In a just-south-of-the-village café, queer media and Pride folk are busily flitting on and off the patio where Gareth Henry, the parade’s international grand marshal, is flashing a day-changing smile.
Despite Henry’s calm demeanour and glitzy earrings catching the mid-afternoon sun, the former co-chair of Jamaica’s Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG) has survived the kind of horrors you’d think would stun him to silence.
Instead, he talks about Jamaica’s rampant anti-??gay violence and the 13 friends killed since 2004 – including J-?FLAG leader Brian Williamson – with an eloquence that testifyies to his long experience as a queer advocate in one of the most homophobic nations on earth.
In January, the internationally?known organizer fled his homeland fearing for his life, seeking refugee status here. “I’d rather be in Jamaica living out, proud and happy,” he tells me, his cellphone on perma-ring while a swarm of supporters wait nearby. “Canada is not home. I’m an alien here.”
It’s a particular moment in queer history that has seen Henry named this year’s international parade marshal. While he’s being honoured for what Human Rights Watch’s Scott Long calls “his courage and commitment in overcoming the legacy of prejudice,” there’s also the reality of shifting gay political priorities.
The fact is, the Canadian movement’s focus is rapidly moving from institutional equal rights to global anti-??gay violence, necessitating increasing attention to LGBT immigrant and refugee rights here. That explains why international human-?rights-??related events have crept into Pride’s party roster this year.
“Having progressive laws doesn’t mean homophobia doesn’t exist,” Henry explains, pointing to incidents of gay-?bashing in Canada, including threats to himself. “The difference is that while it affects morale, people here at least feel they can challenge government institutions to comply with their own policies.”
This past Valentine’s Day, along with Egale and Pride, Henry launched the Call For Love campaign with a demo outside the Jamaican Consulate urging the protection of queers in that country.
The date marked the passage of a year since he was confronted by an angry homophobic mob at a Kingston pharmacy where he was buying his partner a Valentine’s card. When police arrived, they joined in the mob’s violence. The memory of a similar situation a few years back in which Henry lost a friend propelled him to fight back.
Marginally more fortunate than many queer and trans people seeking asylum, Henry at least had a high profile and a few established connections here. Helen Kennedy, executive director of Egale Canada and a Pride board member, was moved by Henry’s tragic stories when she heard his speech at a Montreal conference in October 2007.
Worried for his safety, she encouraged him to stay in Canada at the time, and remained in touch when he did not. When the call came that he had to escape Jamaica quickly, he was able to rely on a network of allies.
Henry left his home, friends, family and lover, arriving in Canada unemployed, without a home, to -?30°C weather. Says Kennedy, “People leave everything they know, landing here not knowing where they’re going to sleep that night.”
Currently, she says, there is no national support network, but there’s been talk in Egale of the need for a refugee placement program to facilitate access to housing, lawyers and assistance with the plethora of paperwork for LGBT newcomers.
Still, Henry is clear that refugee status is not an option for everyone and shouldn’t be seen as the solution to Jamaica’s history of vicious attacks and incarceration. “People miss home; it’s the motherland. [LGBT people in Jamaica] have a right to their culture,” Henry says, “a right to stay, a right to a sense of belonging.”
As his friends return to sweep him back up Church, I can’t help asking how he’ll react after his heavy experience, both personal and political, to Pride’s often ?apolitical entertainment line?up and beer sponsors, not to mention galas, water guns and rainbow leis.
“This is a chance for me to bond with gay culture and to get a clearer understanding of the dynamics here,” he says, assuring me that he is indeed a party creature and that his Pride guides are marked with plans. “This is people celebrating their right to freedom. It’s where the community comes alive.”