Transgender Caribbeans Celebrate West Indian American Day Quietly
Rainbow colors, feathers, and sequins floated down Eastern Parkway on Labor Day at Brooklyn’s West Indian Day parade, which attracts nearly a million people each year to watch masquerade bands, local politicians, and advocacy groups march in a display of Caribbean pride.
But one group was underrepresented this year.
Carnival organizers have been inviting Caribbean American Pride to march since the group formed five years ago, but this is only the group’s second year of participating in the parade.
“We were reticent in our decision. We’re terrified,” said Ethel Felix, president of Caribbean American Pride. “I love my people, but on many levels it has taken them a long time to come to grips with the reality of the homosexual community.”
Felix, who hails from Belize, said she was only able to assemble fewer than ten people because the group made a late decision to participate in the parade. This year and last, a police escort walked with them along the parade route for protection.
“A lot of Caribbeans, they come here to the States to better themselves, to make money, so they feel like you should be bettering yourself,” said Ashton Stoddart, a transgender man. “If you’re LGBT, it’s considered a taboo.”
Stoddart, 30, organized a pre-parade event for transgender Caribbeans. With a modest feast in a small Queens bar for a group of 15, Stoddart planned for an intimate community discussion to take place before the J’Ouvert party began.
“I wanted to make an event specifically for transgender because most events are just for gays and lesbians,” he said.
While it is already difficult to be gay or lesbian, Stoddart said it is even more difficult to be a transgender Caribbean.
“Some of us have to come out of the closet twice,” he said. “Some of us were either lesbian or gay before we transitioned. So we come out one time like that, then we come out again as transitioning.”
When he started dating women at 16 and began his transition two years ago, it was hard for his Jamaican father and African-American mother.
“They wanted me to marry an American man and live kind of like how they are,” said Stoddart. “They want you to be their product — not like a product like you’re for sale but you resemble, basically, their merit.”
Stoddart’s father, Keith, who came to the United States forty years ago, credits prayer and Christianity with his eventual acceptance of his son’s gender preference. His acceptance was also shaped by witnessing LGBT discrimination in his native Jamaica — specifically, toward his father’s brother.
“That negative experience starts in the home and within church communities and because communities are tightly knit, it becomes very difficult for people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender to live there safely,” said Graeme Reid, director of the LGBT rights program at Human Rights Watch.
“I didn’t know he was gay when I was growing up and I couldn’t understand why my parents were mean to him because I thought he was cool,” Stoddart, 58, said about his uncle. “It’s legal but you can still get your ass kicked for just being gay, even looking gay.”
According to Reid, “I have to be leave to be me” is a common refrain among LGBT Caribbeans. But the diaspora can also be hostile toward LGBT people.
“That’s particularly difficult for people who live outside their country and rely on social networks for support,” said Reid. “People are understandably hesitant to take the risk of being socially ostracized.”
In Woodhaven, Stoddart’s father and mother, Sabrina, showed their support by cooking jerk chicken, plantains, and salads served to guests as they gathered for the group discussion led by Kim Watson, founder of a transgender support organization called CK Life.
Watson, who was born intersex, fled Barbados for the United States 35 years ago. In 2015, a federal judge deferred Watson’s deportation order after she argued that returning to Barbados would put her at risk of torture and persecution. Barbados’s discriminatory laws, a remnant of British colonialism, impose a life sentence as punishment for same-sex relationships, according to Human Rights Watch.
“Being an effeminate person there and people not knowing whether I’m male or female, there were a lot of things I had to endure to survive,” Watson said. “So I came to America.”
After quitting her job at Bronx Lebanon Hospital, she cashed out her 401k to provide services for transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals as they decide whether to undergo surgery. CK Life offers a surgery grant and assists transitioning individuals with clothing and housing.
“Being in America, I’m able to fight and be one of the advocates in a leadership role to help other individuals and generations to navigate the process,” Watson said.
Grace Detrevarah, an LGBT liaison for The Osborne Association, a criminal justice organization, met Watson while she was transitioning. Detrevarah, who is African-American, credits Watson for helping all transgender minorities, not only Caribbeans.
“It’s women like this that you got to keep to an eye on,” Detrevarah said about Watson. “Follow them because they’re not doing this by themselves. They’re pulling people up with them.”
Still, Detrevarah finds a dearth of representation for the transgender community in the state government. “We don’t have any New York State legislators who are trans,” she said, although there are lesbian and gay representatives in the State Legislature and a bisexual woman, Cynthia Nixon, is challenging Gov. Andrew Cuomo for the Democratic nomination.
Because of her inexperience in politics and governing, Nixon lost the endorsement of New York City’s LGBT Democratic organization, the Stonewall Democrats, to Cuomo in July.
At the parade, Nixon rode a float down Eastern Parkway with her running mate, Jumaane Williams, who is of Grenadian descent. West Indians marching with her float wore Nixon campaign t-shirts and held banners about the threat posed by climate change to the Caribbean islands, a signature issue for Nixon. No apparent LGBT contingent marched with her.
Felix hopes that Caribbean American Pride’s presence in the parade will inspire other LGBT Caribbeans to participate next year. “As we were walking along Eastern Parkway, we got waves from people who are LGBT folks and looking at us like, we’re proud of you but we can’t do this,” she said. “We were scared but we walked like we weren’t.”