US Virgin Islands hold first Pride parade
The month of June brings the official start of summer, and along with it, a celebration of LGBTQ+ Pride. The tradition of Pride Month began in 1969 with the Stonewall Riots, a series of demonstrations against police raids of gatherings of the LGBTQ+ community in New York. In commemoration of these events, Pride Month has been celebrated worldwide by members of the LGBTQ+ community each June since.
Many major cities including Los Angeles and Chicago host pride parades during the month of June, and this year the US Virgin Island of St. Croix joins them. On June 9, 2018, St. Croix and the US Virgin Islands held their first ever pride parade, a momentous occasion for the LGBTQ+ community in the territory.
This historical event becomes even more notable when one considers the US Virgins Islands history of homophobia. Albert Bryans, one of the candidates currently running for governor, reminds us in a statement to the Virgin Islands Consortium that, just 67 years ago, people of the Virgin Islands wanted to castrate LGBTQ+ individuals. Members of this community were not allowed in schools and were brutally attacked during LGBTQ+ rights marches, according to Bryans.
Interestingly, during the 1980’s, the US Virgin Islands became a sort of “mecca” for LGBTQ+ individuals. Gay culture boomed. There was a number of gay bars and clubs, and nearly every business catered to gay clientele. However, this cultural phenomenon was short lived and by the end of the decade, due to multiple hurricanes and a massive HIV and AIDS outbreak, acceptance of the LGBTQ+ had nearly completely vanished. According to a statement by the St. Thomas Source, a local publication, in recent years “attitudes [towards LGBTQ+] have acted almost inversely compared to those stateside”, despite its history as a haven for queer individuals. More recently, cultural influence from Jamaica, which has become known as one of the most homophobic countries in the world, has increased intolerance in the US Virgin Islands.
Although same-sex marriage has been legal in the US Virgin Islands since 2015, there remains a stigma surrounding homosexuality among the people of the islands; the people living in the territory are largely Christian and unaccepting of homosexuality in general. Many islanders have left their homes to live in the mainland US because they feel they cannot live openly and freely in the Virgin Islands. One of these individuals, Sherene Bonelli, states that being “different is not acceptable.” After moving back to the islands, Bonelli claims she feels “uncomfortable and judged for [her] lifestyle.” This being true, when the announcement surfaced that St. Croix would be hosting a pride parade, there was a huge backlash from the community.
Islanders accused the LGBTQ+ community of spreading diseases and referred to them as “outsiders” on social media, and many demanded that the parade be cancelled for religious reasons, stating that they are a Christian community with no tolerance for homosexuality. One islander went beyond demanding that the parade be cancelled to calling on “everyone that owns an AK-47” to “gun [participants] down” from the rooftops in a post made on Facebook. This user claimed that LGBTQ+ people are “trying to destroy reproduction” and even went so far as to claim that killing them was not a sin. However, the LGBTQ+ community would not back down.
Executive director of the Virgin Islands Domestic Violence and Sexual Abuse Council Khnuma Simmonds Esannason countered these homophobic sentiments on Facebook. She shared a nearly 10 paragraph post in defense of the parade stating that the US Virgin Islands are a “‘Christian looking’ community, not a ‘Christian practicing’ one.” She elaborates, saying that, were the islands a true Christian community, they would be more concerned about issues like domestic violence and child abuse that “plague [the US Virgin Islands] damn near every minute.” Until there is more concern over these prevalent issues, Esannason claims, “St. Croix’s ‘Christian community’ is a facade and a hypocritical one at that.”
Due to the threats made to the parade, the Virgin Islands PD had a strong presence at the festivities. Police Chief Winsbut MacFarland stated that the police have an obligation to protect all residents of the islands, including LGBTQ+ individuals. The parade attracted a fair number of protesters, but despite the threats, the St. Croix pride parade took place without major incident.
Being an LBGTQ+ individual in the US Virgin Islands is still very difficult. There is a cultural stigma surrounding homosexuality in the islands which stems in large part from passionate, fire-and-brimstone style Christianity. Despite this, it is clear that the territory is making strides towards increased tolerance of this lifestyle. The 2018 St. Croix pride parade is a huge step towards acceptance of LGBTQ+ individuals. Additionally, islanders elected their first openly LGBTQ+ senator in April 2017.
Senator Janelle Sarauw ran her 2017 campaign on a platform of governmental transparency and accountability, and has since been nominated, and won, NBC News’ #Pride30 award for her work to break barriers for LGBTQ+ individuals in the US Virgin Islands. In an interview with NBC News on May 31, 2018, Sarauw states that she does not want to live in secret. She states, “I want to be free. There is someone behind me and before me who wants to be free to live their truth. Because of the stigma and how we treat people, they stray away from their real life goals” Senator Sarauw demands respect from her fellow legislators as well as her constituents, and is paving the way for the future LGBTQ+ community in the US Virgin Islands.