Scarborough resident celebrates Pride after surviving shooting, beating for 'being gay'

Toni Greaves shared her story of fleeing Jamaica thanks to the work of Toronto-based LGBT support network Rainbow Railroad.

Toni Greaves shares her story of fleeing Jamaica thanks to Toronto-based Rainbow Railroad

Toni Greaves, 31, now calls Scarborough home. But while growing up in Jamaica, she was threatened, beaten, and shot for being gay. (Supplied by Rainbow Railroad)

Growing up in Jamaica, Toni Greaves was a "tomboy," a cricket player, and someone who was never afraid to be herself — even though being herself as a lesbian meant facing death threats and discrimination.

But things took an even darker turn on Dec. 23, 2007.

After getting a series of threatening text messages about her relationship with another woman, Greaves was shot multiple times. The attack punctured her lungs, injured her bladder, and left her relying on a wheelchair after her six-month hospital stay.

Then, a few years later, she was attacked again — this time, after getting in a car accident. 

"I was beaten on the scene because I was gay," Greaves says. "That's when I decided Jamaica was no longer a place I wanted to be."

Since 2013, the 31-year-old has called Canada home instead. And on Wednesday night, the Scarborough resident shared her harrowing story publicly for the first time at a fundraising event for Rainbow Railroad, the organization that helped Greaves flee Jamaica for a new life.

The Toronto-based group helps persecuted LGBT people around the world — from countries throughout Africa, the Caribbean, and the Middle East — escape their situations and find safe haven, including many who wind up in Canada.

On Wednesday night, Toni Greaves shared her story of fleeing Jamaica for a new life at a fundraising event for Toronto-based Rainbow Railroad, the group that helped her come to Canada to escape persecution for being gay. (Lauren Pelley/CBC News)

Toronto group helped 81 LGBT people flee persecution in 2016

In 2016, Rainbow Railroad fielded more than 600 requests, and helped 81 LGBT people flee state-sponsored persecution and discrimination, according to its annual report.

A focus right now, says executive director Kimahli Powell, is the situation in Chechnya, where reports surfaced earlier this year of an anti-gay crackdown in the Russian republic that's in the southernmost part of eastern Europe.

Powell, who recently visited the area, says the situation is actually worse than the notion of one large concentration camp that's circulated in media reports.

"There are many different types of detention, lots of different types of coercive tactics used to get people into situations where they were physically assaulted, electrocuted, humiliated," he said.

But he stressed that Chechnya is just the latest headline, while LGBT people face discrimination every day in spots like Nigeria, Jamaica, Syria, and Uganda. 

"We do this work all year round, all around the world," he said.

For Greaves, that work of a dedicated group of Canadians helped bring her to Canada. She and her girlfriend had gotten Canadian visas, but even after selling all their possessions, they couldn't afford the plane ticket out of Jamaica. The team from Toronto was able to arrange emergency travel funds to get them safely out of the country four years ago.

Now, Greaves says she has a completely different life — one that she plans to celebrate throughout Toronto's Pride Month.

"We can just be ourselves," she says. "We can get married, have a family. All that stuff we can't do in Jamaica, we can do it here."