Mohamed Amin. Photo by Trone Dowd
BY TRONE DOWD
Based primarily out of Southeast Queens, the Caribbean Equality Project (CEP) is the only Caribbean LGBTQ educational agency in New York City.
Founded in response to anti-LGBTQ violence in Southeast Queens in 2015, the CEP functions almost entirely on a volunteer basis, and aims to begin a dialogue in the Caribbean community, which has long been known for its lack of tolerance toward LGBTQ issues. Looking to do what many would have considered impossible, the CEP has worked with faith groups, educating those who do not know about the LGBTQ movement’s mission and providing a monthly support group at the Lefferts Boulevard branch of the Queens Library in Richmond Hill. The organization has made strides in the fight for acceptance and understanding in New York City’s most conservative communities of color.
But while the Caribbean’s well-documented lack of tolerance has begun to shift in recent years, much work still needs to be done. This week, the Press of Southeast Queens had a chance to speak with CEP’s founder and president, Mohamed Amin, during an interview about the work his organization is doing to keep that crucial dialogue going and the state of LGBTQ relations within the Caribbean community.
Q: Tell me a little bit about your monthly support group.
Mohamed Amin: So, at the Queens Library [Lefferts Boulevard Branch], we host a monthly support group called Unchained. It is actually the only Caribbean LGBT support group in New York City.
Q: And what kind of issues do you guys tackle?
Amin: We talk about coming out, family acceptance. A lot of it is about empowerment and creating visibility. For example, our last session focused on AIDS Walk New York, which we participated in, and ending HIV stigma within the Caribbean community. We did outreach as part of our Knowing Matters sexual wellness program in front of the library, partnering with the AIDS Center of Queens County, and tested 40 people from the community for free. No documentation or insurance was required. Our youngest participant was 18, ranging all the way to a grandmother, who was 79. So, we have 40 people in our community who now know their status, thanks to the work being done in our program.
Q: You touched on something that I thought was really interesting there. You said HIV stigma. We’re more than 30 years removed from the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. There’s still a stigma about HIV being associated specifically with the gay community?
Amin: Absolutely. We just recently had a woman passing by shout at our volunteers, “Stop spreading HIV in Richmond Hill.” And what’s unfortunate is, this is the kind of narrative that prevents folks who are positive from coming forward and seeking treatment and networks of support. This isn’t just exclusive for LGBTQ folks, this goes for straight Caribbean people as well. We need to remove the stigma from the word HIV, and replace it with education, understanding and empowerment.
Q: Do you guys ever do work in the Caribbean?
Amin: Before I talk about the obstacles, I do want to say that we worked with several organizations in Trinidad and Tobago to create an online fundraiser to benefit Friends For Life [an organization that supports members of the LGBTQ community] in Trinidad. As you may have heard, a few months ago, the Trinidadian government was taken to court by [LGBTQ activist] Jason Jones [over longstanding buggery laws. One of the country’s high courts deemed it unconstitutional and a violation of its citizens’ privacy. In Trinidad, gay intimacy is punishable by law and can result in 25 years in prison.] CEP supported that case from the diaspora. As part of our #WeStandWithYou solidarity campaign, we mobilized our community to show support for folks in Trinidad who are on the frontlines. We had brought on folks from Canada, Finland, different parts of the United States and here—in New York City.
Unfortunately, as historic as that verdict was, now there is a backlash of that verdict. There are LGBT folks being outed, abandoned by their families. They are being kicked out of their apartments by their landlords. They are literally being fired for who they are because Trinidad doesn’t have any employment laws or housing laws that protect against discrimination. This online campaign that we are doing is to help raise funds for Friends For Life, which has been directly assisting these folks who are homeless, providing them with temporary housing, food, transportation for job interviews.
Q: Do you see this backlash as the beginning of a continuous trend for Trinidad?
Amin: It’s not always about acceptance. It’s about understanding. It’s about education and knowing that folks who are LGBTQ have existed before these laws existed. These people are bankers, lawyers, educators, professions, police officers. They are the ones you’re buying your carnival costume from and are local business owners. For religious organizations and institutions to come and speak out against this kind of progress only perpetuates this cycle of hate in the Caribbean. It’s really sad. Colonization left us a long time ago, but the seeds that were planted are still growing. And as of right now, LGBTQ folks are facing the ramifications of colonization still, coupled with anti-blackness and racism. This law is the first step to really validate Trinidadian LGBTQ identities, and with that comes the work. We have the hold the government accountable because they have the political power to eradicate these laws and send a message of equality to all the citizens of Trinidad.
Q: Moving on from Trinidad to something more broad, what is the state of LGBTQ acceptance in the Caribbean as a whole?
Amin: As a whole, I think it’s progressing. Barbados just elected its first female Prime Minister, Mia Mottley, who is pro-LGBTQ. That within itself is major. She has been a long-time advocate for these issues in a country that has a history of anti-LGBTQ violence. They haven’t repealed any of their anti-sodomy laws. So, having her in office and being pro-LGBTQ, she is now in the position to repeal these laws. And I’m hoping it happens there and throughout the Caribbean itself. In Guyana, the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination has filed a case against the government over its cross-dressing law, where it says a woman cannot wear men’s clothing and vice versa [punishable by law, two years in prison].
Q: Is it easier to have conversations about acceptance and education among the Caribbean community here in the States, or is it just as tough?
Amin: It’s just as difficult, you know? There’s been some push-back. As an activist, I’ve been doing work in New York City for almost 10 years now. Doing work with the CEP has legitimized a lot of our efforts. As an activist within the Caribbean context of it, people often say, “Oh you’re an activist, what does that mean?” But having an organization behind your work, in some ways Caribbean folks look at that as legit and are more willing to listen to what you have to say. A lot of that comes from faith-based institutions. We have been in several faith institutions talking about LGBTQ identities. Those barriers are still up, but at the same time, we are in what seems to be the early stages of having a dialogue about acceptance as well as anti-blackness, especially within the Indo-Caribbean community. A lot of this is also working with city officials. We recently applied for funding through our newly elected councilwoman [Adrienne] Adams. A lot of this work that we are doing is on a voluntary basis, and we want to make sure that the work that we are doing is not only uplifted in the community, but financially sustained by our elected officials as well. We are making progress in Southeast Queens, and we are making progress in New York City.
Q: It seems like a lot of progress is being made across the board. I actually didn’t know that.
Amin: We are doing the work, but it’s also because the LGBTQ community has rallied behind us. There are still challenges and battles to be won, but we must continue the fight. I would have to shout out Kenita Placide, a prominent Caribbean lesbian activist who does work in St. Lucia. She’s actually a grand marshal in the New York City Pride Parade this year, and we will be marching in solidarity with her. She’s doing a lot of work with Outright Action International, which is a Caribbean-based organization, as well as the executive director of the Eastern Caribbean Alliance for Diversity and Equality.
Q: Speaking of Pride Weekend, how is CEP participating in the festivities?
Amin: We are really excited! It’s our third year participating. We are going to be led by the Boodoosingh Tassa group. A large part of the CEP’s pride participation for the last three years has been about infusing all aspects of Caribbean culture and Caribbean identity. This year, you’re going to see people in their curtes, and their saris, and their dashiki prints and their carnival wear. It’s a really holistic view of what Caribbean culture is all about. We are also going to having Dynamic Sound, who will entertain our crowd with a variety of Caribbean music, from soca to chutney to Bollywood.
For those interested in donating to CEP’s #WeStandWithYou solidarity campaign to help Friends For Life in its efforts to assist those facing backlash over Trinidad’s recent court decision, check out the organization’s YouCaring.com page online.