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Finding a space for trans* identities within Jamaica

As seen in the Global Spotlight and the Institute for International Journalism blog:

Finding a space for trans* identities within Jamaica
By: McKenzie Powell

“[dropcap]I[/dropcap] am not a threat to the society,” said Whitney Reid in the Jamaican Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays’ (J-FLAG) ‘We Are Jamaicans’ video campaign. “I don’t want to spend most of my life hiding who I am from the world. I want you to see how beautiful I am, I want you to see how human I am.”

Reid, a transgender woman and Jamaican refugee currently living in the United States, is just one individual out of a larger community of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) persons who have experienced bigotry within Jamaica’s borders.

Despite recent progressions in LGBTQ rights around the world, including the United States’ legalization of same-sex marriage and the implementation of laws banning discrimination against transgender people in several U.S. states, Jamaica continues to struggle with inclusive dialogue and education about the country’s trans* population.

Largely due to an extensive history of discrimination toward the LGBTQ community, enforced by a longstanding anti-buggery law, Jamaicans are just recently becoming familiar with Westernized terms of identity such as ‘transgender.’

“There was no such thing as trans* a couple of years ago. The trans* community is being created as we speak,” said Carla Moore, professor of gender and development at the University of the West Indies Mona, Western Jamaica Campus.

“It begins in the home. Many transgender individuals – notably teens – are being kicked out of their homes by their parents/guardians or by more powerful figures,” said Portia de Royal, an active advocate for the Jamaican trans* community who has worked with groups like J-FLAG.

Through the work of Jamaican advocacy groups like J-FLAG, TransWave and Colour Pink Group (CPG), more information about this underrepresented group is being shared to raise awareness and increase humanization of transgender Jamaicans.

“Knowledge and understanding of trans* identity is growing and many more are coming out as trans*,” said Dane Lewis, the executive director of J-FLAG and the co-chair of the Caribbean Forum for Liberation and Acceptance of Genders and Sexualities (Cari-FLAGS).

According to Jamaica Observer, Jamaica’s LGBT population reached approximately 270,000 people in 2009; yet, in 2014 the Advocate reported that about 25,000 protestors gathered in continued support of Jamaica’s buggery law, which forbids anal intercourse. Anti-LGBTQ sentiment continues to live through groups like the Jamaica Coalition for a Healthy Society and Jamaica Churches Action Uniting Society for Emancipation (CAUSE).

Although more citizens are said to be self-identifying as transgender, the implications of publicly announcing this identity are still very risky, resulting in possible beatings, discrimination, homelessness and poverty.

“It begins in the home. Many transgender individuals – notably teens – are being kicked out of their homes by their parents/guardians or by more powerful figures,” said Portia de Royal, an active advocate for the Jamaican trans* community who has worked with groups like J-FLAG.

“Homosexuality is considered a sin as Christianity is imbedded in our country. Religion spurs on the fear that a fiery hell awaits LGBTQ Jamaicans,” said Neish McLean, who is a co-founder of TransWave.

Jessica JBurton, executive director and founder of CPG, experienced the cycle herself when she was kicked out of her house and forced to live on the streets of New Kingston at 16 years old due to her sexual identity. She was soon performing sex-work in an effort to make money while suffering from poor hygiene, lack of food and an absence of clothes.

“Every day someone dies. Some person dies by HIV-related illnesses, a person dies because they were doing sex-work for a living and they got killed,” Jburton said. “Access to health care was a major issue for the homeless population in Jamaica. They could lose their life accessing care there.”

After accessing education, JBurton used her experience to create CPG, a support group that represents and assists the Jamaican couch surfing and homeless Gay Men, Other Men Who Have Sex With Men, and Transgender (GMT) community.

“The mission is unlocking the poverty cycle through health, education and employment,” Jburton said. “You can’t have a good education if you don’t have good health, and if you don’t have an education you can’t get employment.”

TransWave, a Jamaican transgender advocacy group that uses social media to increase knowledge of transgender health and wellbeing, uses stories like Jburton’s to strengthen the overall understanding and tolerance of the country’s trans* community.

“Homosexuality is considered a sin as Christianity is imbedded in our country. Religion spurs on the fear that a fiery hell awaits LGBTQ Jamaicans,” said Neish McLean, who is a co-founder of TransWave.

“We have created this single story that Jamaica is myopically homophobic. We forget there are a lot of people living in Jamaica who are loving queerly but who would never take on the identity of a queer Jamaican,” Moore said. “We are completely ignoring the people who have deliberately employed invisibility as a technique of freedom and who don’t feel oppressed by it.”

While Moore agreed that religion plays a large role in Jamaica’s deep-rooted homophobia, she also stated that the prejudice stems from colonization and slavery.

“There are a couple of movements that have shaped the way Jamaicans relate to gender variants and non-heterosexual sexuality. One of them is the slavery movement, because what you had is a deliberate cultural disruption that taught black people on the plantation that same-sex sex was wrong. They needed to have heterosexual sex because…that’s what would make new slaves,” Moore said.

The rape of black men on the plantation in an effort to emasculate and “break them” was used as a type of punishment that, ultimately, led to black men having a “very unhealthy relationship with same-sex sex,” Moore stated.

The combination of Jamaica’s dark past involving colonialism and slavery, in addition to strong religious beliefs and a robust national identity, has created difficulties in progressive dialogue between Jamaican LGBTQ and heterosexual communities. This communication is even further strained by deep-rooted beliefs that sexuality is a practice and not an identity.

“We have created this single story that Jamaica is myopically homophobic. We forget there are a lot of people living in Jamaica who are loving queerly but who would never take on the identity of a queer Jamaican,” Moore said. “We are completely ignoring the people who have deliberately employed invisibility as a technique of freedom and who don’t feel oppressed by it.”

Moore hopes that Jamaicans will soon find a balance between gender and sexual variants, but on their own terms and without the continued pressure from outside forces like the United States’ LGBTQ politics.

“We have our own way of doing things and we always have,” Moore said. “I hope that the LGBT community can see where they need to remain a part of the Jamaican community and I hope that the Jamaican community can see where it is important for them to retain their LGBT people as members.”

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