“Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”
Social activist, medical doctor, poet, musician and newspaper columnist Dr. Michael Abrahams returned to this quote by Benjamin Franklin more than once at the Third Annual Larry Chang Human Rights Symposium on Friday afternoon; the theme of the forum was “The Jamaican LGBT Community: A Resilient People.” Dr. Abrahams was guest speaker at the event, organized by J-FLAG in celebration of International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT), with funding from USAID’s excellent COMET II community empowerment program.
Dr. Abrahams’ cool demeanor and laconic turn of phrase, all wrapped up in sardonic humor, belie his passion for social justice. Mikey, as he is affectionately known, also has a sharp tongue. Two things that really get him going are the hypocrisy and “religiosity” of society. He described sitting down with two lesbian patients, who told him of their struggle. Then, he says – with Mr. Franklin’s sense of outrage – religious Jamaicans “cherry pick” parts of the Bible to use against certain groups of their fellow Jamaicans. While eighty per cent of Jamaicans are born out of wedlock, these church-goers point fingers at others, such as the LGBT community, who are “sinful.” He noted that “two known adulterers” (now deceased), Bob Marley and former Prime Minister Michael Manley, were greatly admired as such. Isn’t this hypocrisy? Yes, Mikey – it is. It has to be!
As a straight LGBT ally myself, I was interested by Dr. Abrahams’ response to a question regarding how it has affected him. He said he could not keep silent on the issue. “People will take shots at you,” he added, “But you have to be true to yourself.” I might add that once you have started down the road of advocacy, it is well nigh impossible to turn back.
There was a panel discussion. Now, that term can translate into overlong, self-indulgent pontification. This panel was far from that – in fact, the three presentations transfixed me. I don’t even recall whether they were long and short, but they were heartfelt, occasionally emotional, sharp, true.
Jomain McKenzie’s talk, “Break the Rules,” was delivered with a disarming optimism and clear conviction. Jomain, who is Communication Focal Point and the Developing Country NGO Delegation to the Global Fund Board, reminded us that stories of injustice, wrongs, discrimination cannot be the “sole narrative” of the LGBT community. He identified three positive ways to “protest”: Protest in defense of your future (“We must have a dream and a vision”); Protest with our humanity (“First and foremost we are human beings…We are not asking for anything special”); and Protest with excellence (“Show your best selves…Find strength in the people around you”).
Rochelle McFee described how she was uncomfortably “outed” by the inordinate amount of front-page attention given to the moment when Reverend Father Sean Major-Campbell washed her feet and that of other lesbians at his church in Kingston. “Afterwards I felt naked and afraid,” she confessed; but she began to realize that vulnerability is good, once you recognize it. Ms. McFee is thankful for J-FLAG’s support and for the “strong social networks” that have helped her to move to a place of self-confidence – and joy. Rochelle smiled a lot.
“If Me Never Talk Mi Wudda Dumb.” Jermaine Burton, founder and director of the amazing Colour Pink Group, now identifies as transgender. His presentation was especially emotional. Thrown out by his mother at the age of sixteen, he says he “went to the waterfront,” realizing he was homeless. Just like that. He ended up doing sex work to survive; “I was sometimes trafficked without even knowing it,” he murmured. “I felt I was at the bottom of the barrel…I became the monster society said I was.” This was a sad story with a happy ending, however; and Jermaine has a kind and forgiving approach – starting with “forgiving yourself.” I wanted to ask him (and will do so another time) what gave him the strength to pull himself out of this situation and empower others. It is nothing short of heroic, but he doesn’t see himself that way.
Then there was the launch of WE-Change. I wrote a bit about the genesis of this new and inspiring group of lesbian and bisexual women earlier this year (“LB Graduates Poised for Advocacy” and an earlier post about J-FLAG’s ground-breaking training). These young women are bright, proud and focused on social justice; their first task will be a social audit of the Domestic Violence Act, noted spokeswoman Paige Andrew. You can find WE-Change on Facebook now. Like the page!
“People don’t understand that gay rights are human rights,” said Mikey Abrahams. He likened the LGBT rights struggle to the civil rights struggle in the United States of the 1960s and 1970s – something that is often dismissed as an inaccurate comparison by Jamaicans. Like Dr. Abrahams, though, I see many parallels. His comment had been reinforced earlier by Ian McKnight, Civil Society Specialist in USAID’s COMET II program, who remarked that for him and his organization, “A commitment to human rights is not an option.”
Perhaps, reading between the lines I have written above, you can get a sense of the warmth, the emotional temperature in the packed room; and the realization that the majority of participants were young Jamaicans, full of life, energy and love. So much to offer.
Yes, the LGBT community is resilient, and more. As Dr. Abrahams said, looking at the gathering: “I see beautiful people.”