RAGGA NYC
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YOUR STORY

When we launched CONNEK in 2018 the out pour of messages and notes about this project from queer folk outside Jamaica who were touched by this project was beautiful. A lot of amazing people living everywhere from NYC to Canada were excited to see a way through CONNEK to re connect and/ or come to Jamaica for the first time. With that said the CONNEK team reached out to a couple international ambassadors to interview them about their experience with queerness as it relates to their Caribbean heritage. We asked them why CONNEK was important to them and what they saw in the future for queer liberation through out the diaspora.

Photography:    Naima Green

Photography: Naima Green

DeVonn Francis
Tell me about your experience with queerness.
It’s always been a part of my life, but I learned it later on. My queerness is one part of my sexual gender expression and identity, but I also think that being a person of color is inherently queer, too, just because our experience is not normative. We aren’t confined to the same constraints as white folks, and that experience really does shape the way I think about what I do and what I care about.”

What is one of the biggest myths about Jamaica?
I think about the food myths a lot. I think people have these really confused idea about Jamaica being something like everyone being on the beach, eating fish, and rapping about cucumbers. The way the food is distributed and the economics that influence the way people eat is something that needs to be addressed. It’s very similar to how you would see other people of color in the U.S. Education around food, land and ownership around diet in Jamaica is something that should happen and doesn’t happen often.”

A long time ago you recommended that I see the documentary Life and Debt (2001). In that documentary there was a lot I found out about the agriculture and economics of Jamaica dealing with post colonialism and globalism to this day. Can you expand on the documentary Life and Debt (2001), and globalism in relation to Jamaica? How does ownership, colonialism, food and health are tied together?
”Specifically, Life and Debt is a interesting documentary produced by Stephanie Black. It’s narrated through one of Jamaica Kincaid’s book called A Small Place. It basically talks about the difference between being a tourist, a non-native or non-residential person and the sort of veil that is cast over Jamaica as an island having to be a recreational or vacation spot. It’s a sort of fantasy of pleasure and desire, access to fruit, a good time, and the specific music that people get to experience, but they don’t get to experience the other side of it –– the disparate spread of economics –– like people living in 3rd world poverty is some places and wealthy in others.“

Why is CONNEK important to you?
This goes back to the idea of Jamaica as a myth. I always thought that the work I was doing was, in a way, to liberate the Jamaican experience for Jamaicans. But actually, it’s to liberate myself and my own. The unlearning I need to do of what is culturally valuable or demystifying the things I believed to be true and perpetuating negative beliefs about Jamaica as a place. It’s really, for me, to connect with people who actually live that experience every day, to build family and connections. Outside my biological family, which I don’t really have a connection to in Jamaica as strong as I’d like, I’d love to build a family of queer people that live in the realities that we talk about but don’t get to experience as often.”

What has been your experience connecting to your Caribbean heritage?
I feel for me growing up, my grandparents and mostly the men in my family from my Dad’s side, there was no history-keeping that happened. For me, when it comes to heritage, it’s less so thinking about the family structure, and more so holding up and continuing the narratives that we believe in and that we care about. I think that CONNEK is a good platform for that. You have a lot of people coming together to write the stories, write the history, write about the people that are important, and talk about what the future looks like. That’s what it’s doing for me.”

As a foreigner, how do you feel about Jamaica’s queer liberation movement?
I feel like I don’t know enough about it, if I’m going to be honest. I want to know more. I think there’s something to be said about the ways in which Western culture in America unfortunately sometimes trickle into the politics of how queer liberation looks like in Jamaica from what I understand. The wealthy people are good, but when it comes to the scales of economics and poverty, I think that looks different if you don’t have the same access and I have questions about that.”

What is a dream project of yours in Jamaica or with queer people there?
Right now, we here at YARDY (my company) are working with a couple farms upstate and in Brownsville, Brooklyn, to perpetuate the crops and seeds that you would find in the African diaspora and through the things that came over via the transatlantic slave trade, but also the things that represent joy in history. The types of vegetables that people love to grow and eat that they feel like is representative of their own identity and having a place for where that history is kept through the food that people grow. Something I’ve always wanted to do is connect with a group of farmers and seed keepers in all the West Indies because it super diverse based on colonization. I also want to think through how to map that out and tell better stories around what food could look like without a Western gaze. That’s something I really want to work with CONNEK as well.”

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Chris Boreland
Tell me about your experience with queerness.
In my life at this at this point is full of peace and fulfillment, i reflect on past experience some great and some disheartening and speak too my inner Child and I challenge myself to change the stigmas that once kept me paralyzed. My queerness now is a life that I created for myself , I realized what I was missing and I set out to get it.  My queer experience is still very challenging living in a city where not that many people understand the person that I am . they only see me trough  the stereotypes they hold, and use it to define me . My queer experience is protest, a protest against those that harm us, and also a protest to protect us. My queer experience is a love for myself , my heritage, my chosen family”

What is one of the biggest myths about Jamaica?
The biggest myth I’ve heard as some not born and raised in Jamaica is , Jamaicans don’t celebrate pride. I was hyped to find out that they been celebrating pride for sometime now.”

Why is the CONNEK project important to you?
It’s in the name . Even before I came out to my peers I came out to myself and with that I had a heavy heart, I know that I would have to turn my back on the culture that shaped the person I thought I was. For years I wouldn’t associate myself with the Caribbean culture for reason of fear , shame etc. When I came across CONNEK I saw my self for the first time in my culture and I said to myself “ I need to  be apart of this something so revolutionary ,so free! “ It take strength of a community  to invoke change in the world. And I truly believe Connek as that ability to make waves . With the All the different type of people and the stores they carry and share its nice to know that we all have a common interest, being proud being Caribbean and being free.”

What has been your experience of connecting to your Caribbean heritage?
As a kid I took it for granted. I never really paid attention to the stories being told by elders. I hold some regret not being able sit with my elders and hear their stories and see the world trough them. I’ve been blessed with a big family with a lot of different experiences as it pertains to our Jamaican roots. Unfortunately none of them connected with me in a ways for me to see myself reflected in my heritage. At a very young age that the queer experience and Caribbean culture never really mixed I found myself drifting away from both. As an adult those experiences are resurfacing and I am able to navigate trough them in a more healthy manner. I now speak of my queerness as it relates to my heritage, the good and the bad.

As a foreigner how do you feel about Jamaica’s queer liberation movement?
A mix of emotions. Not knowing what it’s truly like to live in the environment, I only have the news and social media to describe only a small part of the life experience. With that said , I do however feel huge amounts of joy, love, pride and gratitude when I see groups like Transwave and Equality JA doing the work for our sisters and brothers.


What does ally ship with the Caribbean community across international boarders look like to you?
Ideally ally ship for our Caribbean community would look like more open safe spaces for queer Caribbeans, young and old. It would look like us taking up space to share our stories safely with the support of the public backing us as we continue to fight for our human rights.

What is a dream project of yours in Jamaica or with the queer people there for the future if any?
Food has always connected me with others. It’s whats connecting me back to my heritage. One dream I’ve always had was to own land in Jamaica, grow my own produce and share with my community through mindful dinners. At the dinner we would unpack, learn, laugh and gwan bod! Pretty much a cyute piece of land where we can be cyute and eat fruits lol.


The CONNEK team worked with the amazing Tiana Reid to interview some of our Jamaica ambassadors and family to get a deeper look into what it’s actually like to be queer in Jamaica.

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Will.h_
Tell me about your experience with queerness.

”My experience with queerness is normal from my perspective. Most persons believe I’m male so the reactions other individual get might defer from mine. Growing up in a Jehovah Witness family it was hard being myself for most years of my life, but the older I get the more I grow into who I am.”

How do you conceive of home?
”Jamaica is one of the best places to be. The crime and injustice you hear about happens no different than it does globally. For a small nation we have a lot of love for life! We turn nothing into something. The energy Jamaica/Jamaicans give off can’t never be replicated. I am forever proud to be Jamaican!”

What is one of the biggest myths about Jamaica?
”Lol there’s so many.... the biggest I would think is that we are violent people. Not saying that we don’t have violence in the country but people often paint all Jamaicans as arrogant and ignorant when that’s not all of the population. We have persons in all occupations doing all sorts of good that goes unhighlighted. We as a people need to bring more attention to that globally and here at home.”

Why is the CONNEK project important to you?
”I believe CONNEK is a need for the LGBT here in Jamaica. A save zone to come be you and be queer without any reservations. I am looking forward to being apart of the team and helping CONNEK grow.”

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Emani Gabbana Edwards
Tell me about your experience with queerness.

”My experience living in Jamaica as a trans woman as it relates to queerness has been very hard. Imagine if you constantly had to live in fear because of who you are? Having to take private taxis to safe spaces just to feel free to be yourself? However when I’m in safe spaces with other queer community members it’s the time of my life! We know how to support each other against all odds when we are together.”

How do you conceive of home?
”Jamaica is a beautiful island of wood and water, Dancehall and Reggae music. However it is hard for (Trans community) members to access and navigate.”

What is one of the biggest myths about Jamaica?
”That there are no safe spaces for LGBT people. Although it’s a struggle, the LGBT community here has managed to get access to a few safe spaces here in Jamaica for fun and leisure.”

Why is the CONNEK project important to you?
”CONNEK is important to me as an ambassador because it give's me the platform to connect with LGBT people around the world and allies. I BELIVE IN THE CONNEK MOVEMENT.”

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Lydia Chang
Tell me about your experience with queerness.

”My experience has been positive for the most part. Most of my friends and family who are aware of my same sex relationship have been supportive. I find that the general public is becoming more accepting of queer relationships. The only discomfort I have felt is from the assumptions that I have in my head that people are not comfortable with it. However, thus far no one has outwardly expressed any negativity toward my partner and I when we’re together. The queer events I have attended show a supportive community that encourages freedom of expression.”

How do you conceive of home?
”Home is not a place but a feeling. Where one feels comfort and security, surrounded by loved ones, who he/she can be their authentic selves without judgement.”

What is one of the biggest myths about Jamaica?
”That Jamaicans smoke weed all day and move at a relaxed pace in any situation.”

Why is the CONNEK project important to you?
”Most people, regardless of sexual orientation, just want to feel free to be themselves, be accepted, and not be judged. This project is important because it forms a bridge between the general public and the queer community, where everyone can feel free, have fun, and be in a comfortable setting to get to know one another and dispel any negative thoughts/assumptions about the queer community.”

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Kyym Savage
Tell me about your experience with queerness.

”Queerness has allowed me to express myself to my full potential. Living as a Queer Trans Woman has caused me to break barriers of inclusion by accepting diversity within the queer community. Being queer means believing that everyone has the right to be themselves and express themselves without being judged or hated because that doesn’t fit in with what’s normal. Being queer means challenging everything that’s considered normal – and that has been my exact experience.”

How do you conceive of home?
”Home is where we should be free and feel safe, and unfortunately, this is not the case for Jamaica. I appreciate the few safe spaces where Trans / Queer people can enjoy themselves or just access, however, there’s much work to do before it can really be considered home.”

What is one of the biggest myths about Jamaica?
”That it is one of the most homophobic places on earth.”

Why is the CONNEK project important to you?
”Connek project is important to me because I get to expand my connek-tion with people of Queer and Alternative Communities. I would like to build stable and long lasting connek-tions with other ambassadors and people who are apart of the project. Connek-ting with people of different cultures and social groups means that I get to celebrate diversity in a larger capacity and contribute to a movement where Queer and Alternative people can exist through different engagements and interactions.”

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Kandice Thomas
Tell me about your experience with queerness.

”My experience in Jamaica as it relates to queerness has not been toxic as people may think it is here in Jamaica. I have a real group of friends who have my back. I’ve heard horror stories about homophobia but have none to share myself. I will say though having friends has been really important for me living my life out and proud. I don’t feel alone knowing I have them.”

How do you conceive of home?
”Jamaica is paradise, there’s no lie there, but my island has a lot of growing to do in many ways. The lack of knowledge makes it hard to have conversations about sexuality, gender and other social political issues. That part is tragic.”

What is one of the biggest myths about Jamaica?
”Jamaicans NEVER say ‘Irie’ and there are indeed safe spaces for lgbtq people.”

Why is the CONNEK project important to you?
”I really would love for awareness and education about the lgbtq to influence a better future for Jamaicans. I believe this CONNEK movement will encourage that and much more. I’m excited to do my part.”

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Mainz
Tell me about your experience with queerness.

”My experience comes with the negative and positive. Especially in coming out. For me, I was always that kid who was wrapped up in fashion. When I was young I wasn’t able to express myself the way I wanted to so I would always dress up the kids in my in my family and neighborhood. Getting older, involved more in my interest of fashion and meeting more trans people like myself in Jamaica gave me courage. ‘If they can do it, I can do it too.” I opened up a new instagram account where I could express myself and show who I really was. Immediately people started reaching out to me with lots of compliments, encouragement and so I felt support. When I go out people mistake me as a cis girl but so far it’s been fine and good comings. The negativity is out there but for me I don’t focus on that. For example if I know an area in Kingston is a bad area I don’t go into that area and try to “base up” myself. I rather spend time with my people. Sometimes people will see me make and comments but I don’t pay attention to the negativity.”

How do you conceive of home?
”Jamaica is very “run and go”. If you’re trans, born and bred in Jamaica you grow up thinking home is overseas in “foreign” where you can express yourself more and meet more people like yourself. However I’ve come to realize that a lot of people here accept it, you know? On the low. I’ve seen over time that the misconception is the majority of Jamaicans here don’t accept it but that’s more so in public. Around dem friends, in mix company. Person to person a lot of people have said to me and I have heard ‘Nothin nah wrong with what you a do ya know? I like you for you. I will still show you love.’”

What is one of the biggest myths about Jamaica?
I think the biggest misconceptions about Jamaica is that people are not allowed to express themselves the way they want to in Jamaica. Maybe it’s because of the music. Yes there are close minded people here but overall that isn’t everyone in Jamaica.    

Why is the CONNEK project important to you?
It’s really important to me because it gives me a good energy knowing that I can connect / link to people like myself not only overseas but locally. I think the project can bring a lot of opportunity for people here and there. The networking will be great and we’ll also get to bound. I think it’s important that we fight for each other and link up. For people like me, it make us feel more safe knowing that people out there are reaching out to us and want to connect.

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Moon
Tell me about your experience with queerness.

”My experience is continually evolving as I strive towards a deeper and fuller understanding of self and the many dimensions that encompass who I am. So far, I would say it has been a fairly equal mix of love and support (sometimes from unexpected sources) and negativity, harsh words or behaviour from loved ones, or simply the complete disappearance of individuals from my life. Over all, I would say who is still around is who’s meant to be at this time and I am grateful for the ones who continue to empower me and give me room to exist in totality by expressing all aspects of my being.”

How do you conceive of home?
”Jamaica has always been home. Though I wasn’t born here, I felt a strong connection to my ancestry from an early age and knew I would live here some day. The Jamaica my parents and grandparents grew up in and described to me is nothing like the experience I have had and I give thanks that I found the courage to take that step and discover it for myself. There is so much beauty and culture here that for me overrides the violence and corruption it’s known for. There are certainly many real issues and ways the country can and needs to evolve, but there is also an immeasurable wealth that exists in the people, the creativity, the soul of Jamaica that I feel is often omitted in the media.”

What is one of the biggest myths about Jamaica?
”I’m not sure what the current popular opinion is on Jamaica, but I know growing up it was assumed that most or all Jamaicans (at home and those who have migrated) are rasta, smoke/sell cannabis, own guns, are a part of gangs (or have a family members who are). I can even remember being asked if I stayed in a house when I came to visit relatives or if we all lived in trees and huts. I think one of the biggest, and certainly one that has affected me the most, is the perception that all Jamaicans are black. Being a minority in both countries I’ve lived, it’s often pointed out to me countless times in both places that ‘[I’m] not black, so how can you be Jamaican?’ as if I was previously unaware of the colour of my skin. Jamaica’s population may be majority of African descent, but there is mixture everywhere, and mine came out this colour nobody seems able to identify or categorize. ‘Out of many, one people’ is something even other Jamaicans seem to forget.”

Why is the CONNEK project important to you?
Connek is important because so many Jamaicans have been limited in their life experience by laws designed to imprison us. By no fault of their own, persons born here are marginalized simply because they are born here, and are now relegated to proving their worth and value almost every time they want to leave the island. It is a degrading and draining process that forces individuals to become submissive and often manipulative just to experience life in ways that most citizens of “first world” nations will never have to. The visa application process has kept many brilliant Jamaicans captive, so making connections like these is vital for the growth of the island and its people, while also bridging the gap and ending negative stigmas of Jamaica and Jamaicans internationally. There are many like my self, first generation children born overseas who grow up only hearing stories and not knowing how much to believe and how much is being told to create a fear atmosphere and keep them from experiencing their history. There are also those without any biological ties to Jamaica who feel the country is off limits to them if they are too “different” or not a part of the country’s perceived norms.  However there are safe places for lgbtq+ persons, there are venues for alternative music and parties that don’t centre around reggae or dancehall. There are Jamaicans and others who have migrated here who belong to various societal groups and endeavours, and it’s important for people outside to know these places and opportunities exist.

Tiana Reid is a writer, editor at The New Inquiry, and PhD candidate in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. Her work has been published in Canadian Art, Flash Art, Garage, The NationThe New InquiryThe Paris Review, VICE, Vulture, and more.