Modern magic in Jamaica: Finding freedom, building Pride

Partnerships between Canadians and Jamaicans boost LGBTI rights, but Canadian banks do too little to help, says Andrew Beckerman, a board member of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network who attended Montego Bay Pride 2016.

Andrew Beckerman and other dancers at Montego Bay Pride 2016. (Photo courtesy of Maurice Tomlinson)

Andrew Beckerman and other dancers at Montego Bay Pride 2016. (Photo courtesy of Maurice Tomlinson)

By Andew Beckerman

Logo of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network

Logo of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network

I didn’t always believe in magic, but I am starting to! My epiphany came as a result of the inspiring and incredible work being done by the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and Rainbow Railroad to assist lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Jamaicans.  One day a young abused gay Jamaican, Gerry [not his real name], was languishing in the sewers of Kingston, like many other homeless LGBT youth have been driven out their homes because of often violent homophobia.  And the next day, thanks to the efforts of Canada-based Rainbow Railroad, and after a circuitous routing, he was on a plane to a European city where he will finally be free to be himself.

If that isn’t 21st century magic, I can’t imagine what is.  It was Gerry’s first ride on an airplane and hopefully he had a nice cabin crew to serve him and show him some of the care and attention he has been deprived of in his home country.  Sadly, powerful evangelical pastors in Jamaica (many supported by cash from the Global North) preach that gays are a biblical abomination and having one in your home will incur the wrath of God on the family.

As a result of this hate speech, some parents throw their LGBT kids out on the street as young as 10 years old and many, like Gerry, end up living in sewers, selling sex to survive, and are often paid extra for condomless sex, mostly by other gay men who are forced to have female partners to “mask or cure” their homosexuality in this intensely anti-gay society.  Tragically, the HIV prevalence rate is several times higher among these vulnerable youth than in the general population.

Andrew Beckerman poses beside the Jamaican and rainbow flags that he helped to erect at Montego Bay Pride 2016. (Photo courtesy of Maurice Tomlinson)

Andrew Beckerman poses beside the Jamaican and rainbow flags that he helped to erect at Montego Bay Pride 2016. (Photo courtesy of Maurice Tomlinson)

And there is another 21st century piece of magic I know about. Thanks to the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, I got to experience it — Montego Bay Pride 2016! Maurice Tomlinson, a Jamaican lawyer and LGBT activist who is also a senior policy analyst at the Legal Network, along with his talented and dedicated colleagues on the ground (including Maurice’s own dad who proudly drove the Pride bus), managed to transport more than 240 young LGBT people “straight outta Jamaica” for the  better part of a day in mid-October. If it seemed like magic to me, I can only imagine that it appeared magical to the other guests.

Maurice and his team are magicians and I hope to be one of their apprentices!  I thank them for the amazing experience of standing in solidarity with local LGBTI Jamaicans and witnessing their resilience in the face of crushing adversity.

When I discussed my Montego Bay Pride experience during a talk to the Outlaws Club at the University of Victoria (a group of LGBTI law students), they thought that I was spinning a yarn. However, it was very real and moving for me to be the only Caucasian in a crowd of happy black and brown Jamaicans celebrating Pride.  I didn’t even mind when word got out that I have green eyes and every 15 minutes I had to take off my sunglasses to show them.

My Pride experience and Gerry’s flight from Jamaica are also very personal to me because of my family’s connection to the Civil-War-era Underground Railroad that moved fleeing black slaves from the South to Canada via the Atlantic Seaboard states. When I was nine, my parents moved our family   (my parents, my grandmother, my brother and me) to a home on the south shore of Long Island, New York. We moved from a 900-square-foot tract house to a ramshackle old house on a 4-meter-wide canal that flowed into a 10-meter-wide canal that spread into a shallow bay that eventually reached the Atlantic Ocean. In 1956, when we moved in, everything waterside of us was marshland out to the ocean.  Working in a bathroom that my grandmother and my brother were going to share, contractors tore down a long wall by the tub and discovered a tiny 3-x-6-foot room. Its walls were stuffed with newspapers from the Civil War and before.

Since the community was first settled around 1640, there was an active historical society. My mom and dad called the society, which came to investigate.  Because of the room’s uselessness for  anything else, the trace of a blind door, and the newspapers from the 1850s and early 1860s, they decided that we had a stumbled upon a stop on the Underground Railroad!
Sadly after giving the society free rein to measure and photograph and to take all the newspapers, my dad boarded up the access and tiled it over.   If I was able to have my way as an outspoken 9-year-old, I would have demanded a shatterproof glass wall for this historical find!

Rainbow Railroad logo

Logo of Toronto-based Rainbow Railroad, which helps LGBT people escape state-sponsored violence in the Global South.

It is a poignant coincidence to realize my family’s indirect connection  to the Underground Railroad for black slaves and my current connection with  organizations that are helping LGBT people to flee a hostile country to sanctuary states such as my new homeland of Canada.  With the uncertain future for LGBT human rights in America as a result of the new administration, I am more thankful than ever for the work of these phenomenal Canadian organizations.

In October, I left Montego Bay Pride with my pair of TD-Bank-branded rainbow sunglasses that the organization had donated to Montego Bay Pride.  On January 12th I will wear them to the New Year celebration of whatever TD (my own bank) calls their effort to engage with the LGBTQI communities here in Victoria, B.C.

The bank has enthusiastically marched in the last two or three Victoria Pride parades and treats everyone in the community with the utmost respect and congeniality. I will therefore wear those sunglasses and encourage the bank to continue and increase their support for this life-changing work. In fact, Canadian banks that profess their support for LGBTQI rights and Pride events in Canada — not only TD, but also Scotiabank and CIBC, who have a presence in the Caribbean — need to extend that corporate commitment to supporting human rights elsewhere, including in Jamaica. It is high time that they actively stand up for equality wherever they have a footprint.

Protest for LGBTI rights in Jamaica included Andrew Beckerman and Bishop Christopher Senyonjo. (Maurice Tomlinson photo)

During Montego Bay Pride 2016 in October, rainy-day protesters for LGBTI rights in Jamaica included Andrew Beckerman from Canada (second from left) and Bishop Christopher Senyonjo from Uganda, at right. (Photo courtesy of Maurice Tomlinson)

Andrew Beckerman is a board member of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network who attended Montego Bay Pride 2016.

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