Jamaica’s First Organization to Solely Focus on Transgender Health and Well-being

Neish McLean

Neish McLean is Co-Founder and Executive Director of TransWave Jamaica, an organization in Jamaica that works to build the trans rights movement by raising awareness and increasing the visibility of transgender Jamaicans, in order to change the narrative towards a positive reflection of the community, while highlighting the need for improved healthcare that meets the needs of the community. We spoke with Neish McLean about the formation of the organization, Jamaica Pride (#PRiDEJA), and more.

M.J. Moneymaker (MJM): Can you share a brief story about how you became involved with activism and organizing for transgender rights? Can you tell us a bit about the process of founding TransWave Jamaica? What motivated the formation of the organization? Were there any legal/social roadblocks to founding such an organization in Jamaica?

Neish McLean (NM): I became involved with activism formally after participating in a workshop in August 2015. As participants in the training we were charged with creating a 30-day advocacy campaign and as such TransWave Jamaica was born out of the necessity for a resource point to share information related to transgender terminologies and experiences. There was a key need for the formation of TransWave as no organization existed in Jamaica that advocated solely for the rights and dignity of the trans community. Before the end of the 30 days, TransWave Jamaica had evolved from a blog and has since then transformed into an advocacy organization that promotes transgender health and wellbeing. Thankfully, there were no roadblocks. In fact, Equality for All Foundation Jamaica Ltd (J-FLAG) provided us with technical and financial support that helped us from the outset. With their support, we were able to establish our social media pages and host the first trans visibility campaign in Jamaica in November 2015.

A celebration of trans visibility and trans resilience - Photo credit - Zion Cole

MJM: Tell us about this year’s Pride experience for your organization?

NM: Pride Jamaica was monumental for the trans community. This year, the faces of pride were persons of trans experience and this was highlighted on the cover of the Pride issue of PRiDE Magazine along with several features in the magazine as well. (Read - https://issuu.com/j-flag/docs/pride3_web ).

Panelists (Renae Green and Neish McLean with moderator Karen Lloyd) at the Pride Jamaica Conference

We’ve been working to increase trans visibility since last year through a number of social media campaigns; so this year’s PRiDE, with its emphasis on persons of trans experience, was a wonderful opportunity to highlight and celebrate our community. This year’s campaign accentuated our pride, Trans pride, and the celebration of our existence. We’ve seen a consistent rise in trans visibility each year and it’s been heartwarming to witness how #PRiDEJA has created a safe and inclusive space for persons of trans experience. I think that TransWave Jamaica has played a role in that as we have helped to increase awareness and understanding around the lived realities and experiences of persons of trans experience with our campaigns and activities. Additionally, we participated in the Pride Conference and presented a paper on the need for a holistic approach to advocacy that goes beyond HIV support and treatment for persons of trans experience. This was also an important platform to share our experiences with the audience and to also discuss some relevant issues and concerns that many persons of trans experience have.

MJM: While heightened visibility for the trans community can help raise awareness, diminish taboos, and expand acceptance, it can also increase the risk of violence and discrimination. As TransWave Jamaica and the Jamaican transgender community have become more visible, have you noticed any backlash?

NM: There has been some backlash on social media. Earlier this year, I was featured on the cover of the Jamaica Star in an article that sought to explore my trans identity and touched on the need for updating legal documents to reflect gender. The article got a lot of attention on social media and some of the comments were quite violent in nature. For many persons of trans experience, the increased awareness and affirmation of their gender identity has resulted in tense relationships, with family especially. It can be difficult for persons of trans experience to find employment and housing and to access healthcare - especially those that are trans-sensitive. Our increased visibility indeed can increase the risk of violence and discrimination. We urge personal safety and assessment of each person’s unique circumstances while providing a safe space for our community to come together to share and connect. There have been occasions though, that despite the safety measures taken by the community, we have been targets of violence and discrimination.That’s the balance we have to strike in this work, pushing forward for change while recognizing that for communities like ours change often has its challenges.

The TransActive crew at the Sigma Run in February

MJM: What progress have you noticed, either within the community or from the government, since starting TransWave on transgender issues and attitudes? What accomplishments are you most proud of?

NM: Since the emergence of TransWave Jamaica, we have had critical conversations with key stakeholders, about transgender issues. Much of our work has been around increasing awareness around transgender terminologies and creating a safe, inclusive and non-judgemental space for persons of trans experience to be able to affirm their identity. I’m most proud of the safe space we have been able to carve out for ourselves here in Jamaica. Our support group sessions reflect an increased self awareness and comfort within the trans community and a greater exploration and affirmation. Additionally, our TransActive events reflect an increased level of compassion and interest in knowledge about trans issues. This is crucial as persons of trans experience generally avoid social spaces due to their social anxiety, especially with regards to misgendering. Our awareness campaigns and interactions have created a space where allies are more aware and persons of trans experience feel a greater sense of safety. This has been a great accomplishment for us as an organization.

MJM: What strategies have you found to be the most successful for spreading your message/gaining acceptance/performing activist work?

Our visibility is revolutionary (Trans Day of Visibility 2017)

NM: The most useful strategy to spreading our message has been to keep it simple and to be patient. I’ve found it beneficial to be open, to not be combative in our responses, and to use challenges as an opportunity to share knowledge so others can grow. When engaging persons of trans experience, I make myself available and take seriously my role in being considered a leader for my community. Personally for me, as an activist, I find it useful to share my personal experience as a man of trans experience and to using my story to impact positively on others. I’ve been told that my openness has created, for others, a level of understanding and insight into my lived experiences and thus has contributed to their awareness of trans issues and has created a humanizing effect. Sharing and consciousness raising have been really important methods for me.

MJM: Anything else you’d like to add like what’s next for TransWave Jamaica or upcoming campaigns, etc?

NM: We have some great ideas in store. We’re currently hoping to hear some good news regarding grant application processes so that we can execute some campaigns we have in mind.

Embracing sisterhood, love and unity on International Women's Day

So our immediate next step is to get funding. We want to also finalize our website and expand from the blog that was our origin. We’re also looking forward to working more closely with key stakeholders to have meaningful conversations about updating gender markers on legal documents as well as accessing hormone replacement therapy in a standardized and accessible way. Overall, I’m excited about our growth in two years and looking forward to charging ahead with the dynamic team that forms our executive body. Many thanks to FJ and Noelle for coming on board and giving their time to TransWave and believing in the work we’re doing for and on behalf of the community here in Jamaica.

Special thanks to F.J. Genus for helping to make the interview happen. Listen to our podcast about F.J. attending the Commission on the Status of Women.

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