LGBT History Month: Gay Freedom Movement archives properly re-posited overseas

The first post in the LGBT History month series going on its third year since I started blogging looks at the Gay Freedom Movement archives, this is the first local LGBT advocacy organization formed in 1974 by a group of Jamaicans including a Jesuit priest however its face and voice was its out and proud at the time General Secretary Larry Chang who left the archives in the care of Jamaica Forum for Lesbians Allsexuals and Gays JFLAG, if it were not for some noise making from my part at my time at the J and that of others who were shown the badly damaged pieces in some instances they would have withered away.

Thankfully there were retrieved and sent to Mr. Chang who now resides in the United States. Below please see Larry Chang’s speech at the Caribbean Region of the International Resource Network (IRN) laucnh of the archives. The Caribbean IRN was established in 2009 as a network for activists, scholars, artists, writers, and other individuals and organizations who do research and community work on issues related to diverse genders and sexualities in the Caribbean. One of our major goals has been to build a digital collection and help regional organizations and individuals preserve the histories/herstories of activism around issues affecting sexual minorities, it is only with regret that the delicate pieces and documents could not have been stored locally and respected for their true value that it had to take this evasive action to avoid them being lost forever.

Genesis of the Jamaica Gay Freedom Movement Archive

Larry Chang

Even at the time, I was fully cognizant of a responsibility to posterity to leave a paper trail. After all, we were creating history by being the first gay rights organization, as far as we knew, in the Caribbean.

As general secretary and editor of our newsletter, Jamaica Gaily News (JGN), the onus was on me to sort, file, and secure the archiving of our correspondence and publishing output. Duly labeled and boxed, these remained intact and in reasonable condition well past the demise of the Gay Freedom Movement. The materials survived the handover to my successor, St. Hope Thomas, who meticulously pasted instructions on the top of the box that they should revert to me in case of his death. When that did eventuate, his family duly complied with his wishes. In 1999, I left Kingston, passing the archives on to the Jamaican Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals, and Gays (J-FLAG), which shared office space with an AIDS nonprofit organization. I included my personal collection of a complete set of JGN issues for safekeeping. Big mistake.

The first inkling I had of anything amiss was from e-mail messages I got, in succession, from Emily Paul and Anthony Hron, both Peace Corps volunteers with J-FLAG. They were concerned that the archives were not secured, casually placed in a room with a roof that leaked and that was subject to infestation. Tropical moisture and insects are no respecter of the written word. I contacted everyone I could think of who could possibly do anything to rectify the situation but it seemed no one could take any initiative. When Emily returned to the United States she arranged for the Tretter Collection of the University of Minnesota, which specializes in LGBT material, to receive the collection. Many e-mails flew back and forth but no one could come to a decision. The J-FLAG officers’ attention was understandably focused elsewhere, since their own survival and security as an organization was under constant threat. What’s a few boxes of old papers?

I felt powerless and helpless, unable to do anything to mitigate what I envisaged to be an impending great loss. Had I been on spot, I would have gone and rescued the papers myself. But there was nothing I could do from a thousand miles away, and without any encouraging or supportive response, much less consensus. The saddest part was the seeming lack of appreciation or understanding of what was at stake.

In 2003, I saw Gareth Henry, then co-chair of J-FLAG, at the premiere of Songs of Freedom in New York. [1] I spoke to him about retrieving my copies of JGN. He promised to look into it when he went back to Kingston. I never heard anything from him and the next thing I knew he had applied for asylum in Canada. Two years later, I discussed the matter with Thomas Glave, who offered to investigate on one his trips to Jamaica. I asked him to retrieve at least my personal set of JGN copies. During the course of several trips, many e-mails, and through direct contact with several people, it transpired that the newsletters could not be found. There was, however, a box of papers. We felt that it was imperative to secure whatever was left.

Wanting to be preemptive but not autocratic, we widened the conversation to include many more concerned parties to agonize over ownership, copyright, logistics, and procedure. At some stage of the discussion, Howard Fulton and Dane Lewis of J-FLAG; Julius Powell; Natalie Bennett; Stephen Fullwood of the Schomburg Center; Jonathan Ned Katz of OutHistory.org; and Rosamond King, Angelique Nixon, and Vidyaratha Kissoon of Caribbean IRN have been involved.

At every step of the way, Thomas Glave was instrumental as facilitator, go-between, and interlocutor, and ultimately as courier—he physically retrieved the material and brought it to New York in a suitcase. The material was then lodged with Jonathan Katz, who began digitizing but found it more than he bargained for; only a few documents made it to OutHistory.org. Eventually the Caribbean IRN saved the day by teaming with Digital Library of the Caribbean (dLOC) to digitize the collection and make it available online. This is a major accomplishment, launched with appropriate gravitas at Brooklyn College in June 2011. A huge debt of gratitude is due to all involved.

The next stage will be to resume the conversation about ownership and custody of the collection. The Schomburg Center may still be interested, but now that the physical integrity of the archives is not at risk, perhaps we can take a more studied approach and explore other options. One thing that is underscored is the critical importance of securing our collective intellectual property so we can shape our own history and write our own stories. It will be imperative, then, to overcome the cavalier attitude toward documentation and preservation that seems to typify Caribbean response. Who writes the history determines the agenda.

Cultural theorist Stuart Hall notes, “Silencing as well as remembering, identity is always a question of producing in the future an account of the past.”[2] Sexual minorities have for too long been silenced, written out of history. It is time that we find our voice, write our stories, and determine our place in that history. The process of reclamation has already begun, with Patricia Powell’s reference to Gaily News and its personals column in A Small Gathering of Bones, and through Kanika Batra’s scholarly treatment published in Small Axe.[3] The great pity, and great credit to Batra, is that to access the material she had to go to the Canadian Gay and Lesbian Archives, which inherited the collection from the defunct Body Politic, with which JGN had an exchange subscription. The other option I am told would have been the COK Archives in Amsterdam, but I have not been able to confirm this. The bottom line is that this material should be available to Jamaicans, in Jamaica.

My hope is that successive poets, writers, and painters will find in the archives the references and inspiration to launch their own visions and flights of the imagination to enlarge and embellish our ongoing stories. From a practical point of view, scholar Natalie Bennett is of the opinion that “current activists in JA could learn a lot from the strategies . . . used more than two decades ago.”[4] Would that the other box is found, placed in the capable hands of Caribbean IRN to be digitized and preserved. These are our stories.

Last word from Stuart Hall:

No cultural identity is produced out of thin air. It is produced out of those historical experiences, those cultural traditions, those lost and marginal languages, those marginalized experiences, those peoples and histories which remain unwritten. Those are the specific roots of identity. On the other hand, identity itself is not the rediscovery of them, but what they as cultural resources allow a people to produce. Identity is not in the past to be found, but in the future to be constructed.[5]

Larry Chang is an environmental designer, publisher, life counselor, and founder of EcolocityDC, which seeks to address environmental, economic, and social sustainability issues. He has been introducing the Transition model to the Washington DC region, with a particular focus on urban sustainability through farming and intentional community development. He was a co-founder of the Gay Freedom Movement of Jamaica; the general secretary, editor, and publisher of Jamaica Gaily News; and a co-founder of J-FLAG.


[1] Songs of Freedom is a Phillip Pike documentary on Jamaican LGBTs.

[2] Stuart Hall, “Negotiating Caribbean Identities,” in Gregory Castle, ed., Postcolonial Discourses: An Anthology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), 283.

[3] Patricia Powell, A Small Gathering of Bones, with an introduction by Thomas Glave (Boston: Beacon, 2003); originally published by Heinemann Educational Publishers in 1994. Kanika Batra, “‘Our Own Gayful Rest’: A Postcolonial Archive,” Small Axe, no. 31 (March 2010): 46–59.

[4] Personal correspondence with author, 13 August 2009.

[5] Hall, “Negotiating Caribbean Identities,” 291.

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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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