Fellowship Brings Jamaican LGBT Activist to Kansas City

Neish McLean, a trans man, wants to build a sustainable organization to serve the transgender community in his country. He spent much of his time with the Kansas City Anti-Violence Project.

Neish McLean. Photo: J. Long

When thinking of Jamaica, many Americans might think of jerk chicken, Red Stripe beer, or Bob Marley. But the dozens who met Neish McLean over the last month might think about him and his work with Jamaica’s LGBT community.

McLean, from Kingston, Jamaica, spent October in the Kansas City area on a fellowship with the Kansas City Anti-Violence Project (KCAVP). During his fellowship, he has learned about KCAVP, its Passages youth program, and other LGBT-focused organizations.

“My goal,” he said, “is to build a sustainable nongovernmental organization in Jamaica to serve the transgender community there.”

McLean also said he would like to see a publication similar to Camp magazine get started in Jamaica.

McLean was one of 250 people selected for a fellowship from an applicant pool of 3,000 to learn from leaders based in the United States. The fellowship is part of a U.S. program called the Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative.

Back in Jamaica, McLean is the HIV coordinator and project manager for the Equality for All Jamaica Foundation Limited, or J-FLAG (http://jflag.org/). It’s the foremost organization in Jamaica that advocates for the LGBT community. His work on the health team focuses on prevention and advocacy, training for health-care workers and other groups, and developing information and educational materials.

McLean is also the co-founder and executive director for TransWave Jamaica (https://transwaveja.org). The group, which started in August 2015 and quickly became an affiliate of J-FLAG, promotes health and well-being through advocacy, visibility and awareness.

Through TransActive, the organization’s fitness and wellness brand, the organization hopes to promote body positivity, wellness and camaraderie.

“Exercise is a great way to shape your body the way you want it, with or without [hormone replacement therapy],” McLean said. “Importantly, TransActive creates a safe space for persons of trans experience and those who are gender non-conforming to come together and build community. Some of TransActive’s initiatives include hikes, yoga sessions and 5Ks.”

McLean, a trans man, knows about body positivity.

“Fitness is very big for me. It’s my outlet and space of affirmation and empowerment,” he said.

McLean spent a considerable amount of time with KCAVP, especially working with Passages, a program for LGBTQ youth that has been around for 22 years. J-FLAG has a similar program, but it works only with youth between ages 18 and 24; Passages works with youth up to 21 years old.

“I have seen how partnerships can happen, especially with school districts,” McLean said. “Melissa Brown [program director at KCAVP] took me with her to a meeting with Olathe School District. It was great to see the collaboration.”

McLean said that LGBT rights and partnerships within the educational system in Jamaica have not progressed as much as they have here.

“I am hopeful that, in the future, Jamaican schools will find ways to embrace LGBT individuals, especially those who are of trans experience, through partnership with TransWave Jamaica and other organizations.”

McLean also spent time at functions with other organizations, such as the Kansas City Center for Inclusion (KCCI) and the Mid-America Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce.

He said he had appreciated how organizations like KCAVP and KCCI can serve as a bridge to provide support to other organizations and events.

“They build the community through other linkages,” he said.

McLean also was impressed with the interaction between KCAVP and its board of directors.

“Seeing how many of KCAVP’s board members were present at their Disturbia fundraiser [for Passages] was great. It’s about finding the right people to come together and dedicate their time and resources in order to push an organization forward.”

How to help Jamaicans

McLean was quick to add that Kansas City residents can help Jamaica’s LGBT community make more progress. Fundraising in Jamaica can be challenging, he said. J-FLAG receives most of its funding from USAID and other international humanitarian programs. TransWave is still working on gaining funding.

And the Kansas City community can also help generate social media content, he said.

“This is very time-consuming, but active social media pages help us with visibility and engaging our community.”

If you are interested in helping out the LGBTQ community in Jamaica, you can reach out to Neish McLean at neishamclean@gmail.com.