In Massimadi Montréal, Black LGBTQ+ communities now have a festival to celebrate themselves and their stories
Some thirty films, discussion panels, and a photo exhibition will showcase the depth and diversity of Black LGBTQ+ communities during Massimadi* Montréal, February 12 to March 12, 2021. Organized during Black History Month, the thirteenth edition of the Afro LGBTQ Film & Arts Festival is a lot more than an artistic and social celebration. It’s also a designated safe place, a sanctuary for diversity, and a strategic way for addressing the lack of Black LGBTQ+ representation in the media and the arts.
While its initial focus when it was launched in 2009 was on countering racism and homophobia, Massimadi Montréal has expanded its offering over the years. Since 2014, a number of different art forms have been presented, along with discussion activities on a full range of topics. According to Laurent Lafontant, who’s coordinated the last three events, there’s a lot more to Afro LGBTQ+ culture than simply fighting oppression. “We have a culture of our own because we see the world differently,” he said.
During our interview in early December, another LGBTQ+ film festival, Image+Nation, was underway in Montreal. “We’re the only LGBTQ+ film festival produced specifically for the Afro community. It’s not only what makes us different, it’s also what’s behind our driving force,” Massimadi Montréal spokesperson Alicia Kazobinka said. “At other events supposedly organized for the general public, nearly everything you see has been produced for the white market, with content mainly of interest to white audiences, and representing them almost exclusively. That’s certainly not what you’ll find at Massimadi.”
Mindsets that move to a different groove
Without missing a beat, Lafontant explained that many Black persons don’t feel they fit in the Village or anywhere in the Montreal LGBTQ+ community at large. The reason being, among other things, he said, that the wider LGBTQ+ and Black LGBTQ+ communities haven’t evolved at the same pace.
The now defunct Arc-en-ciel d’Afrique organization, set up in 2004, is a case in point. “About the same time as same-sex marriage was legalized in Canada, in 2005, the fundamentals of being gay in Black communities were just beginning to be addressed,” he said. “The Black LGBTQ+ community was still mostly in the closet. They were afraid to assert their identity and acted as if being gay was still taboo.”
Massimadi Montréal’s missions are to promote Black LGBTQ+ culture, to provide role models that will help Black LGBTQ+ people to assert their identity and take their rightful place in their communities. “We hardly see any Black individuals on Quebec TV and in Quebec films, and even fewer Black LGBTQ+ persons,” said Lafontant. “Massimadi is there to fill that void. We don’t cater at all to the same audience as Image+Nation, which offers very little in terms of cultural or age diversity.”
Intersectional discrimination still thrives
Young and old alike will find stories they can relate to at Massimadi. “There are stories I wish I had heard when I was a teenager,” Kazobinka said. “I could have identified with someone else like me so I wouldn’t have felt so alone or so different. I can tell you that it’s not easy being LGBTQ+ if you’re from a Black, Maghrebian, or Asian community. There’s a lot of stigma attached to being gay or transgender.”
Massimadi is the place to be for finding people who understand intersectionality and who have experienced it firsthand, dealing with two, three, and sometimes even four layers of discrimination related to their sexual orientation, gender identity, skin colour, and religion. “Black persons are immediately discriminated against because of their skin colour and cultural background,” said Lafontant. “And if you’re gay, it’s twice as bad since you’re ostracized by your own community as well as by the population in general. It makes coming out a lot more difficult for anyone.”
Kazobinka is a Black transgender woman. “I often wonder if I’m marginalized or stigmatized because of the colour of my skin or because I’m trans,” she said. “I also face some issues that my white trans sisters don’t always understand, like difficulties in accessing housing, healthcare, or the job market. It’s always harder for Black individuals than it is for white persons from Quebec or France.”
Some Black Lives Matter more than others?
Lafontant explains that for many in the Black community, being gay has long been associated with white culture. “It was that way when I was growing up for sure,” he said. “Being Black and openly gay usually meant giving up your Black identity, no longer being recognized in your own community, and cutting ties with your family and friends. But this didn’t mean you were less Black to white people. I’m happy to say it’s better today.”
Even though Massimadi has been held during Black History Month for the past decade, acceptance for Black LGBTQ+ individuals has been, for the most part, slow among the Black population. “Finally, we’re seeing a new openness to welcoming LGBTQ+ members into the Afro community,” Lafontant said. “I took part in a Black Lives Matter march in May last year. A Black trans person spoke at the event which shows that the leaders were becoming more open to our cause. But that’s not always the case. Many Black queer people still don’t feel welcome at these marches.”
That’s how Kazobinka feels. “I don’t take part in BLM marches because they don’t include Black Trans Lives Matter in their statement. LGBTQ+ individuals are not welcomed like they should be in Black communities. Thanks to Massimadi, those communities are starting to be more tolerant.” She remembers seeing Massimadi banners and posters at Maison d’Haïti. “They knew about the festival in Montreal North. I was surprised that people living in such a heteronormative community knew about us.”
The festival as a vehicle for social change
As they look back on how things have evolved, both Lafontant and Kazobinka feel that the role played by Black LGBTQ+ individuals (especially Black trans women) in the mainstream LGBTQ+ rights movement is not well known within the larger LGBTQ+ community. “People are starting to learn about their role, but not everyone knows the history,” said Kazobinka. “The 50th anniversary of Stonewall** in 2019 has helped many more people understand but there’s still a lot more that can be done. It’s films, series, readings, and events like Massimadi that keep the conversation going.”
Lafontant admits that he himself was unaware of a lot of this just a decade or so ago. “Until I was twenty, I thought that there were no Black LGBTQ+ people at all. Black and gay characters were very rare on TV and those you did see were usually just stereotypes.”
His work with Massimadi has helped him to appreciate the full palette of Black LGBTQ+ individuals. “That’s what the festival is all about,” he said. “It’s to ensure that these little-known stories are told in LGBTQ+ and Black communities so that people can see others like themselves to make it easier to come to terms with who they are and to express their true identity.”
*Massimadi is an amalgam of two Haitian Creole words used to disparage LGBTQ+ individuals. These words were reclaimed and turned into “Massimadi,” a word for restoring a sense of pride to those in the community.
**Stonewall: On the night of June 28, 1969 in New York City, a series of violent protests erupted against a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a Greenwich Village bar popular with members of the sexually diverse community. Trans women of colour were among the leaders of these spontaneous events. Since then, historians have recognized Stonewall as the beginning of more organized LGBTQ+ rights movements in the US and around in the world.