that was a bit of a challenge for us. We will definitely correct that come 2016.
It was also difficult to mobilize LGBT persons, because we’re producing a documentary of the first PRiDE celebration in Jamaica. Some persons did not want to be captured on video. For example, for the flash mob on Emancipation Day, we wanted 40-50 persons to participate, separate from those who were there to support. When we initially started to mobilize people, it seemed like we were going to have more than 50. But when we advised persons individually that we would be recording the activity, a few persons decided not to participate.
One company had agreed to provide a particular service, and at the last minute they called to advise us that they were no longer able to do so. They didn’t explicitly state why, but we were suspicious about the reasons for them not wanting to engage us. But those that actually did, (I’m not sure if they are at the place yet where we can say their names), they really rallied around us. This says to me that Jamaica is changing, and we are all at least learning that we need to engage the business entities and service providers out there who are willing to work with us to provide the services that we need.
AMG: Could you tell us more about each of the events? First we have: Saturday, August 1, 2015- The flash mob at Emancipation Park and the Opening Ceremony.
LN: PRiDE JA 2015 commenced with a flash mob on the morning of Emancipation Day at the historic statue by Emancipation Park. It was perhaps the most exciting and inspiring activity for me because it required so much bravery and boldness of the participants. It was open. It was public. It was being filmed. And for the 15 or more minutes that we danced, ran, posed for photos and shouted “Happy PRiDE!” all the last minute fear and nervousness vanished. Like all our other PRiDE events it was also incident free, and the feedback from onlookers was purely positive.
On our journey back to the Rainbow House following the flash mob, rainbow flags were flown through every window of all the vehicles that transported participants, organisers, supporters, and filmmakers. It was unbelievable and magical! I couldn’t believe that this was Jamaica.
The opening ceremony was hosted on the evening of Emancipation Day, at a hotel we’ve developed a very good working relationship with. It featured remarks from our Mayor of Kingston, who was very well-received by the persons in attendance, receiving many rounds of applause from the audience. She said what we’ve been saying all this time: what we really want is an inclusive society, a discrimination-free society in which, as a minority population, we will no longer need to create these spaces because Jamaica will have a discrimination-free society that is safe for everyone in which we can all dine, party, go to school, access healthcare–whatever it may be, without distinction. She also said that we all should be given the agency to express ourselves and celebrate strides we’ve made as a community.
We had a raising of the rainbow flag by Dane Lewis, our Executive Director, and Rochelle Mcfee. We also had a rainbow cake with the images of persons who were either part of or friends of the community. Once we cut the cake, we saw the six layers of rainbow colors. An “out” couple cut the cake, which was really awesome for us. We thought it would have been useful for persons to see that the stereotype that “LGBT people are promiscuous and don’t have committed relationships” isn’t true. The evening wrapped up with a cocktail party, and we were all dancing. It really felt good.
LN: This was open to everyone in the community, and it followed a very free-flowing program. We had persons from the LGBT community, friends who shared their talent with us doing poetry, singing, drumming, and dancing. I was blown away. The more we have these kinds of events, the more I realize how talented we are as a community. There were over 20 persons performing that night.
One of the most inspiring moments was a young man who wrote a poem but was a bit shy to share it. There was an ally of the community who had shared some pieces that she did, and they made a connection. She eventually read the poem for him. For her to capture the essence in her delivery of what he had to say was really good, and the crowd really enjoyed that piece. The performances were very diverse and well supported, and we really appreciated the turnout. We were amazed that so many persons performed; we didn’t expect so many people to have something to say.
LN: This was a different kind of exhibition. It featured the face of PRiDE JA 2015, Simone Harris. Simone had several photos taken, and they captured her life journey and experiences. I didn’t even know that photography could capture so much about somebody- every piece told a story. After the presentation she did some dancing and singing and interacted with the audience. One of the things she said repeatedly was that the nudity in the photos reflected laying yourself bare, being vulnerable, and acknowledging the positive and negative experiences that would have brought her to that moment. That was beautifully done.
Some of the persons featured in the photos spoke briefly about their experiences with Simone, being a part of her life as family or friend. At the end of their talking, Simone asked me to speak about our relationship and the work that we were doing. That was a bit touching for me because I rarely do express my emotions. But when I was reading what I had written, and even though we had only recently met and started to interact for professional purposes, I realized that we had accomplished so much together in that short period of time.
LN: We had a few speakers who shared snippets of their stories: what it was like coming out to their friends or what it has been like living in Jamaica with persons knowing that you are a part of the LGBT community. The symposium featured a lot of voices that the community was not accustomed to hearing. We also had a segment of the program where persons who were not scheduled to speak could share their stories with the audience. Sometimes in the moment when we listen to other persons share their experiences it inspires us to use our voices as tools of advocacy.
That evening our women’s affiliate had a show for women in the community. It was not a part of our PRiDE JA 2015 activities per se. Women’s Empowerment for Change (WeChange), in partnership with an entertainment management company (360ARTISTS) hosted an intimate evening with a young talented artist. We have been trying to get women to come out more to be present and visible and involved in the work that we are doing, and that was the primary reason our women’s affiliate hosted the event. One of the longstanding criticisms that J-FLAG has had from the community is that it is always the men that we are catering to and who are coming out to events.
AMG: Wednesday, August 5, 2015- Prism: The Pride Party Edition.
LN: The venue was decked in rainbow flags. There was a moment at the party that felt very rich and important, when DJ David spoke about his work with the community. He challenged LGBT persons to do more to put aside some of the differences that we may experience as a diverse community to ensure that Jamaica becomes the place that we want it to be for everyone, where we respect the rights of people and do not discriminate against each other. He also played the song that we used for the flash mob, “Fly” by Destra. The community is going to appreciate that song even more as the weeks and months progress. The lyrics speak a lot to unity, love, oneness, and appreciating each other. To close the evening like that and to digest a lot of what DJ David had to say as a strong supporter of the community, that was a good note on which to end.
Before all of these events, we also endorsed a pre-launch party on July 31st and a party on the night of Emancipation Day, which is a yearly a calendar event for the community. The main activity that we endorsed was HALOPOP week (August 1-8), which provided PRiDE week discounts to persons who patronised their LGBT-friendly businesses.
These are businesses that support us, spaces where you can dine and you don’t feel uncomfortable or stigmatized. That is something we definitely want to grow for next year, and we are hoping to expand it to include more businesses.
Image Credit: J-FLAG