Early Jamaican LGBT History

1976: Meeting point in New Kingston: The Closet

It seems that the first gay club, named The Closet, was established in New Kingston around 1976.
1976: The first Jamaican gay association is founded
Chinese-Jamaican gay man and political organizer, Larry Chang, organized a gay group in Jamaica, called the Gay Freedom Movement (GFM) as early as 1976 in a fiercely hostile climate. He held the position of General Secretary and was Publisher and Editor of its newsletter: Jamaica Gaily News. The newsletter was first named The Toilet Paper. As of issue No.3, Larry decided that the name was no longer relevant and changed it to The Jamaica Gaily News, which was a take-off on the Jamaican daily newspaper The Jamaica Daily News. .
Songs Of Freedom documentary – Interview with Larry Chang

Songs Of Freedom: Compelling Stories of Courage and Hope by Jamaican Gays and LesbiansExcerpt taken from an interview recorded in 2002, available in the documentary Songs Of Freedom.’When I graduated, and it was time for me to think about coming back to Jamaica, I made a conscious decision that I would come back here to contribute to nation building and all of that sort of stuff but on my own terms. /// Having met more and more people, I sort of know my way around gay Kingston, at least what there was at the time. And after I got my own apartment, of course, it became open house for a lot of gay people. If those walls could talk, if my dining room table could talk. These stories it would produce. A lot of people would have come out in my house. There has been all kind of revelations, breakdowns, emotional trauma and everything that you can think of that happen at my house. /// Sometimes after, there happen to be a club called The Closet, which was actually in the heart of New Kingston. I was going on well for quite a while and then we had the eternal problem of gay on gay violence, we had a lot of who we now refer as downtown people who would come there, would pick fights, break bottles, try to stab each other all that kind of wonderful behavior.
And the viability of the club therefore would be threaten by this type of behavior.As a response to this problem of violence, a few of us decided to get together and call a meeting to see if we could develop some sense of community among gay people where by we could turn to each other, just to find out what was on gay people’s mind: why all this violence, why all this self hatred, because that what it was down to: self hatred. What could we, as a population, do to address this. So we called a meeting at The Closet. There was a fairly good turn out and a very good participation. And out of that came a comity of six people, who came together to form the Gay Freedom Movement. At the end of the first meeting, I remember that I pull together (a none page mimeograph – sorry – a one-sheet mimeograph), a one-sheet newsletter, just reporting on what the proceedings were. I irreverently called this The Toilet Paper, because after all, the meeting has taken place in a closet.
It was Toilet Paper No.1 and we went to issue No.2. And by the time the third issue was come out, I said “no, I can’t keep calling this ‘The Toilet Paper’ has it is no longer appropriate”, so I change the name to The Jamaica Gaily News, which was a take-off on the Jamaican daily newspaper The Jamaica Daily News. At about the same time too, a letter had come out in The Daily Gleaner from a Helen Sommers Overcan, on the subject of population control. She was basically giving an historical overview of all the different methods of population control that have been attempted by different people. Among these she listed infanticide, and fracticise all the other things that you can think of.

I found myself to write a letter back to the Gleaner, responding to this letter that it was a very good letter, but she had a gearing ommition that she had not listed homosexuality as a time honored and natural means of population control. I suppose the Gleaner couldn’t believe that anybody would have written a letter like this to them. So they called me to confirmed: “did you really write this letter and signed your named to it and blah, blah, blah”. And I said “yes”. Except that I didn’t just signed my name, but I put under it: Gay Freedom Movement. At that time, the Gay Freedom Movement did not exist, the meeting at The Closet has not yet been held, but I felt that if I put the name of an organization behind my name, that the letter would have a little bit more impact, a little more clout, and that I was not just a voice crying for inunamist. Those two things kind of came together at a point in time, to give us that historical event, which we now referred as the Gay Freedom Movement, which I think happen in the mid to late 70’s.It was at the height of Michael Manley’s area and democratic socialism where the political climate, emphasis durable values, participation, co-operation, sharing, rights and all of these things. It was a very fertile time for ideals, movements, concepts, people-based initiatives. I think the Gay Freedom Movement was born at the right time. There is nothing that happen before its time. It was time for it than. ///The GFM had basically two objectives, one was to educate ourself has who we were. We are talking about consciousness raising, self awareness, that type of thing. An the other objective was to educate others, meaning the public. /// We had connection with almost every gay group right across the world, from Scandinavia to South Africa, to Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Israel, you name it.

We had this change arrangement with these groups, we would send them Jamaica Gaily News and they would sent us their publications. Because of the breath of our international connections, when the whole AIDS epidemic broke out, we were able to have up-to-date information on AIDS, long before anybody in Jamaica knew about it. We were fairly well prepared, at least in terms of being armed with information. I think that is one of the things to witch I attribute the fairly low incidence of HIV among the homosexual population in Jamaica. /// We started a Pen Pal club because we would have letters from all over Jamaica and all over the world, requesting Pen Pals. That was one of the most popular features that we carried in The Gaily News. I remember in particular one letter from this guy who signed his name and his address was Cornpiece District, Hayes, Clarendon. I was very trilled to know that we were reaching isolated rural people who otherwise would have no kind of contact with anything or anyone gay. And the fact that we were reaching these people, to me it prove that we were doing something worthwhile.
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Author: GLBTQ Jamaica Moderator

Activist and concerned gay man in Jamaica with over 19 years experience in advocacy and HIV/AIDS prevention work, LGBT DJ since 1996.

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