These days when Selena Blake thinks about her native land, Jamaica, there are no images of pristine beaches and sunny skies that come to mind. Instead she sees the ugly face of homophobia and transphobia that continues to stain Jamaica’s image.
In her documentary, “Taboo…Yardies” Blake presents footage compiled over the course of six years, including interviews with those on both sides of the LGBT rights debate, to investigate what TIME magazine has suggested is “the most homophobic place on earth.” The evidence is abundant from last year’s gruesome murder of gender non-conforming teen, Dwayne Jones to the popular homophobic dancehall lyrics of stars like Buju Banton, Elephant Man and Bounty Killer.
Blake, who identifies as heterosexual, captures the survival skills that many within the LGBT community employ to stay alive. “Many LGBTQ Jamaicans try to blend in as much as possible and don’t trust anyone outside the community unless persons in the community gives the green light. In some cases, should their sexual orientation be revealed they have to lie to ensure their safety and the safety of their families,” she said.
For Blake, Jamaica remains a country bound by the chains of colonialism and slavery. After nearly 52 years of independence from Britain, the island still maintains laws from the colonial era that criminalize the LGBT population. The Offences Against Persons Act of 1864, frequently referred to as the “buggery” laws makes homosexuality punishable up to 10 years’ imprisonment. Despite current prime minister Portia Simpson Miller’s promise to address these discriminatory laws nothing has changed. “Our lawmakers are suffering from deep rooted mental slavery, afraid to do the right thing and amend these laws and change the narrative moving forward for our people,” said Blake.
Still there is hope. Blake finds it in the formation of organizations like Quality of Citizenship Jamaica (QCJ), which provides grassroots support for the LBGT community. Plus she is currently mobilizing a group of activists to join her “United for Change” campaign and plans a sequel to the documentary. In the meantime, the film is scheduled for a four-day run at the Faison Firehouse Theater in New York City beginning May 1. For ticket information click here.
You could say that Billy Porter is having his own sequel of sorts (just don’t call it a comeback). The Tony Award winner has a new CD of Broadway standards titled, “Billy’s Back on Broadway.” Thematically, Porter chose songs that reflect empowerment and perseverance such as “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” from “Funny Girl” and “I Am Changing” from “Dreamgirls.” The song selection mirrors Porter’s revived career and outlook on life.
After ascending to glory in the theatre world in the 1990s and releasing a major label album, he began to feel uncomfortable with music industry politics and decided to leave and figure out his place in the entertainment industry. “There was a time in the ‘90s where as an African-American man you had to be a misogynistic R&B star or a rapper and I didn’t fit into either one of those. I was advised by my label to remain closeted at that time.”
It would take Porter 13 years and a push from his current manager, Lisa Barbaris, to consider a return to the music business. Porter recalled that while in rehearsals for the hit musical “Kinky Boots,” Barbaris suggested that he consider recording an album despite his resistance to the idea.
“I was just so burned in the ‘90s and not interested in reentering a world where I would have to compromise myself and specifically my sexuality. Lisa assured me that the market and music business changed. She really fought for me and fought for this deal. It was interesting because 20 years ago when I tried to do a Broadway album they laughed me out the room.”
But now Porter is the one with the last and perhaps, most infectious, laugh in the room. It is the confident laughter of a man who has come to accept himself and refuses to allow the joke to be on him.
“In those 13 years I was able to really come to terms with what my truth is for me. My truth is I am gay and out and if I can’t do that in my music, then I don’t need it,” he declared. “Fortunately I do feel like there is a movement against homophobia and I hope to be part of that.”
The weekly column, On the “A” w/Souleo, covers the intersection of the arts, culture entertainment and philanthropy in Harlem and beyond and is written by Souleo, founder and president of event/media content production company, Souleo Enterprises, LLC.