British Guiana. July 1959. The Guiana Graphic newspaper. The news article reported about another “STRANGE” wedding—an all-men affair—and that “the ‘bride’ wore Chantilly lace over slipper satin.”
Dominica. July 2011. The Parry Bellot television talk show. A former attorney general and the former chief justice of the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court, Sir Brian Alleyne, declares that the homosexuality laws are not practical.
A copy of a reprint of the news article and an audio clip of the television talk show are stored in the Caribbean International Resource Network (IRN) collection of the Digital Library of the Caribbean. These items contribute to the recording of the history of LGBT people in the Caribbean—one item evidence of the kind of organizing that occurred before the Stonewall riots in the United States and the other the response to the organizing and the possibilities that are now opening up to counter the idea of the Caribbean as the most homophobic place on earth.
The Digital Library of the Caribbean (dLOC) is a cooperative of partners from the Caribbean and circum-Caribbean who contribute materials that can be provided openly to scholars, researchers, and citizens. The Caribbean IRN is one of these partners and is the only partner not constituted as an academic institution or library.
The Caribbean IRN established the partnership with the dLOC (whose technical infrastructure is managed by Florida International University) in 2009, and the collection was born in 2010. The collection aims to bring together materials related to the work on diverse genders and sexualities in the Caribbean. The materials include academic research, politics, news reports and clippings, commentaries, images, video clips, reports, and training manuals. Some items are born digitally, while others are converted through scanning.
The Caribbean IRN has received a scanner as a donation to help with the digitizing of paper-based materials, and some audio materials will be converted from the analog to digital formats for uploading to the archive.
Some of the items have other digital homes on the Web, but many do not, and thus the dLOC collection serves as a digital repository for open access to these materials.
The Caribbean IRN collection brings together items across time and location and helps to put together a picture of the Caribbean work that counters the colonial legacy laws and cultures that sought to suppress alternative forms of gender identity and sexual orientation. The work is being done by different institutions, organizations, and individuals. A recent addition to the collection is the digital archive of the Gay Freedom Movement of Jamaica.
The Gay Freedom Movement of Jamaica
The Gay Freedom Movement of Jamaica (GFM) was active in Jamaica between 1974 and 1985. Larry Chang, one of the founders of the GFM, ensured that he kept all the papers related to the work of the GFM, and these papers were further organized by two Peace Corps volunteers who recognized the importance of preserving these documents. The GFM published about eighty issues of the Jamaica Gaily News, and the GFM archive has over seventy items that reflect the work and effort that went into the organizing. There are carefully typed manuscripts, brochures, and catalogues from other parts of the world, as well as documents related to meetings in which the GFM participated. Of special note are the handwritten notes that provide glimpses into the behind-the-scenes workings of the movement. Unfortunately, the original copies of the Jamaica Gaily News were removed from the offices of the Jamaican Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals, and Gays (J-FLAG), and we urge all persons who might have subscribed and who would have received copies to share their copies with the collection.
The archives of the GFM relate the joy at the expansion and the building of the movement and the interactions with various groups in Jamaica and around the world. There are comments about the tensions within the movement, and one poignant handwritten piece has a few lines that refer to the disillusionment with the movement in 1984. Some handwritten pieces are like mind maps—reflecting the “signs of the times”: the reports of attacks and other violence—while other pieces refer to social events and gatherings.
The archive provides a glimpse into a decade of activism—and raises many unanswered questions. What happened to those people who were arguing at the GFM meeting in 1980, when the GFM constitution was adopted? What were the decisions that they made to survive? What about their allies? What were the achievements? What caused things to change in Jamaica? How can the rest of the Caribbean learn from these experiences?
The Digital Library of the Caribbean and the IRN website provide platforms to open the discussion about the lives of Caribbean LGBT citizens then and now. LGBT histories that are being made today include the film festival organised by the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD) in Guyana and the constitutional challenge filed by the United Belize Advocacy Movement (UNIBAM) in Belize on the issues of the sodomy laws. The images of Prime Minister Golding saying, “No gays in my cabinet,” should be juxtaposed with the images of the members of Jamaicans Standing for Tolerance in Kingston and of the Coalition Advocating for Inclusion of Sexual Orientation (CAISO) joyfully walking around Port of Spain on 17 May 2011—International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia—sharing their manifesto. The full-page advertisement calling for prayer and fasting in Guyana to preserve morals and the flyer for Queen Madhuri Presents Gays Gone Wild are products of the same Caribbean society. These items coexist in a library—can the people who produced them coexist in the same place?
The audio-slideshow below gives an overview of the Caribbean IRN collection and the Gay Freedom Movement Archive on the Digital Library of the Caribbean.
The work might appear disparate, but when the separate items are grouped together in the collection, the Guyanese proverb Wan wan dutty buil’ dam (One one piece of mud builds a dam) describes the emergence of a Caribbean that is accepting of the sexual and gender diversity of its citizens.
Vidyaratha Kissoon is the coordinator of the Caribbean IRN. He lives in Guyana and works in the application of information and communications technologies for development. He is also active in the work against domestic violence and child abuse and is a founding member of the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination.