Montego Bay Pride started in 2015 as a dream born out of a nightmare.
Two years before our first Pride, Dwayne Jones, a 16-year-old homeless trans youth also known as “Gully Queen,” went to a public street dance in the city dressed as she identified. While she was partying with a gay friend, a member of Dwayne’s church outed her to the crowd. An angry mob quickly formed around Dwayne and turned on her. They stabbed, shot, and ran over Dwayne’s body with a car, threw her corpse into nearby bushes, and then went back to dance. Despite countless eyewitness, no one has ever been arrested for Dwayne’s murder.
As a result of that brutal killing, members of Montego Bay’s LGBTQ+ communities desperately wanted to create a space where we could celebrate our identities and resilience in safety. We also dreamed that our hometown, where many LGBTQ+ Jamaicans are the backbone of our country’s vital tourism industry, would finally respect us for who we are.
For four years, our dream was fulfilled. With the support of local and international organizations — most notably the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network — our grassroots festival grew from a small, one-day gathering of about 150 individuals at a private villa to a weeklong festival of over 1,500 people. Last year we even managed to hold Jamaica’s first-ever public LGBTQ+ Walk for Rights. Despite public threats and an attempt by former mayor Charles Sinclair to shut down our film festival in 2018, we hosted incident free events with police protection.
But this year the reverie died. Responding to an objection to our planned use of the taxpayer-funded Montego Bay Cultural Center, the current mayor, Homer Davis, banned us from the facility. He claimed the presence of LGBTQ+ people would damage the “sacredness” of the venue.
The decision set off a media firestorm, with news stories and op-eds published in major newspapers about Montego Bay Pride almost every day. The public response was overwhelmingly violent; several individuals openly called for the extermination of LGBTQ+ people by any means necessary. Other venues scheduled to hold events in association with Montego Bay Pride immediately started canceling on us, and we were informed by police that they could not provide protection without extreme expense because of the public’s open hostility toward the event. Sadly, they could not spare those resources because several parts of the island are already under crime-related states of emergency.
The planning committee of Montego Bay Pride, therefore, took the painful decision to cancel Pride. We could not risk the safety of the 3,000 people who we had anticipated to participate in this year’s festival.
Those of us who were born in Jamaica or call the country home are left with one conclusion: It is not safe for LGBTQ+ people. The actions of our elected officials only contribute to that insecurity. Just like Dwayne Jones, we are being thrown out onto the streets to face deadly mobs because the city refuses to give us a safe space.
When Montego Bay Pride’s organizers asked permission from the management of the Cultural Center to hold a short press conference announcing our cancelation, we were turned down. Since we couldn’t use the space, we decided to have our conference in front of the building. As we left the gathering, I was mobbed by angry vendors who circled me, shouted homophobic slurs, and threatened to kill me. I could have been killed right there — just like Dwayne was — all because the Cultural Center would not let LGBTQ+ groups in.
Sadly, this is not the first time that I have faced harassment, abuse, and death threats because of my advocacy for LGBTQ+ human rights in Jamaica. I had to flee the country in 2012 when a local paper published an unauthorized photo of my Canadian same-sex wedding and I was inundated with death threats. A student at the university where I taught at the time even published my class schedule in an attempt to encourage violence against me.
As someone who already was forced to leave my home because of who I am and now have to work for LGBTQ+ equality from abroad, I know how important it is to fight for your right to exist. That’s why LGBTQ+ organizers are calling for a boycott of the Montego Bay Cultural Center for rejecting our press conference. And until the mayor of Montego Bay comes to his senses and recognizes our right to share space with other citizens, we are urging LGBTQ+ tourists and allies to look elsewhere for their vacations. Finally, we are going to sue Mayor Davis and others for breaches of our constitutional rights to freedom of expression, as well as assembly and association.
As a gay Jamaican lobbying for LGBTQ+ human rights over the last two decades, I had hoped that by now my country’s politicians would have moved from opposing equality to — at the bare minimum — a position of neutrality. Since this is sadly not the case, I hope that all of us will send a message on our behalf to the mayor of Montego Bay and all Jamaica’s elected leaders: If our country doesn’t learn from its continued persecution of LGBTQ+ people, Jamaica will watch tourism dollars disappear.