The Caribbean Equality Project: Amplifying LGBTQ Voices

The Caribbean Equality Project was the first LGBTQ group to participate in the Phagwah Parade in Queens on March 26 (Photo courtesy of CEP)

The Caribbean Equality Project was the first LGBTQ group to participate in the Phagwah Parade in Queens on March 26 (Photo courtesy of CEP)

The traumatic experience of being the victim of a hate crime in 2012 in his South Queens neighborhood moved Mohamed Q. Amin to do something.

The 32-year-old Guyanese-American activist in New York’s LGBTQ community realized that “there were no organizations to go to with resources and support focusing on hate violence, focusing on education, focusing on awareness in our [Caribbean] community.” So he decided to create one.

Amin, joined by Krishna Ramsarran, 29, and Andy Bishun, 34, launched the Caribbean Equality Project (CEP) on June 26, 2015 — the day the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples could legally marry nationwide. The nonprofit, volunteer-driven organization’s official launch event, “UNVEIL,” followed that August at the Queens Museum.

The event featured cultural performances, art and the screening of “The Abominable Crime,” an award-winning documentary that explores the culture of homophobia in Jamaica through the eyes of gay Jamaicans. The organization’s hope was to introduce the public to the personal struggles faced by the Caribbean LGBTQ community in New York City and beyond.

The mission of the Queens-based Caribbean Equality Project is to empower LGBTQ people of Caribbean descent and origin in New York City as well as the Caribbean region. This young organization recently made history in New York City as the first LGBTQ organization to march in the 28th annual Phagwah (Holi) parade — an ancient Hindu spring festival also known as the Festival of Colors which took place on March 26 in Queens.

For Amin, founding an organization that specifically focuses on the needs and concerns of the Caribbean LGBTQ community in the diaspora was especially important. “Sometimes when people talk about the Caribbean they don’t talk about the diaspora…but it also exists right here [in NYC]…You are afraid to be who you are on the streets,” he said, recalling several gay slurs directed at him while walking down the street in his neighborhood.

“We all represent a different segment of our community and as a team we are advocating for them,” he added.

From Amin’s home office in Richmond Hill, the team regularly meets after work and on weekends to plan a series of educational and cultural programs, monthly support group meetings and determines how to best facilitate access to community resources.

“We all work nine-to-five jobs during the day, but we are so passionate and committed to being a voice for our community that we use technology to provide that support whenever someone may need us,” said Amin, CEP’s founder and executive director. Amin and Ramsarran have jobs in the financial sector, while Bishun works for a utility.

The organization utilizes a Google voice telephone number so that each board member can make and pick up calls, send and get texts and more from different devices (phone, computer, tablet) and locations.

(From l to r) Krishna Ramsarran, Mohamed Q. Amin and Andy Bishun, founders of the Caribbean Equality Project. (Photo courtesy of CEP)

(From l to r) Krishna Ramsarran, Mohamed Q. Amin and Andy Bishun, founders of the Caribbean Equality Project. (Photo courtesy of CEP)

“If someone calls us, we answer and refer them to resources right away. If we miss the call we get back to them as soon as possible,” Amin added.

The Caribbean Equality Project is working to promote acceptance and reduce the discrimination faced by LGBTQ individuals — particularly in Caribbean communities, which generally have high levels of intolerance toward this group based on cultural and religious beliefs. In fact, many Caribbean countries still have anti-sodomy laws on the books, which criminalize homosexuality.

“In the Caribbean and the diaspora, being gay or lesbian or trans is definitely taboo in our culture so that’s one of the reasons why we exist. We want to break that stigma and say ‘hey, we’re just like any normal person walking down the street,’” said Ramsarran, who serves as the organization’s program director. He became an activist in the LGBTQ community after learning that he was HIV positive.

CEP has received funding from private donors and local businesses, and held several fundraisers over the last few months, to help the group offer culturally sensitive and educational information through programs for the Caribbean LGBTQ community.

“This is a space where you can come and talk about your struggles as an LGBTQ individual, but also talk about eating your Caribbean food, having your language, your Guyanese, Trinidadian and other accents and it’s ok,” said Amin.

At the heart of the organization’s programming is a free monthly support group UNCHAINED, where there is open discussion of topics including family acceptance, healthcare and issues of discrimination within the Caribbean community. The family and friends of LGBTQ individuals are invited to attend the meetings in order to gain more of an understanding of the common concerns and issues relating to the community.

“One of the things that we do in our support group is invite those families of people who feel they may be LGBT or those who are still questioning their sexuality. It’s about educating the parents and siblings as well as the individuals so that they are comfortable to have those conversations,” said Community Outreach Coordinator Andy Bishun.

For one UNCHAINED attendee, who is of Guyanese heritage and gave only her first name as Bibi, regular attendance at the monthly meetings has helped her learn how she can be more supportive of her siblings who are a part of the LGBTQ community.

“My two older brothers are gay and my younger sister is bisexual. I felt like our worlds were so different from each other and I just wanted to be able to understand how I can be a loving and supportive sister to them especially in the world in which we live in currently where who they are isn’t fully accepted — specifically in the West Indian community,” she said.

What Bibi says she appreciates most about the organization is the welcoming and supportive environment provided for all involved regardless of sexual orientation.

“They just talk to you and make you feel welcome and at home. They really provide this loving and supportive environment for everyone despite whether you are an LGBT member or straight as I am,” she continued.

The Caribbean Equality Project also has a multimedia storytelling campaign series, “My Truth, My Story which features the personal stories of LGBTQ people of Caribbean heritage on topics such as suicide, mental health, the intersection of religion and sexual orientation and HIV/AIDS.

The first episode in the series featured Ramsarran, who serves as CEP’s program director. He talked about his HIV activism and struggle to tell his parents that he is gay because, “as a Caribbean mom and dad they want their name to continue. They want grandkids. They want you to get married and settle down. They want that whole traditional Hindu culture,” he said in the video. “I felt that I couldn’t give that to them because I’m not straight.”

Other initiatives include Knowing Matters: Get Tested, You’re Worth Ita partnership with the AIDS Center of Queens County (ACQC) and educational youth outreach in New York City schools aimed at combatting discrimination of LGBTQ youth and bullying in schools.

According to Amin, each of CEP’s major events and outreach initiatives have been attended by about 200 people. He estimates that the organization’s reach and impact has now surpassed 3,000 people.

The organization’s reach in Queens and the wider Caribbean community in New York City is something that the executive director of the ACQC, Phillip Glotzer, says is crucial.

“It’s critical to work with people who are indigenous to the community because they are the ones who know the culture…they may be able to reach people that we cannot or may not feel comfortable coming to us,” said Glotzer.

ACQC’s education and prevention department has been working closely with the Caribbean Equality Project to provide testing, counseling and educational programs.

“I think this kind of collaboration is necessary for any community be it the West Indian community, the Hispanic community or what have you. It’s a good collaboration always, to work with those that are part of a community and I think that is the difference they make,” Glotzer added.

This year the Caribbean Equality Project hopes to have an even greater impact through the expansion of programming, more collaborative efforts and several social media campaigns, including one about self-love and acceptance — key ideas the organization wants to impart on the Caribbean LGBTQ community.

“Self-acceptance is one of the most important things any LGBT individual can do for themselves,” Amin said. “That’s where it starts. Once you can own that power within you. Once you can say I’m a proud gay man or a proud trans woman or man, like once you can say that to yourself it’s so liberating. No one can take that away from you.”

2 Comments

  1. Reading this article brought joy and hope to my heart that MY Caribbean community is moving into an progressive era of acceptance and love. Being LGBT comes with it’s own personal struggles and having a supportive community with resources that can assist in those struggles is vital. Thank you #CEP

  2. Thank you for profiling the Caribbean Equality Project’s work and amplifying the Caribbean LGBTQ Voices in NYC!

    To learn more about the CEP, visit http://www.CaribbeanEqualityProject.org or email us at info@CaribbeanEqualityProject.org

    Facebook/Instagram/YouTube: Caribbean Equality Project
    Twitter: @CaribEquality

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