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Activists protest anti-LGBT violence in Jamaica

Activists on Wednesday gathered outside country’s embassy near Dupont Circle

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Jamaica, LGBT rights, gay news, Washington Blade
Jamaica, LGBT rights, gay news, Washington Blade

LGBT rights advocates protested outside the Jamaican embassy near Dupont Circle on Aug. 28. (Photo courtesy of Ellen Sturtz)

A group of LGBT rights advocates on Wednesday gathered in front of the Jamaican embassy near Dupont Circle in Northwest D.C. to demand authorities investigate last month’s murder of a cross-dressing teenager.

Ten activists affiliated with GetEQUAL, the D.C. Center and other groups held illuminated panels with various slogans in front of the embassy on New Hampshire Avenue, N.W. A handful of others from the Stop the Hate and Homophobia Coalition in Springfield, Mass., took part in a second gathering in Boston.

30 LGBT rights advocates gathered outside the Jamaican High Commission to protest Dwayne Jones’ murder outside the resort city of Montego Bay last month and the death of Dwayne Brown, a gay man who was found stabbed to death near the same city early on Aug. 27.

“Jamaica has long been called the most homophobic place on Earth,” Cathy Kristofferson of the Stop the Hate and Homophobia Coalition said outside the Jamaican embassy in D.C. “The violence due to homophobia has prompted hundreds of LGBT Jamaicans to seek asylum in the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States. Currently the country is doing nothing to distance itself from that label.”

A group of partygoers reportedly stabbed Jones, 17, to death near Montego Bay on July 21 after someone at the gathering realized the teen was cross-dressing. The radio station Irie FM reported a man at the party discovered Jones was actually a male.

Jones murder took place against the backdrop of pervasive anti-LGBT violence in the Caribbean country.

A report from the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians All-Sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG,) a Jamaican LGBT advocacy group, said the organization knows of at least 30 gay men who have been murdered on the island between 1997 and 2004. These include J-FLAG co-founder Brian Williamson who was stabbed to death inside his home in Kingston, the country’s capital, in 2004.

Maurice Tomlinson, a Jamaican lawyer with the group AIDS-Free World who fled his homeland last year after he received death threats after local media reported he had married a Canadian man, noted in an Aug. 29 post to his blog there have been several anti-LGBT attacks in Jamaica since Jones’ death. These include a mob who attacked a cross-dresser in St. Catherine outside of Kingston on Aug. 10, and a group who surrounded the home of two gay men in the same area nine days earlier.

Nearly 1,500 people in June attended a Kingston rally in support of the country’s anti-sodomy law a few days before the Jamaica Supreme Court heard a lawsuit that challenges the statute under which those who are convicted face up to 10 years in prison with hard labor. Education Minister Ronald Thwaites said during an Aug. 26 press conference at which he discussed a new school curriculum that it would not be “grooming Jamaican children for homosexual behavior.”

“The material stands squarely against any kind of discrimination, but there is a line to be drawn and we have drawn it clearly,” Thwaites said. “The values we propose for human relationships — wholesome, joyous relationships are between men and women.”

Authorities have yet to make any arrests in Jones’ death.

“The government of Jamaica, through the Jamaica Constabulary Force, is continuing its investigation of the killing of Dwayne Jones,” Jamaica Ambassador to the U.S. Stephen Vasciannie told the Washington Blade on Thursday. “We are confident that, if sufficient evidence is unearthed, the director of Public Prosecutions will bring appropriate charges in keeping with Jamaican law.”

Vasciannie also referred to Justice Minister Mark Golding’s July 29 statement in which he condemned Jones’ murder.

“Given our country’s history of brutality and the pluralistic nature of our society, all well-thinking Jamaicans must embrace the principle of respect for the basic human rights of all persons,” Golding said. “This principle requires tolerance towards minority groups and non-violence in our dealings with those who manifest a lifestyle that differs from the majority of us.”

The groups who organized the protests in D.C., Boston and London also called for a boycott of Jamaica’s tourism industry and urged businesses not to invest in the island’s economy “until the hate and homophobia ends.”

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West Virginia

Eastern Panhandle Pride brings celebration to rural W.Va.

‘Martinsburg is an inclusive city’

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A scene from Eastern Panhandle Pride on June 4. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Smiling faces spilled into downtown Martinsburg, W.Va., on June 4, welcomed by booths swathed in rainbow colors lining the road.

The historic sight marked the first time that Martinsburg welcomed an official Pride celebration to its streets — but not all residents viewed the new event favorably. As the celebration came into full swing, two protesters marched straight to its center, carrying a sign with homophobic slurs and a seven-foot cross.

The protest quickly turned the heads of passersby. As more and more people approached the demonstration, a group of more than 30 attendees formed a circle around the protesters, separating them from the event. Some joined hands and, attempting to drown out the protesters’ hatred, chanted: “Love wins!”

When Joe Merceruio began working at Eastern Panhandle Pride nine years ago, he set out to help unite the community of West Virginia’s easternmost region, working with fellow organizers to create Pride celebrations in a Shepherdstown park.

But when assuming the role of president in 2019, he never anticipated that just three years later, the organization would be invited by the mayor of the panhandle’s largest city to throw a celebration in the Berkeley County, W.Va. seat. “We’ve never had a city reach out to us and ask us to do Pride, it was always the other way around,” he explained.

Born and raised in Martinsburg, Merceruio was moved by the way his community came together at this year’s Pride celebration. After two years of restricted celebrations due to public health concerns, seeing so many people celebrate in person, including many allies, was deeply meaningful, he noted.

Beth Roemer, who helped organize this year’s festivities, said she was especially proud of the way her community peacefully organized against the protesters — especially those young people she credited with leading the charge. The group was “surrounding them in a very passive way so that they couldn’t do any more damage,” she recalled.

Participating in Pride each year has shown Merceruio and Roemer alike the ways their community is changing, fueled by advocacy from LGBTQ individuals and allies within it.

Berkeley County is known for being more conservative, which meant that Roemer “wasn’t sure” exactly “how far we had come” in accepting the LGBTQ community. But her hopes for inclusivity were quickly realized when she saw how many people supported this year’s celebration.

“We had a local business downtown reach out to Joe and I, and he said he just never believed in a million years that we could have Pride downtown,” she added. “He was super happy.”

According to Merceruio, Pride offers an opportunity for community building especially important to rural West Virginians.

“I think you can let the stereotype of West Virginia interfere with the reality of the West Virginia that’s really out there,” he explained. “There is ignorance, there is hatred, but there’s also a tremendous amount of love and support.”

“It really gives people who want a community a chance to see that there is a community in Martinsburg,” Roemer said. At this year’s celebration, Roemer added that she met an 18-year-old woman who was able to attend Pride for the first time after her parents did not support her desire to go growing up. “She goes, ‘Now I have a community,’” Roemer recalled.

As an organization that serves a primarily rural region, Eastern Panhandle Pride operates differently from many Pride organizations in major cities. Merceruio noted that there are some challenges associated with organizing Pride in a rural area, like receiving less attention from sponsors and having to work harder to find and provide resources.

Still, Merceruio said rural Pride celebrations have a certain charm that major Pride celebrations cannot always replicate.

“I have people that have texted me and said, ‘We’re so excited to do this, our 11-year-old daughter has been waiting for this,’” he explained. “I think you get more of a family atmosphere in rural areas.”

Some of Merceruio’s favorite moments from this year’s Pride included this type of “personal interaction” with community members, he added. “I guess that’s a bit more of what you get from a smaller town for Pride.”

At this year’s Pride, Martinsburg Mayor Kevin Knowles spoke directly to attendees, welcoming the celebration to the city’s streets and reading a proclamation officially recognizing June 2022 as Pride month for the city.

“Martinsburg is an inclusive city. We include everybody, no matter where they come from or what they do,” Knowles said at the event. “The city of Martinsburg is moving forward.”

In the near future, Eastern Panhandle Pride hopes to continue to offer programming for the local LGBTQ community and its allies, and to further support community needs through advocacy. For Merceruio, this work is an important part of giving back to the place he calls home.

“I love being from West Virginia. Our culture and our society and our neighbors,” Merceruio said. “It’s got its problems, but it is awesome.”

See photos from the event here!

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Rehoboth Beach

Rehoboth’s anti-climactic election raises concerns over process

Incumbent Chrzanowski criticizes delay in candidate’s filing

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Edward Chrzanowski ran unopposed for re-election in Rehoboth Beach’s June election. (Photo via Facebook)

It was an anti-climactic election in Rehoboth Beach, Del., last month, when only two candidates emerged for two city commissioner seats.

Edward Chrzanowski ran unopposed for re-election and Francis “Bunky” Markert was named to fill the open commissioner seat being vacated by incumbent Susan Gay. While the uncontested races meant no official election was held in the beachside city this year, the proceedings were not devoid of controversy. In a conversation with the Blade, Chrzanowski voiced concerns with this year’s election proceedings.

At the beginning of the day on June 6 — the deadline to file for the election — Chrzanowski was the only candidate to formally enter the race for commissioner, motivated by his desire to see through ongoing infrastructure development plans, he said. At the time, Gay, the other incumbent commissioner whose term ended this year, had made no official statement regarding her candidacy, and no other candidates had filed for election.

But by the end of the day, Markert — who ran unsuccessfully for the position in 2014 — was nominated for election in a petition submitted by Jan Konesey, a circulator. The next day, Gay announced she would not seek reelection due to family health concerns. “I am not leaving Rehoboth Beach,” Gay said in the June 7 statement, but “I have decided not to seek re-election.”

With only two candidates in the running, Chrzanowski and Markert were exempt from participating in an official election. Chrzanowski, who is gay, noted he was “very glad” that he would not “have to campaign,” but criticized his colleague’s behavior surrounding registration for the election. In a conversation with the Blade, he alleged that Gay deliberately waited to announce whether she would seek reelection, which meant prospective opponents were unaware of the vacancy and therefore less likely to enter the race. He also suggested that Gay encouraged “one of her friends” — Markert — to file his candidacy in her place, without opposition.

“I’m very disappointed with what my colleague who decided not to run for reelection (did),” Chrzanowski said. “I announced my candidacy pretty early on to allow the public to absorb that. If someone wanted to run against me, I’d obviously give them the chance to do that.”

The idea of his colleagues “playing behind the scenes” left him feeling “disappointed,” he added. “Given the person that is running, or now will walk in as a commissioner, I would have much preferred there be an election and that person be challenged.”

But Gay and Markert both deny that they coordinated their decisions regarding the election.

Gay said she had initially planned to seek reelection, but a “change of plans” caused by family health circumstances made her feel she could not faithfully carry out the position for another consecutive term. “It was actually very last minute,” she said. “In fact, I had an (election) petition all set to go.”

“I realized that I could not devote the time that I needed” to the position, Gay explained. “I take the work very seriously. I wanted to be able to devote my full attention to it, and I just cannot right now.”

“It was a very, very, very difficult decision,” she added.

Markert said he presumed someone else would run in the election, so an uncontested race did not influence his candidacy.

In 2014, Markert was appointed to the city’s planning commission. He said his experience both as a resident of Rehoboth Beach and as a volunteer in local government led him to want to serve the city further by guiding its development as a commissioner, moving Rehoboth Beach forward while also preserving its unique character and qualities.

Gay said that waiting to the end of the allotted window to announce candidacy in the commissioner election was not unusual in city politics. In previous years, candidates often submitted their petitions on the very last day allowed, she explained.

“There’s a tradition here, and Ed should know this because he did it himself,” Gay said. “I went and ran three years ago. There were two candidates that announced in advance, and then the last four — Ed was one of them — turned in their petitions” on the latest day possible.

In an email to the Blade, Rehoboth Beach communications specialist Lynne Coan confirmed that in the 2019 election, when Chrzanowski and Gay were most recently elected, they both filed their petitions less than an hour before the deadline.

Gay added she was traveling when Markert’s petition was submitted, and was therefore not immediately aware he was an official candidate.

“Every year, we never know until the last minute who (the candidates are) going to be,” she said. “I don’t think anybody’s decision to run should be dependent on anybody else, and it certainly wasn’t for me. If people want to run they should step up.”

Regardless of the circumstances that brought them to their positions, Chrzanowski and Markert received approval from the city’s Board of Elections and are slated to serve as city commissioners. Reflecting on this year’s proceedings, each expressed mixed feelings about the lack of a formal election.

For Chrzanowski, who previously won a contested race for city commissioner, avoiding the “divisiveness” of a local election was advantageous. But he added that there was something lost without formal proceedings, which offer the public an opportunity to challenge candidate platforms and even enter the race should they feel their views are unrepresented.

For Markert, running uncontested removed significant monetary and time constraints. Still, a formal election would have helped him connect with the local community, and their support would have granted “ a certain level of legitimacy” to his representing them in city government.

“I would prefer to be up there, elected … (but) I’m a qualified candidate,” he explained. “In three years time, if I was to run again, and I plan to run again, maybe I’ll be able to be elected.”

According to Coan, the Board of Elections will meet on July 12 to finalize the 2022 election. Chrzanowski and Markert will begin their terms on Sept. 16.

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District of Columbia

D.C. house with rainbow Pride flag set on fire

Investigators seeking help from public in search for suspect

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A Pride flag remained displayed at the house in Shaw this past Sunday, one week after the fire in the rear of the house which fire officials have listed as arson. (Washington Blade photos by Lou Chibbaro Jr.)

The D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department has classified as arson a June 19 fire at a two-story row house on the 1800 block of 8th Street, N.W. in the city’s Shaw neighborhood that had an LGBTQ rainbow Pride flag prominently displayed on the front of the house.

A Fire & EMS Department spokesperson said the fire was ignited in a detached wooden garage in the rear of the house accessible only through an alley, and fire investigators have yet to identify a suspect or a motive for what evidence shows was an intentionally set fire.

Although the front of the brick rowhouse where the Pride flag was displayed was not damaged, the fire in the garage spread to the rear of the house, destroying a wooden outdoor deck, and caused extensive damage to the kitchen, bathroom, and second floor bedroom. Fire investigators have sealed the house, requiring its three occupants to find a temporary residence as the investigation continues.

One of the three occupants of the house, who was the only one at home when the fire started at about 2 a.m., escaped without injury, according to sources who know the occupants.

“The Pride flag on the front of the house was present at the time of the fire,” Jennifer Donelan, director of communications for the Fire & EMS Department, told the Washington Blade. “We do not have any information, at this time, that suggests the arson was related to the presence of the flag, however we are still working on the case,” she said.

“We are aggressively working to identify a suspect and a motive,” Donelan said. “Until such time, we won’t be able to make a determination as to whether or not this was a hate crime.”

She said the Fire & EMS Department is seeking help from the public in its effort to identify one or more suspects responsible for the fire. Anyone with information that could be helpful to the investigation is asked to call fire investigators at 202-673-2776.

The fire at the D.C. house with the Pride flag took place less than a week after Baltimore police said a house in that city’s Waverly neighborhood on which “Pride décor” was displayed was set on fire on June 15, causing extensive damage to the house and nearby houses.

Baltimore police and fire department officials said a Pride flag on a house across the street from the house set on fire was also ablaze when firefighters arrived on the scene. Two men were hospitalized in critical condition and a woman was listed in serious condition because of the fire ignited in the house.

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott released a statement saying fire department officials had yet to determine a motive for the fire.

“At this point, we cannot confirm that this was a hate crime,” Scott said. “However, my agencies will bring every appropriate resource to bear to get to the bottom of this tragic event,” he said. “I continue to stand in solidarity with our LGBTQ+ community.”

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