J-Flag, a Jamaican LGBTQ advocacy organization, will host its fourth week-long celebration this year.
Life as an LGBTQ person in Jamaica can be fraught. Homophobic and transphobic violence persists in the country, and sex between men is still illegal (anti-sodomy laws date back to 1864, a cruel vestige of British colonial rule). The mob killing of LGBTQ teen Dwayne Jones in 2013 was particularly vicious; last year, the designer and stylist Dexter Pottinger, a former face of Jamaican Pride, was murdered in his home.
Suelle Anglin, an associate director at Jamaica's foremost LGBTQ advocacy organization, J-Flag, wants you to know that these headlines don't tell the full story. "One of the main narratives is that we are one of the most homophobic places on earth," she says. "That [reputation] came from back in the '90s, when things were really bad for LGBTQ people. Not that everything is now peaches and cream. But over 20 years, so much has changed."
In July, J-Flag is throwing its fourth annual Pride event, a week-long celebration of LGBTQ lives fueled by soca music and free-flowing rum. It's a testament to the pockets of solidarity and strength within the country, and the networks that, once underground, are edging into the light. Here, in her own words, is Anglin on J-Flag and Pride in Jamaica.
Pride in Jamaica is one of the best experiences you can think of. It's a week of diverse events, so no matter where in the community you fall, it caters specifically to what you need. We have a sports day, a family fun day, health care, a religious service, and a beach picnic and cooler fête. And we also have a breakfast party, which starts from about five in the morning. We don't have a parade that's similar to what they do in America—we have never heard that people here have wanted to do a march.
In Jamaica, dancing and fashion is a very big part of who we are. At the beach party, people really come out dressed to the nines: rainbow umbrellas, rainbow bags, rainbow towels. Last year, I saw a lesbian couple with their dog, and the dog was dyed in rainbow colors. We have a lot of music: soca, hip-hop, pop, reggae, dancehall. It's about enjoying our Jamaican culture in a Pride-inclusive space. Big Freedia performed, and it was really amazing. She said that if she had known this was the vibe of Jamaica Pride, she would have been here every single year.
I'm a lesbian—out and proud. When I came out in 2011, the scene wasn't as open. A lot of the events took place underground, and it was more like, "I tell you, and you tell your friends, and then you show up." The first Pride in Jamaica in 2015 was the first Pride I attended, ever. I really felt, "Oh, my God, are we really going to be able to do this in Jamaica?" There was a flash mob in New Kingston, in Emancipation Park, and Ellen Page was here filming for Vice. It was a very surreal feeling for people to be that open and that visible, on such a big scale.
I think now, things are pretty open—there's been a tremendous growth regarding visibility. Businesses are saying that they are welcoming to the community, and there is an active LGBTQ party promoter scene. If you ask older people in the community, they'll tell you that back in the day when they had parties, it was in very far, secluded venues—no hanging about—as opposed to now, where people are having events in very open, visible spaces.
The theme for this year's Pride is "centering LGBTQ people in Jamaica's future." That's important because LGBTQ people in Jamaica are Jamaicans. They should be able to enjoy our music and culture, to go to different health facilities to get health care, and to get the best education, without harassment and bullying in schools.
I think that a lot of the reasons why a lot of LGBTQ people left back in the '90s, and even consider leaving now, is because they feel as if Jamaica here is not their Jamaica. They feel as if they can't enjoy the spaces that they should be able to enjoy. And when we send people away, we force them to adapt to a different culture: a different food, a different music, a different everything. We want to ensure that we are creating spaces here in Jamaica so that LGBTQ people can live their best lives. They can have their family, they can work, they can party, and they can enjoy everything that makes us Jamaican.
Occasionally, we get homophobic comments when we post things online. But in the three years that I've been with J-Flag, we haven't had threats at any of our events. We provide security, and we have a good relationship with the police, so we have officers at our big Pride events. I've never felt scared at Pride in Jamaica, but I have felt anxious. Last year, we had between 1,000 and 1,500 people at our beach party and cooler fête. I'd never been in a space with so many people from the community, in such an open place. I was like, "I can't believe I am in Jamaica, and I am in a space like this."