LGBTQ+ activist Xoe Sazzle has had another dream come to fruition after she found herself among those who make up the 5.4 per cent acceptance rate of Columbia University in New York. She said she is elated to soon attend the Columbia School of General Studies in the next academic year to do a bachelor of arts degree.
The former community liaison officer for the TT Transgender Coalition, activist and musical performer said she looks forward to empowering herself with more education to further contribute to TT.
"It feels so surreal. There are a few moments in life where one feels like their life will change from this point onward. This is one of those."
Sazzle, a transgender woman, said she sees this as a confirmation from God that she is on the right path, though this degree was not part of her plan for the next steps.
Someone who thought she would be a great candidate shared the call for applicants with her. This happened at a point when Sazzle said she felt great satisfaction and peace with her life – but went ahead to apply anyway.
"I thought I really had nothing to lose by applying."
Asked what she hopes to achieve after completing her further education, she said she looks forward to being equipped with additional knowledge as she contributes to spreading awareness and making a positive impact on contemporary queer Caribbean culture.
Sazzle defined that as the living expression of the people and intends to contribute to expanding a space where people who identify as LGBTQ+ across the region can be open about who they are without compromising their safety.
"What I'm referencing is a time where we will come to a place of living openly and outside the lens of being social anomalies. Right now we have a rich community of queer people across the Caribbean."
Sazzle recalled being inspired by openly queer people in the entertainment industry such as Jamaican actor and comedian Keith "Shebada" Ramsay, whose plays gained a large following in Jamaica and across the region in the early 2000s.
"When I was in high school, Shebada had plays that were celebrated."
She said while the characters Ramsay played may have seemed like caricatures of people from the community, there was a sense of belonging and respect from people in the space being portrayed through theatre.
"Since then I have seen so many queer people influencing contemporary Caribbean culture. I think it's just about queer people acknowledging our own culture here in the Caribbean and owning it."
Since leaving high school, Sazzle has witnessed growth in queer representation across the region, particularly in TT – an evolution she said is evident across digital media platforms.
"People are tapping more into their authenticity and many people use social media as an outlet for this."
She said social media as an outlet allows others to see beyond stereotypes and creates a space for a ripple effect of inspiration for people who may be afraid to live the life that feels most authentic for them.
The many experiences shared with her about the lives of queer people in TT and across the region motivates her. She recalled the early days of her alter ego/stage persona Mizz Jinnay.
"One thing that kept me going was doing vlogs. I started doing them in 2009, when I was graduating high school. I did it as a form of expression – just for myself. It was my way of dealing with living in this society and processing whatever I had to process.
"But what started happening was that people would come back to me after some time. Some would say they saw what I did, saying it either helped them through a challenging time or helped them see things from another perspective. Some of these people don't even identify as queer. Even more so now: I am almost inundated with appreciation.
"It is through this that I understand the power of new digital media, especially because of its reach. People can consume data that does not go through some of the filters of traditional media, especially at the beginning of my vlogging. It all reminded me to keep going."
Sazzle said the queer Caribbean creative professional still has to carve out their own lane while others have easier access to the benefits of sponsorship by dominant brands.
"Because of socialisation and stigmatisation, it is not the same for queer creatives.
"There are few people aware of contemporary culture who don't know who Mizz Jinnay is, yet, that is not always reflected. Once I had a post on Instagram that was shared by over 1,000 people. Many will consume the content, but will not follow, will not like it, will not comment – and it's really because of public perception. People don't want to be thought of as being associated with what's not seen as the norm."
She said working in the media, she has had conversations about opportunities for public presentation and hosting, but due to apprehension surrounding possible public backlash, many potential opportunities haven't materialised.
"I have come to a point of maturity where I can have these conversations, understanding that at the end of the day, these are business people."
Sazzle said queer culture and forms of expression originating from the imagination of the queer community continue to spread throughout general popular culture, though many would not acknowledge it.
Asked what she imagines her next step being after her studies, Sazzle spoke of her big "why" for committing to her next, academic chapter.
"This degree is a means toward deepening my understanding of the social structures that have brought us to where we are now as a society and the actual points of difference that can take us further."
She highlighted necessary reforms in areas such as legislation and policy. Currently, she said, many conversations are being had about the advancement of queer rights and the representation of queer people globally.
"We have no shortage of conversation and we are getting to a stage where there is also no shortage of representation. Thankfully, traditional news outlets are no longer shying away from the queer conversation and people are realising that queer people exist here.
"But what's changing for the everyday life of someone from the LGBTQ+ community in TT? What's actually changing? Not that much."
She said while she is being invited to speak on panels and being included in the conversation for the contribution of another perspective – the queer perspective – what she and many from the community can access remains limited.
"My goal beyond getting into an Ivy League school and completing this programme is to be able to affect policy and influence legal change in our country in a way that will then have a direct effect on the daily lives of queer people in TT. I know I will still be called upon as a voice from the community, but in using my voice, my voice will have been fortified with education. I will no longer be talking from a place of my experience, but a place of grounded, world-class education that expands beyond what we know here in TT and the Caribbean. We need to change that trickles into the everyday lived experience of people in the queer community and not just lip service."
Through a gofundme created by Sazzle, she has received donations, for which she said she is grateful, but she is still in need of financial donations to make her studies a reality.
To donate visit gf.me/u/zz94ac/