Pride and Caribana have a lot in common. Both culturally themed events come complete with parades, street festivals, entertainment stages and unfettered partying. But the similarities don’t end there. Consider the similar organizational histories, similar goals (building communities and celebrating cultures) and similar stigmas (accusations of wanton sexuality and immorality).
Yet the relationship between the cultures that the two festivals represent has been tenuous and tense at best. Caught squarely in the middle are queers of Caribbean origin and heritage.
“My parents are Jamaican and [homosexuality] is a big taboo in West Indian culture,” says veteran party promoter DJ Blackcat, aka Mykel Hall. “I came out to them about nine years ago. It was rocky but I now speak to my mother and I’m working on a relationship with my dad which is really important to me.”
Blackcat, 35, has been throwing parties in Toronto and playing clubs across North America for more than 15 years. He says he’s seen changes in the crowd his events attract.
“When I first started, because everything was new, everyone came out to events. Then we went through a phase where people weren’t coming out because what people used to get at the club they could get online, including music. Especially if you’re afraid of putting yourself out there, it’s so much easier to pick up on the computer than having to go down to the club where you could be outed. That’s a big deal with West Indians.”
But there’s been a renaissance in the past two years, says Blackcat, which he credits to “changes in attitudes…. More people are coming out and are not as afraid. Young people have an independence and the mind frame, ‘You cannot touch me. I am a gay man. I am gay woman. I will my sexuality and my style and you can’t do anything about it.'”
Up-and-coming party promoter Paras Junior reflects this increased willingness to embrace both identities.
“Yes, we’re gay and Caribbean,” says Junior. “Yes, we still have our culture; we still listen to our music. We’re still the same people, still your sons and daughters, nieces and nephews.”
Junior, 27, was born in Guyana and came to Canada when he was 14. He recently launched Indigo Vibes, a monthly gay Caribbean dance party at Voglie on Church St. Junior says he’s looking to create a place for people — queer or queer-positive, West Indian or not — to come and dance to chutney, soca and other music not always available in mainstream queer clubs. Junior’s vision is to see an Indigo Vibes float in next year’s Pride Parade, one that will work with other queer Caribbean groups to reflect a Caribbean experience and create a Canadian one.
While he’s excited about bringing Caribbean culture to Church St, Junior is more cautious about bringing Church St to Caribana.
“I would love to have this group in the festivities but am kind of scared. I think Indigo Vibes needs to build a reputation over the next two years and help in educating the general public about homosexuality in mainstream communities before this can happen safely,” he says, adding, “I can see a float in the Caribana parade in 2009.”
Blackcat shares Junior’s reluctance. “I would feel comfortable as a gay man going down there but I probably wouldn’t proclaim my homosexuality,” he says. “I probably wouldn’t make a spectacle. I’m not going to a place that’s known for gun violence and violence in general and proclaiming my homosexuality. You’re just looking for trouble doing that.”
Former Pride Toronto board member Jamea Zuberi has been working for years to bring queerness to Caribana, which has included collaborating with well-known mas camp leaders like Louis Saldenah to create a visible gay presence in the bands and floats.
But despite efforts to bridge the gap Zuberi says Caribana isn’t ready for a large visible gay presence. “Both communities are not ready, not safe,” she says.
Zuberi is the founder of Pelau Masqueerade, a mas band that has been bringing a pan-Caribbean presence and Trinidad-specific experience of Carnival to Pride events for the past six years. Mas (or masquerade) bands are groups or individuals who have floats, costumes and live music in Carnival parades. Pelau is a staple food of Carnival, a mix of rice, peas and meat that is quintessentially Trinidadian. The mix of ingredients is also reflective of just how ethnically diverse Caribbean culture really is and Pelau the group is made up of a diverse group of people from many ethnic backgrounds.
Zuberi herself has participated in Caribana for 19 years and has always been out. Zuberi’s assessment of Trinidad carnival is very positive.
“In Trinidad it’s the most welcoming and safe place to participate,” she says, pointing out that many of the best-known mas costume designers are gay. “In Trinidad the language is different. They are called ‘artistes,’ with a certain emphasis.”
But pockets of tolerance are the exception rather than the norm. In 2006 Time magazine ran an article called “The Most Homophobic Place on Earth?” bestowing that title on the Caribbean in general and Jamaica specifically. Lurid headlines about gay-sex scandals scream off of Jamaica’s national newspapers on a regular basis and its dancehall culture is infamous for antigay lyrics and incitement of hate. Gaybashings and murders are common on the island, which already has the highest murder rate in the world. Many Caribbean countries still have laws against sodomy that are upheld with regularity and Christian churches across the West Indies are unrelenting in their condemnation of homosexuality at a time when many international Christian organizations are becoming more affirming.
“They’re very homophobic back home,” says Blackcat. “I don’t think anything that happens here affects the movement back home… at least from what I see.”
That homophobia is rampant in the Caribbean is very real, and some of those attitudes do end up here. Yet Toronto boasts a large and visible queer West Indian community, one that is finding common ground between cultures. For proof you need look no further than the increasing number of queer and queer-friendly events during Caribana.
“Caribana is normally not a big weekend for the gay community,” says Blackcat. “I want it to be. I want two big events that go on for the summer instead of there’s Pride and then summer’s done.”
To that end Blackcat has created the first weekend-long series of parties and events for queers on Caribana weekend called Toronto Splash (see sidebar for details). Events like these offer the means to celebrate Caribana in an explicitly queer space and offer a respite to what can be an alienating experience in the main Caribana festivities.
More than anything Caribana is a means of connecting to roots, music, food, family — all the things people sometimes sacrifice in the process of immigrating, growing up second generation or coming out of the closet.
For queers of Caribbean descent, participating in Caribana may mean compromising their ability to be out or openly affectionate with same-sex partners. On one hand Caribana may mean bowing to gender conformity — walking into a mainstream mas camp and trying to order the masculine costume if you are a woman (or vice versa if you are man or a transperson) may not necessarily be a positive experience. But on the other hand the rich traditions of costume, masks, body paint, dress-up and impersonation outshines any drag stage at any Pride anywhere.