"You ready?” she whispers, swimming up behind me to encircle her arms around my waist. “Yeah, I’m ready.” We smile at each other, aware in that moment that we’re about to do something big, bigger than us. “Come on guys, save the kiss for later,” someone says. We look up just in time to see our wedding photographer, Kwesi Abbensetts snap a picture of us. “Say cheese, everyone!” he calls out to our guests who have all gathered around us, our bodies bobbing in the undulating waves. Everyone splashes around to find their space in the camera’s lens—family and friends alike. We all stand close, smiles etched on our sun-burnt faces; and the sun, nude and marvelous in all her glory rains down upon us.
This is a blessing.
[SEE THE GORGEOUS PHOTOS BELOW]
I married my soul-mate, Dr. Emma Benn on the luxurious compound of Silver Sands Villa in Duncans, Trelawney, a Jamaican parish, on Saturday, May 26, 2012. We exchanged our vows under the wooden arch of the gazebo overlooking the ocean four years after we met at Columbia University where she was a doctoral student studying Biostatistics, and where I worked as a project manager on a research team. As the waves of the Caribbean Sea crashed against the shore and the wind blew skirt tails in its sweeping lullaby, we said our “I do’s”.
Emma's best friend, Anna Masilela, who had been her friend since her college days at Swarthmore, was our officiant. We had six bridesmaids and one best man between the two of us. But one important guest loomed in the aquamarine backdrop of the sea; the green surface of the land. She needed no invitation to wear her canary yellow dress that lit up the day as she pranced above clouds. Her mystique was even spotted in the smiles spread across faces of onlookers. She was my Jamaica, the land of my birth.
The late afternoon sun casted a golden net on the water’s surface as our brides maids marched on the jetty with bright orange fans to Whitney Houston’s “My Love is Your Love”. They looked elegant in outfits made by Raif Atelier, a Brooklyn-based designer and owner of Raif Boutique in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Kwesi clicked away as I looked to my immediate right. Emma was smiling from ear to ear, her dimples deepening, her face glowing from a recent tan. By then she had linked arms with her aunt, Carolyn Horton, the one she chose to walk her down the aisle as a representative of her father and the other elders, both past and present, who could not be there. My father stood erect, poised to walk me down the aisle. I squeezed his hand and he nodded, a smile broadening his face, touching his eyes with a sparkle, affirming his pride in seeing his eldest daughter down the aisle. He appeared more confident than I’d ever seen him.
My father took it the hardest when I came out to him six years ago. I told him during a ten hour drive from Ann Arbor, Michigan to New York City where I moved after graduate school. In the silence that followed, his hands were steady on the steering wheel, his eyes on the road where the journey seemed long and daunting, shrouded by darkness, except for the headlights on the rented van.
But on my wedding day, he had evolved into a different person. A man many moons apart from the boy socialized in a country where homosexuality is analogous to bestiality; a man who never knew that one day his daughter, now 30, would come to him and confess her preference for women. He was seven years old when Jamaica gained its independence from Britain 50 years ago. It was a memorable moment for the Jamaicans of his generation. Through their eyes, a country came of age. It grew with them as children, then teenagers, then young adults, all the way to adulthood; instilled in them values they held dearly like a comfort blanket bequeathed to an orphan by a deceased parent, the great mother Britain. Now at 57-years-old, my father took my hand and put one foot before the other, slowly making his way down the jetty. Toward his own independence. What took several months of planning, easily burgeoned into the most memorable and beautiful day of our lives. Little did my wife and I know then that we would make history.
For a long time I ran away from Jamaica, seeking refuge in the freedom that America offered. However when I met Emma, an African American born and raised in Bryn Mawr Pennsylvania, she was adamant about visiting Jamaica. “Why not?” she asked when I turned her down a few times. I couldn’t tell her then how much I was hurt by the culture stifled by the seemingly robust structures of colonialism. I couldn’t tell her then that every time I touched the soil my insecurities flooded the gates of my consciousness and broke the levees, thus paralyzing me. However, when Emma and I finally returned to the island together after we got engaged in 2010, something felt different. At the time I couldn’t place what it was. There were no words to describe it since my brain had not yet processed it. I felt beautiful, empowered. Whole. It was also as if I took her to my homeland to solidify our bond, to introduce her to the real me. While I learned to love and appreciate myself, the good and the bad, I found my culture to be a big part of who I am.
I met up with my friend, Keisha Phipps, CEO of the consulting and event planning agency, Sterling Suns Group, for drinks in the neighborhood. Keisha, a fellow Jamaican, was the one who had initially planted the seed of having a wedding celebration in Jamaica. By then, same-sex marriage was on the verge of being legalized in New York State. It was March 2011, and although the possibility looked dim from where we sat on that early spring night at Madibas restaurant, a local spot, there was a pulse throbbing wildly beneath the surface. The thought had hatched. Emma was growing more and more excited about having our wedding in Jamaica as well. We began to work closely with Keisha who we ended up hiring as our wedding planner.
Slowly but surely, the dream wedding began to take form in our minds and became real when we began to hire key people like the photographer, the cake vendor, the DJ, and even Raif Boutique that would outfit us and our wedding party.
One thing missing was the location. Location, location, location! The following question became a conundrum greater than the world’s biggest riddle: Which hotel in Jamaica would host a gay wedding? The question loomed about our heads for months. We dug deep into the roots of the hairs on our heads. Emma and I took turns calling resorts in Kingston, the South Coast, and the North Coast. Pleasant voices with warring cadences of British and calypso accents greeted us on the phone. We clutched the receiver with sweaty palms as we prepared to come out as lesbians over and over again: “Yes, hello, we would like to inquire about hosting our wedding at your hotel. What’s the estimated cost for space? Great! Just one more thing you need to know…my partner is a woman. Yes, that’s what I said. A woman. Oh. OK. Uh-huh. I understand. Thanks for your time.”
In that silence after each click of the phone, we knew we would be asking around for a while. One hotel executive at a prominent hotel in Kingston told us they could host our wedding under one condition—that we not use their outdoor premises. But, with all it's natural beauty, an indoor wedding would defeat the purpose of getting married in Jamaica, so we kindly thanked her and moved on. Our search continued, taking us all the way to Negril where another hotel kindly advised us to try Hedonism. Hedonism. We’re not heathens; we’re two women in love.
As we researched wedding locations, the decision to legalize same-sex marriage in New York State grew closer. Emma and I had been engaged since March of 2010, so we waited patiently in front of the television on the night of June 24, 2011 when Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the same-sex marriage legislation, our misting eyes glued to the screen. For an actual wedding to happen, we wanted it to be real. Legal. The bill was passed, recognizing for the first time, gay and lesbian unions as worthy by the state of New York. Following that great milestone, President Obama, who I proudly voted for in the 2008 presidential election shortly after I got my US citizenship, announced to the world on May 9, 2012 that he sanctions same-sex marriage. This announcement was a tremendous honor to millions of gays and lesbians who had fought for this very right.
Emma and I wasted no time in getting our legal work taken care of, marrying quietly at the Brooklyn Municipal Building in the spring of 2012. Serendipitously, we discovered the perfect location to celebrate our union in Jamaica. Through word of mouth, we found out about the beautiful property that spans the white sanded beach of the North Coast, not too far from the reaches of the all-inclusive hotels with their massive architecture, maze-like compounds, and watered down versions of my culture. We came to know this property as Silver Sands. With its quaint villas by the sea and beautiful gazebo overlooking the deep blue of the undulating waves, high security, and gated community, it provided the privacy we needed for our wedding. We were also surprised to find that no one judged us. The staff dutifully assisted us with the planning of our wedding, suggesting local vendors and working closely with our wedding planner to secure space and technical set-up of the venue. This came as a pleasant surprise, and deep down I knew the climate in Jamaica had changed. I knew we made the right decision. To me, it’s more than a beautiful country, it’s my home.
So imagine my joy when I walked toward the jetty on our wedding day and found a small crowd of villa staff line the entrance to the gazebo. Instead of words of condemnation, appraising eyes and smiles followed my wife and I on our way to the jetty where the bridal party were already lined up. Cameras flashed and people came up to us to give us compliments and well wishes. In that moment I missed my video camera which I’ve grown accustomed to carrying around to document our journey. I wished in that moment I could’ve recorded my Jamaican people full of nothing but well wishes and love—a side of Jamaica that the world needs to see; a side that media outlets would constantly silence with biased stories depicting ignorant thoughts that breed stereotypes of the Jamaican people, especially the working class. My villa helpers were the ones who snuck away during the wedding procession to sprinkle flower petals on our immaculate white sheets. They were the ones to hang our wedding attire up to reduce the wrinkles, press my partner’s suit, and meticulously fluff the handkerchief in the left breast pocket. As jittery brides, we tried not to take for granted the importance of mother figures fussing over us given that our own mothers had declined our wedding invitation. Our two helpers made sure that we were well taken care of, well fed, and of course, well ready to exchange our vows.
HISTORY IS MADE
The wedding was surreal in that we never expected the love and support we got. We soon found that not only had our wedding ceremony symbolize our love before family and friends, it made history. On June 1, just six days after the wedding, the Jamaica Gleaner ran an article about our wedding, which caught the public’s attention. This news spread like wildfire, lighting up airwaves all over Jamaica. What was supposed to be a private event done on a property far away from the chaos of “real Jamaica” became the talk of the town. But we weren’t prepared for what came after two days of public backlash.
I got a call from an editor of the Jamaica Gleaner who was interested in writing the story from my perspective. The beautiful article that was published on June 4, documenting the wedding celebration made front page news, overshadowing the Queen’s Jubilee. To me, this was testament to an evolving Jamaica. Despite the inevitable negative comments by those comfortably disguised under pseudonyms and anonymity, the majority are in favor of our union and the social impact it has made. Whereas education and exposure have a lot to do with how people perceive same-sex unions, the topic has incited meaningful discourse among people from all walks of life. The difference between the discourse today and that of yester-years is the courage Jamaican gays and lesbians and their allies now exude in stepping forth to defend their rights as citizens. Suddenly they have found a voice. And they’re using it.
More promising to me as a Jamaican was the plethora of positive reactions on my blog and some on the Jamaica Gleaner’s comment section from strangers back home—people who felt trapped in silence because of their sexuality. Or strangers showing support in general. Their individual voices joined the chorus of support my wife and I have been getting, expressing their pride and joy. Other gays and lesbians have acknowledged us as an inspiration. Had it not been for this highly publicized wedding, I would never have felt the true pulse of the gay community in my country, and the nation as a whole. For the first time in their lives they were not invisible. The unbiased publication also allowed people to look pass gender and see the rawness and truth in love. That we’re not sexualized vultures or heathens, but two women in love. Most importantly, I observed men and women removing their cloaks of shame and guilt to step forward, beautifully naked in the eyes of freedom. Gay and lesbian Jamaicans are tired of hiding; tired of camouflaging who they are with decorations of societal norms. They’re tired of pretending to be okay with the bigotry they are exposed to at work, in school, or in the church. Tired of forcing those half smiles and weak nods of acquiescence. Tired of being invisible.
For this reason too, my wife and I jumped the broom as a part of our wedding ceremony. Jumping over the broom symbolizes various things depending on the culture. But in our ceremony, uniting us as two beautiful, Black women, jumping the broom symbolized the hurdle gay and lesbians had overcome for same sex marriage to be possible. When the bill was passed in New York State last year, followed by a historical public acknowledgement of same-sex marriage by President Obama, we knew our wedding became bigger than us. Therefore, jumping the broom on our wedding day symbolized not only the ancestors who were not allowed to get married as Blacks on plantations and who died to make our dreams possible; but that our union and our love for each other as Black Women will be recognized by everyone.
Nicole Y. Dennis-Benn received her MFA in Fiction from Sarah Lawrence College. Her work addresses gender, sexuality, religion, and the Caribbean immigrant experience. Her forthcoming novel, Run Free, tells the story of a transgendered son of Jamaican immigrants. Nicole currently lives with her wife in Brooklyn, NY.
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Jamaica's First Lesbian Bride