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LGBT Warriors in the Caribbean

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I arrived in Guyana on the night of Thursday, June 6, and promotion for SASOD's 10th anniversary started early Friday morning with radio interviews at 94.1 Boom FM and 98.1 Hot FM with SASOD co-chair Joel Simpson and SASOD trustee Ulelli Verbeke, our videographer.

Now, I've done my share of interviews, and I'm fairly good at not rambling or taking too many... um... pauses, and as a mental pep talk, I remind myself of this before every interview. But on this particular morning I got distracted from my private pre-interview ritual as Joel started sharing SASOD's story.

It began in 2003 with about 10 university students responding to an injustice: In Guyana's constitution, there is no legal protection for LGBT people. Over the past 10 years this group set about creating change, and now the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD) is awaiting judgment in a suit filed against the state for unconstitutional violations of four transgender individuals' rights. SASOD has also been reporting to the United Nations Human Rights Council with the goal of repealing all laws that criminalize same-sex intimacy and cross dressing. On other fronts, SASOD has produced Painting the Spectrum. Now in its ninth year, it is the only LGBT film festival in the English-speaking Caribbean, and if that weren't enough, this year marked their fourth annual International AIDS Candlelight Memorial, held on the steps of St. George's Cathedral, one of the tallest wooden buildings in the world.

As I listened, I felt a deep sense of pride in what this small organization has managed to accomplish in spite of all the insurmountable odds. This is the Caribbean we are talking about, where resources are limited and prejudice and ignorance can be plentiful. I know: I grew up in Guyana, and I spent too many nights crying because of that prejudice and ignorance. I left as soon as I could, but there is a group of individuals who, for whatever reason, stayed, and I will always be in awe of this fearless band of LGBT warriors.

We headed back to the Sidewalk Café for a press conference, and I was floating on my usual cloud of optimism when someone asked, quite innocently, my thoughts on the reaction that my LGBT-affirming songs would garner from a Guyanese audience. Now, I truly believe that music brings people together, and I believe that music's purpose is to break down walls that divide us, but I have to admit that at that moment, some childhood fears managed to creep in. How would songs like "Bromance" and "Gay Warrior Song" go over?

I didn't have long to wait: As it turned out, we had one more interview to do on Voice of Guyana's For a Better World on 102.1 FM. The host was a kind, motherly woman. She played "What a Wonderful World" by Louis Armstrong and sprinkled her program with positive quotations. During Joel's interview, he shared that I had dedicated "Gay Warrior Song" to SASOD's activism, and right afterwards she turned to me and asked me to share one of my songs. I started singing:

I am a warrior preparing for war

I am a warrior, I step through this door

The enemy is ignorance

The enemy is hate

I am a warrior, I'm fighting for love

I believe she was moved, I know I was; I remember singing somewhere in that radio station as a child the songs that my parents taught me, and now I was singing the songs I taught myself, surrounded by people who knew what I was singing about. Needless to say that the concert that night was amazing. Big shootouts to the local acts -- Natasha Yhap, Keimo Benjamin, Keep Your Day Job, Lloyda Nicholas, Andrew Tyndall, Isaiah Luther, Maria Rosheuvel, Anthony Stayman and Francis Bailey -- for invoking music to work its magic.

After the concert, we cleared the chairs and danced together -- straight, gay, lesbian, trans, bi, queer, questioning and I'm sure some groups we haven't found names for yet. It is a night I will always remember.

On Sunday night Bishop Francis Alleyne, head of the Roman Catholic Church in Guyana, joined us for a panel discussion following the screening of this year's feature film, You Are Not Alone, a documentary about depression in black gay men. During the discussion the bishop reaffirmed his support for the repeal of Guyana's discriminatory laws, but given the church's history on LGBT issues, it sounded like many empty words, until one trans woman made a comment. She was one of the four involved in the lawsuit, and she publicly thanked the bishop for his support during these difficult times.

Now, any organization that can bring the Catholic Church and the transgender community together, get radio hosts excited about LGBT rights, sue the government for discrimination, and throw a damn good party has my support. Congratulations, SASOD, and all the best for the next 10 years!

For more information about SASOD, visit sasod.org.gy.

For more information about Nhojj, visit nhojj.com.