2:55pm. The day of our wedding. My skin is two shades darker, thanks to lots of sun on the beach. To many women my complexion, this would’ve been a travesty before their wedding. But for me, it’s no big deal, just an asset I wear proudly. Like a queen. My partner joins me in the water and for the next hour we swim and mingle with our guests who have also been baked and rejuvenated by the sun. “You ready?” my partner 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.” We look up just in time to see our wedding photographer, Kwesi snap a picture of us. “Say cheese, everyone!” Kwesi 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. A blessing.
I married my soul-mate, Emma Benn on the luxurious compound of Silver Sands Villa in Duncans, Trelawney on Saturday, May 26th, 2012. We exchanged our vows under the wooden arch of the gazebo overlooking the ocean. As the waves crashed against the shore and the wind blew skirt tails in its sweeping lullaby, we said our “I do’s”.
My partner’s best friend, Anna, who had been her friend since college, 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 lighted 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.
In my vows I mentioned that because of my partner I fell in love with my country again. For a long time I ran away from Jamaica, seeking refuge in the freedom that America offered. However when I met Emma, 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 for our first visit as a couple 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, stronger. Empowered.
Feeling comfortable with myself had nothing to do with maturity; it had a lot to do with acceptance, not of myself, but of my culture. You see, 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. So running away with a knot in my chest only robbed me of half of the woman I am; half the partner; half the writer; and half the soul of the stories I live to tell. It wasn’t until I began to love myself unconditionally that I began to love my country despite the socialization and problems I endured as a child growing up there. I never felt I had a place or a voice there. I was an outsider, an interloper. I had not yet understood why I felt different, why I spoke different, and why I acted different. I only knew I was human and somewhere in the universe the dots would connect. They finally did. I now love myself enough to love my people and accept that not everyone had the opportunity I did to be exposed to certain knowledge that would rid the flaws and mentality colonialism imposed on us. I am lucky to be free, emancipated from mental slavery, free to love myself, and free to love others. In other words, I am now whole.
For this reason, I soberly chose to have my wedding celebration in Jamaica. I say “soberly” because my friends began to question my sanity once I told them that I’ll be getting married in Jamaica, a country known internationally for its blatant homophobia. “Weh di backside yuh mean yuh getting married in Jamaica?” Their eyebrows would shoot up to their hairline followed by a sharp inhale of all the oxygen in the room. I had to reassure them that everything would be fine, simultaneously trying to convince myself too. I would constantly ask myself if I’m doing the right thing. My partner and I discussed other options and had even gone around Brooklyn as we entertained the idea of having the celebration in the backyards of our favorite restaurants. “But it wouldn’t feel the same,” my partner retorted. “Jamaica is our second home.” With that statement we knew what the consensus was.
I met up with a friend of mine for drinks in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, a fellow Jamaican. 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, there was a pulse throbbing wildly beneath the surface. The thought had hatched. My partner was growing more and more excited about having our wedding in Jamaica. We began to work closely with my friend who we later hired 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 the boutique that would outfit 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. My partner 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 the 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 an indoor wedding would defeat the purpose of getting married in Jamaica with all its natural beauty, 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. Again, having a wedding at Hedonism would defeat the purpose of our wedding given that we see our relationship as worthy as heterosexual couples see theirs. We’re not heathens; we’re two women in love.
Then one day out of the blue I decided to surf Facebook. I became more interested in viewing wedding photos of my friends for the sheer hope of finding inspiration. Two of my acquaintances had gotten married in Jamaica and I sent both of them emails asking where they had gotten married. Both women are in heterosexual marriages, but something pushed me to inquire more about the location. In all their pictures there was a sense of intimacy with all the guests, the deep blue of the Caribbean Sea sprawled across the backdrop. I rarely spoke to these two women, and one of them I had never met in person; so I didn’t want to send them a random message requesting details. But time was running and we had to make a decision on location so I pushed the send button. I was shocked by the quick responses. One would’ve thought we were long lost girlfriends reconnecting over Facebook the way how the women eagerly chatted about their weddings. I formed a bond of sisterhood with two strangers over wedding location. Through them I 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.
Once we nailed the location for our destination wedding, we went full speed ahead with the planning. Everything fell into place, including the confirmation of guests who would be there. We rented out six different villas for our thirty-seven guests. We were blessed to have an eclectic mix of family and friends from various chapters of our lives. Emma had her best friends from college in the wedding and I had my childhood friend from middle school and high school. We paired old friends with new friends to spice up the essence of the weekend that would become the most memorable weekend of our lives. Our guests arrived the Friday before the wedding in shuttles to their assigned villas, all excited to celebrate with us. We designated villas by personality traits and who we thought would mesh well together. Many of our friends and family flew in from New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia while some drove from Kingston. By dusk on Friday, everyone who was supposed to be at our celebration was there. The dj arrived and it was non-stop dancing and mingling and fun. Our guests were treated to a welcome party put on by Silver Sands. My partner and I knew we were on our way to having a spectacular weekend. We also knew we were safe and protected by Silver Sands, which has also been a low-key destination choice for many Jamaicans and tourists alike looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of the real world.
Each villa was assigned two to four helpers. Emma and I were fortunate to get great women who assisted us throughout the weekend. These helpers were women from Duncans, Trelawney who have been in the Tourism industry long enough to not blink twice when they were informed about our wedding. In fact, the first thing one of our helpers did was hang our wedding attire up to reduce the wrinkles. She also pressed my partner’s suit and meticulously fluffed 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.
Once I knew everything was under control, I loosened up a bit. I took deep breaths and proceeded to practice mindfulness, a meditative technique I learned last year. I became aware of everything around me, the smells, the sights, the sounds. I allowed myself to feel everything flowing through me in that moment. The moving hand on the clock stopped, suspending everything in the present. I savored every second of it. My moment for life. And just like that my body relaxed. There was nothing that could steal my joy once I claimed it. I likened my joy to the process of an iceberg melting, the solid components made up of fear of rejection and knowledge of a cultural history known to refute the bond between my partner and I. Once that iceberg of fear melted I exhaled. So forceful was the exhale that I quivered. “Would you like some rum punch?” the bartender at the beach bar asked, as if she had witnessed my tenseness just seconds before. “Yes, please.” I took sips of my rum punch labeled A-Train, our signature drink which was aptly given its name because when I met my partner four years ago, I journeyed on the A-train from Brooklyn to Washington Heights almost every night to be with her.
Fast forward to our wedding. I felt like I’d emerged from a dark tunnel, greeted by her radiating light. My father walked me down the aisle; while my partner walked down the aisle with her aunt who she hand-picked to represent her father and the other elders, both past and present, who could not be there. We walked together as a couple paired with the most significant people in our lives to Whitney Houston’s “My love is your love”. Our bridal party had long taken their places in the gazebo in front of all the guests. Behind us, staff and curious onlookers snapped pictures. It was Silver Sands’ first gay wedding and everyone on the compound was excited. Helpers stopped in their tracks on their way home from a long day of work to peer at the brides dressed in white. Front desk clerks flocked to the base of the jetty to give their well wishes then snapped more pictures. People were so excited that they almost followed us onto the jetty leading to the gazebo. They were prevented to do so by the DJ.
In that moment I wished I had a camera to snap pictures of the smiles that followed us that day. I wished I had a video to capture my Jamaican people full of nothing but well wishes and love. A side of Jamaica that the world needs to see; a side that the Jamaica Gleaner and other media outlets would constantly silence with biased stories depicting ignorant thoughts that breed stereotypes of the Jamaican people, especially the working class. My helpers were the ones who snuck away during the wedding procession to sprinkle flower petals on our immaculate white sheets.
Luckily for us, everything ran smoothly. With the help of a quick thinking DJ who stepped in to cue the bridesmaids and clear the jetty during the procession and the ceremony; my very animated friend, Dahlia and my Uncle Turkey, who took to the mics to MC the evening and directed waiting staff to serve food and drinks; and the photographer, Kwesi, who temporarily put down his camera to light the candles. It was all good.
The wedding was surreal in that we never expected the love and support we got from certain people. We even met a videographer who is the owner of one of the villas. The encounter was serendipitous since we had forgotten our video camera and wanted footage of our wedding. He and his wife documented the procession and our vows. However, word got around town that a gay wedding was taking place on the premises of Silver Sands. But the workers, upon hearing this, simply kissed their teeth and fanned away any slight buzz of ignorance.
My partner and I were too ridden with wedding jitters to even care about anything else. She reached for my hand in marriage and I took it. It was just us standing there before an audience of our friends and family. I looked into her eyes and saw those connecting dots in the universe, all aligned; and I thought to myself, she completes me. When it was time to jump the broom it occurred to us that the ceremony was over. We did it. We got married in Jamaica! Well, technically, given that we had really done the legal work in New York where our marriage is in fact legal. What we did in Jamaica, was celebrate with family and friends, reenacting what was already celebrated between us before a judge at the Municipal Building in Brooklyn in the spring. Thanks to Governor Chris Cuomo, same-sex marriage was legalized in New York. Therefore when we jumped the broom, it was literally an emotional experience for the both of us.
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. On June 24, 2011, a 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 when 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. On our wedding day we remembered those living partners of gay men and women who were left with nothing—no healthcare and thrown out of the apartments. Those who weren’t able to sit by their partner’s bedside or even dare attend the funeral. Those who took the backseat as “friend” and not recognized as partners having the rights to have any say over how their partner was buried.
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, including the very country in which we publicly exchanged our vows, Jamaica.
As the 50th Anniversary of Jamaica’s independence approaches, so has the maturity of a nation. As a Jamaican, I have seen with my eyes and felt with my heart the burgeoning of a nation that is beginning to accept individual choices with little judgment. I say “little” with a bit of caution given that it’s all relative. I’m speaking from the experience I was blessed to have on the weekend of my wedding. At fifty, Jamaica has taken baby steps, but at one hundred, I am positive my country would have already taken giant leaps. In fact, my grandchildren will one day look back at our wedding pictures and feel proud that their grandmothers were the first same-sex couple to marry openly on Jamaican soil.
Nicole Y. Dennis-Benn