Electrifying music, stunning costumes, and enthusiastic crowds are what you can expect at this year’s Caribana festivities. Yet while the largest North American cultural festival of its kind celebrates Toronto’s ethnic diversity with events designed for all ages, cultural backgrounds, and musical preferences, noticeably absent are any activities designed to include the LGBT community. Moreover, Caribana is increasingly criticized for its promotion of artists known for venomous and homophobic lyrics.
One artist who particularly stands out is controversial dancehall musician Elephant Man, who apparently has been banned from headlining a Caribana-related event at CiRCA Nightclub on Sunday night due to an outcry from local activists. These stories often lead to the impression that Caribana is intrinsically homophobic, because in a nation such as Canada, which cherishes its rights and freedoms, how can an organization even remotely associate itself with artists whose music has indirectly contributed to the death, rape, and exile of Jamaican citizens?
Caught at the crossroads in this debate are queers of African-Caribbean descent.
In 2006, Toronto Splash, an initiative between three promoters—DJ Black Cat, Murchy P Productions, and Anopenmind Productions—was created to provide a safe space for locals and travellers visiting Toronto to celebrate Caribana in an LGBT-friendly environment. “Toronto Splash is a time when we can enjoy each other and be proud of ourselves amongst other Black men and women around us and in our community,” says DJ Black Cat. “We saw a need that was not being filled, and we filled it.”
Toronto Splash started off as three days of mainly free-spirited and libidinous parties, but has evolved to become “Toronto’s Black Pride,” and is now an official member of the International Federation of Black Prides. The IFBP is a coalition joined to promote a multinational network of LGBT/SGL (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender/Same-Gender-Loving) Prides and community-based organizations.
“Earl Folkes [president and CEO of the IFBP], received so much positive feedback from travellers visiting Toronto from the U.S to come to our parties that he personally asked us if we wanted to expand and take this on,” says Polly Watkis of Anopenmind Productions. “We jumped at the chance because we’re too often divided within our own community.”
This all sounds like great fun, but one wonders why this is happening now and not as part of the mainstream Pride festivities that took place a little more than a month ago. Recent debate over President Barack Obama’s slowness to undo the wrongs afflicting gays and lesbians in the United States, coupled with columnists such as Dan Savage blaming African-Americans for the passing of the now-infamous Proposition 8, has led some to wonder how aligned Black gays and lesbians are with the wider LGBT community.
Is there a rift? DJ Black Cat insists this is not the case, but notes, “We didn’t want to get lost in the shuffle of Gay Pride. Toronto Splash needs its own moment, and Caribana is the perfect time for it. For many young and old Black gay men and women still not out, it is important for them to see faces like themselves in a supportive environment.”
Not to be downplayed is that event attendees are likely to be in the closet, or “on the down low,” a phenomenon that’s come to public consciousness, thanks to Oprah Winfrey, due to the rise in HIV rates amongst African-American and African-Canadian women. The committee plans to expand Toronto Black Gay Pride with more educational workshops and art events designed to build confidence and networks.
So, will Toronto Black Pride become an official Caribana event? “I certainly believe so,” opines Pitter. “They know what we are doing and have been very supportive.”
Adds Watkis, “The Caribana festival attracts over one million visitors from around the world, and Toronto Splash has already been dubbed ‘Queeribana.’ Toronto Splash is one of the largest gay urban events in the country, so it’s just a matter of time before we become an official part of the festivities.”