CCA Students Make an IMPACT Standing Up for LGBTQ Rights in Jamaica

Team members Kristina Kotlier (MArch 2013) (left) and Raine Paulson Andrews (MArch 2014) (right) with a STAND UP supporter

In spring 2013, three CCA students came together with one common goal: to make a difference with an IMPACT Social Entrepreneurship Award from CCA’s Center for Art and Public Life.

Robert Gomez (MFA and MA Visual and Critical Studies 2013), Raine Paulson Andrews (MArch 2014), and Kristina Kotlier (MArch 2013) were indeed one of three teams who won the award for summer 2013, and the project they carried out, STAND UP with Jamaica, was a major turning point for all of them.

Still ongoing (it’s designed to have a life of its own), it is a campaign that utilizes videos -- some produced, others crowdsourced -- to mobilize LGBTQ Jamaicans and allies worldwide to stand up for LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) rights in Jamaica.

Applications for the 2014 IMPACT Awards are due March 31. Read more and download an application now »

Since its inception in 2011, the IMPACT Social Entrepreneurship Awards program has made some incredible projects possible. The awards, which encourage collaborative, interdisciplinary teams of CCA students to develop and actualize socially innovative projects, grant $10,000 to proposed projects that exemplify interdisciplinary engagement, social entrepreneurship, and community collaboration.

Inspired to Make a Change

“I’d been seeking an opportunity like STAND UP for quite a long time,” says Paulson Andrews. “I am Jamaican, and it was wonderful to collaborate with two talented classmates and CCA’s Center for Art and Public Life to build a campaign around the LGBTQ community in Jamaica. It’s crucial to create awareness around the homophobic violence they face every day.”

Jamaica has been described by many human rights groups as the most homophobic country in the Western hemisphere because of the extraordinarily high level of violent crime directed at persons who identify as LGBTQ.

In 2012, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights reported, “Those who are not heterosexual or cisgender [those who identify as the gender/sex they were assigned at birth] face political and legal stigmatization, police violence, an inability to access the justice system, as well as intimidation, violence, and pressure in their homes and communities."

Community Partnerships

At the time the three students were planning their project proposal, the Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition (CVC) had recently partnered with the Jamaican Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG) on the “We Are Jamaicans” video campaign, created for Jamaicans to share their experiences and perspectives about LGBT human rights.

“After watching the campaign videos,” says Gomez, “we were struck by the power and bravery we witnessed, and knew we wanted to work with these people.”

The team connected with Ian McKnight, director of the CVC, to ask how they might contribute to the coalition’s efforts. McKnight felt the best way for the team to engage the movement was to gather and tell stories from the Jamaican diaspora in order to bring those voices into the existing conversation.

Connecting a Disconnected Country

One of the most difficult aspects of the STAND UP campaign, the students say, was attempting to unite voices that had been time and again silenced by physical violence.

“We looked at the It Gets Better project for reference,” says Gomez, “but we knew we had to tailor our campaign to the specific social tensions and threat of violence surrounding the Jamaican LGBTQ community. It’s sad but true that right now, for people in Jamaica, it doesn’t necessarily get better.

“We’re lucky in the US to have freedom of expression. That doesn’t always exist in Jamaica. The most important part of STAND UP is about creating a safe place for Jamaicans to tell their stories.”

Social Media Creates a Community of Equality

While STAND UP uses a variety of strategies to create community, including a series of produced videos, one of the most powerful is the platform it offers for individuals to create their own videos and add them to a growing network.

“Social media is an alternative space to the violent space of Jamaica itself,” says Gomez. “With social media as a tool, we can create an international coalition, a chorus of voices coming together to reverse the negative tide and support everyone’s right to love whomever they choose.

“We were initially so inspired by the We Are Jamaicans video by Javed Jaghai, we felt connected to Javed as a person, and also to the idea that a social media movement could change what people know and feel about the movement for LGTBQ rights in Jamaica.

“We had so many unforgettably powerful moments as we were filming videos of diasporic Jamaicans. We visited New York, Toronto, Kingston, and Montego Bay, and heard stories told with pain, joy, and infectious optimism.”

Faculty Support

Throughout the project, the team had full support from CCA and selected faculty members.

“My education at CCA has influenced my work immensely,” says Andrews. “CCA, as an institution, prides itself on cultivating in its students a sense of personal responsibility to challenge current standards and create change for the betterment of our communities.”

For Gomez, faculty member Tina Takemoto was a key mentor. “She does queer performance art herself, and was so helpful in helping us understand how to develop our project to effectively fit into Jamaican culture."

"Another incredibly helpful person was the filmmaker Johnny Symons, who does LGBTQ-oriented documentary film. His international filmmaking experience, including Uganda and the Philippines, grounded some sound advice about how to make a difference through even just a short video.”

The Impact of IMPACT

For Andrews and Kotlier, STAND UP was their first experience with the IMPACT Awards. Gomez was a past winner; as a member of another team he’d won an IMPACT award in 2012 for the 20/20 Foto Project.

Gomez says, “I feel like I’ve grown along with the IMPACT Awards. For me, they embody the promise to dream big and the resources to actually make that dream happen. The awards allowed me to ask myself: If I could do anything to change the world, what would I do, and how?

“The biggest takeaway, for me, has been the opportunity to connect with individuals who are so brave. To gain the right to love whomever they want, they are risking their lives. As a filmmaker, I am honored and empowered to not only witness those stories, but share them.”

“Getting this very real project out into the world, moving from idea to a worldwide campaign, was empowering,” agrees Kotlier. “I feel like I have come away with my eyes wide open to the possibility of future projects where I can make a real difference in people’s lives.”

Related Links:

Watch YouTube videos by the STAND UP team and We Are Jamaicans »

Select STAND UP project videos:

Richard Ramsey: "Ramsey spoke both of his assault in Jamaica and of his incredible joy in carrying the Jamaican flag in the 2013 New York City Pride Parade. His optimism is infectious.”

Donovan Leslie: “Leslie is a Jamaican with hearing and speaking disabilities, which reveals another dimension of the LGBTQ community in Jamaica.”

Keriann Lee: “Lee is a local news anchor who enraptured us in her preparation and passion in persuading all of us to ‘choose love.’”