Queer in Jamaica: Performance artist Simone Harris

Simone Harris has traveled from Jamaica to perform at Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt art center as part of its queer event series, titled “Desire Lines.” The opulent outfit she will later wear for her performance is still stowed in a trolley when she meets DW at the venue for the interview. She wears a cap with the inscription “Lady Blake” — her alter ego for the performance — and has a big smile.

You can tell right away: Harris is an optimistic woman who looks to the future with confidence. But the event at which she is appearing deals with a serious topic: queerness in the Caribbean. Eleven Caribbean countries have laws that criminalize homosexual acts. This includes Jamaica — her home country. The corresponding laws are mostly still relics from colonial times.

Discrimination, psychological and physical violence

In addition to legal discrimination, queer people in the Caribbean face increased psychological and physical violence, abuse and oppression. Harris told DW about what it’s like to be queer in Jamaica, the influence the church has on attempts at legal reform, and how (post-)colonialism and homophobia go hand in hand in her home country.

Harris lives in Kingston, the capital of Jamaica, where she also works as a project manager for the government. She is proud of her identity as a queer Jamaican artist and activist.

“I’m a seventh-generation maroon child, descendant of the Nanny of the Maroons,” she says, referring to the freedom fighter Nanny of the Maroons, who is Jamaica’s only female national hero. In the early 18th century, the former slave led the First Maroon War — a bloody confrontation between Jamaica’s British colonizers and the former plantation slaves known as Jamaican Maroons.

Queer and proud: Ancestral history as inspiration

“Maroons were the original rebels. They are the original rebel freedom fighters,” Harris explains. This, she says, fills her with pride and has a great influence on her work as a queer artist and activist.

“I utilize the pieces of information that I have in terms of my ancestry and in terms of Maroons as a people, enslaved Africans who also mixed with the Indigenous peoples on the islands. And of course Jamaica is a colonized space. So our national motto is ‘out of many one people,'” says Harris.

She draws inspiration from this diverse ancestry in her queer performance art. “So a lot of mixing of cultures, mixing of peoples,” Harris says.

Her ancestry story gives the openly lesbian artist strength: “That now gives me a strong connection to source, and I feel a part of that rock, a deeper part. And so any stigma around my sexual identity cannot unhinge that, it can’t disturb that.”

‘Queerribbean’ – being perceived as the ‘other’

Queer people in Jamaica are mostly marginalized. You can either be queer or you can be Jamaican. Queer Jamaicans are perceived as “other.”

“As queer people on the island and in the region we’re “othered” and existing as the “other,” a part of that is you have not contributed to the development of this nation in any way. You are not connected to anything positive or negative. You simply do not exist,” Harris says.

It is this theme of cultural identification that she seeks to explore in her work — “through a queer lens.”

Thus, in her performance at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, she plays a queen’s daughter named Lady Blake Ophelia Stratum, whose kingdom is destroyed by newcomers. A clear reference to the culture-destroying power of colonialism.

In an attempt to save the traditions and memories of the realm, Lady Blake is sent by royalty on a metaphysical journey through space and time — far from the enemy and across the seas. She lands in post-colonial Jamaica of today. Instead of being treated royally there, she is now an “other” and sets out on a mission to find her tribe — to remember the truths of the ancestors.

Colonialism, the church and queer hostility

With the performance, she not only addresses the marginalization of queer people in Jamaica, but also addresses the influence of colonialism on the situation of queer people there today.

Although many Caribbean island states are independent today, Dutch, English, French and Spanish colonialism of the past centuries continues to influence Caribbean cultures still. Jamaica itself broke away from British colonial rule in 1962.

“We still have laws on the books from the 1800s. You know, the buggery law [has been there for] 200 years or more,” Harris explains.

Post-colonialism, she says, still has a strong impact on today’s society. That raises questions about who actually has power. “Bob Marley sang about mental slavery,” Harris points out, “We have gotten rid of certain attachments as a colonized nation, but it is clear that we have so much further to go.”

That the laws remain unchanged to this day is also due to the strongly religious society, Harris says. “The presence of the church in Jamaica is incredible. The church is extremely powerful. I mean, most Jamaicans you speak to, they would have grown up in the church.”

It permeates Jamaican society and has immense political influence. “The MP feels that they can’t make a step towards progress because they will lose their seat. It’s a double edged sword,” says Harris.

Since 2015: More activism in Jamaica

Simone Harris has been a queer activist since 2015, campaigning for the rights of queer people and against discrimination towards them through art projects. She was the face of the first Jamaican Pride parade in Kingston in 2015, which gave her the feeling that something was changing in her country. Jamaican society was opening up. There was even government support for Pride. “There was support from the mayor and the Minister of National Security at that time,” she says.

This development makes her optimistic: “I’m optimistic. I see the younger generation there. They’re taking this thing head on. They’re not taking no for an answer. Many of them don’t even care about labels. For them, it’s about more than existing. They want to thrive. They want to thrive in their country and they want to stand up, step up. And for the first time with a united voice, say: ‘Listen, we are here and we are going to have a say in how we live here and how we exist here.'”

This article was originally written in German.

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