Brave, Bruised, Who I’m Meant to Be.

The headline “Leader of the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD), Joel Simpson, was beaten on Sunday morning by a group of six men at Bourda Market in Georgetown, Guyana” accosted me just as I returned home from my latest photography assignment. Those words and the corresponding article in The Guyana Chronicle alone would be shocking enough without having any personal connection, but it just so happens that Joel was one of my newest friends, and SASOD was the organization I had been embedded with for the previous fourteen days; a twist in my story I never expected to write about.

Most of the time, I photograph and write about other people’s lives, and sometimes I tell personal stories; I want this account to be both.

I was assigned to cover the work being done by SASOD and the small army of people who have banded together to fight for equality in the capital city of Guyana, a small English speaking country on the northeast coast of South America. They are leading change, educating, and serving communities to end discrimination. They believe real boundaries don’t exist.

I’m not a stranger to the dark. Hide away, they say. ‘Cause we don’t want your broken parts.”

During my time in Guyana, I didn’t want to sleep. I anxiously waited for the sun to knock on my door every morning, knowing that each day would never be repeated. In private, I wept for people that most others do not know exist. I was eager to share my feelings with people I had just met. Working with this varied group, I learned to be completely free. I constantly found myself wondering about what had brought me to this place in my life with the thought that I wanted to get lost.

I was surprised to learn that Guyana is often considered part of the Caribbean region because of its strong social, ethnic, cultural, historical, and political ties with the Caribbean Community. Guyana, which gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1966 and became a republic in 1970, is a historied mix of Indigenous, African, East Indian, Chinese and European people.

With short notice to prepare for this assignment, I found myself hastily googling and searching YouTube for the term “Gay Pride History.” I realized I had a great deal to learn. I resided in New York City for a decade and now call South Florida home, and have taken numerous things for granted, such as fundamental human rights and equality. Once there, Georgetown seemed like the ideal place in the world for me to be, documenting, celebrating, and most of all, learning, as Gay Pride turned fifty.

I’ve learned to be ashamed of all my scars. Run away, they say. No one will love you as you are.”

What exactly was Gay Pride and why is June such an important month for the LGBTQ community, I asked the internet. On June 2nd, 2000, President Bill Clinton declared Gay and Lesbian Pride Month; later updated by President Barack Obama to include bisexual and transgender people. “Our journey is not complete until our lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law,” said President Obama in his announcement on May 29th, 2015. Less than a month later, on June 26th, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down state bans on same-sex marriage. These dates get their significance from when the Stonewall riots became a turning point for gay rights that began in the early morning hours of June 28th, 1969.

A half-century after the police raid at the Stonewall Inn sparked the LGBTQ rights movement, New York’s police commissioner James O’Neill apologized on behalf of his department. “The actions taken by the NYPD were wrong, plain and simple,” the commissioner recently said. “The actions and the laws were discriminatory and oppressive,” he added. “And for that, I apologize.” On that muggy summer morning, patrons of The Stonewall and bystanders combusted in opposition to the police officers. There were dozens of arrests and several injuries in the riots that continued on for several days.

In 1969 America, homosexuality was viewed as a mental disorder and often seen it as a crime by the authorities. Today, approximately 150 official Pride festivals will occur around the globe to celebrate the civil rights triumphs gained, and force more equality and understanding.

I am brave, I am bruised. I am who I’m meant to be, this is me.”

In the Caribbean, many countries have started Pride events in recent years. In spite of what could be considered as a prevalent unsupportive atmosphere, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, and Jamaica (a country that TIME magazine once called “the most homophobic place on earth,”) have all staged annual festivals, declaratively finding their place in society despite the continual resistance. Slowly changing and moving forward in a positive direction, these countries are becoming a more open place for LGBTQ communities. Cuba has recently banned workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and offers free gender reassignment surgeries under its national health care system. Haiti’s first LGBTQ rights organization, Kouraj has brought more attention to the country’s gay and transgender citizens.

On Saturday, June 1, 2019, the streets of Georgetown came alive with rainbow flags and vibrantly-colored, carnival-styled costumes as their second-annual Guyana Pride parade took place. This event was indeed a sight to behold, with the parade starting at the capital’s historic Independence Park and ending at the Square of the Revolution with revelers displaying their best dance moves to sounds of their favorite Pride music selections. About 200 people took to the streets, including some prominent faces from international governments to celebrate this joyous occasion. The parade closed with short speeches from members of the Guyana LGBTQ Coalition and the song “This is Me” from The Greatest Showman soundtrack as people gathered, embraced each other, and expressed sentiments of another tremendous and incident-free Pride Parade.

Look out ’cause here I come. And I’m marching on to the beat I drum. I’m not scared to be seen I make no apologies, this is me.”

The Pride festival in Guyana, which began on May 28, ran for eight days, the events commenced with the InterFaith Forum, followed by an Open Mic Queer Café, a Pride Symposium, the Pride party, the Pride parade, The Miss Diamond Infinity Pageant, Creek Cooler Lyme event, and the festival closed with a Queer Film Night on June 3.

Here is a favorite memory of Sasod Guyana, Joel, Sara, Valini, and Jasmine working it at the beginning of the parade!

With lovely natural landscapes and a vibrant capital city, it was effortless for me to get inspiration from the Guyanese people. Although there is much work to be done in the country by cleaning the litter in the streets and updating the infrastructure, it seems that no matter what life throws at the people, they continue to seek a better life. With a significant oil discovery recently, Guyana is poised to become the next big petroleum producer, attracting attention and investments. At the 53rd Independence Anniversary celebration in May, President David Granger told the nation, “The commencement of petroleum production next year, and the transition towards becoming a ‘green’ state, will increase economic growth and provide greater resources for development. Our future belongs to young people.” 

There are roughly 100 members of the Guyana Transgender United (GTU) organization, which worked alongside SASOD to plan the Pride events in Georgetown. Many transgender people in Guyana are rejected or harassed, so they frequently turn to sex work, which can be especially dangerous there. They are among the most vulnerable people in the world. However slow, the global movement towards equality is finally helping ease some of the pain for this community, and opening up new opportunities for them.

I won’t let them break me down to dust. I know that there’s a place for us. For we are glorious.”

After nearly seven years, in 2018, Caribbean Court Of Justice Declares Guyana’s Cross-Dressing Law Unconstitutional, which had been in effect since 1893. This was a massive victory for their community and has laid the groundwork for other challenges to discriminatory laws in the country.

I was honored to be there on assignment for Photographers Without Borders getting to know some of the awe-inspiring people of the gay and transgender communities in Georgetown. Most significantly was my new confidant, Jasmin, who loved being photographed as much as I enjoyed photographing her. She was pretty much like most 18-year-old girls: funny, inquisitive, and easily hurt by social media bullies, but somehow sapiential beyond her years. Jasmin is a transwoman who first came to SASOD Guyana for assistance through it’s Community Paralegal Services Initiative after she was assaulted in 2018. She later joined the SASOD team as the organization’s Office Attendant. She is now part of the support staff on a temporary basis, and also the beneficiary of several other services that the organization offers.

I have to admit that most of what I know about the transgender community, I learned from the ground-breaking FX series Pose, which I guess was a good start. But, becoming friends with Jasmin and learning more about her each day I was in Guyana was one of the most important parts of my time there.

At the Queer Mic Night event on my second day, I noticed one of the most handsome men I’ve ever seen. He was tall, with broad shoulders and the most beauteous skin. He exuded such confidence. Cesar was present at most of the Pride events throughout the first week. It wasn’t until much later that I learned that Cesar had recently undergone a full transition surgery in The U.S. Photographing Jasmin and Cesar together (and many others enjoying some much needed R&R out in nature) at the Creek Cooler Lyme event was a joy.

Quincy “Gulliver,” AKA Mrs. G., was someone else I felt drawn to during my visit. She is the leader of Guyana Trans United. The full-figured woman with a great sense of assurance was a regular at all of the events I attended. Although she was one of the first people I met at the Interfaith Forum on my first night, it wasn’t until my last day that I had the opportunity to photograph her. Her snug red dress contrasted perfectly against the brilliant pink wall outside the GTU headquarters. Notably, she led the way for the landmark cross-dressing lawsuit.

And I know that I deserve your love. There’s nothing I’m not worthy of. This is me.”

With the scent of fish and chips still on my clothes, and all of the infectious smiles fresh in my mind… I read the article about Joel’s attack with confusion. If this event happened while I was in Guyana, how would I have felt? How would it have affected my experience and this story? 

Following the incident which left him bruised mainly to his hands, knees, and sides, Joel took to social media to detail what had occurred. He was rushed to the hospital after he was attacked and beaten. He was recused by vendors of the market, who rushed him to safety inside one of the stalls. It was a cruel and violent homophobic assault. Joel’s leadership is challenging homophobia with an unfailing commitment to the elimination of stigma and discrimination against marginalized populations in Guyana. He is calling for justice after he was brutally attacked, imploring the government to implement hate crimes legislation to help curb such behaviors.

I can’t just leave this all behind. There must be a reason I was assigned to cover this particular story, from start to finish. It’s nowhere near finished, as the fight continues. The work SASOD is doing is more important than ever. Because of this trip, I am a different person. I’ve changed. I learned so much about myself and the world.

gay transgender pride
Joel Earl Simpson- Managing Director/ Founder on Guyana’s Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination. Joel is responsible for the overall management of SASOD.

If you want to know the damn truth, this story isn’t really just about me. It’s also about you, and the people in my photographs. 

People of real depth want to embrace change. We all need to continually learn who we are and to keep searching for our voice and core values. How we treat a complete stranger right next to us, not just when things are going well, but most importantly, when things are rough. Finding your true self is not a cozy process, it shouldn’t be. It can be really frightening.

Get discomfited, get scared, start at the beginning again. If you think you know it all, find something you don’t know much about, and study it.

You can’t discover yourself unless you search for yourself, so try getting lost.

Visit the SASOD website and follow them on Facebook and Instagram to learn more and get involved.

Here are a few of my favorite portraits I took of the staff of SASOD, partner organizations, board of directors, and beneficiaries:

The Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD) is a human rights organization and movement, leading change, educating and serving communities to end discrimination based on sexuality and gender in Guyana.

SAOD VISION: AN EQUITABLE AND JUST GUYANA

SASOD: MISSION: Leading change, educating and serving communities to end discrimination based on sexuality and gender in Guyana

VALUES

1. Courage & Empowerment

2. Passion & Excellence

3. Trust, Integrity & Accountability

4. Leadership & Participation

5. Diversity & Inclusion

6. Equality, Equity & Justice

“This Is Me” (from “The Greatest Showman” soundtrack)

I’m not a stranger to the dark

Hide away, they say

‘Cause we don’t want your broken parts

I’ve learned to be ashamed of all my scars

Run away, they say

No one will love you as you are

But I won’t let them break me down to dust

I know that there’s a place for us

For we are glorious

When the sharpest words wanna cut me down

I’m gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out

I am brave, I am bruised

I am who I’m meant to be, this is me

Look out ’cause here I come

And I’m marching on to the beat I drum

I’m not scared to be seen

I make no apologies, this is me

Another round of bullets hits my skin

Well, fire away ’cause today, I won’t let the shame sink in

We are bursting through the barricades

And reaching for the sun (we are warriors)

Yeah, that’s what we’ve become

Won’t let them break me down to dust

I know that there’s a place for us

For we are glorious

When the sharpest words wanna cut me down

Gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out

I am brave, I am bruised

I am who I’m meant to be, this is me

Look out ’cause here I come

And I’m marching on to the beat I drum

I’m not scared to be seen

I make no apologies, this is me

…This is me

“Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.”

-Henry Ford

*****ABOUT RON*****

After spending the past 15 years founding and working with some of the best and busiest wedding photography studios in the U.S. and photographing over 500 weddings around the globe, Ron B. Wilson has reconnected with his true passions: travel, men’s street style, and fine-art photography. So starting “Art, Style, Flow”, a travel inspiration blog and online magazine featuring his photography, was a natural process and has been a work in progress for the past 20 years.

New York City and Miami Photographer Ron B. Wilson specializes in an award winning fashion based documentary style of photography. Ron was recently featured in Professional Photographer Magazine with an article about the {revisited} sessions that he created, and over the past few years he has been honored with many awards at the WPPI and PPA’s Imaging USA Conferences.

Ron’s primary goal is to tell stories with images and to bring out the very best in every detail of each subject he photographs. He is available for fashion, advertising, travel and editorial assignments.