The documentary centers on an underground beauty clinic in Puerto Rico, where men and women receive silicone, botox and other treatments, as well as share advice, ideas and support each other. Central to the film are a group of transgender sex workers, many of whom hope to use their work to fund their transitioning surgery.
“The Work of Three-Year-Old CAISO (The Coalition Advocating for Inclusion of Sexual Orientation)
Reflections at the MidPoint”
E-mailing the nine questions below to activists and artists in their networks, Jafari Sinclaire Allen and Matt Richardson hoped to initiate a “cross diaspora dialogue” on “Sexual Rights, Erotic Autonomy and Queer Expression in Black Diaspora” for a roundtable originally proposed to be published in the Black/Queer/Diaspora issue of GLQ1. Their goal was to “take… up the problematics of rights discourse; the state of HIV prevention activism, anti-violence and feminist movements and their relationship to queer movement; the status of homosexuality as an identity among African and African descended subjects; and various ways of naming and engaging sexual practices, among other themes,” as well as to “ask… questions about the current work being done in various sites around the globe, to document this work and rediscover the historical perspectives of black queers.”
My January 2011 responses to their questions, reflecting on a year and a half of work with the now three-year-old Trinidad & Tobago’s Coalition Advocating for Inclusion of Sexual Orientation, are shared as an “activist report” in this collection (with Jafari and Matt’s encouragement). June 2012
1. What is the name of your organization; what is its purpose and what are the communities that you serve? (Please feel free to include which countries, regions, languages, specific programs, etc.)
Name. In Trinidad & Tobago I work with CAISO the Coalition Advocating for Inclusion of Sexual Orientation, a year-and-a-half-old GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender)2 advocacy and community-building group that names itself after one of the nation’s major indigenous artforms, the calypso or kaiso showing that we are rooted in our country and culture and linking CAISO to a native tradition of speaking out and holding our leaders accountable as we describe the art, wit and poignancy that characterise the political speech of calypso.
Purpose. We are currently unincorporated; and seek to operate as an umbrella or coalition framework that provides a politics (strategic thinking, values) and a brand to enable GLBT political advocacy and social change work, community-building and the diffusion of modern understandings of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Communities served: Regions/Countries. Although leadership and collaboration in regional GLBT organizing is a key commitment of ours, and we face some pressure to position ourselves as a Caribbean voice, CAISO is deliberately a local — national — nationalist organization: our politics are to position ourselves as “nation-builders” and our goals as creating an inclusive nation and deepening achievement of a postcolonial vision of liberty.
CAISO’s commitment is to gay, lesbian, bi and trans communities in their diversity, and we have taken steps to nurture lesbian, trans and youth visibility and leadership. Although Trinidad & Tobago shares a history of plantation slavery with other African American societies, in the century and a half since Emancipation we have become a multicultural country in which AfroTrinbagonians are enumerated as a statistical minority and the nation’s second largest ethnic group (a few percentage points behind IndoTrinbagonians, the plurality ethnic group, and ahead of people of mixed descent). Thus, CAISO’s communities are not solely Black diaspora communities; our communities belong to the African, South Asian, Chinese and Middle Eastern diasporas.
Programs. CAISO has engaged in media advocacy and public education; lobbying and legislative advocacy; community mobilisation and protest; strategic alliance-building; documentation, social history and cultural work; and faith-based organizing.
Personally, I have also lived in the United States and done sexual rights, cultural and health justice work with the Audre Lorde Project, Caribbean Pride, Gay Men of African Descent, Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the New York State Black Gay Network and Other Countries.
2. How and when did your organizations get started? What were the organizations, groups, movements or incidents that preceded and influenced the founding of your organization?
3. What local/national/global political struggles gave rise to your organization? What about struggles for sexual autonomy?
CAISO’s founders originally came together on Emancipation Day 2007, to meet with Kennty Mitchell, a gay, primary school-educated taxi driver whose successful lawsuit for police harassment elicited widespread public sympathy and visible news coverage, in which he said he wanted to speak out for gay rights for people who could not do so for themselves.
The Mitchell case evidenced for GLBT people media and national empathy with victims of discrimination, and substantiated the possibility of successful redress for discrimination for ordinary citizens. Efforts were made then, which fizzled, to form a novel cross-gender, cross-class advocacy organisation. CAISO itself formed on June 27, 2009, in response to a Cabinet announcement two days earlier that the proposed final version of a national Gender Policy (that had been the subject of noisy advocacy by evangelical Christians five years earlier over its inclusion of a handful of forward-thinking references to sexual orientation and termination of pregnancy) would expressly avoid dealing with sexual orientation. CAISO formed at a meeting originally intended to celebrate how GLBT activists from T&T and 15 other countries participating in the June 2009 Organization of American States General Assembly meeting had helped ensure passage for the second year of a resolution by all the governments of the hemisphere, committing them to take action against violence and human rights violations based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
As the Association for Women’s Rights in Development wrote last week, in recent years, “airs of social and political change [have] swept through the Americas”, fuelling “heated debates about rights for LGBTI persons …in several countries”. This media-fuelled expansion of hemispheric discourse and political action on sexual citizenship (of which the OAS resolution is a demonstration) has interacted with Trinidad & Tobago’s GLBT communities’ two-decade-long history of organizing (we have formal NGOs as old as 14 years) and with consistent efforts since 1997 to coordinate Caribbean regional GLBT advocacy. While it has included a 2000 legislative campaign for sexual orientation language in an antidiscrimination law, local organizing in T&T has focused largely on HIV among men who have sex with men and the creation of social space. This includes gay bars that open onto the pavement and a slew of entrepreneurial partnerships that produce gay and lesbian parties at least monthly which, at record highest have drawn crowds approaching 1,000. These efforts, and the expansion of GLBT social space during the annual Carnival season when GLBT people of Trinbagonian citizenship and heritage living abroad return in large numbers, along with many GLBT visitors from elsewhere in the Caribbean, have synergistically led to a widespread reputation for T&T as having the most space and tolerance for same-sex communities in the Commonwealth Caribbean. A cosmopolitan, laissez-faire, multiethnic culture has perhaps helped fuel such openness.
4. How does the HIV/AIDS pandemic affect your work?
In my view, HIV has enabled or influenced much of the sexual rights work happening contemporarily. Its role has been to vastly expand public and institutional discourse about sexuality, to highlight homosexuals as a social group experiencing enhanced stigma and discrimination and to legitimate us as a target for strategic social and health programming. In the midyears of the pandemic, HIV emboldened GLBT advocates and created a sense of urgency and priority for both advocacy and sexuality, and helped strengthen sexual communities. HIV and HIV funding have helped give voice, infrastructure, access and often a framework or meaning to GLBT organizing and social activity. This has been the case in Trinidad & Tobago.
HIV has also had a distorting effect on MSM and GLBT community self-concept and priorities. HIV, its dominant discourse and the resources that follow it reframe organic community organizing, the nature of leadership and the substance of programmes and advocacy. MSM, and to an extent GLBT people, are seen primarily in terms of an infectious, disabling and stigmatising disease, and the legitimacy of GLBT representation, resource allocation and the decriminalisation of GLBT desire is justified in terms of disease, and often of preventing its costs or transmission to the population at large, instead of in terms of the humanity or worth of GLBT people, the value of sexual autonomy or the legitimacy of desire and sexual pleasure.
CAISO has been routinely called on by virtue of being a GLBT group to engage with policy and planning issues related to HIV, e.g. calls by the media on World AIDS Day. We have done so with ambivalence, recognising the importance of transforming HIV discourse to one which centres at first stigma, discrimination and vulnerability but ultimately autonomy and self-efficacy as core facets of sexual health. But we have also felt the need to push against the distorting and reductive impact of HIV on resource allocation, attention and imagination with regard to other GLBT concerns and policy issues. We have found some institutional HIV voices responsive to some of these issues.
5. How do your communities name same-sex relationships and gender variance? To what extent are the terms “lesbian,” “transgender,” “gay,” and “bisexual” used for self-naming?
T&T communities relate to the GLBT alphabet in many ways consistent with its Global North usages, and have similar understandings of all those terms. Though GLBT communities here use the internet considerably and many members are Black, “same gender loving” has found little awareness or traction. Some gay men, however, adopt the HIV-influenced term “MSM” as a self-referent. Many colloquial terms (“buller”, “ho”) carry stigma or are gender-fraught, but find themselves in vernacular usage. Where terms break down particularly is on the terrain of gender expression: a sizeable community of gay men with no sense of gender dysphoria are what they might call “dress up girls”. Either because they see this as gay culture or for more personal reasons related to gender expression, they participate, along with smaller numbers of individuals with Trans and genderqueer identities in an organized system of drag performance pageants, and in some instances devote considerable priority and resources in their lives to this activity, clothing and shoes, makeup and its application and performance routines. They also appear at other community events in drag or in their pageant personas. While some pageants offer prizes, they are not typically paid for their performances; on the contrary they spend money on them. Similar to cleavages in other locations, Trans who are committed to lives in a gender other than that linked to their birth sex, whether through sex reassignment surgeries or other strategies, express difficulty sharing an identity with these persons.
6. Has the spread of Western GBLT politics impacted your local organizing?
Hello!? Many in T&T’s GLBT communities are quite enamoured of the visible manifestations of North American or European GLBT political advocacy, see these forms as the standard to emulate, against which local performance should be judged, and show limited imagination about how to practise an indigenous politics on sexual orientation and gender identity. And recently Christian Right homophobia has begun to target the Caribbean and Trinidad & Tobago specifically.
However, the most dangerous impact of the “spread” of Western GBLT politics is not that certain understandings and assumptions about how GLBT politics is practised in the North are being exported to us. The larger danger instead is that ideas about how GLBT politics should be practised in the Global South, quite differently from in the North, and related ideas about political conditions in the South, are being conceived in, and spread from, the North. This queer internationalism makes the Global South an important target of Global North GLBT concerns – and fundraising; codifies differences in “freedom” between North and South, representing one as advanced and the other as primitive; and positions the North in a missionary relationship and one of pity with regard to the South. This has especially been the case with the Caribbean, shaped by internationalist activism over Jamaica (which has been represented ridiculously as “the most homophobic place on earth”), and the larger region, therefore, as a place of homophobic darkness.
The emergence, with the formation of IGLHRC two decades ago, of human rights as a dominant paradigm for GLBT advocacy outside the Global North has also imposed on our organizing in the South an expectation of transnational struggle and the deployment of international human rights authorities and frameworks – neither of which are common in GLBT politics in the Global North, where the discourse is one of citizenship and the engagements are political and national or local in nature. Because of the assumptions that civil and political rights frameworks are weak, enlightened governance is not yet achieved, and GLBT communities are relatively powerless in Global South states, there is the expectation that GLBT liberation politics will rely on external advocates and look for moral authority to international covenants and arbitrating bodies rather than engaging in domestic political work. Combined with tax-code and liberal-values restrictions on involvement by the international human rights charities leading this work in electoral, partisan or foreign politics, this prescribes a “human rights-centred” model of Global South organizing that extinguishes the very powerful political characteristics that have enabled GLBT maturity and successes in the Global North. In this imaginary, domestic political organizing, action and leadership are not conceived as essential and necessary aspects of GLBT advocacy for Africa and the Caribbean especially. Instead, alliances with foreign advocates who apply moral, economic and legal pressure on local powerholders becomes central to advocacy. And repeatedly assumptions are made about the victimhood and lack of agency of GLBT subjects, to the point where activists like Peter Tatchell, Wayne Besen, Michael Petrellis, Keith Boykin and Akim Ade Larcher and their affiliated groups – Égale, Stop Murder Music, OutRage! and Boycott Jamaica – have felt licence to speak like abolitionists on behalf of the GLBT interests of the region.3
This privileging of external policing of governments to achieve GLBT gains vs. domestic leveraging of various forms of power and influence distorts organizing strategies to ones in which domestic GLBT stakeholders invest in alliances with others with the ability to provide financial resources, travel, visibility and legitimacy, but who are positioned as foreign adversaries of their governments. They often do so at the expense of nurturing local political alliances, of building ownership of GLBT issues by other sexual rights stakeholders, of developing strategic power domestically, of building a local base to which leadership is accountable, of developing appeals and legitimacy in the currency of domestic and traditional values and frameworks, or simply of being politically innovative in response to local conditions. And this clearly reinforces the view of GLBT cultures and values as non-indigenous and outside the social order.
7. Is there a relationship between the anti-violence work that you do and feminism?
A precursor to and influence in CAISO’s emergence and analysis was the Trinidad & Tobago AntiViolence Project, which conceived itself as “guided by the vision of a child’s right to healthy sexual development, free of sexual and spiritual violence, into an adult free to express and practice gender and sexual identity in ways of his/her choosing” and “a framework to bring together diverse stakeholders to: mobilise gender-sensitive approaches to sexual violence against children and adults; sharpen understanding of the gender-based nature of homophobic violence; support survivors of violence and their families, partners and friends in individual and collective healing, mobilisation and restituitve justice; encourage gay communities to take leadership in protecting minors from sexual exploitation; and work on other intersectional issues related to sexual, gender-based and social violence”. TTAVP has folded its work into CAISO, but this has also resulted in less priority and focus on violence in the umbrella group’s portfolio.
The Project was initiated as a framework to protest the homophobic (and secondarily misogynist) imagination of visiting Jamaican dancehall performers. It was subsequently used to re-position gay men in relationship to sexual abuse of boys when a local case was covered in the media, by publicly offering strategic interventions around recovery and advocating for programmes and leadership in response. It then became a platform for fundraising, programme development and capacity-building for prevention, victim services and advocacy, and to strengthen community sexual decisionmaking, in response to a rash of internet dating crimes against gay men, including rape. This work (and CAISO’s subsequently) have a core analysis that bias violence on the basis of sexual orientation and gender expression is gender-based violence, and gender is at the centre of our politics and understanding of anti-violence work. This has framed CAISO’s documentation of systematic police violence against Trans MTFs and its inclusion in testimony at the InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights. The organisation as a whole, however, has not engaged with the specific vulnerabilities of lesbians to violence.
8. What connections do you have to art and artists? To Scholars? (Keeping in mind that you can include yourself in the answer to this question.)
CAISO’s name embodies our connection to art. Our very first public activity (during the local Gay Pride month) was a cultural event in a vanguard arts space that received coverage in the newspaper’s weekly entertainment section: a calypso listening session, open and advertised to non-GBLT people, that explored the history of the treatment of sexual diversity in calypso over eight decades. We published a seminal book review of a collection of fiction on our blog, which is currently the fourth most popular entry with over 550 reads. We created a series of events surrounding the local launch of the Our Caribbean GLBT anthology, including a bookstore signing, a writing workshop and a movie night and panel discussion. We promoted the screening of a gay-themed film in our local film festival and ran a movie night programme of film screenings. And we have repeatedly engaged with Carnival as a potential vehicle for our work. We have occasionally included writing and photography from community members on the blog.
In enumerating a list of CAISO’s values for an organizing meeting, we wrote recently: that “CAISO is committed to analysis-driven organizing, recognizing that one must understand the world to change it.” The Institute for Gender & Development Studies (IGDS) at the University of the West Indies at St. Augustine has become a critical ally in CAISO’s work, inviting us to do classroom presentations at both the undergraduate and postgraduate level. One of our activities became an elective assignment in a UWI Cultural Studies course. IGDS has also been both a crucible for many of the ideas CAISO uses in organizing and a training ground for CAISO organizers: a young man whose entry into CAISO led to groundbreaking youth organizing work was referred by his gender studies instructor. CAISO also has a strong relationship with the Caribbean arm of the International Resource Network. I have represented CAISO’s work in participating in Andil Gosine’s Sex Inter|National dialogue, at the International Centre for the Prevention of Crime’s 15th anniversary symposium “Crime Prevention from across the World” in December 2009, on a panel at Fire and Ink, and in this roundtable project, among others. A case study of our organizing presented at a United Nations training in Turin recently received attention from a Georgetown University religion scholar. Our exchanges with scholars academically interested in our work of GLBT experience in T&T have tried to engage questions of epistemology, of power, and of strategic essentialisms.
9. In what ways do your communities document their histories? (photography, archive collections, paintings, poetry, blogs, plays, music, video, etc.)
CAISO has both encouraged and conducted oral history, documentation and archiving. Very early on we launched both a blog and a presence on Facebook where we regularly aggregate current news items and weblinks of interest identified with Google Search – some 450 to date. We have archived footage of as many of our media appearances as we can on www.vimeo.com/caiso and index them on the blog. We flirted for a few weeks with a daily digest of internet stories of Caribbean GLBT interest we titled Queeribean Beat. We also have unrealized ambitions to conduct an organizing project of compiling personal histories of older generations.
Several GLBT people in T&T are actively engaged in documentary photography and various kinds of expressive work that reflects or engages with questions of gendered sexuality. As early as 1988, out playwright Godfrey Sealy had created work like One of Our Sons is Missing, chronicling gay men’s relationships to each other, family, women and HIV. Though the debut of Erotic Art Week has provided a framework that foregrounds the sexuality of some of this visual work, and even in the 1970s gay themes appeared in publicly presented theatrical and visual work, little of this creative work takes place in a community framework.
1. “Originally conceived of as a panel on comparative sexual rights, erotic autonomy, and “Archives and Politics ‘For My Own Protection,’ ” my intention was to include in this issue a roundtable discussion featuring a few individuals whom I admire for the path breaking work they are doing to document/archive and improve black queer life and culture in a number of sites around the world (Steven G. Fullwood, Black Gay & Lesbian Archive, “Fire & Ink”; Zethu Matebani Forum for the Empowerment of Women; Colin Robinson, Coalition Advocating Inclusion of Sexual Orientation; Selly Thiam, None on Record; Ajamu X, Sharing Tongues; Rukus!) For a variety of reasons, this did not work out. These projects that propose to “save” culture, share tongues, and put on record provide a very differently configured and no less “political” politics, which the working group is committed to engaging. One of our immediate forthcoming projects, therefore, will be to reconvene, revise, and publish this important conversation.” Jafari S. Allen (2012). Black/Queer/Diaspora at the Current Conjuncture (Introduction), GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 18(2-3). Note 16, 240-241.
2 I prefer to begin my listing with the least specific and sometimes ungendered term, “gay”
3. Larcher has since renounced such politics.
Colin Robinson is 50, lonely, and has done a certain amount of shit. Nah, Colin Robinson is trying to build a thinking Caribbean queer political movement. Hmm…Colin Robinson is a Trini who has lived transnationally, legally and illegally. He is currently executive director of CAISO, an NGO doing sexual citizenship, gender justice and nation-building advocacy in Trinidad and Tobago; and spearheading the development of the Caribbean Forum for Liberation and Acceptance of Genders and Sexualities as a regional network. His work includes writing, HIV, migration, management; and has been done through the Audre Lorde Project, the Caribbean IRN, Gay Men of African Descent, GMHC, IGLHRC, the NY State Black Gay Network, Other Countries, Think Again, and Marlon Riggs’s Tongues Untied. Steups. Colin Robinson is a poet.
“Ten Minutes Into The Honeymoon” drawn from my memory of the beating of a Gay man in Kingston, Jamaica WI. As he was being beaten, he called on the Christian Bible for help. And as his violators beat him, they too called on the Christian Bible for his destruction while quoting scriptures. Coupled with the signing of the same sex marriage bill into law by Gov. Cuomo of New York in June 24, 2011, I created “Ten Minutes Into the Honeymoon” as a liturgy where a union of love triumphs over fear, ostracism, disparagement, hate, et al.
(Born and raised in Jamaica, self educated, lives and works in NY & NJ) Is a cross-disciplinary artist who works in sculpture, painting, performance, among other media. Graham-Brown uses his work as a palliative gesture to dispel the trauma and shame to which people of color and Gay people are routinely subjected. His work has been presented at: The Queens Museum of Art; El Museo del Barrio NY; Leslie Lohman Gay and Lesbian Museum; Institute of Jamaica, Museum of Ethnography; The National Gallery of Jamaica, WI; Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance NY; Aljira Center for Contemporary Art; One of thirty artists to represent USA in the 2008 Shanghai Biennial in China; Galleria Homero Massena, Victoria, Brazil; Galerie Lutz Rohs, Duren, Germany; New York University, Grey Gallery; Creative Art Center, University of The West Indies, Jamaica; The streets of New York City among other places. His work has been written about in print by: The New York Times, Hartford Courant, Yankee Magazine, Hartford Advocate, Out in NJ, CAW Magazine, Jamaica Gleaner, In his catalog: Disconnecting, Reconnecting…Disconnected by Dean Daderko, Contemporary Art Museum Houston, published by Aljira Center for Contemporary Arts, among other periodicals and blogs and appeared on BET TV and online by: The Queens Museum TV, Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Art TV, BAAD TV, Real Art Ways TV, Dixon Place Theater TV among others. Lawrence has been the recipient of the Juror’s Award and Prize at NYU Small Works International Exhibition and is currently a Franklin Furnace Fellow for Avant-Garde performance art for 2011-2012.
Suriname Men United
Activist Report from 2008 Public Media Campaign – Targeting homophobic lyrics of dance hall artists
By Kenneth van Emden, Director Suriname Men United
Email: suriname_men_united(at)yahoo.com || Website: www.surinamemenunited.com
The Issue / Summary
In November 2008, the telephone company Digicel celebrated their 1st anniversary in Suriname with a free concert. For this concert two Jamaican artists, Elephant Man and Bounty Killer, were invited to perform. The promotion of this concert was huge since the phone company wanted to promote their services in order to reach the biggest population in Suriname. The above-mentioned artists are well known for their homophobic song lyrics. Lyrics like “kill batty man,” and “burn batty man” are some of the commonly used lyrics in their songs. Because of experiences in Jamaica, where these songs have an impact in terms of violence and killings on members of the gay community, Suriname Men United (SMU), a gay organization, started a campaign in Suriname to pre-empt the concert. In collaboration with a lawyer, a letter was designed and sent referencing our anti – discrimination law, to the director of the phone company, highlighting the homophobic lyrics in the songs of the performers and that the singers should adjust their repertoire. This resulted in a huge media break-out in Suriname and SMU was involved in several discussions concerning this issue. Pressured by the board of the phone company and the media, the artists used no homophobic lyrics during the concert. Because of the good advocacy plan involving the media and lawyer, we were proud to achieve this first step to a better future for the MSM community in Suriname. It was the first big action towards these performers in Suriname and we succeeded in getting the repertoire adjusted.
History of Suriname Men United – The promising action
The promising action is that through public debate in Suriname awareness is being raised on what equality before the law means. All the action-related debates were centered around the right to non-discriminatory distinctions and to be free from discriminatory treatment, a right every individual has in Suriname, regardless of the differences in religious, cultural or moral views. In addition to this rights debate, discrimination-related violence was strongly opposed by the wider public. The majority of the public voiced the existing social agreement that every individual should be free from ‘hate crimes’. Suriname Men United wrote a letter to the organizing company. Friends and other gay-friendly people were also mobilized to promote the campaign from mouth to mouth, email communication, and messages through cell phones. SMU also contacted radio stations and some gay men where inspired and went on TV to talk about the issue. The campaign consisted of a few phone conversations with the organizers and some journalists were informed and asked to bring the issue on the table during the press conference. Journalists from local news papers were also mobilized to write about this campaign. This was to provide a “murder music” dancehall dossier which gives a wide range of the lyrics sung by the artists.
The political and/or organizational context when the best action began
The Surinamese Constitution provides everyone with the right to be free from discrimination. The anti-discrimination right is articulated in article 8 (2) under the title Basic Rights, Individual Rights and Freedoms and reads as follows: “No one may be discriminated against on the grounds of birth, sex, race, language, religious, origin, education, political beliefs, economic position or any other status.”
Despite the fact that in Suriname in general everyone can live a life free from physical violence, stigma, and discrimination towards sub-populations such as the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI) community, sex workers, and people living with HIV and AIDS are still present and that constitutes a form of psychological violence. Reducing the stigma and discrimination in Suriname against marginalized populations as mentioned before, is among other things non-governmental organizations such as SMU are aiming at in an effort to improve the lives of their constituents according to the standards set by the Human Rights Principles. Suriname is well-known for its diversity of races, cultures, and religions. The distribution of the Surinamese population by ethnicity is shown in the figure below, produced by the Bureau of National Statistics. The diverse compilation of the Surinamese population with no extreme majority of one ethnic group, has a major effect on the peaceful society that we can claim to be. A society in which diversity is embraced and valued as an asset and not seen as an obstacle. Even though all ethnic groups have their own music, reggae music is very popular among all ethnic groups.
Reggae is a music style made popular by Bob Marley whose music is still the favorite of many. Nowadays some artists promote all kinds of violence and hate crimes. This phenomenon is well-known among the Jamaican reggae artists who utilize homophobic lyrics and lyrics promoting ill-treatment of women and the LGBTQI. Jamaican artist such as Beenie Man, Elephant Man, Bounty Killer and Movado incite their fans to kill and burn homosexual men.
The development / emergence of the action
In November 2008, Digicel, a telephone provider, organized a music concert to celebrate its first anniversary in Suriname. The artists line-up included two Jamaican artists: Elephant Man and Bounty Killer. Those two artists were scheduled to be the main performers of the music event. The above-mentioned music event had a multiple purpose; besides the first anniversary celebration it was also a huge promotional activity. The Jamaican artists Bounty Killer and Elephant Man are well known for their lyrics, which incite gay-related violence. Because of the experiences in Jamaica, where these songs are argued to have led to actual violence against gays and even murders, SMU campaigned against the scheduled performances of the two Jamaican artists. Based on the domestic anti-discrimination law, a letter was drafted and sent to the director of Digicel, highlighting the unacceptable contents of the lyrics of the performers and that the singers should at least adjust their repertoire when performing in Suriname.
Initially SMU intervened based on a one-on-one communication strategy with Digicel, but SMU soon realized that to increase the pressure on Digicel and its promotional activity media exposure was necessary. SMU adjusted its strategy and involved the media and therefore the wider public debated whether the Surinamese society should allow the incitement of violence against gays by performers such as the artists Bounty Killer and Elephant Man. This strategy resulted in huge media coverage of the matter in Suriname and SMU was involved in several debates concerning this issue. Ultimately, pressured by the board of the phone company, media, and the expressed public opinions against violence incitement against anyone including gays, no homophobic lyrics were used during the concert.
Success of the work
SMU is aware of the fact that having a public debate on LGBTQI issues is still taboo in the Surinamese society, and therefore is a delicate issue. But since the wider public actively participated in the public debate as part of the action, SMU considers the action a success already. The action has partly removed the taboo which prevented LGBTQI people from enjoying their rights and entitlements. Because of a strong advocacy plan involving strategic partnerships with the media, government officials and legal experts, we were able to send out a strong message against gay-related discrimination, ignorance, intolerance and violence. We consider this to be a first step to improve the life of the LGBTQI community in Suriname, with respect to the equal enjoyment of human rights as well as equal protection of their human rights against violations. The above-described intervention has been the first one of this nature in Suriname and we can proudly proclaim it a huge success. This action has paved the path for a lot of organizations to start networking with SMU. Also, members of the gay community were empowered by the action and its success and are more willing to come out regarding their sexual orientation. A different dialogue has started within the society on the issues of LGBTQI and the media is more willing to facilitate this dialogue in a more sensitive and less sensational manner.
Contributed intentional & non-intentional, external & internal factors of success
SMU is a member of the Caribbean Forum for Liberation and Acceptance of Genders and Sexualities (CARIFLAGS). Through this network the Jamaican experiences with gay-related violence stemming from dancehall reggae music are shared. SMU committed itself to act in a preventive manner to avoid similar calamities as Jamaica is experiencing. The action was fully supported by the team of SMU and members of the gay community. Several advices and reports / documents with information on the dancehall history were provided by HIV/AIDS activists and experts in Suriname, the Caribbean and Canada.
The media was also a major contributor to success; it was instrumental in the public debate as well for providing correct information on this matter. Journalists also confronted the respective artists with specific questions about their violence-promoting lyrics. Digicel, the music event organizing company, eventually also became an ally. On national television during a press conference in the presence of the performers and journalists, the Executive Director of Digicel assured that no homophobic music would be performed and that the anti-discrimination law would be obeyed.
Individuals and leaders that impacted the outcome
One of the individuals who impacted the outcome was a lawyer SMU hired to help design the letter. This method was used to highlight the importance and the seriousness of the campaign. Furthermore, journalists played a big role by giving wide exposure to the campaign. This helped SMU in sensitizing and informing the community about LGTBQI issues. Also the help and advices of several directors of NGO’s were very helpful and impacted the outcome. These people have years of experiences within the advocacy field, so sharing their experience with SMU was very useful. Interviews with gay men and women also played an important role in the outcome since they are the ones experiencing the hate lyrics as emotional violence. The help of the CARIFLAGS in sharing reports and documents made it possible for SMU to engage in discussions and dialogues with evidence-based information.
Measures to evaluate the action
This action started as a spontaneous response to a circumstance that presented itself unexpectedly and evolved and expanded into an ongoing awareness project. The initial action, which is presented in this narrative, had a clearly defined aim: communicating to the performers that within Suriname hate crime promotion is not tolerated and that they will not receive permission perform music containing any such message. The indicators on which the result was measured were: (1) the public statement by Digicel, the contractor of the performers, claiming that the performers signed an agreement to refrain from performing music that might incite violence against gays. (2) The repertoire performed was free from homophobic lyrics. (3) A post-concert survey among gay men on their opinion on the action shows that they were happy about the efforts made by Suriname Men United. Others showed their appreciation by sending emails and making phone calls congratulating SMU for not only its efforts related to the action, but also for being successful. (4) One-on-one interviews with other people also helped us to evaluate the action.
Intended and unplanned outcomes
The intended outcome was a music concert without homophobic music. The unplanned outcome was the expansion of the response into a more structural movement which includes all forms of discrimination and exposure to violation of rights. The enthusiasm among all involved partners for our success has motivated them to stay on board and continue to support the efforts to improve the quality of life of the LGBTQI community. The media is more sensitized on the issue of LGBTQI and therefore reports in a less sensational manner on LGBTQI news items. Also the public sector – in particular law enforcement – is also more aware of their role to provide equal protection from violence to the LGBTQI community, and similarly the LGBTQI community is more empowered to speak out and demand equal treatment. There were no unintended negative outcomes or potential negative outcomes or backlash from bringing this issue more into the public. The only negative outcomes were that people who are against homosexuality aired their opinion on the radio. A lot of people were happy with this campaign, since it also used the point of view of the Surinamese constitution, which states that discrimination is against the law. Recently two concerts were held where Jamaican artists Beenie Man and Movado performed. The organizers stated in the press conference and also on TV and radio that none such lyrics may be used. Suriname Men United was even asked to view the show on cd, to find out if the shows were free of homophobic lyrics. The work of the organization is getting more recognition and companies are getting involved in decision making when it comes to the screening of the shows for example.
The challenges and how to overcome
Fear for backlash: One of the challenges for us was in the beginning the thought of getting out in the open to start a huge campaign like this. It was the first time and we were a bit afraid of stepping out on such a level. But through encouragement from others and positive thinking we did the first step.
Empirical data: The event manager stated that the contracted artists do not belong to the
category of “murder music“ performers. To disprove this statement we provided him with a dancehall “murder music” dossier where both of the artists were fully described. The impact of the music on violent behavior though, is not supported by reliable evidence.
Moral and religious views: Part of the public opposed the action by expressing stigmatizing and discriminatory remarks towards homosexuals. Arguments were posted such as gays should not get any sort of attention nor should they receive this level of facilitation. The positive profiling must be stopped. Claims were also made that SMU was promoting homosexuality publicly but that the gays should keep their activities private. Even claims like gays are preparing to take over the country were made. These remarks were predominantly of a moralistic and religious nature.
The alliances / linkages forged to ensure success
The most strategic partnership SMU made was with the media. All possible formats of media exposure were utilized. For example, written newspaper articles in support of the action were regularly published. Several radio stations invited SMU to send a representative to participate in call-in informative programs with the possibility for the audience to call and ask informative questions or to express their opinion on the action. A local television station also exposed the action by inviting gay men for a live discussion on the issue while short videos were aired of people on the street who expressed their opinion on the action. The Caribbean community was approached for their assistance. They provided SMU with a dancehall “murder music “dossier. This dossier consists of names of the reggae artists and their songs with an explanation of the homophobic lyrics. Also experiences and reports of activities undertaken against the respective artists in the Caribbean were shared.
The contribution to a broader movement or cross-movement goals
The unplanned outcome is the expansion of the response to a more structural movement which includes all forms of discrimination and exposure to the violation of rights. The enthusiasm among all involved partners for the action’s success has motivated them to stay on board and continue to support the efforts to improve the quality of life of the LGBTQI community. The media is more sensitized on the issue of LGBTQI and therefore reports in a less sensational manner on LGBTQI news items. Also, the public sector, in particular law enforcement, is also more aware of their role to provide equal protection from violence to LGBTQI people, and similarly the LGBTQI community is more empowered to speak out and demand equal treatment. The media board has also become more vocal on the impact of music and other media products on behavior of children and viewpoints on equal treatment of different sub-populations such as women, homeless people etc.
Skills and lessons learned in the process
1. Know the strengths and weaknesses of your own organization, but also those of your
2. Make sure you understand the battle you are embarking on.
3. Have a good understanding of the problem you are facing.
4. Understand the different dynamics involved (e.g. political, religious, legal, cultural sensitivities).
5. Have access to documentation and evidence-based information.
6. Involve as many strategic partners as possible.
7. Strive to set-up an inter-disciplinary team with, for example, lawyers, policymakers, educators and media workers.
8. Ensure that your constituency supports the action
9. Set achievable goals. For example, in our case don’t prevent the performance, but demand an appropriate repertoire. This approach helps to satisfy both the needs of the fans of the artists and your constituency’s needs.
10. Involve your constituency from an early stage.
11. Communicate clearly before, during, and after the action with all involved parties.
12. At all times utilize the power of information by constantly feeding the public with correct information.
“Is his choice”
Matter of fact
Like the boy deserved to die
Accident of biology
He has that
Men of a certain age
Is this what it feels like when your blood boils?
The words want to push out of me
And burn his soul
The boy is dead
I want to scream
If he had kissed
A pretty girl
Instead of another
Would he then
Deserve to live?
“You’re not going to convince me”
So just stop
And I find that I can’t
Suddenly it’s important
Not be like this
(like I’m being now, toward him)
I have to find an opening
They betrayed him
“He chose it”
Not to be stoned for it
Or have barbed wire
Pulled through his flesh
Or worse yet
Have prying eyes download and dissect
What should have been private
“He chose it”
Like God willed it
(Not the God I choose to worship; She hugs us all to her bosom)
I tell myself there’s more
More than the science
Of fire and brimstone
If I could just decipher it
Read between his lines
His philosophy is simple after all
Accept life as it is
Don’t weep over it
And don’t let people in your head
And maybe that’s it
That he finds the boy weak
For not stiffening his back
And pushing through
Because to him
Is the only real sin
But I look at him
As he sits
Reading the paper
Brow furrowed at politicians
And their antics
While I stand in an island
Desperate to have him see that
Death may be life
But it still hurts
That trusting may be stupid
But it is still given in
Of making a connection
That a boy (or girl) who is different
Is not to be savaged
That our differences are to be cherished
Even in how we stand up to this –
Hurricane or shame
That the shame is not in his choice
To give in
But in their decision to ridicule him
And in our decision to judge him
(and give them a bye!)
And to find each other wanting
For being who we are
And the boy
Neither of us knows
© 100110 Joanne C. Hillhouse
Joanne C. Hillhouse’s new book Oh Gad! hit the market in 2012. The Antigua-Barbudan writer is also the author of The Boy from Willow Bend and Dancing Nude in the Moonlight. Follow her at http://www.facebook.com/JoanneCHillhouse
Artist Statement: Fictional characters are the tools with which I explore the conflict between community and singularity. With these drawings I began to toy with a pair of physically identical characters that I simply refer to as 'the couple'. Despite their identical appearance, they respond differently to the situations I create for them, there is both mad rush and hesitation, wonder and indifference. Over time, they have come to represent an internalized conflict that characterizes aspects of my own experience and my reflections on a fragmented Caribbean homosexual community. An internalized 'homophobia' is constantly in conflict with the struggle to navigate romantic relationships as they move between public and private spaces.
Please click on the thumbnail to view the full image
Mediated (Be)Longing: Consumer Citizenship & Queer Caribbean Diaspora
Critical Essay by Savannah Shange
Sitting on the edge of his bed, scrolling through his iTunes library on a laptop, Rex mused, “You know, well, from a young age, I’ve been listening to ‘Boom, Bye, Bye in a Batty Bwoy head’ and all that,” invoking the nearly two decade meme of Jamaican dancehall artist Buju Banton’s controversial 1993 lyrical gay bash. Even though “Boom Bye Bye” and Banton’s riff of “dem haffi dead,” has been circulated heavily in academic and popular depictions as evidence of a uniformly violent and intolerant Jamaican culture (cf. GLAAD 2009, 2011; Williams 2000; Best 1999). Rex didn’t chime in to indict Caribbean music for homophobia. Rather, he added a soundtrack to our interview session by playing the opening bars to Vybz Cartel’s 2009 single “Romping Shop.” Ironically, “Romping Shop” samples the riddim of “Miss Independent” by US R&B artist Ne-Yo, whose own sexual orientation has been the subject of persistent rumor and speculation.
Ah di teacher
And ah Spice
Every man grab a gyal
And every gyal grab a man
Man to man, gyal to gyal dat’s wrong
Scorn dem (Palmer 2009)
After he played the clip for me, Rex shared:
When I hear the newest song and the lyrics is like, “man to man” you know, I’ll sing along to it in the club just because we’re so desensitized to it… This is the music that we grew up to. This is the rhythm that we grew up to. And we’re more so focused on that than anything else. We could never find these beats, these rhythms, these people, this feeling from anywhere else than this community. So if we haveta align with people who may be against us sexually in order to feel connected culturally, then that’s what we do.
Here, Rex highlights a consumptive strategy of diasporai – by making a situated choice of “cultural” over “sexual” connection based in “the rhythm we grew up to,” he forges a sense of continuity between music, memory and self. He speaks from his embodied location(s) – both of his parents have dual Belizean and Honduran ancestry, and Rex was raised in Brooklyn while traveling almost seasonally to Belize, making over fifty trips in his twenty-two years. A child of Arjun Appadurai’s “postnational order,” Rex also defies normative gender categories – assigned female at birth and socialized as a girl, he now lives in what he termed “this whole sphere of masculinity,” rocking a lowcut Caesar fade, tattooed sleeves on his chocolate skin, and preferring gender neutral or male pronouns.
The pluralized self in Rex’s reflection stakes a claim for a queer metropolitan “we” who make a life along this continuity, and in so doing, foregrounds the primary concern of this essay: How do queer-identified diasporic Caribbean subjects navigate these crosscurrents of belonging?ii How does homonormative North American media shape narratives of home for Caribbean people living abroad? These questions are deceptively simple, as they flatten the diversity of both “queer” and “abroad;” gender assignment, gender performance, region of migration, island(s) of origin, and racialization all serve to differentiate within the category of queer diaspora. In this article, I analyze mainstream media discourse, contextualized by qualitative interview data, to explore the experience of “home” and “homophobia” for queer-identified Caribbean subjects across a range of gender identities. Following the imperatives present in the scholarly work of Deborah Thomas, Ritty Lukose, and M. Jacqui Alexander, I critically interrogate the production and circulation of a “homophobic Caribbean” through the strategic practices of what I am provisionally calling diasporic consumer citizenship.
For diasporic Caribbean subjects like Rex, the distance between “here” and “home” is bridged by memory and music, language and (be)longing. This distance itself is refracted through the lenses of sexuality and gender, whereby queer subjects abroad are differentially positioned in representations of the region. Because the access to the Caribbean most folks born abroad have is filtered through family recollections, popular music forms, and US-based media, part of what is often filtered out is the consistent and dynamic presence of nonheteronormative folks woven into the fabric of Caribbean communities. Indeed, in transnational news media, the Anglophone Caribbean is portrayed as virulently homophobic, with queer people frequently subject to physical and psychological attack. This blanket verdict is propagated by homonormative media outlets, including gay travel sites and television programs, and is echoed in the activist work of North American and British LGBT groups. For instance, the Stop the Murder Music campaign and UK’s OutRage organized the Reggae Compassion Act, a tolerance pledge of sorts that dancehall artists were asked to sign committing to “not make statements or perform songs that incite hatred or violence against anyone from any community,”iii while promoters were similarly pressured cancel the concerts of artists who refused to sign, or else face protests and boycotts (Rau 2007). For Caribbean subjects raised abroad, the process of self-identifying as queer and/or trans can be complicated by this grand progress narrative, in which the islands are constructed as always-already homophobic. Destabilizing territoriality as a prerequisite for belonging, Thomas asserts “Jamaica is now wherever Jamaicans are,”iv affixing nation onto bodies in motion. But what are the rites of citizenship for a state unmoored from its material spatiality?
Locating the Researcher
Further, how does one locate the epistemic gaze in the shifting currents of diaspora, temporality, and geopolitical asymmetries of power? I come to this work as a queer femme black woman, born and raised in the US with too many generations between here and anywhere to have a flag I call my own. I have only tangential blood ties to Trinidad and all my distant relations who might have known my face have passed. Even though most enslaved black people in the US were brought from Caribbean islands, and not directly from the African continent, history and politics have cast that stopping place as incidental, rather than formative – a halfway point, not a home. Dionne Brand reminds us that “The Door of No Return opens all nationalisms to their imaginative void,”v potentially dissolving some of the national boundaries within blackness. However, I am also attendant to the ways in which diaspora is always-already skewed, and am wary of asserting the right to speak for Caribbean folks from my position – becoming yet another North American annexation of Caribbean subjectivity. Thus I proceed in this exploration with caution and love, guided by M. Jacqui Alexander’s lesson that in becoming women of color: “We would need to cultivate a way of knowing in which we direct our social, cultural, psychic, and spiritually marked attention on each other. We cannot afford to cease yearning for each others’ company.”vi It is in and in search of this company that I write.
Diasporic Citizens, Consumers & Queers
In Liberalization’s Children, Ritty Lukose repurposes “consumer citizenship” to describe the innovative and inherently political practices of subaltern youth, rather than simply the recession of the bourgeoisie from the “proper” state into a delusion of consumption. Inspired by her use of the “citizen-consumer” as a theoretical foil to the false dichotomy between the righteous, parochial Indian state, and the corrupted, wayward consumer seduced by the West, I explore diasporic consumer citizenship as an initial attempt to see beyond the Manichean frame of a “homophobic,” atavistic, black Caribbean, and an inclusive, advanced, white North America. Lukose attends to the ways in which the deterritorialized processes of globalization are reterritorialized in the local consumptive practices of Malayalee youth and “the crucial role of consumption in the self-fashioning of young people as part and parcel of their negotiations of public life.”vii (2009, 9). Indeed, her argument that liberalization’s children fashion their own relationship to regional, national, and global belonging through patterns of consumption and self-presentation prompts us to examine the ways that constitutively deterritorialized diasporic selves might also engage consumption as not only a basis for but also a bar against claims to belonging.
Against this backdrop, it may be useful to return to Rex’s listening to Jamaican artists Vybz Cartel and Buju Banton. By wining to these tunes, Rex elides the polar positions of offended North American progressives on one side and stalwart Caribbean defenders of what Thomas (2004) calls “unapologetic blackness,” a blackness for which enforced heteronormativity is a badge of authenticity. Thomas argues that economic shifts, namely the rise of global capital paired with structural adjustment throughout the Caribbean region, has transformed the nature of belonging in/to the Jamaican state. “In Jamaica, the multiracial harmony envisioned by mid-twentieth-century creole nationalists was upstaged, during the 1990s, by an unapologetic blackness.”viii Class identity and cultural values become power plays in the emergence of what Thomas calls “modern blackness,” one that is rooted largely in the experience and aesthete of working class or “poorer set” Jamaicans. However, Thomas also teaches us that ontologies of modern blackness are also those of sexuality – “unapologetic blackness” seems to index a particularly vehement version of anti-gay sentiment. In her discussion of the controversy surrounding Banton’s refusal to apologize for the murderous lyrics of “Boom Bye Bye,” Thomas suggests that aggressive heteronormativity partially constitutes modern blackness
by refusing to compromise what has been seen as a Jamaican cultural value. The relative autonomy that dancehall music and culture have reestablished for lower-class black Jamaican aficionados has not only been generated within the realm of aesthetics, but also within the realm of politics.ix
Thus, we see the linkages between making a claim on the exclusive right to represent the Jamaican (hu)man in the cultural sphere, and the mobilizing of power in the political sphere. Indeed, in this instance, the very boundaries of modern blackness, of Jamaicanness, are being constructed and policed by a cultural, rather than state, institution.
Returning to the question of rites of citizenship, if transnationally consumed Caribbean popular culture functions as an extension of the state, how do gender and sexuality help construct the boundaries of an imagined citizenship for subjects in diasporic locations? Michelle Stephens provides a helpful frame to guide our thinking in this area:
If one side of what it means to be black today requires an understanding of how states have negotiated the question of race to manage different populations, the other side demands that we explore how those processes have regulated our desires, shaped what we understand to be both legitimate and prescribed, taboo and prohibited, expressions of black sexuality and gender identity, across the diaspora.x
In asking us to bridge the distance from institutional expressions to affective experiences of blackness, Stephens alerts us to the ways our lived experiences continuously reconstitute and renegotiate the boundaries around that blackness. Further, if we understand consumption to be one of the processes Stephens discusses, used by both state and private entities to manage and manipulate racialized communities, then it is also crucial to understand how lived engagement with transnational media both shapes and is shaped by self-perceptions around sexuality. However, it is essential not to lift the schema of identitarian sexual politics from one context and graft it onto another; common senses around intimate practice are always already manifested in and tethered to the local, even when shot through with the global.
Focusing primarily on the various manifestations of sex work and transactional sex throughout the region, Kamala Kempadoo (2004, 2009) argues that we must use “sexual praxis,” rather than simply “identity” as a heuristic for understanding the dynamics and implications of sexuality in the Caribbean. She allies queer subjectivities with those of sex workers and warns against using North American frames for approaching Caribbean practice because same-sex relations are not in the first instance claimed as identity but rather as activity, as people disclose information about their practice without identifying or viewing themselves as homosexual, queer, gay, lesbian, or transgender.xi
Given the persistent, if problematic, centrality of identity politics in US queer communities of color, it is possible that Caribbean subjects living in diaspora may be more centered on queer identities rather than queer activities, thus rendering illegible the kind of same-sex praxis Kempadoo describes. Further, because of the untranslatability across local markers of queer practice, same-sex sexual practices in the region may be invisible to Caribbean subjects living abroad, socialized in North American notions of queer and LGBT allegiance. For instance Iden Jackson,xii a first generation Jamaican born in the US who spoke with me while on leave from her position in the US militaryxiii, recounted scouring the Internet for other gay Jamaicans, wondering “Are there other people like me!?” Iden’s anxieties were reflected by another study participant, Trace Sanchez, a Black Puerto Rican transman and queer health advocate whose great-grandparents moved from Puerto Rico to the US. He reflected about his adolescence in upstate New York: “I thought I’d have to be with a white girl forever because there’s no gay brown people, you know?” His conception that “there’s no gay brown people” signals the invisibility of Puerto Rican queer practices in the dominant discourses of his childhood.
Their sense of isolation stands in direct contrast to the decades of academic and political work showing the ways in which same gender loving is and has been a part of Caribbean society for a long time. However, because it is “not broadcast,”xiv perhaps this everyday presence of queer sexual praxis is one of the casualties of transnational citizenship. For many participants, access to the Caribbean was filtered through the mediated consumption of family recollections, popular music forms, and US-based media, part of what may have been filtered out is the quiet, but consistent, presence of queer folks within the Caribbean constituency. Even for those who were able to visit, their time as largely circumscribed either by the routines of the family members they visited, or by the boundaries of the tourist destination they choose. Rex was the only participant who shared a sense of commonplace queerness in his land of descent, nurtured in his cyclical movement between Belize and the US. The role of US based media was particularly salient in the experiences of Kenya Dilles, a third generation Bajan femme from the Bronx. Her relationship to Caribbean queerness was perhaps most striking to me, as we met at a gay fête during Carnival in Trinidad, which nonetheless occurred in a country where same-sex intimacy is outlawed (Ministry of Legal Affairs 2006). When I asked her about her perception of queer folks in the Caribbean, she shared:
I do hear stories about, like in Jamaica about people actually being killed, and it’s okay. And it’s looked at like that’s for the best. And I mean that’s just from Logo, I don’t know if you remember like their Coming Out Stories and, you know, so from that – from those reality shows I kind of get that grim homophobic picture in Jamaica, particularly.
Interestingly, even with Kenya’s multinational frames of reference – her own family from Barbados, a visit to a resort in the Bahamas, and a pilgrimage to Carnival in Trinidad with a queer Trini friend – the influence of media images is still significant. Here we see a reference to what Puar (2007) calls homonationalism – the processes by which reactionary queer factions, in this case mainstream gay cable channel Logo, essentialize global South nations as homophobic, dangerous places, thus aligning white homonormativity with the larger project of North American exceptionalism. For certain members of the queer community, namely white lesbian, gay, and bisexual middle-class people, homonationalism is an effective strategy for claiming privilege within structures of domination. Further, while individual people may benefit from performing as “good gay subjects,” rhetoric of sexual inclusion and tolerance can also become a justification for the extension of both imperial and settler terrorisms (Morgensen 2010). In order to understand more fully how homonationalist discourses intersect with both popular and personal understandings of Caribbean sexuality, it is necessary to engage the concrete artifacts of these discourses as they circulate through film, television, and the web.
Coming Out Stories as Homonationalist Discourse
To tease out the ways that mainstream media production and situated media consumption interrelate, I turn now to the television program that lodged itself in Kenya’s memories from years before our interview. Coming Out Stories was one of the first original series aired on MTV’s LGBT-themed cable channel, Logo, which has been critiqued for reinscribing race and national hierarchies through its programming, promotion, and advertising approaches (Aslinger 2009). Although the network only produced one season of the documentary-cum-reality television show in 2006, the original ten episodes still air as reruns. Each half-hour episode follows the same basic formula in which we meet a “closeted” queer person, learn a bit about their life, and then watch as they come out on camera to family, friends, or colleagues. In the section that follows, I will closely read one episode of the reality series, but primarily as a way of engaging the vision of the director, producer and network, rather than assuming that they have been at all faithful to the queer subject who is subject to their cinematic gaze.
Titled “Son of the Islands” (Goodman & Simon 2006), the particular episode referenced by Kenya begins with a rapid-fire montage of sound and image that sets the stage for the next half hour. First, the Coming Out Stories opening sequence plays, featuring multicolored silhouettes of people flash across the screen against a white background. Under these images, a disembodied male narrator offers the opening gambit, “Coming out can be terrifying…,” followed by a quick cut to a black man sitting in an office chair who declares, “Being a Jamaican male and being gay is a death sentence.” The next image is of a white woman dancing wildly in a nightclub, under which the narrator cuts right back in with “And it can be liberating!” We return to the same black man, Xavior, who says without even a twang of irony, “this will be my way of gaining my freedom.” Wearing a doorag, thick silver chain, and crisply manicured facial hair, Xavior performs a particular mode of urban black masculinity thrown into relief by the dozens of happy white couples peopling Logo’s network programming. Further, his positioning as in search of his “freedom” signals the extent to which the producers of Coming Out Stories have been hailed by the neoimperial project of “liberating” far away places from their backward mores.
Rather than functioning as a radical critique of either global capital or neoliberal democracy, homonormative gay cultural production and political organizing often serve to bolster and reinforce the preexisting hierarchies of power. As articulated powerfully in recent years, homonormativity often dovetails into homonationalism, a hegemonic patriotism that hinges on the queer liberal subject’s investment in the Western state apparatus (Puar 2005, 2007; Agathangelou, et al. 2008). Hermeneutically, homonationalism is helpful to think through the interrelated processes of nation and norm, race and marginalization. Homonationalism’s “good gay subject” is not only white and bourgeois, but monogamous and partnered, committed to the flag and the nuclear family, whereby
queerness is proffered as a sexually exceptional form of American national sexuality through a rhetoric of sexual modernization that is simultaneously able to castigate the other as homophobic and perverse, and construct the imperialist center as “tolerant” but sexually, racially, and gendered normal.xv
In this context, Jasbir Puar describes the War on Terror and the Islamophobic strains of homonational discourse that legitimate imperial aggression overseas. Utilizing Puar’s frame to examine other regional contexts, we see that this same rhetoric also positions the Caribbean as a homophobic “other,” in need of the modernizing intervention of North American activism.
“Son of the Islands” is a pitch perfect instantiation of homonational register – it takes us on a harrowing, and ultimately cathartic journey of one gay black man through the process of coming out to his father and returning to the Jamaican village where as a small child he watched a man get stoned to death amid cries of “battyman!” While it is tempting to be seduced by Xavior’s “reality” presented by docutelevision, it is essential to remember that because of the scripting and editing processes, reality television is ultimately more reflective of an auteur’s vision than of the material experience of its participants. Focused on Xavior as a legible queer subject, the auteurs submerge the historical, geopolitical, and socioeconomic contexts of Jamaica under a gloss of the island nation as a homogenously homophobic “culture.”
We see this homogenizing move happen in a brief dialogue between Xavior and his young mentee, after his mentee asks why Xavior has not yet come out to his father.
Xavior: I don’t want my father to have to become this man who hates his son.
Mentee: Who says he has to hate his son?
Xavior: An entire island! An entire people!
This flattening of Jamaicans as “an entire people” who require “hatred” over naturalized kinship ties functions as a corollary to other technologies of homonationalism by which the Other and the “good gay subject” are by definition distinct. Because of the fetishized “straightness” of Jamaica, the only “safe” place for Caribbean queers is – surprise – stateside. Xavior’s words echo the perceptions of study participants Iden and Trace when he tells us, “in Jamaica, there is no gay community. There is no gay bar. There is no gay club. There is no gay anything.” Since he left the island at the age of four, Xavior’s conviction that there is “no gay anything” in Jamaica is reflective of circulated, as opposed to lived, versions of Jamaicanness, as well as an equation of gay people with gay nightlife. Indeed, his discursive exorcism of all things queer from the island is belied in the shows next segment, in which he meets with a gay rights activist from the island. In that meeting, the cloaked face of the activist laments, “coming out is not a reality for us yet. Coming out is something we dream about.” His poignant words are overshadowed by Xavior’s cathartic return to the US – he is depicted as living the dream of those still trapped on the island. Further, he is a zealous convert to the civilizing mission: “for me, coming out was just the beginning. After being in Jamaica, it was even more clear how the world needs to change, and how much I wanna be a part of that.” Here, his impulse to “fix” the world from a cozy home in North America is another iteration of heavily circulated liberal human rights discourse.
The North-centric stance of the show is also revealed by its rehashing of the same critiques of dancehall we have heard ad nauseum. Xavior warns the viewer, “if you listen to a lot of reggae, these lyrics are about killing gay people.” Immediately, we hear the chorus of Banton’s “Boom Bye Bye,” with a slightly absurd, bright pink Standard American English “translation” of the lyrics scrolling across, credited to Human Rights Watch (HRW). While substantive critiques of anti-gay lyrics in dancehall have been made from both within the Caribbean region and internationally, overseas mobilization against dancehall artists has also been challenged for decontextualizing the text of lyrics in a paternalistic move to construct the region as in need of “catching up” with North America and Europe.xvi HRW is an example of the latter; while their globally-focused organization addresses issues as broad as unjust incarceration, maternal mortality, pro-democracy mobilizing and inclusion of ethnic minorities, their work in the Caribbean has been hyperfocused on discursive “homophobia” in the form of both song lyrics and disparaging statements from public officials. Over the past decade, 22 of 26 HRW press releases pertinent to Jamaica were related to homophobic violence, with the paltry remaining four dedicated to the militarization of policing and incarceration (HRW 2011).
My goal in discussing this disparity is not to diminish the unique precarity of embodied queer life in Jamaica, and across the region, but to show the ineffectiveness of transnational homonational discourses in understanding violence against queer people as contiguous with, rather than exceptional to, a regional political economy of violence and dispossession. Further, the messaging we find in “Son of the Islands” also contributes to what Deborah Thomas (2009) critiques as naturalized “culture of violence,” discourses, which find its roots in black family (de)formations, and particularly in faulty black masculinity – for instance, Xavior’s barrier to “freedom” was the homophobia of his father and uncle. Rather than attend to the structural production of violence in the West Indies and in the US, or to the violent machinations of state and corporate actors working across nationalist boundaries, “a culturalist analysis of diaspora tends to obscure a focus on how some imperial and nationalist projects have been developed transnationally, producing similar challenging effects for black populations in the diaspora.”xvii For Thomas, “violence generally is not a cultural phenomenon, but an effect of class formation, a process that is immanently racialized and gendered.”xviii Thus, what does “Son of the Islands” teach us with its complete elision of class, and its hyperfocus on Xavior as a gay (rather than a black, West Indian, masculine presenting, and various other dimension of social location, as well as gay) subject?
By engaging queer suffering as exceptional, homonationalist discourse implicitly devalues the lives of putatively non-queer Caribbean people whose lives were also stolen or irrevocably altered by violence. Instead of a sincere call for the protection of all vulnerable life in the region, hegemonic media outlets like Logo frame individual conversion narratives of “good gay subjects” like Xavior who proudly proclaim their identity against the perfunctory backdrop of a homophobic, violent Caribbean past.
Specters of Violence
Violence, both physical and figurative, is foregrounded in diasporic understandings of queer sexualities in the Caribbean region as depicted not only in television media, but also in literature, music and print journalism. As we saw in Coming Out Stories, Jamaica is often depicted as the epicenter of this antihomosexual violence. Like Xavior, most of the Jamaican-descended respondents in the study had only childhood memories of life in the region, and discursively-produced fear of violence was a barrier to homecoming. Iden, who identifies as a studxix, shared her conflict:
My perception of going back to Jamaica is that I will be killed if I don’t stay on a resort. So when my family’s like, “oh, let’s go back” and I’m like – I freeze up. I’m like, what?!? I’m, um, not going… (laughs) I would love to meet my family in Jamaica, however I already have this stigma of Jamaica as being just, not safe for me.
Again, we hear the psychic power of sexualized violence. Even though the childhood memories Iden shared with me were full of beautiful countryside and sweet tamarind balls, those recollections are dwarfed by the fear for her life. Another respondent of Jamaican heritage, Jay, who identifies as genderqueer and prefers male pronouns, spent summers in Jamaica until he was 15 and reflected:
Because I haven’t been there in so long, I kind of feel like I’m – my sustenance is just memories, like I’m living off of memories now. And perhaps some of it is romanticized, but yes, I feel a longing…Like I feel that there’s a void there that can only be filled by going back and by being around Jamaicans and by immersing myself in Jamaican culture again, and Jamaican politics. But I don’t know how I would fit into that in a way that I would feel safe doing so.
Of course, queer folks aren’t the only ones living off of memories – Jay’s longing reverberates across the topography of the New World and its Order, a pull felt by Southern bodies dispersed across northern landscapes. Further, it is crucial to point out the ways in which the primacy of violence is not exclusive to queer bodies, but is also central to the ways that a broader swath of diasporic subjects conceive of home. Indeed, this is typified in the Jamaican diaspora, in which “overseas Jamaicans identified crime as the number one factor inhibiting their own return and their ability to conduct business in Jamaica.”xx
However, even if violence looms large in the consciousness of many Jamaicans, what both Jay and Iden reference are the ways in which they believe their right to return is particularly attenuated by their sexual practices. As residents of the United States, they, too, are the targets of mainstream media campaigns urging us to Stop the Murder Music and be wary of the dangerous tourist destinations in the Caribbean. Without direct experience of being queer in a Caribbean space, or integration into queer regional social networks, Iden, Jay, Rex, Kenya and even Xavior use strategies of consumption to build a sense of themselves as diasporic citizens of the Caribbean.
Sampled Self: Consumption as a (Potential) Path to Belonging
The significance of these strategies is perhaps best exemplified by Kenya, whose memories guided us to Coming Out Stories. While her great-grandparents emigrated from Barbados to New York City, Kenya grew up primarily in the Bronx identifying as Black American. Her engagement with Caribbean culture was facilitated by online social networking; she shared with me the first soca song she heard, Destra Garcia’s 2004 release “Bonnie and Clyde”:
I was on MySpace, and someone had it on their page. And I was like, Oh, this is – what is this? And so I stole it and put it on my page. And then someone was like, oh you like soca? I was like, soca? Let me Google “soca”. You know, I just so didn’t know anything!
Even though she was raised in a city with a very visible West Indian community, her familiarity with Caribbean cultural forms was facilitated not through family or neighborhood connections, but through mass mediated sociality. Her turn to Google as a source for understanding a musical form that is putatively already “hers” (much in the way that hip hop is obvious conceived of as the provenance of Black American youth) is an example of the strategies of consumption that prefigure certain claims to diasporic citizenship.
Indeed, the role that hegemonic flows of global capital played in Kenya’s development of her “West Indianness” is perhaps clearest when she recounts her first time seeing a music video for a soca song.
When I went to the Bahamas was… my first time seeing the [soca] videos, and that was the Alicia Hinds song, Roll it Gal – oh you should have seen me and my American friends… We were just watching the video in awe….And even at that point, I did not know it was soca… And again, we were in an all-inclusive resort, so I didn’t really experience much of the island, so it was only the videos from the cable.
Here, even while in the region, Kenya was ensconced in a sanitized, hermetically-sealed resort environment where her greatest potential for intimate contact with the local was through globally circulated satellite television. The desire to connect with Caribbean culture that she cites as beginning with one MySpace click was likely not the intended outcome of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation – her diasporic drive was produced in excess of his corporate profits.
A few short years after her initial engagement with soca music, I met Kenya ecstatically waving the flag of Barbados high over her head in a river of sweaty brown bodies wining up at an outdoor fete. She recalls the joy of her first Carnival, where she joined the tens of thousands of non-Trinbagonian Caribbean descendents who flood the island every year for the festival:
Just to be in, like, queer events in a queer environment in Trinidad was wonderful, because you know, you got to dance to the music, to the songs that I’ve been hearing on my computer back home, and be in a party environment, and to be able to be, you know, be queer in myself and in Trinidad… It felt like surreal, in a sense. I remember being at a party a few times, like I can’t believe I’m here finally.
Kenya’s rewriting of what had previously been competing discourses of “gay” or “West Indian,” “online” or “real life” into a kaleidoscopically coherent moment of joy signals the centrality of consumption in the development of her diasporic citizenship. Indeed, as Benigno Sanchez-Eppler and Cindy Patton argue in their explication of queer diasporas, “Bodies do not rest stably in a place until a discourse overtakes, agitates, and names their desires. Rather, bodies pack and carry tropes and logics from their homelands; they seek out an “imagined community” of intrinsic queerness, which they read about between the lines of international media and policy.”xxi In Kenya’s case, reading became dancing as her imagined community seemed to appear in the fleshy bodies that surrounded her.
However, Kenya’s cathartic dancehall experience is only one thread in the tapestry – sorrow, disappointment, and alienation are other hues that shade the affective experience of queer diasporic citizenship. As a counterpoint, Iden articulates the intersectional nature of marginalization for queer diasporic bodies.
[My sister] and my dad will look at me and call me a Yank. I’ll go out with them and feel like I just need to be in a corner, just hold myself rocking. I don’t know how to act – I’m not West Indian enough. I’m not black enough. I’m not effeminate enough. I’m not enough of what I should be to… pass. Or feel comfortable in my own skin.
Unlike Kenya, who finds her home in motion, in a surreal sea of dancers, Iden perceives herself across an ocean of belonging – she has crossed the lines around what a girl should look like, what a West Indian person should sound like, what suffices as “enough” to be held by community, to be seen in her own skin. She seems to aspire toward “passing,” but I did not pick the cue during the interview to ask “as what?” Would just one of the triad if West Indianness, blackness and femininity that elude her in the presence of her family suffice for a sense of completeness, or is it the nexus of region, race, and gender that give rise to a whole self? Iden’s discomfort with not being “enough of what [she] should be” brings us to Thomas Glave’s prescient question about gay and lesbian Caribbean nationals: “Whose Caribbean for the living?”xxii Given the stories gathered herein, I am prompted to add “whose Caribbean to return to?” For queer diasporic subjects in search of home, that question is in part answered by the images that flash by on television screens and laptop computers, in the tunes that bump out of passing cars, and in the interpellated, embodied practice of memory.
Still, the question remains open, in part because it is not the prerogative or desire of all Caribbean subjects to return; their subjectivities may not be laced with longing, rooted instead in the localities that house their everyday life. If, as this essay suggests, media consumption is a tool of self-making in diaspora, how do these varied consumption practices land in the queer(ed) body? Given the attention that both Kenya and Iden give to their physical embodiment – dancing at a party, rocking in a corner – a next step in exploring narratives of home for Caribbean subjects living abroad may be to center the body more fully as a locus of inquiry. Indeed, given the constitutive deterritorialization of diasporic subjectivities, perhaps it is in the queer body itself that selves are reterritorialized. Iden’s search for comfort in her own skin is instructive, offering a response, if not an answer, to the questions of belonging and queer diaspora that opened this exploration. For even if notions of a “homophobic” Caribbean are projected outward through media outlets, narratives of queer im/possiblity are ultimately internalized in the diasporic body. As we move towards theorizing queer Caribbean diasporic subjectivities, we must build frameworks broad enough to hold Kenya’s embodied sense of belonging as she wines at a gay fête alongside Iden’s sense of longing for an authentically black West Indian femininity that evades her, perhaps in perpetuity. Rather than adopt a homonormative framework that ranks these recollections of queerness, finding Kenya’s narrative preferable in its congruity with liberal notions of individual self-actualization, perhaps we can more toward a wide-frame lens that has space for an infinite range of embodied senses of Caribbean queer selfhood, each shot through with the heterarchies of history and capital, wrestling discomfort and rapture in these bodies that come to be called home.
i As deployed here and throughout this essay, ‘diaspora’ is conceived of as an ongoing, multidirectional process that needs to be interrogated not only through a historical lens, but through geopolitical and cultural materialities as well. I am following Thomas and Clarke’s (2006) insistence that while race continues to have explanatory power in understanding the practices of globalization, it is also imperative to attend to difference within the black world, whereby
Belonging is being recognized as contingent and incomplete, and commonalities are being rethought not only in relation to historical specificities that position black people who are differently national, classed, and sexualized in complex relationships to each other, but also to contemporary processes that seem to solidify particular kinds of hierarchy within diaspora. (2006:32)
By drawing attention to asymmetrical identity formations within a second-order Caribbean diaspora in the US, I hope to contribute to a more concrete portrait of both the contingencies and commonalities of blackness, and the utility of both for a liberatory politic.
ii While the Caribbean is the home of multiple historic and contemporary diasporas, particularly Desi and Chinese communities, this essay focuses on the experiences and discursive appearances of Afro-Caribbean subjects.
iii “Reggae Compassionate Act.” Soul Rebels. 2007. http://www.soulrebels.org/dancehall/w_compassionate_013.htm.
iv Deborah A. Thomas, Modern Blackness: Nationalism, Globalization, and the Politics of Culture in Jamaica (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 259.
v Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return (Toronto: Vintage, 2001), 9.
vi M. Jacqui Alexander, “Remembering This Bridge, Remembering Ourselves: Yearning, Memory Desire,” in This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation, ed. Gloria Anzaldúa and Analouise Keating (New York: Routledge, 2002), 91.
vii Ritty Lukose, Liberalization’s Children: Gender, Youth, and Consumer Citizenship in Globalizing India (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009), 9.
viii Thomas 2004, 269.
ix Thomas 2004, 242.
x Michelle Stephens, “What is this Black in the Black Diaspora?,” Small Axe 29 (2009): 33.
xi Kamala Kempadoo, “Caribbean Sexuality: Mapping the Field,” Caribbean Review of Gender Studies 3 (2009), 5.
xii Pseudonyms are used throughout the text to protect the confidentiality of participants.
xiii These interviews were conducted before the repeal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell legislation prohibiting gay, lesbian, or bisexual US service members from revealing their sexual orientation. Thus, Iden was closeted at work, and largely in her social life. To protect her from harassment, she asked that I not identify her rank or the branch of the military in which she serves.
xiv Makeda Silvera, “Man Royals and Sodomites: Some Thoughts on the Invisibility of Afro-Caribbean Lesbians,” Feminist Studies 18 no. 3 (1992), 524.
xv Jasbir Puar, “Queer Times, Queer Assemblages,” Social Text 84-85, vol. 23-24 no. 5 (2005), 122.
xvi There are a number of complexifying factors even in the case of Banton. Whether or not you concur with Carolyn Cooper’s (1993) assessment that anti-gay lyrics are not meant to be literally violent, but rather a demonstration of lyrical prowess, it is necessary to view “Boom Bye Bye” in the context of Banton’s twenty year oeuvre of music, much of which is dedicated to a positive, socialist-nationalist ethos of black community uplift. Further, many would texture Xavior’s claim that ‘reggae’ is about killing gays with a more nuanced understanding of the musicological and generational differences between reggae and dancehall, and the role of violence in Jamaican cultural, political, and quotidian life more generally.
xvii Deborah A. Thomas, “The Violence of Diaspora: Governmentality, Class Cultures, and Circulations,” Radical History Review 103 (2009), 93.
xviii Deborah A. Thomas, Exceptional Violence: Embodied Citizenship in Transnational Jamaica (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 4.
xix “Stud” is a racialized, regional North American colloquialism that refers to a person assigned female at birth whose presentation of self in everyday life is masculine of center.
xx Thomas 2009, 89.
xxi Benigno Sanchez-Eppler and Cindy Patton 2000, 10.
xxii Thomas Glave, “Whose Caribbean? An Allegory (In Part),” in Our Caribbean: An Anthology of Gay and Lesbian Writing from the Antilles, ed. Thomas Glave. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 186.
Agathangelou, Anna.M., Daniel M. Bassichis, and Tamara L. Spira. “Intimate Investments: Homonormativity, Global Lockdown, and the Seductions of Empire,” Radical History Review 100 (2008): 120-144.
Alexander, M. Jacqui. “Remembering This Bridge, Remembering Ourselves: Yearning, Memory Desire.” In This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation. Edited by Gloria Anzaldúa and Analouise Keating, 81-103. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Aslinger, Ben. “Creating a Network for Queer Audiences at Logo TV,” Popular Communication 7 no. 2 (2009):107-121.
Best, Curwen. “Caribbean Music and Discourses of AIDS,” Caribbean Quarterly 45 no. 4 (1999):70-79.
Brand, Dionne. A Map to the Door of No Return. Toronto: Vintage, 2001.
Cooper, Carolyn, Noises in the Blood: Orality, Gender, and the Vulgar Body in Jamaican Popular Culture. New York: MacMillan, 1993.
GLAAD. “Act Now: Protest Buju Banton’s Grammy Nomination,” 2009. http://www.glaad.org/2009/12/09/act-now-protest-buju-bantons-grammy-nomi….
—. “Recording Academy Awards Grammy to Anti-Gay Singer Buju Banton,” 2011. http://www.glaad.org/2011/02/13/recording-academy-awards-grammy-to-anti-…. Accessed October 15th, 2011.
Glave, Thomas. “Whose Caribbean? An Allegory (In Part),” in Our Caribbean: An Anthology of Gay and Lesbian Writing from the Antilles. Edited by Thomas Glave. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008.
“Son of the Islands,” Coming Out Stories. Directed by Goodman, Karen and Kirk Simon. 2006. Logo TV: Viacom.
Human Rights Watch. “News Releases,” 2011. http://www.hrw.org/news/list/40. Accessed October 15, 2011.
Kempadoo, Kamala. Sexing the Caribbean: Gender, Race and Sexual Labor. New York: Routledge, 2004.
—. “Caribbean Sexuality: Mapping the Field.” Caribbean Review of Gender Studies 3 (2009): 1-24.
Lukose, Ritty. Liberalization’s Children: Gender, Youth, and Consumer Citizenship in Globalizing India. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009.
Trinidad and Tobago Ministry of Legal Affairs. Sexual Offences Act, Chapter 11:28. Port of Spain, 2006, Updated December 31st 2009. Accessed at www.legalaffairs.gov.tt.
Morgensen, Scott Lauria. “Settler Homonationalism: Theorizing Settler Colonialism within Queer Modernities.” GLQ 16 no. 102 (2010):105-131.
Palmer, Adidja A. “Romping Shop.” Performed by Vybz Kartel. Miami, FL: Tads Records, 2009, compact disc.
Puar, Jasbir K. “Queer Times, Queer Assemblages.” Social Text 84-85, vol. 23-24 no. 5 (2005):121-141.
—. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007.
Rau, Krishna. “More Dancehall Acts Cancelled Over Homophobic Lyrics.” Xtra! Canada’s Gay and Lesbian News. November 22, 2007. http://www.xtra.ca/public/National/More_dancehall_acts_cancelled_over_ho…
“Reggae Compassionate Act.” Soul Rebels. 2007. http://www.soulrebels.org/dancehall/w_compassionate_013.htm.
Sánchez-Eppler, Benigno and Cindy Patton. “Introduction: With A Passport Out of Eden.” In Queer Diasporas, edited by Cindy Patton and Benigno Sánchez-Eppler. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.
Silvera, Makeda. “Man Royals and Sodomites: Some Thoughts on the Invisibility of Afro-Caribbean Lesbians.” Feminist Studies 18 no. 3 (1992):521-534.
Stephens, Michelle. “What is this Black in the Black Diaspora?” Small Axe 29 (2009)26-38.
Thomas, Deborah A. Modern Blackness: Nationalism, Globalization, and the Politics of Culture in Jamaica. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004.
—. “The Violence of Diaspora: Governmentality, Class Cultures, and Circulations.” Radical History Review 103 (2009):83-105.
—. Exceptional Violence: Embodied Citizenship in Transnational Jamaica. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011.
Thomas, Deborah A. and Kamari M. Clarke. “Introduction.” In Globalization and Race. Edited by Kamari M. Clarke, and Deborah A. Thomas. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006.
Williams, Lawson. “Homophobia and Gay Rights Activism in Jamaica.” Small Axe 4 no. 7 (2000): 106-111.
Savannah Shange is a Fontaine Fellow pursuing a joint doctoral degree in Africana Studies and Education at the University of Pennsylvania. Her primary research interests are difference, social movements, and queer possibility, and her dissertation focuses on the impact of gentrification and neoliberal dispossession on working-class communities of color in San Francisco.
“LGBT Activism in Haiti through SEROvie”
Steve Laguerre – Interview with with Angelique V. Nixon
Port Au Prince, Haiti – July 2011
I had the great opportunity to speak with Haitian activist Steve Laguerre about his work with the first community-based organization in Haiti – SEROvie – working with sexual minorities since 1999. We met up in Port-Au-Prince while I was there doing grassroots work for another project (Ayiti Resurrect). Steve made time to meet with me (amidst his very busy schedule) to talk about SEROvie and his perspectives on LGBT activism in Haiti before and after the earthquake. Our conversation was robust and lasted for well over the hour we had scheduled. We sat outside in a friend’s yard, and I recorded the interview. Sadly, the audio recording was not a great quality and there was way too much background noise, which has prevented us from publishing the audio.
I begin with a description of SEROvie from their facebook group page to offer an overview of SEROvie and their services in both English and French. The interview began with Steve sharing a shorter description, but for a more complete description I quote directly here:
What is SEROvie and what services does the organization provide?
Health and well-being / Santé et bien-être. SEROvie is the only community-based, locally grounded organization in Haiti working with sexual minorities. SEROvie est l’unique organisation en Haïti travaillant avec les minorités sexuelles.
Mission: Provide prevention and support services for sexual minorities (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people and sex workers in the face of the HIV and AIDS epidemic. / Mettre sur pied un programme de prévention et d’encadrement pour les minorités sexuelles (personnes lesbiennes, gays, bisexuelles et transgenres (LGBT) et travailleurs(ses) du sexe) face à l’épidémie VIH/SIDA.
Description: The Foundation SEROvie is a Haitian community based organization working in the field of psychosocial support for MSM who infected and affected by HIV/AIDS. SEROvie provides HIV/AIDS prevention through peer educators and behavior change trainings; as well as vocational trainings for young Haitian sexual minorities. SEROvie is member of the network: The Haitian platform of the associations of people living with HIV (PLWH); which collaborates with several other similar structures in the Caribbean such as the Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition (CVC).
La fondation SEROvie est un organisme communautaire haitien ouvrant dans l’encadrement psychosocial des HARSAHs infectes et affectes par le VIH et le SIDA, la formation pour le changement de comportement, la formation professionnelle des plus jeunes issus des minorites sexuelles haitienne. La fondation SEROvie est membre d’un reseau : la plate-forme Haitienne des associtions de PVVIH et de plusieurs autres structures de ce genre au niveau de la caraibe tel que CVC.
At present, SEROvie works in five (5) geographical regions in Haiti and reaches more 3500 beneficiaries. The services offered consist of:
1- Focus groups discussing the needs of beneficiaries.
2-Vocational trainings in cooking and pastry making, plumbing, small business sector (crafts), dance, office administration, computer graphics and driving.
3-Distribution of daily food rations among more than 150 MSM
4-Distribution of hygiene kits to more than 3000 MSM
5-Training in pre and post test counseling for HIV/AIDS
6-Distribution of condoms and lubricant in the MSM
7-Trainings for opinion leaders on the situation of the MSM
8- Radio show emissions on the situation of sexual minorities (LGBT) in Haiti.
9-Studies on sexual behavior of MSM
La fondation SEROvie intervient pour le present moment, dans cinq (5) depatements geographiques du pays et touche plus de trois mille cinq cents (3500) de beneficiares. Les Services offerts sont generalement:
1- la realisation de focus group sur les besoins des beneficiares.
2- La formation en cuisine patisserie, plomberie, artisanat, danse, Informatique bureautique, Infographie, conduite d’automobile.
3- Distribution de ration alimentaire seche a plus de 150 HARSAHs
4- Distribution de kits d’hygiene a plus de 3000 HARSAHs
5- Formation en counseiling lie au VIH/SIDA
6- Distribution de condom et de lubrifiant aux HARSAHs
7- Formation des leaders d’opinions sur la situation des HARSAHs.
8- Realisation d’emissions radiophoniques sur la situtaion des minorites sexuelles haitiennes.
9- Realisation d’etudes sur les comportements sexuels des HARSAHs.
After discussing the services that SEROvie provides for what Steve calls the beneficiaries, the “members” and “non-members”, of SEROvie (meaning anyone who participates in the programming and/or seeks out the services of SEROvie), we discussed their partners and working with government:
“We have lots of partners locally and internationally. We are supported by the Ministry of Health, by the Bureau of the First Lady. Politically, we are well situated let’s say, regarding legislation. While there is this silence about homosexuality in Haiti, there’s nothing that mentions it’s illegal. But there is a total lack of information about sexual rights in our laws. That’s why it’s been easy for us to intervene and do work in Haiti.”
Tell us a bit more about the history of this work.
“The first organization started in 1995, but it was focused on research and we changed the name to reflect what the community wanted – and this became SEROvie. It became a foundation way later for legal purposes. And we focused on providing services for the community around HIV/AIDS.”
Are there any services targeted for Lesbian, Bisexual and/or Transgender people, or do you mostly focus on HIV/AIDS?
“Our services are primary interventions for men who have sex with men. We have nine networks across Haiti. But last year, we started a new initiative to directly involve women. And about 17 women here in Port-Au-Prince came to us and wanted our support to create their own organization. We can now call ourselves a real LGBT organization. We also serve the trans community. There are not a lot, about four now who use our services. We do provide services with health and networks in the Dominican Republic for trans people. With the women’s organization, it’s very new and so I don’t have a lot of information, but we are working with them for development. And they are learning from us.”
“I’ve been on the ground since 1995 and we’ve made lots of mistakes so we are trying to provide these women with information on how to avoid situations that we had. Even though when we started we had a lot of support and were welcomed by the national structures and even covered by the national press, on the radio for a week. The animosity was not there, but the community was curious about our organization and wanted to know exactly what it was. But some thought we created this institution to convert young men, like it was a disease. But then after a while, people saw that it was not that but a learning institution, created to take care of gay men who were HIV positive. Now of course now we are doing much more — we have a house, a transit house with a cyber café, bedrooms, offices, library, conference room. And we are even hosting meetings with the Ministry of Health. And they are calling on us for every aspect of LGBT – discussions and trainings. We are contacted all the time to run trainings and meetings overseas with government officials for knowledge about LGBT community. We have worked hard to gain that position in the country. And we keep on keeping. It’s difficult with the economic situation in Haiti, which does not allow the government or our beneficiaries to support us. So we are looking outside for help from America, Canada, Europe, France particularly, to see how we can survive. And hope one day we find more ways to sustain our institution. Basically now it’s funding from overseas that keeps us going.”
Tell us more about the challenges and also successes you have experienced as an organization.
“Our main challenge is the sustainability of our interventions. We created this big network and demand for our services within the country. We have these nine networks through organizations across the country, all connected through SEROvie. One of my worries is that one day one of our donors will not be able to continue to support us and this will affect our ability to continue the services across our networks. We are going through this now with one of our biggest donors – Global Fund. We are not sure if they will be able to fund us again this year. And this will definitely affect our ability to provide services. We are seriously looking for funds and hoping that the situation with Global Fund will resolve itself.”
What about some of the successes, things you‘ve been able to do for the community over the past 10 to 15 years?
“Yes 15 years now! I don’t have the numbers in my head. But we’ve sent more than 100 boys back to school taking care of their school fees with grants. We’ve sensitized over 20,000 persons (concerning LGBT issues). Like I said earlier, we are called by the Ministry of Health to provide technical assistance at the local level in different departments. With institutions coming to Haiti who are doing some work on LGBT issues, they contact SEROvie. The papers now are providing more information about LGBT issues and health for the LGBT community. We are also supporting the arts. Some of our beneficiaries are artists and we support them a lot by providing some grants. These are successes for us.”
“One thing we don’t do, something that’s a challenge, and maybe you have a suggestion – we don’t have any documentation of all this. We report all these things to our donors, but we don’t have a library of all of our successes. Some of our beneficiaries who are artists give us beautiful paintings, artwork and books, and its there as part of our institution. But we need some kind of way to build the memory of the institution. You know if I am gone tomorrow, so much of the knowledge would be gone.”
Actually the Caribbean IRN can help you with that! We are building a Digital Archive through Digital Library of the Caribbean. And we are working with other organizations across the Caribbean who do work on sexual minorities to digitize their materials. (We discussed more in detail about possibilities for the archive and how it would be good to preserve their materials. We are still in the progress of working this out, and we hope to present their collection soon.)
“And so for our successes, we have done well with addressing the needs of the community – working hard to provide services. It’s a fight but we are in it.”
Thank you for sharing this with us. As you know and we discussed over email, this interview will be included in our collection on Theorizing Homophobia(s) in the Caribbean. One of our goals is to represent the spectrum and diversity of the Caribbean and how homophobia works in different parts of the region. Can you tell us about homophobia in Haiti and how it works here? How are you able to talk about it and educate or sensitize the public?
“When I’m outside of Haiti, I see that Haiti is not really a homophobic country. There are some situations with bullying… But when you go deep down and look at the roots that caused a situation, there is always something personal story behind it, and nothing linked with the sexuality of the person. And you know there is religion, and it’s really the Catholic and the Protestant churches are the ones creating homophobic situations, compared to the Vodou religion where sexuality is completely different and understood as more fluid. You won’t find the stigma, this homophobic situation, in the Vodou religion. It’s in the Christian churches you see the description in the Bible being promoted as relationships must be between a man and a woman. It’s creating this entire chaotic situation we are in now.”
“Right after the earthquake, one of their comments (from the Christian churches) was that this happened to us because of the gay and lesbians in Haiti and that we weren’t praying enough and because of their sins. And the Vodou religion also shared blame for the earthquake. And part of our intervention also in the networks I mentioned is to also sensitize these religious leaders about LGBT issues. But we cannot arrive and start talking about LGBT issues before we start talking about HIV/AIDS issues, and then we switch to human rights issues before we arrive at LGBT issues. They are willing to listen, but they are not so willing to change their position because it’s written in the Bible. But our job is to keep on talking to them and informing them and inviting them to meetings, trainings, and gatherings so they know about our work on the island.”
There is similar work going on across the region. For example, CAISO in Trinidad is doing some really good work around promoting acceptance in public discourse and also in laws.
“And you know we’ve been focused on public health. It’s in two publics we are working with for the past six years – the religious sector and the public health sector. We provide stigma and discrimination trainings for health care workers. And within that training we have a module on sexualities and diversity. If I arrived and said we were having a LGBT session or information no one would come. So we have to have a bigger theme for us to be able to talk about these issues. We were also dealing with stigma against HIV/AIDS. This is how it was at first when we started the work, but now we have grown and can begin with talking about LGBT issues and concerns. We started with providing services to HIV-positive men, but only 20% of our beneficiaries are positive. And we grew to include more members of the community.”
And how do people identify?
“We have people who identify in all kinds of ways – men who have sex with men, transsexual, bisexual, gay men, lesbian, trans, questioning. But the majority of our beneficiaries are men, and now we do have the small group of women too.”
It’s good to know that the women are now organizing.
“Yes, people have asked me a lot where are the women! And some of the women will identify as feminists, lots are involved in the feminist movements and organizations, but don’t want to come out as lesbian. But we know they are lesbian.”
Do you think this is changing now with the new women’s organization?
“I don’t know. Lesbianism in Haiti is perceived differently. I’m not saying it’s well perceived… Keep in mind we are in this situation where men have the power. For many, they don’t understand why men would sex with each other or have a relationship. But with women who are with women, it’s okay, they are just playing. It seems like a pleasure for men to look at. And so they can stay more hidden than gay men.”
This is similar to other places where lesbians are not seen as a threat to masculinity unless some one is butch or gender non-conforming, then she may be a threat. We were just in Curacao and talked to Dudley at the Pink House and he said something similar about lesbians there. He said that they have an “easier time” than gay men because they are less visible. And two women can live together in ways that two men can’t.
“Yes it’s similar here with some men living together having to say they are cousins or some relation so no one wonders why they are living together. These boys are creating an environment that the community would like to see in order to stay in their neighborhood. At the end, people will know. But it’s just that no one talks about it.”
In the Bahamas, it’s similar too where there is a lot of silence and it’s a more of a problem if you are public or open about your sexuality.
“Yes, there are so many similarities across the Caribbean. And then in the British Caribbean there are the buggery laws – Jamaica, Barbados, St. Lucia, Bahamas…”
Yes, although in the Bahamas we have essentially decriminalized homosexuality, but there is still social stigma. And so in Haiti, there are no laws against homosexuality right?
“That’s right. There is no law that mentions anything about sexuality. In our constitution, technically it says that everyone is created equal and that the state should provide services to make sure that all people are treated equally. And so we use that as part of our call to the state to provide more services for everyone.”
Do you find that in terms of class there are differences in how people deal with sexuality? Thinking about how people of different classes deal with homophobia especially?
“Oh yes, for each class, they have their own ways of dealing with being gay or lesbian or dealing with sexuality. Between the classes, there are differences in how people have relationships and how people treat each other. This of course comes from our history. But you know it’s really the rising middle class where there are more problems and stigma created around sexuality. The middle class who have joined the Christian churches and are concerned about their status and follow their religion very strongly. There is a lot of family pressure. This is where you see more problems. It’s not the poor and working class people who are overly concerned with sexuality. They are more concerned with figuring out how to live and eat everyday. The class dynamics are complex here in Haiti.”
Yes, they are particularly complex here – and certainly across the region too. But even more so here… Let’s go back to after the earthquake. I know that your organization lost a number of members. And that your community center was damaged as well. Please talk about this and how you all are.
“We lost 14 members. We lost the center. And we have to start all over. And one thing that has helped us is that our services were disbursed through our nine networks and our ways of intervening was not impacted that much. Yes our building and materials. It took us about a week and half to continue our services to our communities just a week after the earthquake. You know it was just the western part of the country affected by the earthquake, and so our networks across the country kept going. In each region, we have a zone manager and peer educators. And they were able to check in with our beneficiaries to see what they needed. We had the support of two organizations that responded quickly to our demands, and we focused on basic needs – food, water, toothbrushes, hygiene kits and so on. We heard from different organizations who wanted to help us and some didn’t come through, but some did. This was disappointing and some organizations and funders wouldn’t even talk to us. I wish they would have just called and said something.”
But you were able to find a new building for the community center?
“Yes four months later we found another building – not as big as the one we had before, but big enough to offer all of our services.”
A year and a half later, besides from looking for funding, what are some of other needs you have as an organization for the LGBT community?
“The way we responded through our networks was really quick. And we need to really continue this work and make sure we can train and prepare for emergencies. And some members of our community still need shelter, work, and food.”
Did you see that article by the United Nations Human Rights Commission that raised the concern about LGBT Haitians suffering more, not receiving relief aid or assistance?
“Yes this is true. Some of our beneficiaries talked about this – that you had to be a woman to get access to the food. So for gay men they didn’t get access to the food because they were men without women. And some of the men who went on the food lines, especially the ones who were more effeminate, were being bullied and ask to leave the line by other men who were standing and waiting for the women to get the food.”
That was such a messed up system – the assumptions being that every woman has a man and she is going to feed the man, that there aren’t single men, and that everyone is straight. The food aid distribution was another disaster.
“The food aid distribution was not done properly at all. And the fact that they didn’t take into consideration the local institutions that have been here forever. They didn’t contact the local institutions. And you have all these different people from all over the world trying to help and have their moment, but they have no local contacts or help, who could have managed it way better and made sure they everyone got food. They had these bizarre procedures by giving the food aid only to women was one of the difficult issues we dealt with. And so we started doing our own distribution to our beneficiaries and members of our community, but not only LGBT members but everyone! This was the most frustrating that they didn’t take into consideration at all the locals and local organization. We were just put aside. And now eight months later, these organizations are coming to us, the local organizations, for help.”
Exactly, now they have to come to you! Well Steve! It’s been a pleasure and an honor to meet with you and talk with you. Thank you so much for taking this time to talk to me and share so much with me. Mesi Anpil!
Steeve Laguerre is the Executive Director of SEROvie, the leading Haitian organization advocating for human rights and improved social and economic conditions for sexually diverse communities in Haiti. Since 1998, Mr. Laguerre has led SEROvie in developing and coordinating programs to empower the most-at-risk populations in Haiti with vital information and comprehensive medical and psychosocial support services. SEROvie remains the only community-based organization working directly with sexual minorities in Haiti, and has created a unique safe haven for LGBT people and MSM. These services have reduced the spread of HIV, AIDS and other STIs in Haiti, and could eventually be integrated into Haiti’s National HIV and AIDS prevention program as a best practice. SEROvie is a strong voice for the human rights of sexual minorities in Haiti. While its peer educators, counselors and staff work together to provide holistic support to victims of physical and psychological violence, they are actively documenting these cases, testifying at national meetings and producing radio broadcasts.
Mr. Laguerre holds a Master’s Degree in Communication and Development and a Bachelor’s Degree in Public Relations and Human Resources Management from the University of Montreal. He is fluent in French, English and Haitian Creole.
Monty was born in a large old colonial house in the town of Villahermosa near Merida, through which the Magdalena seeped, muddy and clogged with waterlilies. It was a town inhabited by tall men, renowned for its generals and young men who were trained to be generals because their fathers wanted it to be so. Monty’s father had wanted to be a general. He admired Sir Winston Churchill in England and he had wanted Monty to be a general one day too.
But he himself never became a general, but continued all his life to dream of becoming one. When Monty was born, at his baptism he was named after General Montgomery – Monty, the desert rat – for which a special dispensation had to be granted by the Pope in Rome through the Apostolic Nuncio in Caracas. His mother would have liked to have christened him Jesus.
The little boy grew, but he was pale. His legs were thin and cold like a lizard’s which made him seek the naked stones in the sun to warm his cold reptilian skin. ‘Come, Monty, sit in the sun, his mother Emelda called. Sit by the geraniums.’ The boy turned and smiled at his mother as he sat next to the pot of red geraniums.
But when his lather saw him he said, `Straighten your back.’ This was something that his father would often say. Monty got up and stood like a little Napoleon with his hands behind his back and looked out over the plain below the walled town of Villahermosa towards the Magdalena whose source was in the Andean foothills. ‘Now walk like a man,’ his father said. In the end his father relented.
The thin-legged lizard showed no signs of becoming the kind of boy who would one day be the kind of man who would become a general, though each day his father told him to straighten his back and to walk like a man.
Monty learnt to play the harp at Senor Figuera’s, an old man who at the time of the civil war had not wanted to be a soldier or become a general, but preferred to sew and to be a tailor. Playing the harp had been passed down in Senor Figuera’s family and he decided to pass it on to Monty because he had never married and had no sons. ‘Send him after school,’ he told Emelda. ‘I will teach him to pluck the harp.’ Monty learnt to play the harp well because it was a serious business for Senor Figuera. He also learnt to play the cuatro and could play a joropo and an aguanaldo and he even learnt to play the rumba and samba which came up the rivers on the barges with the travelling black musicians and circus people from Brazil and Colombia.
Monty, with his long lingers for plucking the harp, grew to have long legs; thin long legs which he still used to lay out in the sun on the naked stones near the pots of red geraniums even though he was now sixteen and his father’s impatience with his undeveloping physique was now irreversible. Instead, he was turning his attention to his young nephew to see if he would fulfil his dream of becoming a general.
However, it had been some years before this final turning away that there was an occasion of much greater disappointment for Monty’s father.
At one end of the patio of the large old colonial house there was a trellis of white lattice-work through whose filigree lacy shadows played on the stone floor. This was particularly true at siesta-time when the house was completely silent and the heat sizzled outside and there was a scherzo of lizards among the dry almond leaves. If you were standing on the verandah, looking out over the plain of Villahermosa, you would not have been able to see the Magdalena because of the blinding glare. The only sound was the cry of the cigale calling for rain, and the lizards, ‘In this vale of tears, this lacrimarum valle,’ as Emelda was accustomed to repeat.
Monty had kept the secret before his First Communion which took place when he was seven years old and the parish priest Father Rosario thought that he had truly arrived at the age of reason and could distinguish between good and evil.
When he was six Emelda allowed him to take his siesta on the patio in the hammock which hung between two banyan trees. He had been afraid of the dark in the shuttered room, and of the web of the mosquito-net. Monty never muttered a word, not even to his nurse Ernestina who together with Emelda looked after the boy and would leave him alone to sleep when she had seen him dozing safely in the hammock. ‘Now sleep my Montyquito,’ she whispered as she tiptoed into the house.
When it first happened it seemed like a dream, partly caused by the strange unreality created by the peculiar silence of the siesta- time, the heat which turned the head and the glare which mesmerised the eyes. The day Monty first told me his tale he said that it had been the sound of splashing water which had first alerted him; splashing as it were into the basin of a fountain over and over again with the same force and regularity (like the fountain in the middle of the square at the centre of Villahermosa), but he admitted that these associations must have most certainly been created by the madness of the siesta. I remember now that when he first told me the tale we had been sitting in the botanical gardens and there had indeed been a fountain playing in the dip near the bougainvillaea arbour, and at the time he had pointed to it in recognition. Also, it had been siesta time, but we were not asleep because it was now a different culture in a different place. This was the island of La Trinidad off the mainland, where the British had ruled for so long bringing their cold habits.
While I wonder about these things now, I didn’t at the time.
He was awakened from his six-year-old slumber by the sound of water splashing over and over again, so that hardly had it awakened him, than it seemed to he hushing him back to sleep again. This was how he had begun his story. What seemed to be a kind of regularity stopped and it was this sudden change which eventually startled him and made him sit up in the hammock more alert than usual. He then slipped out of the hammock and stumbled in his cotton chemise towards the sound of splashing water which seemed to be coming from behind the trellis of white lattice-work. He walked over the lacy shadows which fell from the filigree on to the stone floor.
This trellis of white lattice-work was an unusual feature of the old colonial house which had been in the Monagas family since fifty years before Emancipation. It was unusual because it was a break in the quadrangle of the patio and was in effect a window into the patio of the neighbouring old family house.
Monty pulled himself up on to the edge of the geranium pots and tried to peep through the diamond~shaped lattice. His small fingers gripped where the old paint crumbled. Monty held fast and stared at the little girl Bernadetta who was sitting in a metal bathtub and pouring water over her head and over her naked body with a calabash. Then he became embarrassed and got down off his perch and went back to the hammock and tried to keep his eyes shut.
He said that it happened like this for years. It happened every day for six years and then it stopped abruptly on Bernadetta’s twelfth birthday. Every day for six years he would pretend to sleep at siesta-time, when Ernestina thought that he was dozing safely in the hammock, but instead he would climb up on to the geranium pots and peep through the latticework at Bernadetta.
Bernadetta was no stranger to Monty. Indeed, they had grown up together and had been taken for walks along the walls of the town by their nurses after siesta-time when the sun had gone down. They had played as small children do, innocently. But, now, some new sensation (he called it that when he first told me the story), some new feeling stirred in him because of the clandestine nature of the experience, peeping through the lattice-work, standing on the edge of the geranium pot. Yet, on the other hand, his peeping had been an act of innocence, He felt it to be so at the time and still did now many years later, though he could see the possibility of an alternative interpretation. He was then only six years old, and when it stopped, twelve or fourteen. He could never quite remember how much older he was than Bernadetta. He could have called to her, but he did not and he never told her and kept it a secret always.
At the end of our first meeting Monty insinuated that the naked Bernadetta was only part of the secret and that if he felt eventually he could trust me, he would tell me the rest of the tale. Clearly, there had been the initial curiosity of the small boy in the naked body of the little girl, but in the end it was not the young girl’s nakedness which continued to fascinate the young Monty.
As she grew older, Bernadetta, thinking that she was entirely on her own, would spend time dressing slowly after bathing: towelling, powdering and massaging her body with eucalyptus oil. She used to hang her petticoat and dress over a small bush which was in the sun. Monty would lie in the hammock until he heard the splashing of the water stop and then he knew that she would soon begin dressing. He stared in wonder as she slipped on her silk petticoat and pulled on her crinoline which had been lying on the grass ruffled like the petals of a wild white hibiscus, Then she would pull her dress over her head, put her arms into the sleeves and then fluff the skirt out making it stick out like a star. He loved it when she then twirled around and laughed to herself, throwing back her head and looking up into the frangipani tree blossoming over her, golden and white. Monty ducked at this moment, in case, looking up, her eyes might fall on him peeping through the lattice.
This was all there was to it, he insisted. I did not press him any further, but I did not at the time believe him and felt that there was some other dénouement to the tale of the little boy whom they called Lizard and whose lather had wanted him to be a general. I believed that with time and trust he would tell me the rest of the story.
This was all there was to it: the meditational trance each siesta as he viewed Bernadetta Montero dress herself after bathing in the silence of the siesta.
We had taken to strolling opposite ‘Mille Fleurs’, the house of a thousand flowers, where there was an avenue of yellow poui and where the coconut~sellers and oyster-vendors set up their stalls at night under the flickering flambeaux.
It was the day of Bernadetta’s twelfth birthday and it was an unusually hot day for Villahermosa, and instead of the bedroom shutters being closed, they had been thrown open in frustration by the would-be sleepers who could not rest because of the interminable heat. Monty could have stayed in his room that day, because originally it had been the closed shutters in the daytime which had made him go on to the patio for the siesta because he was frightened. But the habit was now so well-established that no one thought he should change after all these years because of the heatwave.
So as usual Monty lay in his hammock trying to read Cervantes which his mother thought would be good for him. He lay as usual until he heard the splashing of Bernadetta’s bath cease and then he crept as usual to the pot of red geraniums, and because now he was quite tall he didn’t have to stand on the edge of the pots, but could look over the trellis quite easily. And today he noticed particularly the shadow of the filigree which played with his own shadow on the terrazzo floor of the patio.
Because it was her birthday, Bernadetta had a new dress, a birthday dress spread out over the hibiscus hedge. It was white broderie anglaise and the hem and edges of the puffed sleeves were trimmed with red ribbon. He longed to reach out and touch it and pass the satin ribbon through his fingers. He remained silent – as silent as at the moment of Consecration during mass – during the towelling and powdering of Bernadetta’s body: bit his lip in concentration as she played with the dress pressed against her naked body and twirled, pretending to dance and Monty ducked as she threw her eyes up to the canopy of frangipani as she had done every day since she was a little girl and he had first seen her at that very first siesta when she was six or five, when he was frightened and could not sleep behind the closed shutters in the dark and Ernestina had brought him to the hammock and told him to sleep and he had been awakened by the splashing of water as if it were from a fountain. He turned at the sudden crack behind him which he thought was a locust falling from the roof. At that moment, he told me, he remembered that he could hear the distant cry of the cigale, and he thought how good it was that the rain was coming. His father was standing directly behind him. In his concentration he had not felt the older man’s presence. In his meditational trance he had not heard him. The crack was not the crack of a locust falling from the roof, but the crack of his father’ s boot stepping on to a black beetle and breaking its back.
The man who would himself have liked to have been a general and who had long given up hope that this lizard of a son would ever be a general and had pinned his hopes on his younger nephew because he had no other sons, looked past Monty and stared at Bernadetta dancing under the frangipani bush with her white birthday dress pressed against her naked body. He turned away and went to the edge of the patio and looked out over the plain of Villahermosa and strained his eyes to see the Magdalena, but instead had to shade his eyes from the glare.
That evening, as we came to this point in the story, Monty broke off abruptly and said that he would have to go as he had an urgent appointment with a student to whom he was teaching English and that they were reading The History of the English Speaking Peoples, Volume 2 : The New World by Sir Winston Churchill.
Later, as I watched him disappear round the corner of Cipriani Boulevard, I smiled as I mused on his reading and felt the oyster from the oyster cocktail slip down my throat.
It was with a certain urgency that I met Monty the following week having had the chance to speculate on where his story might lead. I tried to push Freud to the back of my mind, indeed, to banish him altogether. I did not feel that the doctor of Vienna had a place in the New World and could explain the psychic mythology of a young boy whose dreams were the screams of conquistadorial genocide and whose demons were the lizards of the Galapagos: whose fantasies were in the romantic adornment of a young girl.
Quite unexpectedly Monty invited me back to his small apartment in the old town behind the walls of Lapeyrouse Cemetery. On the way there we talked about the changing town and how some of the balconies still existed at the front of the old town houses which reminded him of Villahermosa and Cartagena where he had been taken every year by his parents for a holiday.
We sat in a small room of the small verandah which was at the top of the low steps just off the pavement and the green moss-furred drain. The old woman from whom he rented the room kept plants and they grew in cut-down kerosene tins painted red and green and stood on the ledge of the wooden verandah. The plants were mostly anthuriums, seed ferns and asparagus fern which climbed the lattice and fell over the front, tangled where it could get a hold.
The room was bare. In one corner was a harp with a stool next to it and on one wall a fairly large family portrait in sepia of a man and a woman sitting on the low wall of the verandah of an old colonial house. The woman had a baby in her arms and standing in the background was a black servant, the baby’s nurse. Monty saw my preoccupation with the portrait and identified the man and woman as his mother and father and the black nurse as Ernestina. The baby was himself. We sipped rum with cubes of ice and talked.
Or rather, Monty talked and I listened. Often he would pick up his cuatro and strum a chord.
I had left with the vivid image of his father’s boot crushing the back of the black beetle on the patio of the house in Villahermosa overlooking the plain and in the hazy distance the River Magdalena. On the other side of the trellis Bernadetta was putting on her birthday dress trimmed with red ribbon. Monty’s father continued to strain his eyes in the glare towards the Magdalena. Then without turning he said, ‘Go to the tamarind tree at the back of the house and pick me a switch.’ Monty did not look at his father but went down the steps and round the back of the house to the back yard where the tamarind tree grew and in whose branches he had played as a small boy. He broke off a thick switch from one of the lower branches and on his way back to the patio cleaned off the twigs and leaves with his penknife. He signalled to me with two fingers joined together to indicate the thickness of the switch.
He told the story methodically now. There were no embellishments. He did not digress to tell me of the cigale, of the River Magdalena, or of the trellis or how the water falling from Bernadetta’s calabash reminded him of the fountain in the middle of Villahermosa. He stood behind his father and waited. He told me that when he recalled this moment, as he had done on many occasions and in many dreams which had found their own metaphors, he remembered that his mind was a black hole of nothing. Again I tried to banish the doctor of Vienna, Thebes, the crossroads, the murder, the plague. This was a new world. Occasionally, he said, there was a ripple of white and red. This tender image was fleeting and did not bring much solace at that precise moment, though it did . subsequently. His father then said, ‘Take off your trousers and bend over. He pulled down the boy’s pants and whipped him sixteen times and then told him to pull up his pants and trousers and go to his room.
At that point I got up and went out on to the little adjoining verandah with the old lady’s anthuriums and seed ferns. I looked out into the silent and empty street. I heard behind me in the room, the harp, plucked twice. I was holding my glass with rum and ice and I brought the glass up to wet my lips, but I did not swallow the alcohol. My throat was tight and I found it difficult to swallow. When I re-entered the room Monty had his back to me: a small back of a slight man caught in the act of plucking the harp for the third time. I sat behind him.
He turned and smiled.
He then got up and came towards me and took my hand. ‘Come,’ he said, ‘come and see. I think I want to show you. I think I can show you. I think I can trust you’. He led me into his bedroom, knelt next to an old chest and lifted the lid, resting the back gently against the concrete wall. ‘Look,’ he said. From the chest he lifted a white broderie anglaise dress, the hem and puffed sleeves trimmed with red ribbon. He handed it to me and began laying out on the floor lingerie, satin scarves, lace handkerchiefs and a white mantilla, ‘Look’ he said, ‘my treasure, my solace.’ I smiled.
‘He whipped me, but he cannot take them away from me,’ he said.
© Lawrence Scott 2012
Previously Published in Ballad for the New World and Other Stories, Heinemann, 1994.
Lawrence Scott is from Trinidad & Tobago. His novel Aelred’s Sin (1998) praised for “the exploration of various possibilities for male relationships” was awarded a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Best Book in Canada and the Caribbean, (1999). His first novel Witchbroom (1992) was short-listed for a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (1993), Best First Book. This was followed by Ballad for the New World (1994), including the Tom-Gallon Award prize-winning short-story The House of Funeral’s (1986) His novel, Night Calypso (2004) was also short-listed for a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Best Book Award, Long-listed for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (2006), and translated into French as Calypso de Nuit (2005). It was the One Book One Community choice in 2005 by the National Library of Trinidad & Tobago. His most recent publication is as Editor of Golconda: Our Voices Our Lives, an anthology of oral-histories and other stories and poems from the sugar-belt in Trinidad (UTT Press, 2009) His new novel Light Falling on Bamboo will be published by Tindal Street Press this September, 2012. Over the years, he has combined teaching with writing. He lives in London and Port of Spain, and is at www.lawrencescott.co.uk
Photo Credit : Eugene McConville
A powerful collaboration between Sekou Charles and Colin Robinson, “Riding Boundaries” represents same-sex desire, youth, and memory. The film and poem work beautifully together, weaving emotions of passion and longing while expressing untold and silenced desire.
Colin Robinson is 50, lonely, and has done a certain amount of shit. Nah, Colin Robinson is trying to build a thinking Caribbean queer political movement. Hmm… Colin Robinson is a Trini who has lived transnationally, legally and illegally. He is currently executive director of CAISO, an NGO doing sexual citizenship, gender justice and nation-building advocacy in Trinidad and Tobago; and spearheading the development of the Caribbean Forum for Liberation and Acceptance of Genders and Sexualities as a regional network. His work includes writing, HIV, migration, management; and has been done through the Audre Lorde Project, the Caribbean IRN, Gay Men of African Descent, GMHC, IGLHRC, the NY State Black Gay Network, Other Countries, Think Again, and Marlon Riggs’s Tongues Untied. Steups. Colin Robinson is a poet
History of Rainbow Alliance in The Bahamas (RAB)
Erin Greene – Activist Report
1. How and why did Rainbow Alliance get started in Nassau? What local/national/global political struggles gave rise to Rainbow Alliance?
The Rainbow Alliance of the Bahamas (RAB) was a support and advocacy group. The Rainbow Alliance of the Bahamas was formed in 2003 to advocate on behalf of the LGBT community. RAB was formed as a vehicle to respond to these comments: “if Parliament legalizes gay marriage, I will become the next Guy Fawkes…” made by the then President of the Bahamas Christian Council, Bishop Samuel Greene at the National Independence Church Service in July 2003. At the time, Bishop Greene also sat on the Constitutional Reform Committee that was required to include the issue of sexual orientation and gender discrimination in its “Options for Change.”
The Rainbow Alliance of the Bahamas was formed by members of the Pride Committee, Bahamians Gays and Lesbians Against Discrimination (BGLAD), members of the former group Hope TEA and other individuals. At the time of Bishop Greene’s statement, the Pride committee was planning the 3rd Annual Pride Celebrations and decided to postpone the event to focus on the statement and the upcoming constitutional reform exercise.
2. What were the successes and challenges of organizing through Rainbow Alliance?
When formed RAB consisted of a small core group of members, with the intention of adding new members at various levels. Soon after formation, the core group realized that formal membership would be difficult to attract due to the stigma and fear of discrimination and visibility experienced by the LGBT community. After several years of work, it was believed by many Bahamians that RAB had a membership in the thousands. This perception afforded a layer of protection for RAB spokespersons and the LGBT community that continues to this day. (I believe this perception that RAB had thousands of members made individuals think twice before discriminating against members of the community). Unlike many regional LGBT organizations, the Rainbow Alliance had three spokespersons that identified as homosexuals, did not use pseudonyms and made television and radio appearances. This allowed the organization to establish trust with Bahamians at large and the LGBT community in particular. Most members of the core group were already established activists who had worked with other LGBT groups and human rights issues. The Rainbow Alliance was able to attract several heterosexual members and allies who were willing to be visible advocates for the group, including several members of the clergy.
Community visibility was always been a major concern for RAB. Organizing public and private activities was difficult as members of the LGBT community were committed to protecting their privacy at all costs even from other members of the same community. Even though RAB was able to create a community centre and office space, outside of a movie series, informal church services and one major cookout fundraiser, RAB was not able to sustain the community centre and its activities. We were unable to convince the community that the centre was a safe space, and it closed it doors after a year of operation. At this point, several core members left RAB as they had committed to developing the support elements of the organization.
RAB also experienced resistance from a number of owners of LGBT bars and clubs. The community centre was designated a drug and alcohol free space and it was perceived as an attempt to attract customers from the other establishments. In the Bahamas, an individual under the age of eighteen cannot access medical services or health and sexual health information without the consent of a parent or guardian, also homosexual sex is illegal for individuals under the age of eighteen. This prevented RAB from offering programs for LGBT youth, and prevented interaction with members of the community that wanted to volunteer, intern and be involved in the movement generally.
One of the largest challenges faced by RAB was that it was perceived of as a white upper-middle class organization comprised of privileged individuals that had a level of financial security and stability that made it possible for them to maintain a level of visibility that the average homosexual Bahamian could not. Many black working-class Bahamians felt that RAB was asking the LGBT community to face head-on challenges that the core members of the organization did not have to face because of social status and privilege. At the climax of RAB’s work, it was determined that the statutory and legislative framework necessary for LGBT rights and protections were already in placei and the political community was prepared to represent a minority group that was willing to demand representation. Unfortunately during the time of RAB’s organizing work, many in the LGBT community were not willing to assume the visibility necessary to participate in the democratic process.
3. What happened to the organization and how did this affect sexual minority organizing in the Bahamas?
The organization closed its doors in December 2008 after all but one of the core members decided to focus their energies on other human rights issues and personal endeavors. Two of the core members had just been elected to the executive board of Caribbean Forum for Lesbians All-Sexual and Gays (CFLAG) and felt that they could continue their work locally as a part of this regional body. At the time of its closing, RAB was the only LGBT advocacy group in the country. Shortly thereafter, the organization Sexual Addicts Seeking Healing (SASH Bahamas) had completed its transition to Society Against STIs and HIV/AIDS (SASH Bahamas) and became an HIV/AIDS focused action and Gay support group. Transgender and transsexual Bahamians continued to organize within Pageant houses in the absence of RAB. And recently in July 2011, a new sexual minority organization has formed: the Bahamas LGBT Equality Advocates (BLEA) is a non-profit LGBT support and advocacy organization. BLEA stands against homophobia, agitates for the removal of laws that discriminate against LGBT people, and fights stigma and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and HIV status.
4. How did the HIV/AIDS pandemic affect the work of Rainbow Alliance?
The major stakeholders in the HIV/AIDS activist community whether formally or informally decided that it would be more effective strategically to not publicly align with the LGBT rights movement and RAB. RAB presumed that this strategy was aimed at not ostracizing major stakeholders and funders in HIV/AIDS work like the Christian community.
5. How did Rainbow Alliance address language in terms of same-sex relationships and gender variance? To what extent were the terms “lesbian,” “transgender,” “gay,” and “bisexual” used for self-naming?
In its work RAB found that the LGBT community as a whole was resistant to the use of labels and language used to categorize orientation and define behavior. Many members of the community didn’t even feel a need to identify as homosexual, and felt that these terms lesbian and transgender etc. were a part of being visible that they were unwilling to engage.
Even when Bahamians became comfortable with engaging the homosexual community in discourse, they were not prepared to discuss transphobia and transgender issues. RAB made a conscious decision to not focus on transphobia and transgender issues in its media work, but never shied away from the topic if raised in discussion or while addressing specific transgender issues. While RAB did not want to alienate this segment of the LGBT community, it was necessary to maintain a dialogue with a resistant and intolerant wider audience.
6. Did the spread of Western LGBT politics impact your local organizing?
It became apparent that anti-gay proponents in their statements and activities were in the majority of instances responding to events or statements made in North and South America and Europe including the United Kingdom. It is believed that Bishop Greene’s infamous statements were commentary on the movement to legalize same sex marriage and civil unions in The United States. After July 2004, it was assumed by society at large, including the gay community, that the Rainbow Alliance had initiated a campaign to legalize same sex marriage in the Bahamas, like its American counterparts. However, this was not on RAB’s agenda. The assumption was made because RAB organized a counter protest to the protest of Rosie O’Donnell ‘Our Family’ Cruise in July 2004. The local protest called their campaign “Save the Family,” but they were really protesting foreigners who were thought to be flaunting a “lifestyle” (supposedly) abhorred by Bahamians, which in this case had to be endured because of our reliance on tourism. RAB’s counter protest was held not to promote same sex marriage, but rather to show the international community that Bahamian sexual minorities exist and have a presence in The Bahamas.
Many Bahamians questioned the need for LGBT advocacy at all, asserting that the Bahamas is nowhere near as violent as Jamaica or Middle Eastern and certain African States. And although the Bahamas was not a target country in the “StopMurderMusic” Campaign, the Rainbow Alliance observed the disconnect between international activists and activists on the ground in Jamaica, and agreed with Jamaican activists that the resistance from Jamaicans at large and the LGBT community in particular to the campaign was more about sovereignty and post-colonial political and diasporic power dynamics and less to do with homophobia.
International LGBT activists generally disregard the importance of religion and spirituality in Caribbean states and thus alienate the majority of the local LGBT community from their work. RAB found the vast majority of homosexual Bahamians identify as Christian and do not wish to end their relationship with their religious communities, and they prioritize building healthy relationships with religious institutions and encourage dialogue with the Christian community in particular.
7. In what ways have you documented the history of Rainbow Alliance? What would you like fellow Caribbeans to know about the work of Rainbow Alliance?
The work of the Rainbow Alliance is being documented through several archiving projects, including Caribbean IRN. All of the organization’s media appearances can be found in the archives of local print, television, radio and electronic media houses.
i The Sexual Offences and Domestic Violence Act 1991 (s.5B(1), which speaks specifically to sexual intercourse in a public place, ultimately decriminalized homosexual intercourse for men because it made the colonial sodomy laws null and void, but essentially criminalized homosexual intercourse for women. It is believed that the change in law was argued on the basis of a constitutional right to privacy and that the law itself was intended to monitor behaviour in public places only. Prior to the 2008 amendment to the Sexual Offences and Domestic Violence Act 1991, the age of consent for homosexual intercourse was 18, while the age of consent for heterosexual intercourse remained at 16. And a person found guilty of engaging in homosexual intercourse in a public place was liable to a term of imprisonment for life. After the 2008 amendments to the act, it is unclear what the age of consent is for homosexual intercourse as there is no clear definition of age of consent for “unnatural sex” in the amended act. Also the penalty for engaging in homosexual intercourse in a public space was reduced to a term of imprisonment for two years.
(Translation by Jasmin Blessing)
(Candle or in this case fire )
Autoras: Olivia Prendes y Odaymara Cuesta.
Authors: Prendes y Odaymara Cuesta.
Maternizando lo Patriarcado.Dale.Daselaaa.” el blopa ”.
Mothering the hierarchical. Hit it. Give it.
Coro: Kandela , vanguardia mujerista haciendo escuela,
Chorus : Fire, feminist avant-garde creating discipline/education
Kandela ,removiendo su techo y tu zuela,
Fire, moving its ceiling and your feet,
Kandela , le guste o le duela a kien le duela.
Fire, whether it pleases or hurts anyone.
Kandela, Krudas las primeras.
Fire, Krudas the firsts
Olivia: Con mi comportamiento, doy movimiento a tu pensamiento ,
With my behavior I move your thoughts
cambio tu sentimiento porque amo , no miento,
I change your feeling because I love you, I don’t lie
no me dejo llevar por el viento, aqui yo,
I don’t let myself be taken away by the wind, here I am
Reina Conocimiento, completa, una vez mistica otra vez perreta
Queen Knowledge, complete, one time mystical, another like drunk ,
si me faltan me pongo ”soketa” con los abusadores,
If I’m messed with, I am self-defensive against the abusers
”soketa” con los falsos profetas, soketa con quienes se creen mejores.
self-defensive against the false preachers, against who believe to be/better.
Me quema esta kandela en la que vivo y sonrio
This fire I live in burns me and I smile
al ver que ustedes tambien sonrien al sufrir la quemadura.
When I see that you also smile while suffering all this burning
” Viva nuestra Cultura” Hip Hop
Long life our culture hop hop
pero aqui tambien me quema una realidad muy dura,
but here also burns me a hard reality
injusta y contantemente somos ignoradas, maltratadas, discriminadas,
Unfair and constantly we are being ignored, abused and discriminated
las mujeres casi nunca bien representadas:
women always never well represented
Caballero, esa expresion no me incluye.
Gentlemen, that expression does not include me
El hombre, esa expresion no me incluye.
The man, that expression does not include me
Los humanos, esa expresion no me incluye.
Brothers, that expression does not include me
Somos Hembras , todo eso influye,
We are women, all that matters
en lo que te voy a explicar de aqui en lo adelante.
To what I am about to explain to you
Cambio y fuera.(Coro,idem)
Change and outside
Olivia:Te decia que todo eso influye en seamos tan pocas
Olivia: I was telling you that all that matters in that we are so few
las que como rocas seguimos aqui en la resistencia,
that like rocks continue in our resistance
defendiendo derechos educando a la audiencia , escucha audiencia ,
defending rights educating the audience, listen audience,
existe la diversidad, como existe la delgadez , existe la obesidad,
There is diversity as well as thinness, there is obesity
como existe lo claro existe la oscuridad,
As lightness exists, obscurity exists,
como existe lo masculino existe la femenidad,
As male exists, female also exists
como existe lo heterosexual existe a homosexualidad .
As heterosexuality exists, there is also homosexuality
Todas y todos tenemos derecho a la libertad,escucha ,
All of us deserve the right to freedom, listen,
cada quien se esta quemando con virtudes con defectos,
Each of us is getting burned with virtues, with flaws,
todo el mundo esta en kandela , ni perfectas ni perfectos.
Everyone is on Fire, no one is completely perfect
Odaymara: Entro llego la faraona barrenando tus neuronas
Odaymara: Entered and just came the Pharaoh, drilling your neurons
la que te alumbra desde las catacumbas empezo el round desenfunda
I, who illuminates you from the catacombs where the round began
un dia como hoy hago tu cuerpo explotar,
A day like today I make your body explode,
sube la temperatura cuando me pongo a rimar
Temperature rises when when I begin to rime
te provoco picazon no lo puedes soportar
I urge itchiness, you can not understand/ stand
vengo rompiendo esquemas contra la falsa moral ,
I am on the way to break schemes, I come against false principles
dejando dagnificados Hip Hop letal ,
Leaving damaged Hip Hop lethal,
yo jorobo a los bobos le meto el micro hasta el codo , te sobo
I bend all dummies, I play with their minds all over,
es mi modo con todo caliente , te dejo impotente
It’s my way with everything hot, I leave you impotent
tu eres mi dulcinea yo tu princesa valiente , viste ?
You are my sweetie , and I, your brave princess, see?
te baje la saya , te pase la raya y te cogio ,asere ,la ”faya” .
I pulled down your skirt, I played with you and you were caught, YO’, the “slip”
Las Primeras , unificando mujeres.Omegas.
THE FIRSTS, unifying women. Omegas
Las primeras , Hip Hop underground que tu quieres.
THE FIRSTS, underground Hip Hop you want
Las primeras no te desesperes, Omegas. Se pega.
The firsts, don’t be impatient, Omegas. It’s catchy.
Kandela , por dentro por fuera , entrega especial.
Fire, inside and out, special delivery.
There was a time when innocence was filled with rainbow bursts of laughter that echoed through empty rooms, and dances took place in the looking glass. The sun kissed the tops of children’s heads, bobbing in and out of the water, and the leaves hugged the little bodies that hid amongst them, high above the ground. It was within these days that Alice was any boy or girl, and the looking glass was no further than the imagination. The imagination was the looking glass and happiness was its game … and it was perfect.
But their looking glass shattered – each piece landing on the surface with a resounding wail, shrieking in pain the death of their innocence. Each fragment lost its colour, and the memories of laughing children were brutally replaced by tears, of … of … well, they were no longer children, but broken, like the shards. They were replaced by broken shards, and there remained, trapped, in fragments.
For years, the questions hung, like ghostly figures attached to the soul, growing heavier and heavier, with no priest to exorcise them; for they could not believe that which they could not see. They, who could do, did nothing, and those who knew, said nothing. It was like dust, swept under that part of the bed no one visits. It stays there, accumulating, though forgotten, until one day, the bed is moved, and layers of dirt, nasty dirt, particles of animals, and discarded skin cells lie in an ugly undeniable heap in that dark corner, beneath the bed that no one visits. And even after the Clorox and Fabuluso have been applied, the stain remains – hidden beneath the bed, but permanent.
And while their little bodies would not remain permanent, their memories would.
I apply layers
One for the office
One for the ‘boys’
One for the ‘girls’
And one more for the world
I apply more layers
Pushing my head through my silken blouse of suppression
My arms easily slide into the sleeves of oppression
And I pull my well pressed pants over my undergarments of shame
I apply layers
Hoping the outside world will never see me
But most of all
I hope I will never see me …
Placing one slender, manicured tip on the backspace key, she erased every word, every trace of what she’d been feeling. It was four in the afternoon, and Laurie was beginning to feel suffocated. She needed this meeting to end. The only consolation was that she’d chosen a seat with her back against the wall, so her screen was not easily seen. Today was not her day to present, nor did she have the energy to rebut the statements being made, so she blindly allowed her mind to wander – a dangerous pastime.
She could feel their eyes rubbing the material off her skin, and looked up in time to see the executive from Maryland licking his lips in that, “can’t wait to devour you” demeanour some men seem to get. He realised she’d caught him staring, and was not the least bit embarrassed. If anything, he seemed more determined to entrap her in a stare contest. To this challenge, Laurie did not back down. She glared at him, narrowing her eyes, to meet him, to show him that if needs be, she could be a bigger alpha male than he.
He blinked just as the presenter from Canada called on him to comment. “Maryland” recovered from his distraction and the meeting continued. It wasn’t that he wasn’t handsome, or intelligent. She could gather that general information from just googling him and his achievements. In fact, the junior officers in her workplace had ogled him and declared their desire towards him, wishing they could trade places with Laurie.
And it wasn’t even that she had moral restrictions against flings. Had she been a different woman, at a different time, she might have considered having fun with him.
The truth was, she was just not interested in men.
And as her mind began to wander again, the familiar voice returned, like a raspy whisper: Dem woman dey fuh bun. Bun me tell yuh. Dem nuh good.*
If she did not harness her thoughts, she’d burn.
Deep within, Laurie knew she was already burnt.
*Those women should be burnt, burn I tell you. They’re not good.
“Look he dey,” one shouted.
Keeping his head straight, eyes fixed on the end of the road, Damon walked on.
“Pssssssssssst,” they mused at him. Raising the volume of their cat calls, he could no longer distinguish one voice from the other.
“Sssisaaah,” they slurred and hissed. He could tell one or two, maybe all, were drunk. But it wasn’t until they’d cornered him, that that theory, that ounce of justifiable understanding vanished as quickly as his weave.
Damon screamed in agony, as he felt the threads of his weave rip away. He tried to run, but it was useless. It was only one of him and six of them – the story of his life. He knew the routine and accepted it. He was in the minority and he accepted it. Over the years, he’d learned to fill his head with that musical, his life’s soundtrack playing at dangerous decibels, as he took his mind to another place. Slipping down a rabbit hole of despair, he began his journey as one of the men’s right fist found his jaw on the left. Further he slipped, as another sole was driven into the small of his back, forcing him to his knees.
They laughed louder and one dropped his pants, slapping his manhood in Damon’s face. He held his whimper in, as he dared not part his lips. Squeezing his eyes even harder, he forced himself to plummet faster into his rabbit hole, just as another fist met his right eye. His eye throbbed in the socket, as he was pushed on the ground. The dirt was cool beneath his skin, but it tasted like stale urine and rat faeces. He was not prepared for what same next, as they ripped down his tights. He had not wanted to give them the pleasure of releasing any sounds from his body. But this time, he could not contain the yelps that rose in succession.
He’d finally reached the end of his rabbit hole, and he walked gingerly into his world. Dressed in white lace, he lowered the parasol from above his head and looked up at the sun. It glowed, smiling at him, as it sprinkled the pond with its crystals. Damon smiled, closed his eyes and allowed the sun to kiss him once again. Walking further into the garden, a cluster of butterflies danced around his body, tickling him as he walked further along the path. Then he saw her, his mother …
In another world,
I am me
And me is perfect
In another world
I am she
And she is perfect
In another world
My laughter is real
and tears are fables
told of unhappy children
tears of unhappy children
butterflies surround us
each winged creature holding the souls
souls of the lost children
In another world,
I am a lost child
In another world,
I cannot find my mother….
He wasn’t sure how long he’d been lying there – half naked, face down, in the urine stained dirt. Rising his head slowly, Damon looked around. They were gone. As he tried to move, he could feel the pain shoot through him, and he was wet. Turning on his side, he saw the pipe, decorated with specks of skin and blood. His blood. He let the tears flow just then. He was tired, and it made no sense calling the police. They’d only laugh at him and tell him he’d deserved it.
Leaning his back against the brick wall of the alley, he pulled his knees under his chin and shook. He heaved and allowed the pain to take full control of his body. He was alone, and that hurt even more. He wished he’d stayed unconscious, maybe if he had he might have been able to finally see the face of the woman who’d been haunting his dreams, his fantasies. Maybe if he’d been stronger he might have been able to fight them off. Maybe if he’d had the nerve to pull the trigger he might stay forever in that other world, journey the rabbit hole one last time, and stay with that woman, his faceless mother.
red stained lips
long, lush lashes
go on forever
gates to a personal heaven
locks of hair
like thick, woven strands of rope
cascade her back
She awoke with a start. It was the same dream she’d had for weeks. On long days, Laurie would almost have herself believe that she wanted to do nothing more than lie beneath her sheets and drift off to meet that woman. Then she’d have the dream and awake terrified.
Again, her mother’s voice, returned to her, steely, cold, final:
Yuh goin’ burn in hell! Jus’ like Sodom an’ Gomorrah!
Woman who lub other woman nuh be no woman of God!
If yuh like other woman yuh dutty, spawn o’ Satan!
De Devil’s child! Not my child!
De Devil’s child!
Laurie shook the voice from her head as she climbed out of bed. She stretched and began her routine. Bathroom, kitchen, bedroom, living room, garage, leave for the office. It was Saturday, and she worked feverishly til six in the afternoon. Seemed like she was working all the time now, putting in even more hours than before. She didn’t smoke, not even weed; and she didn’t drink. She tried not to harbour close relations – male or female, so she worked so she’d not give into temptation.
She turned on the radio and Shirley Murdock’s voice filled her SUV as she drove home. It took her back to another time, another place. It’s morning , and we slept the night away …
They’d met at a conference in Mexico, she was from Dominica, and Laurie was instantly drawn to that thick French accent when Marie spoke. She was a striking beauty. Laurie suddenly found herself hot and bothered by the presence of this woman. Marie’s skin was a smooth river of blackness that flowed to a temple where rich, thick, dread locks flowed, creating cascading waves with each movement. That first morning, she’d worn half pinned up, and let them flow along her back, all the way to her hips. Her pants suit had served to only emphasise the roundness of her hips and behind, it wasn’t hip-hugging, but not even a loose pair of slacks could deny the woman’s natural shape.
Laurie watched her lips form each word, each syllable and felt something within her stir. This was not just lust. This was love … at first sight no less. She’d never felt so overwhelmed. And as Marie concluded her report on Risk Management in the Caribbean, Laurie was convinced that the woman could do no wrong.
They’d ended up sitting next to each other during the lunch break, and the conversation began. Laurie had never been one to make the first move, nor had she ever thought about it. She was reserved and she knew that these feelings were better suited towards a man. Yet she could not deny the excitement she felt as Marie slid into the bench next to her and told her hi.
Determined not to let her thoughts escape, she engaged in intellectual conversation, kept her tone professional and discussed emerging issues in finance and accounting. Laurie thought she’d played it off perfectly and just as her pulse was returning to normal, Marie placed a soft hand on Laurie’s wrist, leaned over (oh, she’d smelled so good, like lavender and honey), and invited Laurie for drinks later that night, “away from all these stiffs.”
The woman was even more beautiful outside her professional attire, and she’d chosen to let her locks hang loosely. Marie stepped out from the elevator like a celebrity in a Hollywood movie, and it might have been her imagination married to her fantasies, but Laurie was sure a gust of wind travelled through the lobby at that same moment, causing the white linen dress to twirl around Marie like clouds surrounding the gentle glide of an angel. Her locks bounced as she hurried her pace and made her way over to the bar where Laurie sat. Her laugh filled the air, and before the night was over, Laurie’s laughter had risen a few notches, and she’d laughed until her stomach hurt and tears ran down her cheek.
“You’re so beautiful when you laugh,” Marie told her, stroking Laurie’s cheek with hand. “You should laugh more, darling.”
He’d sometimes wondered if his life might have been easier if he were born a woman. His hormone therapy had worked, but it didn’t seem to make a difference, not all the time anyway. Although, he had to admit, he did take some pleasure in a man’s embarrassment, who’d mistaken him for a woman. At least they thought he looked like a woman … from a distance.
Damon couldn’t say that he was trying to run from his past – although, initially, he did think that he’d run towards the opposite sex. He couldn’t even say that he was trying to heal, or was he? All he knew is that he desperately wanted to look like a woman, he wanted to be treated like a woman. He wanted a man to look at him and think he was beautiful.
Lost in thought as he sat at the Casino, the bartender placed a glass of wine in front of him. “It’s from the man over there.” The bartender did not scorn him or give the slightest inkling that he was disgusted. Damon supposed that being a bartender at a bar in a high traffic tourist area, the man had seen and served it all.
Damon looked up, just as the man was smiling at him. Mid-forties or maybe fifties with slicked back hair, a bushy moustache, and a nice build. You could tell he took care of himself. The man came over, and Damon tensed. He was unsure what would happen, and he was not in the mood to be brutalised tonight. He just wanted to relax. Two of his girlfriends should have been meeting them, but they’d gotten called by their lovers.
“Haven’t seen you around here much,” the man started, “I must say, I find it hard not to stare.”
Here it comes, thought Damon. He smiled politely as he prepared himself for another “antiman*” remark.
“You have very sad eyes, but your lips are so striking, they look like they were made to laugh .”
Damon stopped in his tracks. He had not anticipated that response. The man, Jeremiah, had a slight accent, was on a long vacation in Antigua, and was apparently attracted to “his kind”. Said he found them intriguing. They spoke all night, and Damon found himself relaxing in the company of this stranger, and laughing more than he had in, well, he had no idea when he’d laughed that much.
Jeremiah caressed his hand as they spoke, and Damon revelled in the attention, blushing at the man’s remarks. He was enjoying himself, and no one was there to make fun of him. There were no cat calls, hissing or fists. Just good conversation, gentle touches and appreciation. Even if they parted ways that night, at least Damon knew he’d part knowing it was possible to have someone enjoy him … for who he is.
*antiman – homosexual male, an insult
The night had taken them dancing, and for one night, Laurie allowed the music, the drinks and the ambience of the Mexican sunset to silence the voice in her head as her body felt every sensation there was to feel.
Marie’s laughter filled the room, atop the music, and Laurie squeezed the woman’s hand even harder as they twirled through the rhythm of the night. She couldn’t recall when they’d arrived at Marie’s room, nor could she recall how she’d become undressed. And even though the details of the night remained a slight blur, her body had recorded every gentle touch, each sweet caress, and the accented kiss still lingered on her lips. Laurie, inhaled and slowly turned on her side to a swirl of thick, black coils. Marie was the most beautiful Medusa one could conjure, and she, Laurie, had been seduced by the myth of this woman, and for a moment, she genuinely wished the woman had turned her to stone.
For the remainder of the week, they met for drinks, retired in Marie’s room, and Laurie would quietly slip out of her room before the sun took its place in the sky, hoping that no one would see her. She found herself growing all the more annoyed with the Maryland gentleman who continued to ogle her, and she desperately wished these boring accountants would speed through the meetings so she could dive into the Mexican spell of her Dominican lover.
Marie had awakened a passion in Laurie, and she enjoyed the person she became when she was near this woman. She enjoyed the person Marie unleashed within her. There were no social rules to follow, no protocol to observe, and no men. That was the best part – no men.
It was their final night, and Laurie was almost tempted to beg Marie to stay on another week, just the two of them. She began making fantastic plans in her head – she’d fly to Dominica at least once a week to be with Marie; they could go on a cruise, maybe a Mediterranean one; she may even consider looking for a position in Dominica so they could be together, she knew no one but Marie there, and would fit into Marie’s world; she’d move in to-
“I’m getting married in a month.”
The words sliced through her new dreams, cutting more than her fantasies.
“What?” Laurie could neither conceal nor deny both the confusion and betrayal she felt.
“I’d love for you to be there moi Cherie,” she whispered, caressing the unruly strands of Laurie’s hair that fell across her face.
Laurie bolted up. “You’re getting married? But I thought you were a …” the unspoken words hung in the air; she could not bring herself to say … what exactly? Homosexual? Lesbian? Those words seemed so ugly against the beautiful creature that lay next to her, turning her new found world upside down.
Laurie never gave Marie a chance to explain. She gathered her things, and left the room, Marie, and their … tryst? There would be no calls, no emails, no visits.
She returned to Antigua the following day, and forced herself to bury Marie, the way she’d buried ….
where were you when
where were you then
when bloodsuckers knocked on doors
i was afraid
and you laughed
i was scared
and you turned your back
i needed you
and you were gone
who was there to hear me pray
i prayed hard for someone to come
but no one came
no father, no mother
no apparition dressed in white
no angel, no fairy
no Jesus, no God
not a one
heard my prayer
no one came to save me
from the ghosts
from dark corners
from thick voices
that wait for little ones in
like blood suckers preying
but it’s innocence they suck
while the innocent continue to pray.
Damon would wake with a start wondering if it were all a dream, but then he’d hear Jeremiah’s gentle breathing. He looked at this man, this man who had come into his life and renewed it. His eyes were still damp from last night’s revelation.
It had taken this man, this beautiful spirit, to unravel the thick, scarred, and burnt layers of pain that were tightly wrapped around Damon’s soul. And in the shadows of the moon, Damon allowed himself a freedom he’d never before experienced. He cried openly, and no one laughed at him. And when he needed to be held, Jeremiah held him. He held him fiercely, yet with such gentleness, that Damon lost all sense and sensibility as his tears rushed into a force of passion that had been buried for so many years. He bawled in the arms of this man, spasms shaking his grown, altered body, as he cried for his pain, and he cried for the little boy, who almost 20 years ago had had no one to hold him, and sooth his fears away. He cried again for the little boy who was lost, alone and lay bloodied, dirty, and broken in a crumpled pile of stained innocence.
Damon was not prepared for the memories that flooded him like his tears.
He was nine again, playing on the floor of his bedroom with his blocks and cars. He could hear the movement of people in the distance, and then the sound of footsteps ascending the stairs, growing louder as they made their way to his room. His door swung open, and four men he’d never met, but had occasionally seen, made slow, steady strides into the room. His uncle stood there looking at him.
He knew that stare – it was the same stare he’d given Damon the day he came to live there. The same smile Damon received the first night his uncle opened his bedroom door and crept into bed with him. And it was the same smile he received as the signal to go to bed, undress and wait.
But Damon was confused. At first, he’d thought that the men in suits might have come to take him away from his uncle, but as they stared, his uncle laughed something sinister, something sick. And not knowing why, Damon felt the tears began to spill onto his cheek.
That was the first time the rabbit hole had become so pronounced for him. Eventually, the songs of his world had become so loud, his screams were no longer his, but that of another boy, in another world, in another time. It was not Damon who was being pinned. It was not Damon who was being brutally defiled. It was another boy that lay there fighting while his uncle watched on, laughing.
When they finally left, Damon lay lifeless on the floor. His body was not his, and it hurt too much to even cry. He’d prayed, and no one had come to his aid. The faded blue Testament that lay a few feet away had not protected him, and the people who said Jesus loves children the best had not met his Uncle.
“It wasn’t your fault. It wasn’t your fault. It wasn’t your fault.” The voice repeated, penetrating his memories, pulling him from his rabbit hole, from his dark corner. The voice held him so tightly – it was a strong voice, and for a moment, Damon wondered if that was how Jesus sounded when he spoke.
Damon, the boy, had finally drifted off to sleep, a sound, undisturbed sleep with no fear of creaking doors, sinister laughs, and no ghosts.
Damon, the man, finally allowed himself to be drained of the child, and felt himself go loose in the arms of his lover who held him as he slept.
“It wasn’t your fault.”
Shirley Murdock’s voice faded out, and with it, the memories of another woman, another place. She was not ready to go home. She’d been tempted to call Marie so many times, but pride would not let her.
At the office, she was sure someone had heard something, and Marie’s messages and calls did not help the paranoia that was building. Laurie could feel her secretary give her the “eye” whenever Marie called, and she’d signal to her to dismiss the woman. But Laurie had made it very clear how she felt about homosexual relations of any sort, and her colleagues, especially her secretary, knew better than to make idle chatter of such assumptions.
They’d once made the mistake of considering her a “friend” and had begun a conversation that would lead them down roads of idle gossip, and eventually to a valley of insidious assumptions about which woman was doing which woman in the next office, and which woman was eyeing which woman from this office. That was when Laurie had had enough. She made it pellucid that she would not be a part of such discussions, in jest or otherwise. Then she quoted scriptures she’d long forgotten, and caught herself. She was sounding just like her mother.
Ahhh, her mother. As she turned towards the beach, another memory flooded her. Her mother. She was a woman Laurie wish she could have met, shook hands with, and then forgotten about, like other trivial business associates who came together for a meeting and then would part ways for good. But, she was her mother, and one memory she could not bury with the woman’s bones.
She parked the car, watched the hues of gold and orange streak the sky. They reminded her of a painting that once hung in the family room of her childhood home, her grandmother’s house. Laurie had lived there with her mother, and eventually, her grandmother’s son moved back in when his wife kicked him out. She enjoyed her uncle’s company. Her mother often called him irresponsible and childish, but it was that childish quality that had allowed him to entertain the likes of an eight-year-old child. He’d take her pond fishing, tree climbing, and to beach. Although he was her only uncle, he was her favourite.
Then he left. Without word, notice, and not even the trace of a good-bye, he left. And with him, his memories. She could not even feel his presence in the house. Her mother had worked feverishly to rid the place of any remnants. But Laurie had held on to an old shirt that had fallen behind his bed. It still had the faintest hint of his odour – sweat, sweet, and mango juice. The stains from the mangoes were faded but still present, and it was this old, stained shirt that Laurie hugged at night.
She was also hugging it the day He moved into the house. Her mother’s lover was an ugly stump of a man, and it was not until she was older that Laurie could understand what her mother loved about him and why her grandmother had allowed this atrocity to move into her Christian home. He was ugly indeed, but he worked for “good money” and she’d “need tings dat ah can’t give you … so mind him”. This is what she’d be told at every incident – she spoke too loudly; she wanted too much food; she didn’t wash clothes; she only played – and the list would continue until, at age 10, Laurie had become almost mute, only answering when spoken to, and doing as she was told. She’d become their personal robot.
She was still clinging to her uncle’s shirt when He crept into her room that night. And she almost tore it, as He tore into her. But she continued to do as she was told – nighty rolled up; mouth shut; don’t tell no body or else …
Even when her mother walked in on them, He was quick to lavish her mother with slanders of Laurie’s seduction, having been drunk, and thinking that this child could have been a grown woman. Even though she was 12 then, her body – dangly, flat and long – could not have been mistaken for her mothers double D’s, wide hips, and short frame.
Yet, her mother swallowed every word as she swallowed the expensive dinner He bought her the following night. Her mother continued to wear the delusions He dressed Laurie in, as she wore the Gucci, and Prada He bought her from the expensive stores. And just as she continued to wear those rich leather shoes with the oh-so-high heels to stomp on her co-workers’ lesser fortunes, so her mother continued to stomp on Laurie’s innocence, that He’d purchased.
And even at age 15, when Laurie finally mustered the courage to stab him in the testicles with her scissors from sewing class, she still clung to her uncle’s faded, worn and stained shirt. Like him, she left with no word, no hint, and no trace of a good bye. Her mother never looked for her. Not to Laurie’s knowledge anyway. Then she’d met Cassie. Laurie’d moved in with her Pastor and his wife, and their daughter Cassie.
Cassie was older, mature, and wore her hair natural. She was beautiful and was not afraid to voice her annoyances at her parents and their “religious brigade”. Cassie did not attend church. She did not care for it really. And Cassie, did not like men either. No one had every “hurt” her, not like He had done to Laurie. Cassie just did not like men. But women? Women she found to be beautiful and under-appreciated, they should be revered and praised, that’s what should be preached.
And the first time Cassie kissed her, she felt neither dirty nor ashamed. She was not confused nor was she afraid. It felt right.
Cassie made her feel beautiful, and was never forceful or invasive. She was just right … for her.
Laurie could not wait to get home in the afternoons when it would be just her and her Cassie. Cassie had become her ray of hope, and made the world seem so much better. Those few precious hours in the afternoons before the pastor or his wife arrived home were a delicious haven from the brutal realities of Laurie’s life. They spoke, laughed, shared dreams and personal philosophies and love. It was right.
“Wha de hell is this?!”
The shriek pierced her world and Laurie watched the pieces of her peace fall with each tear. The pastor’s wife was home, and to say she was livid would be mild. Stunned into paralysis, she watched the woman grab Cassie by her loud, thick afro and drag her into the bedroom. The door locked, and all Laurie could hear were yelps of indescribable pain. Darkness ascended on the house, and Laurie cowered in the corner. It was all her fault.
The next day, Cassie left the house. Her Afro had been shortened, and her sleeves did not succeed in covering all the burns the pastor’s wife had left on her beautiful black skin. Laurie wanted to run to Cassie. She wanted to take that pain away. But the pastor’s wife stood in the door way to her freedom.
“I know is not your fault,” she began. “That girl jus’ belong to the Devil. I don’t know why she didn’t stay where she was. I hope yuh not like her!”
Laurie just stood there as the pastor’s wife flung missile after missile of Bible verses at her, each one wounding deeper than the first. She just stood there saying nothing at all. If God existed, as this woman so devoutly proclaimed, then why did He allow Him to come into her life? And why would He take Cassie out of it? It made no sense to her.
The pastor’s wife’s voice continued to rise decibels above Laurie’s day dreaming and thoughts. Tried as hard as she might to block the woman’s ranting, she could not block her words: “Dem woman dey fuh bun. Bun me tell yuh. Dem nuh good.”
Night’s cloak quickly swept away the streaks of the beautiful sunset, and with the darkness covering her, Laurie could not help but think, that no matter the age, she was burning in a personal hell. She’d never accept the desires within her. She’d never return Marie’s calls. And she’d probably never find love.
and if ever life was real
it was with you, my love
and if ever lies were true
it was when I lie next to you
and if ever we were to cheat
it was when we cheated life
if ever there was truth
it was the truth we created between us two
my all ….
Jeremiah left Antigua two months later. But for the three months Damon spent with him, he gained a certain confidence, a certainty that he was not wrong. He belonged. Jeremiah had held his hand as they strolled the streets of St. John’s. Against astonished stares, Christians blasting through their blow horns on street corners, and school children snickering, Jeremiah had held his hand.
The day he left, Damon was neither sad nor scared. He felt empowered. This man had given him a divine restoration that Damon had needed. In the three months, Damon had not travelled his rabbit hole; there was no need for it. Nor had he dreamt of his mother. He no longer experienced that emptiness.
That night, as he lay naked in bed, his hormone-enhanced breasts feeling the cool blast of his fan, Damon exhaled. He traced his hand along the impression of Jeremiah’s body, now returned to his home, and he exhaled. Closing his eyes, he forced sleep to come to him, as a new excitement brewed within. He could not wait to face tomorrow, and he was ready to whatever “they” would throw at him. He was ready.
ready to be me
ready to be free
of all o’ this
of all the mess
of this life
ready to be me
ready to be free….
Damon smiled, as he awoke the next morning. He slipped into a beige slacks, pinned his white lace bra, and slipped on the white blouse Jeremiah had purchased for him. He leaned over the sink, and carefully brushed gold layers across his eyes. With care, he brushed his lashes with the mascara, then pressed the plum stained brush tip to his lips. He leaned back, looked in the mirror, and smiled.
He was pleased. He was ready.
Zahra I Airall was born and still resides in the Caribbean island of Antigua and Barbuda. She is a literature teacher at a secondary all-girls school, founder of Zee’s Youth Theatre, and co-founder of August Rush Productions, a small company dedicated to the discovery, development and promotions of the literary and performing arts in Antigua and Barbuda. An activist for women’s and chidlren’s rights, she is a founder and an executive member of the non-profit organisation Women Of Antigua, a group formed when her island was experiencing its first serial rapist. She is also the co-director and producer of When A Woman Moans a local production that uses the performing arts to speak out against violence against women and children. She is also a spoken word artiste, free lance journalist, and photographer.
Larry Chang is the founder of the Gay Freedom Movement (GFM) in Jamaica. This interview with Thomas Glave was recorded on 20 June, 2011 at Brooklyn College , USA.
This was done around the time of the launch of the Digital Archives of the GFM
Thomas Glave is the author of several books, among them Whose Song? and Other Stories, The Torturer’s Wife , and Words to Our Now: Imagination and Dissent (Lambda Literary Award, 2005). He is editor of the anthology Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Lesbian and Gay Writing from the Antilles (Lambda Literary Award, 2008). He is a 2012 Visiting Fellow at Cambridge University.
Photo Credit: Oslo Freedom Forum
Larry Chang was born in Jamaica of Hakka Chinese immigrant parents. He is a founding member of the Jamaica Forum of Lesbians, All-Sexuals & Gays, J-FLAG, having previously organized a gay group in Jamaica, the Gay Freedom Movement (GFM) as early as 1978 in a fiercely hostile climate. He held the position of General Secretary and was Publisher and Editor of its newsletter, Jamaica Gaily News.
A leader and active participant of the social justice community, Larry came to the U.S. as an asylee in 2000, and was granted political asylum in 2004. He currently resides in Washington, DC, where he continues to educate and work for social justice. He is featured in the Phillip Pike documentary, Songs of Freedom, which had its world premiere in Toronto in January 2003, and he also appears in Dangerous Living: Coming Out in the Developing World, which documents the struggle for human rights of LGBT people in the global south; it premiered at the New York Film Festival in June 2003.
Larry is an artist, designer, publisher and life counselor. He is the author of Wisdom for the Soul: Five Millennia of Prescriptions for Spiritual Healing and Wisdom for the Soul of Black Folk. In June 2008, he founded EcolocityDC which seeks to address environmental, economic and social sustainability issues. He is currently working on a new economic theory to supplant the monetary system and profiteering which he recognizes as the root of the global crisis.
Theorizing Homophobias in the Caribbean: Complexities of Place, Desire and Belonging
By Rosamond S. King & Angelique V. Nixon
Overview of the Collection
The idea for this project emerged from the first Caribbean Sexualities Gathering sponsored by the Caribbean IRN in June 2009, where we brought together over thirty activists, scholars, and community workers from inside and outside the region. One of the pivotal issues raised during our workshop meeting was the need for a defining and redefining of homophobia in the Caribbean from a variety of perspectives, and more specifically, the need for theorizing about the different kinds of homophobias across the region. A year later, the Caribbean IRN facilitated the workshop “Strategies to Confront Homophobia” at the 2010 Caribbean Studies Association conference in Barbados. We expanded upon the issue of homophobias by highlighting the realities of sexual minority organizing, offering possible sites and contexts for exploring this issue, and by creating space for scholars, artists, writers, and activists to exchange.
The board of the Caribbean IRN put together a call for papers and set out during 2011 to collect and search for submissions for this collection. We circulated the call broadly and also sent out personal invitations to submit to people across the region and its diaspora. We targeted specific writers, scholars, and activists whose work in and around Caribbean sexuality was well known, but we also sought new voices and experiences. In the call, we offered the context of the recent international attention given to “homophobia in the Caribbean” because of widely publicized violence against sexual minorities and what has often been framed as an absence of public condemnation. However, as we suggested in the call, this understanding is problematic and often framed in a public, international human rights discourse that rarely addresses the larger contexts of poverty, structural adjustment, neocolonialism, and violence in general within the region. We insisted (as other writers, scholars, activists, and artists have) that while it is accepted that homophobia in the Caribbean has its roots in laws, religion, and social perceptions of gendered identity, there is more to understanding the scope and complexity of how homophobias work differently across the region. In fact, sexual minority and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) activists and others living in the Caribbean have argued that there is a complex range of viewpoints and attitudes that must be accounted for in our defining of homophobias.
Therefore, in our call and search for this collection, we hoped to bring together a new set of theories, writings, and understandings of the kinds of homophobias that exist across the region, with clear distinctions among Caribbean territories in terms of the work being done and the various cultural landscapes and shifts regarding sexual identities. We had lofty goals and cast our nets wide with the desire to include a myriad of voices representing the Caribbean and its diaspora. We wanted these theories, writings, and artistic expressions about homophobias to include discussions about gender performance, heterosexism, and transphobia that encompass, as well as the economic and social contexts that contribute to and exacerbate, homophobias. We also set out to disrupt the divide between academia and community by locating theories and knowledge in multiple sites and discourses through creative writing, visual art, film, and activism.
In the process of searching for and reviewing submissions, we prioritized regional voices to ensure that the collection was grounded in the local while also engaging the diaspora. In order to privilege regional voices, we commissioned reports, essays, interviews, and artistic expressions from across the region as a way to recognize the work on the ground in relationship to sexuality. This proved to be a difficult challenge, particularly because some of the local activists and scholars we hoped to include are often called upon to present their activism, in addition to their actual work and other responsibilities. Thus, some important local voices are not in the collection because of time constraints, multiple commitments, and/or the daily realities of organizing in their communities. Nevertheless, the editors and board have included a variety of voices from across the region by conducting interviews and commissioning pieces to support the work of local artists and activists.
This context is an important piece of the story as we share the process of building Theorizing Homophobias and offer transparency in what is included and what is not. As with all projects, there comes a moment of letting go and surrendering to the goodness we have and what is available to share. And so though it is neither perfect nor all-inclusive, we present a strong collection that does reflect the diversity of the region and its diaspora. Therefore, we are proud and excited to share this collection, which is in many ways the first of its kind—a multi-media collection of activist reports, interviews, film, creative writing, visual and performance art, and critical essays representing Caribbean sexualities and theorizing the complexity of homophobias in the Caribbean. Ultimately, this collection reveals that there is certainly no uniform notion of ‘Caribbean homophobia’, but rather context is everything. Just as the region is diverse and complicated so are responses to homophobia (which is generally understood as a fear of homosexuals). The contributors to this collection offer broad visions and specific nuances to space, place, identity, history, and politics. Hence, our use of the term “homophobias” insists upon local understandings and contexts while expanding awareness of the differences and similarities across the region and its diaspora.
The collection is published online with open access on purpose. This reflects another priority of the Caribbean IRN—not only to prioritize the local and regional, but also to ensure that the works we publish are made easily available to and accessible within the region. Certainly not everyone has internet access and there are complications with bandwidth and regular connections, yet the internet remains for many in the region an easier way to access information than print materials published abroad, and it is increasingly useful for sexual minority networking, organizing, and community building.
While the collection represents mostly English-speaking territories (including Antigua and Barbuda, The Bahamas, Barbados, Jamaica, Guyana, and Trinidad and Tobago), it also includes the Spanish, French and Dutch speaking Caribbean (Cuba, Puerto Rico, Haiti, Martinique, and Suriname). The collection refers to a complex range of sexual identities, preferences, and orientations, and includes a few voices engaging with trans-identity. The collection crosses disciplines, intersects communities, bridges theory and activism, and highlights the relentless and strategic work of community workers, artists, activists, and scholars across the region. This may be the strongest element of the collection—the bringing together or “gathering” of voices (continuing the work of Our Caribbean – A Gathering of Gay and Lesbian Writings in the Antilles) in multiple media to offer a complex understanding of the Caribbean sexual landscape at home and abroad.
The Caribbean IRN’s work and history
Theorizing Homophobias was compiled, edited, and produced by the Caribbean Region of the International Resource Network (IRN). The IRN is an internet-based project and network created by the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies (CLAGS) at the City University of New York in 2002. The purpose of the IRN is to link researchers, activists, artists, and teachers from both academic and community bases in areas related to diverse sexualities. It strives to be a central internet location (at www.irnweb.org) for people interested in approaching sexual rights and human rights from the perspective of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer studies, or who are interested in surveying research on particular sexual minority issues around the globe. Over many years, the IRN has received generous support from the Ford Foundation to build this project.
The Caribbean Region of the IRN was created in 2008 and connects academic and community-based researchers, artists, and activists around the Caribbean and in the diaspora in areas related to diverse sexualities and genders. As more scholarship and activism – inside and outside the region – focus on issues related to sexual minorities in the Caribbean, there is an increasing need for a clearinghouse to connect individuals from around the region and the world. The Caribbean IRN is building such a resource for people and organizations inside and outside the region through the website, email list-serv, social media, and digital archiving. Furthermore, the Caribbean IRN highlights and promotes activism and creative work, as well as different kinds of engaged scholarship which seek to question, provoke and illuminate various ways of thinking about same-sex desire and sexual minorities. The Caribbean IRN supports and encourages regional projects, organizations, and collaborations.
Our first major endeavor was hosting and organizing the first Caribbean Sexualities Gathering in 2009 as our first regional meeting in Kingston, Jamaica to determine our goals and priorities. At that time, over 30 scholars, artists, writers, and activists from around the region with over 10 Caribbean countries were represented, as well as several of the local and regional Caribbean sexual minority advocacy organizations – including SASOD, CAISO, JFLAG, and FOKO Curaçao, among others.i The gathering consisted of a panel discussion at the Caribbean Studies Association (CSA) conference, a five-hour workshop, and a closing reception; during these events we communed, networked, and collaborated. All of our current projects have their roots in the concerns and aspirations expressed at that first meeting. In addition to the 2009 gathering, our major accomplishments over the past three years include: a major web presence connecting stakeholders, the creation of a digital archive collection with Digital Library of the Caribbean, the establishment of a Sexualities Working Group in the Caribbean Studies Association, the beginnings of an oral history project, a major collaboration with the University of the West Indies, and (of course) the publication of this multi-media collection.
In addition to our primary websiteii, the Caribbean IRN provides a regular monthly update to our far-reaching list-serve addressing current debates and activities regarding the lives and experiences of Caribbean sexual minorities. These updates include relevant news stories in the region and the diaspora, as well as conferences, opportunities, and upcoming events. Interested individuals can also find information and discussion on our well-used Facebook page. In addition to communication and social media, we partnered with the Digital Library of the Caribbean (dloc.org) create an important digital archive. This process began in 2010 through building a general collection of resources. In 2011, we added a special collection in the digital archive of the Jamaica Gay Freedom Movement (JGFM) at http://www.dloc.com/icirngfm. The JGFM was the first public Caribbean organization focused on sexual minority advocacy during the 1970s and 1980s. The archive includes scans of JGFM pamphlets, meeting notes, letters, fliers, newspaper clippings, and more, and reflects the complex history of sexual minority organizing in the Caribbean generally, and specifically in Jamaica. These materials were brought to our attention in Kingston during the 2009 gathering, where they were stored under a desk in a JFLAG office for 30 years. Through Thomas Glave, we garnered the permission of Larry Chang to archive and preserve the materials. And after much organizing and work, we have made this archive available on the internet with open access. The official launch event in June 2011 was broadcast live on the web, with groups participating from Brooklyn College, Pride in Action (Mona, Jamaica), J-FLAG (Kingston, Jamaica), and The Hub (Nassau, The Bahamas), and individuals watching from around the world. For more information about this process and the launch, please see the sx salon August 2011 Discussions:
The Caribbean IRN’s Digital Archive through dLOC has already received hundreds of “hits” and is a unique and useful resource for sexuality studies research. The JGFM physical archive was recently transferred into the safe and esteemed collection of the Black Gay and Lesbian Archive, part of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. We plan to continue this archiving work through organizations in the region who want to preserve their materials. We now have possession of some of the materials of the Rainbow Alliance of The Bahamas, and we look forward to expanding this digital archive and making the history of Caribbean sexual minority activism available to anyone with an internet connection. We have also begun an oral history project (now being piloted in Guyana), which will record the histories of Caribbean sexual minority life and activism in individual’s own words. Our hope is that these histories will make first-person reflections available to researchers inside and outside the region, who cannot themselves travel within or to the region.
In the academic world, the Caribbean IRN was instrumental in organizing the first Caribbean Sexualities Working Group of the Caribbean Studies Association in 2010. The working group, now an independent entity, creates panels and discussions on sexuality for the annual CSA conference, facilitates conversation, and mentoring between students and junior and senior scholars, and encourages the CSA to be more open to regional activists in formal and informal ways. The Caribbean IRN has also ensured a strong presence of sexuality studies at the CSA conference every year since 2009 – offering a bridge between community and academia at one of the most important conferences in and about the region addressing the field of Caribbean Studies. Most recently, the Caribbean IRN Board is pleased to announce here our receipt of a grant from the International Association for the Study of Sexuality, Culture, and Society (IASSCS) to create and present a 2013 short course on Caribbean sexualities with the University of the West Indies St. Augustine Institute of Gender and Development Studies (Trinidad). This collaboration will result in strengthening the already growing field of Caribbean sexuality studies on UWI campuses, and materials from this course will be freely available on the internet.
As a multidisciplinary collection, Theorizing Homophobias is a natural extension of the Caribbean IRN’s work. Its theme came directly out of our 2009 meeting, where many people expressed the concern that non-Caribbean people were defining (and sometimes inflating) Caribbean homophobia, and that it would be useful to explore the different expressions and effects of homophobia in the region and the diaspora. As one participant wrote in their evaluation of the gathering:
“In other organizing there was not a place where Caribbean people were taking charge of their own agenda. Here we have a direction and give ourselves the charge to speak on these issues. We have to break our own silences and energize and network. Because among other people who are interested in working on our rights, they want to lead.”
We consider this collection a chorus that contributes to the breaking of the silence around Caribbean sexual minorities and how we live, love, and work. Each of these Caribbean voices theorizes in its own way; some in measured tones, some shouting, and some singing. The editors and the Caribbean IRN hope that our readers will listen, read, and look carefully, for it is voices like these that should lead Caribbean sexual minority activism, scholarship, and art in the 21st century.
While the initial idea for this collection came directly from the IRN’s work with various constituencies, Theorizing Homophobias also exists within and benefits from an increasing body of scholarship on Caribbean sexualities. Since the beginning of the 21st century, a number of thoughtful and well-rounded books, collections, and journals have addressed nonheterosexual Caribbean sexualities. Most of these publications have focused on the Spanish Caribbean, including Emilio Bejel’s Gay Cuban Nation (2001), Ben Sifuentes-Jáuregui’s Transvestism, Sexuality, and Latin American Literature (2002), Larry LaFontaine Stokes’ Queer Ricans: Cultures and Sexualities in the Diaspora (2009), Carlos Decena’s Tacit Subjects: Belonging and Same-Sex Desire among Dominican Men (2011), and Jafari Allen’s Venceremos? The Erotics of Black Self-Making in Cuba (2011). The Politics of Passion: Women’s Sexual Culture in the Afro-Surinamese Diaspora by Gloria Wekker (2006), is a significant contribution to the field as, to date, the only book-length work in English to focus on sexuality in the Dutch Caribbean. And Omise’eke Tinsley’s Thiefing Sugar: Reading Erotic Geographies of Caribbean Women who Love Women (2010) is singular as one of few single-authored texts that examines non-heteronormative Caribbean sexualities in more than one linguistic tradition. Several of these texts are part of a growing trend towards interdisciplinary work, a direction which Theorizing Homophobias also pursues. Other endeavors in this vein include Jacqui Alexander’s Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory, and the Sacred (2006) and Thomas Glave’s Our Caribbean (2008).
In addition to the book length studies of Caribbean sexuality, a number of academic journals are often the first to publish groundbreaking ideas and perspectives that challenge the status quo. Journals such as The Caribbean Review of Gender Studies, Small Axe, CENTRO, Callaloo, GLQ (Gay and Lesbian Quarterly), Sargasso, and other periodicals contribute greatly to the field of Caribbean sexuality studies. This relatively new field grew directly out of Caribbean feminism, black feminism, and queer studies, whether drawing on insights detailed by earlier scholars or by addressing gaps in earlier analyses. Notable scholars in these areas include: Patricia Mohammed, Kamala Kempadoo, Rhoda Reddock, Eudine Barriteau, Carole Boyce Davies, Audre Lorde, Barbara Smith, Cathy Cohen, and Carolyn Cooper. These scholars and theorists have not only offered significant theories for understanding gender and sexuality, but they have also asserted the importance of grounding work in the local.
Sexual Minority Activism and Creation
This collection brings together academic scholarship, art, and activism, and its contents reflect the breadth and scope of sexual minority organizing across the region and the sustained efforts by activists working towards sexual freedom and autonomy. In fact, the very idea for this collection came out of a dialogue driven by activists who asserted the need for a more complex understanding of homophobias across the region that considers national, linguistic, and sub-regional differences as well as similarities across the region. The activists and scholars at the 2009 Caribbean Sexualities Gathering insisted that the nuances around place, national identity, religion, history, and other factors be included in any discussion, study, or writing about homophobia in the Caribbean. Many supported the call for a “theorizing” of different kinds of “homophobias” across the region from a variety of perspectives. Hence, this collection is driven by a local and regional desire for more voices, greater understandings, and deeper reflections of Caribbean sexualities.
Caribbean organizations such as SASOD (Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination, Guyana), CAISO (Coalition Advocating for the Inclusion of Sexual Orientation, Trinidad and Tobago), J-FLAG (Jamaica Forum for All Sexuals, Lesbians and Gays), Pride in Action (Jamaica), SEROvie (Haiti), PinkHouse and FOKO (Curaçao), GrenChap (Grenada), United and Strong (St. Lucia), and the newly revitalized CariFLAGS (Caribbean Forum for Liberation and Acceptance of Genders and Sexualities – regional) – to name a few – are not only locally grounded but are also involved with regional politics and community building work. The leaders and activists involved in these organizations have worked tirelessly to address the discrimination experienced by sexual minorities. These organizations also deal directly with human rights organizations based in the Global North that too often utilize a “savior” narrative when dealing with the Caribbean. These relationships are complicated because some organizations depend on the support of these Global North foundations and organizations for funding; however, a number of Caribbean organizations have asserted local perspectives and ensured that campaigns are grounded in local needs. Much of the funding for non-profit work around sexuality comes through HIV/AIDS work and mostly targets so-called MSM (Men who Sleep with Men). But the work on the ground also includes advocacy, challenging to laws, fighting against discrimination, creating safer spaces, and asserting the rights of sexual minorities. And while HIV/AIDS continues to be a major element – particularly for funding – in last few years, the focus has also included promoting acceptance, rights, freedom, autonomy, and coalition work. For instance, through the creation of CAISO in Trinidad and Tobago and the re-formation of the regional organization CariFLAGS, new momentum and campaigns have focused on the legal rights of sexual minorities, working against discrimination and the silence within communities, and asserting freedom.
The exciting activism in the region interconnects with and speaks to the artistic landscape of Caribbean sexual minorities. Hence, this collection also engages and reflects the dynamic artistic expressions by sexual minorities across the region and its diaspora. There is an extensive history and herstory of Caribbean sexual minorities represented in the literary landscape through gay, lesbian, trans, bisexual, and gender non-conforming characters. The pivotal anthology of gay and lesbian writings in Our Caribbean, published in 2008 and edited by Thomas Glave, reminds us that the voices of sexual minorities have long been part of the Caribbean literary imaginary. More recently, in the visual arts (including film, photography, painting, etc.) a number of artists have grappled with homophobias and included representations of sexual minorities in loving and positive ways. In music and performance art, there is a growing and beautiful engagement with asserting sexual minority voices and concerns. This collection reflects a range of expression, which speaks to the creative engagement with diverse Caribbean genders and sexualities. Caribbean artists remain on the cutting edge of creating, challenging, and building community even when we/they exist on the margins. We need more stories, more histories and herstories, more complex representations, and more engaging language to describe the lives of sexual minorities in the Caribbean. And we need to continue claiming space and demanding freedom and sexual autonomy – for same-sex-desiring, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, gender non-conforming, queer, and all the names we give ourselves – struggling for not simply tolerance and acceptance but also belonging.
We would like to thank the Ford Foundation for its significant financial support of the IRN over the past five years and CLAGS at the City University of New York for housing the IRN and supporting the work. We would also like to acknowledge and give thanks to our co-editors and consultants Natalie Bennett, Colin Robinson, and Vidyaratha Kissoon, with special thanks to Vidyaratha who also designed the website and is responsible for much of the technical building and coordination of the Caribbean IRN. Also, we offer deep gratitude to all those who participated in our very first regional meeting, the Caribbean Sexualities Gathering in 2009, Kingston, Jamaica. The idea for this collection was born during the meeting workshop and started with Gayatri Gopinath, who offered the idea of theorizing homophobias after hearing the many voices from across the region discussing the need for more precise language and study regarding Caribbean sexualities and homophobia. Lastly, we give thanks to each of the contributors who made offerings to this daring collection and trusted us as editors with your words, images, thoughts, and expressions that ultimately reflect the complexities of place, desire and belonging.
i Organizations represented included Coalition Advocating for Inclusion of Sexual Orientation in Trinidad (CAISO), FOKO Curacao, Jamaica Forum for All Sexuals, Gays and Lesbians (JFLAG), United and Strong St. Lucia, GrenCHAP Grenada, Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination in Guyaya (SASOD).
My former Chemistry teacher called me up and asked if I and others from SASOD (Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination) would meet with Sister Michelle Smith. Sister Michelle is a Jamaican pastor whose Ministry is about “saving” gay and lesbian people. Sister Michelle has written her own story about being saved from the lesbian lifestyle.
The week of 10 to 15 June 2012 in Guyana had a series of activities against homosexuality, organised by Operation Restoration. These activities included workshops in churches, meetings with political leaders, public forums and the meeting with me. The meeting included three women from Operation Restoration, Sister Michelle and her colleague Janet from Jamaica; and Janessa and Camille from Power of Change in Trinidad.
Two weeks previously, I was on an NCN Roundtable with Pastor Loris Heywood. I am Hindu. Some of my colleagues attended one of the public forums against homosexuality.
In the two hours or so which I spent with the group, these are the points which I heard – some of them I had heard before, some were new (some are direct quotes and some are my impressions of what was said):
- “Homosexuality is a sin, the Bible is the law and the Church must obey the law”
- They will not tolerate any violence against person who is homosexual, they love homosexuals and want to cure them. One of the women said that she told some students in Berbice that they must not be violent towards homosexuals.
- “95% of LGBT people were sexually molested as children.”
- “Most of the violence is not homophobic, it is about gay people killing and beating other gay people” The LGBT people who come to them for help tell them the horror stories of gay violence. They do not want to report to the police because of shame, and because they know that what they are doing is wrong. I heard something about ‘sin has consequences’ but I did not want to press further.
- “Pastors and clergy will be required to marry same sex couples against their religion or they will go to jail.”
- “Parents will go to jail (a father in Massachusetts went to jail) for asking that their children not be taught about same sex parents.”
- “Decriminalisation will facilitate more anal sex. Anal sex is unhealthy, the medical professionals know this which is why the Blood bank does not take blood from men who have sex with men. The sodomy laws protect the population – lesbians also have anal sex so they are also at risk.”
- “Homosexuality is a perversion” including practices such as “fisting, golden showers, sado-masochism.”
- “The EU and the United Nations are pushing this, this is not of Guyana and the Caribbean” (yep I know this is true, they fund a lot of the LGBT advocacy work and so on).
- “We should learn the history of sodomy laws and why they were implemented.” One woman said she was surprised that our laws did not decriminalise same sex relations between women.
- “There are homosexuals in high places so there is no real discrimination and that there is an inner circle of gays who control everything” – I did not ask for names – and I had to emphatically deny that a certain homosexual in a high place was not a member of SASOD.
(I was shocked that they thought he was!)
- “The Church does work against domestic violence and child abuse but those things are not being legalised, hence the campaign and Ministries against homosexuality.”
- “Homosexuals are protected as individuals against violence and other forms of discrimination already.”
- Some of the women were frustrated because they were not getting anywhere with me.
- “All who say they are Christian are not Christian.”
These other points were also made:
- I do not want to listen, that I am closed to their views.
- I am inclined to distract from their points in my rebuttal of their arguments.
- I must understand that the messages from the Church are of compassion and love and not what some of 10 to 15 years ago used to say (“fyah bun” is not their message).
- I look good for my age.
- I have a tendency to dominate the conversation and not listen.
- Even though I aspire to stay far from the Christian who I was once close to, that is not good enough for them (and one said that I was not being truthful).
- I do not want to face the science and research which is proving that homosexuality is unnatural and dangerous.
- Don’t worry wid me, I does do “meh ting.”
- Dat I is “someting else” (I made a comment when Sister Michelle asked the camera woman to push the button again I said “ Sister, eh eh – that sound very nice and familiar”).
- I will not be able to understand since I am not moved by the same Spirit as them.
Why did I come? What is my truth?
They asked me why did I come then, if I was so convicted in my beliefs. I said that I did not come to change anyone’s belief. I could not anyway so why would I do so? I came to find out from them what they thought about how do people who believe differently should live in a place.
Guyana has mixed cultures, religions and other beliefs.
But actually I wanted to meet them because I have a secret fascination with how the evangelical Church mobilises and how much of the work and funding is mobilised from grassroots sources – many times from people who are poor who will find ways of contributing in money or labour.. I think of how 75% of the time I spend on LGBT work is spent on arguing with other LGBT people and struggling to meet the donor demands. Why it must be so refreshing to just be able to focus on the message and getting it out there. I wanted to ask Sister Michelle to Minster to the women who are not lesbian, who are survivors of violence and abuse and who have not healed. I came because of all of the Christians I know and love, some of them LGBT, who struggle to reconcile their faith and sexuality.
I made these points—none of which were accepted:
- Homosexuality is natural and that different religions have different beliefs.
- I honour their experiences that they had changed, others have struggled and not changed and others have made choices of how they would want to live.
- LGBT rights was not about anal sex alone and that the law criminalised ‘gross indecency’ between males.
- Diverse sexual orientations existed in all the cultures which had come to Guyana.
- Sexual orientation and gender identity have nothing to do with the abuse of children.
One of the women looked genuinely distressed that I seemed not to understand her point of view. And I did feel bad that I had made her so distressed. I realised that as I sat there facing the roots of much of the homophobia and violence which LGBT people faced, that I could not really feel good about letting any of the women feel the pain of the homophobia.
I learnt that it was easy for me to like the women – to feel affection for them – though one bothered me terribly in terms of how she spoke. Her tone of voice was strident, and there was no room for accommodation – or for change. Our personal and cultural histories are complex. I think that if this discussion were happening with six men, it would have been different. I might have been more fearful of the men, perhaps less sympathetic to their homophobia since I believe that male homophobia is often rooted in misogyny and sexism.
I have never really dealt with homophobia in women – and these women were clear to say that they are not homophobic. They love homosexuals – just not the sin.
I wonder if the reason I have this affinity with the women is that perhaps I am just as driven as they are, and that I recognise that and for some strange reason, I am fascinated by this drive.
We ended with prayers. I said the English translation of Twameva Mata. Sister Michelle prayed and I listened to understand. The prayer was not for me to change anything about how I viewed life – or maybe I did not hear that – it was for me to see light.
Sister Michelle also spoke in her prayer from Isaiah, and she prayed that no weapon formed against me shall prosper. One of the women asked me if I do not think that I am male, and I told her that I am a black lesbian – she did not understand.
As I write this, perhaps with the hope in that prayer – the Christian prayer for a Hindu – I am glad that even though we ended the meeting thinking about homosexuality the same way we started, I do not see these women or their work as weapons against me.
Vidyaratha Kissoon lives in Guyana and works in the application of information technologies for development.
He is active on social justice issues and has been involved in work against gender-based violence, violence against children, and homophobia. He blogs at Thoughts of a Minibus Traveller .
[Image cropped from Stabroek News
For the purposes of this collection, the Caribbean IRN Board posed the same questions through email and skype to several activists across the region between December 2011 and May 2012. We envisioned cross-regional yet local perspectives of sexual minority organizing in the Caribbean. We invite you to enter this roundtable of responses with activists from several countries, representing The Bahamas, Guyana, Martinique, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago.
The Bahamas – Erin Greene
1. Tell us about your work in the region and any organizations that you represent.
I joined CAFRA (Caribbean Association for Feminist Research in Action) in The Bahamas in 2000 and became the Bahamas’ National Representative for CAFRA in 2002. I am now the interim deputy chairperson of CAFRA. I was a member of CRAFFT (Constitutional Rights Reform and Facilitation Team) that conducted a six-month lecture series culminating in a two-day workshop and the submission of draft legislation to the Bahamas constitutional reform committee in 2002-2003.
I was an executive member of and spokesperson for the Rainbow Alliance of the Bahamas when it formed in 2003 until the organization was closed in 2008. I joined CARIFLAG (Caribbean Forum for the Liberation and Acceptance of Genders and Sexualities) in 2007.
I am a member of Bahamas Human Rights Network, which was formed in 2007. I now work as a human rights activist and host an Internet television show “The Culture of Things” where I discuss various issues surrounding human rights. I have made numerous television and radio appearances to discuss Human Rights and LGBT Rights.
2. This project is offering a space for Caribbean activists, writers, scholars, and artists to define and redefine homophobia. We think this is necessary because so much has been discussed and defined outside of the region. How would you define homophobia(s) in your country? What social, cultural, and political factors contribute to homophobia(s)?
Homosexuality is accepted as a silent affliction in the Bahamas: its okay once you don’t maintain a higher social status than me, or maintain a real or perceived position of power over me, or in any way force me to acknowledge your orientation or gender expression. Bahamians are also agitated by individuals who are perceived as attempting to blur gender lines and by Bahamians that challenge the Christian Church’s perceived position on homosexuality or the Church’s authority on social issues. But Bahamians generally are still uncomfortable with issues of sex, sexuality and relationships, and often behavior that is instantly labeled as homophobic is based in a fear or lack of understanding of human sexuality in general.
I believe that the response to the “StopMurderMusic” campaign on the ground in Jamaica was less about believing in, or supporting, or an unwillingness to challenge homophobia and more an issue of defining sovereignty. The campaign was formed outside of Jamaica and it seems with disregard to the economic impact of the campaign and to the needs and strategies of activists and the LGBT community in Jamaica.
Bahamian politicians and civil servants faced with an apathetic electorate generally, and an invisible community, in particular, are not motivated to enforce existing legislation and protections or to create special protections for the LGBT community. The continual misinterpretation of the Preamble of the Constitution of the Bahamas is an example of a willingness to ignore existing statutory protections and perpetuate a ‘church’ state where a self-appointed Christian Council participates in the creation and enforcement of legislation as it concerns mainly the media and entertainment and even education.
3. How useful is it for us to talk about different kinds of homophobia(s)? How would talking about different kinds of homophobia(s) help us to include concerns for transgendered and gender non-conforming people?
Before we can talk about homophobia(s), we must be able to talk about Human Rights. In the Bahamas using the word homophobia makes Bahamians uncomfortable and puts them on the defensive, they feel their anti-gay position is in accordance with biblical scripture and Christian belief and constitutes a Christian duty. An attempt to discuss LGBT rights is often considered as an attempt to convert the individual to that “lifestyle” or to be bad Christians. Many Christian fundamentalists believe that the only rights a human has are the rights that the Christian God gave them: the right to live and the right to die at a predetermined time only known by God. However many more Bahamians understand Human Rights and the right to be in a relationship of one’s choice (implicit in the right to freedom of association and the right to freedom of conscience) in the context of same sex couples and attraction.
4. What changes have you seen and experienced (in the last 5 to 10 years) with regards to LGBT or sexual minority issues in the region and in your country in particular?
There has been a significant increase in coverage of LGBT issues in both traditional and alternative media throughout the region. In the Bahamas publications that once would ignore local and international discussions of LGBT issues and crimes directed towards or involving the gay community have now become some of the community’s biggest allies. Government agencies and private and religious institutions have shown increased willingness to support (both publically and privately) the LGBT community and its needs. Although we have not reached nearly acceptable levels, the Royal Bahamian Police Force has shown an improvement in its willingness to respond to crimes against members of the LGBT community. Radio and entertainment personalities have consciously participated in the decrease in homophobic material being broadcasted in public and private arenas and spaces. Regional and local festivals have increased support to LGBT artists and LGBT themed works.
5. What are the strategies you use for organizing against homophobia and its effects (ex. ostracism, depression, violence, etc.)?
Currently, I am not a member of any local LGBT organization but refer members of the community to existing advocacy and support groups like Bahamas LGBT Equality Advocates (BLEA) and Society Against STI’s and HIV (SASH Bahamas) or to LGBT affirming lawyers, doctors, churches and support groups.
6. What are the major challenges and successes you have faced in organizing?
Challenges: The gay community has continuously shown an unwillingness to maintain the levels of visibility required to ensure the enforcement of existing legislation and legal protections that offer recourse for discrimination and crimes against sexual minorities. Most members of the LGBT community are Christian and still wish to maintain strong ties to their church but face difficulties being visible in any activity that challenges the church or established religious doctrine. No programs currently exist for LGBT youth. Activists, including myself, fear being accused of ‘recruiting’ or cultivating sexual relationships with minors, and have found the government and existing social organizations unwilling to create or support such programs to address LGBT youth issues. I have found that the LGBT community is also unwilling to organize across class and race lines, with many Bahamians fearing repercussion from even this level of visibility.
Successes: The Anglican Church and the Royal Bahamas Police Force have expressed a willingness to improve the dialogue between these institutions and the LGBT community and to work together to improve services to the community. In July 2004, the Rainbow Alliance of the Bahamas held a welcome demonstration to support members of “Family Values” cruise hosted by Rosie O’Donnell and her family in Rawson Square – and offer a counter demonstration to the local protesters. The Royal Bahamas Police force carried out their duty to monitor and protect the members of our demonstrations and visitors in a professional and respectable manner.
7. What kinds of regional or diaspora collaboration have been effective? What kinds of regional or diaspora collaboration have not been effective?
The Caribbean IRN (and particularly the web event for the launch of the Jamaica Gay Freedom Movement Archive in June 2011) has proven to be an effective tool, allowing individuals to participate in an event and speak to activists and LGBT people around the world, while maintaining anonymity, if desired. Engaging dialog and activism via the internet allows participation without fear of the repercussions that often accompany visibility.
8. Do you think the Caribbean as a region is shifting in terms of tolerance and acceptance of diverse genders and sexualities? If so, how?
Yes. The increase in visibility of LGBT themed literature and academic work and the emergence of LGBT artists and positive LGBT themes in popular music, like reggae and calypso, and the creation and success of lesbian/gay-themed films regionally and locally indicate a shift toward a more tolerant position. Portia Miller-Simpson’s announcement that she will allow gays to serve in her cabinet after her landslide victory in recent elections in Jamaica, and an increase of support shown by Caribbean politicians in international organizations in general, and in particular, the case of The Bahamas’ (then) deputy Prime Minister Brent Symonette expressing support for a United Nations Human Rights Council Resolution that affirms equal rights for LGBT people, are indications of this shift.
9. What are some specific changes you would like to see in your country to change or lessen homophobia(s)? In the Caribbean as a whole, how can we move towards these goals?
The introduction of civics and constitutional law classes in secondary schools would be an effective tool in the reduction of homophobia. Creation of training programs for law enforcement and peace officers including customs, immigration and prison officers, for medical and emergency medical staff and civil servants generally to facilitate an understanding of fulfillment of professional duties without regard for personal belief systems will also cause a reduction in homophobia. The enforcement of existing legislation at governmental and professional levels would help to address homophobia and many of the issues concerning the LGBT community.
The creation of programs that focus on personal development for LGBT youth and temporary housing for these young people transitioning to adulthood would also lessen the effects of homophobia. Another tool that can effectively reduce homophobia would be the creation of legal and media industry standards and penalties for the broadcasting or publishing of material that promotes or perpetuates violence towards the sexual minority community.
Guyana – Joel Simpson
1. Tell us about your work in the region and any organizations that you represent.
I work on sexual rights and health in the Caribbean; primarily in the countries I reside (and resided) and sub-regionally and regionally as well. I am the Founder and Co-Chairperson of the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD) in Guyana, Co-Founder of the Trinidad and Tobago Anti Violence Project (TTAVP) and founding member of 4Change, both of which have subsumed in Trinidad and Tobago’s Coalition Advocating Inclusion of Sexual Orientation (CAISO). At the regional level, I have been involved in the leadership of the regional lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) network – then called the Caribbean Forum for Lesbians, All-sexuals and Gays (CFLAG) but now re-named the Caribbean Forum for Liberation and Acceptance of Genders and Sexualities (CariFLAGS) since its resuscitation in 2006 as Steering Committee Member, Focal Point, Spokesperson and Advisory Board Member. I am also a Legal Core Member of the Human Rights Working Group of the Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition (CVC).
2. This project is offering a space for Caribbean activists, writers, scholars, and artists to define and redefine homophobia. We think this is necessary because so much has been discussed and defined outside of the region. How would you define homophobia(s) in your country? What social, cultural, and political factors contribute to homophobia(s)?
Homophobia in Guyana exists in multiple forms. Institutionally, it exists in laws, which criminalize sexual intimacy between adult men in private. These laws are indirectly enforced through police extortion and other state-sanctioned abuses, social stigma and direct discrimination that it festers. Laws against cross-dressing, vagrancy and loitering are used to target male-to-female transgender sex workers specifically and transphobic discrimination manifests itself in profound ways; not only through criminal enforcement, but in creating barriers which amount to the denial of access and rights to education, employment, housing, health and other social services which the state is obligated to provide. In state policies, it exists in the health sector where ‘men who have sex with men,’ ‘women who have sex with men’ and other such non-heterosexual behaviours which are officially excluded from donating blood, regardless of their level of epidemiological risk for sexually transmitted diseases. And in the housing sector, it exists where legally-married heterosexual couples with children are given priority to buy house lots from the government. Socio-culturally, it exists in dancehall music, which we have largely imported and adapted locally from Jamaica. Some theatre productions also reinforce stereotypes of gay men, in particular, and represent us as flamboyant, lewd cross-dressers for comedic entertainment.
3. How useful is it for us to talk about different kinds of homophobia(s)? How would talking about different kinds of homophobia(s) help us to include concerns for transgender and gender non-conforming people?
I find it is very important in the Guyana context, especially, to talk about transphobia as a specific kind of homophobia particularly because we have these unique laws that criminalise cross-dressing and are enforced from time to time. Because public opinion seems largely against this particular form of non-conforming gender expression, even more so than against same-sex intimacy, it seems more strategic and effective to use specific language to address issues around transphobia, than referring to homophobia, as the umbrella term.
4. What changes have you seen and experienced (in the last 5 to 10 years) with regards to LGBT or sexual minority issues in the region and in your country in particular?
The debate has definitely shifted from the time I started this work officially in 2003 when forming SASOD from one which focused predominantly on religious views to a rights-based discourse. This took years of constant advocacy consistently framing the issues as human-rights concerns for public engagement, rather than religious perspectives that dominate private morality debates. I have also found that because we have increasingly articulated LGBT issues as human rights concerns and created more social spaces for community engagement, fellowship and entertainment, young LGBT people in particular appear more empowered to live openly, despite pervasive social stigma and discrimination which still exists in Guyanese society today.
5. What are the strategies you use for organizing against homophobia and its effects (ex. ostracism, depression, violence, etc.)?
The strategies are many and include public education, media advocacy, community mobilization, alliance building and the list can go on and on. I hope the effects have been to create a more tolerant and respectful Guyanese and Caribbean societies, though I have no way of proving this.
6. What are the major challenges and successes you have faced in organizing?
I suspect these are not unique. Challenges range from lack of resources, community apathy to downright indifference. The movement is generally unrewarding and fosters a lack of appreciation for the personal sacrifices many of us make in order to do this thankless work. Successes have been small wins like filing the cross-dressing constitutional suit – the first legal challenge in the Caribbean region to challenge laws which discriminate against our community – and the inroads we have made in the Inter-American human rights system on LGBT issues. I had the distinct honour of representing the Caribbean region at the first-ever thematic hearing on sexual orientation issues at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in October 2008. I also lead a project which culminated in a thematic hearing specifically on LGBT issues in the Caribbean in October 2010. I managed the production of SASOD’s first documentary short film, “My Wardrobe, My Right” which looks at the cross-dressing crackdown in Guyana. There have been very many ‘firsts’ of this sort that I would consider as organizing successes.
7. What kinds of regional or diaspora collaboration have been effective? What kinds of regional / diaspora collaboration have not been effective?
I struggle to think of any diaspora collaboration in which I have been involved. At the regional level, there have been many effective collaborations. One of the first success stories was the Grenada Shadow Report project in 2007. At the time, I was a steering committee member of CFLAG and some INGOs wanted to engage Caribbean activists on producing a shadow report for Grenada’s review under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in a manner which would see the work being done in the Global North by persons who were not from the Caribbean. CFLAG intervened, mobilized other regional partners and garnered resources to have the report produced and edited in the region by Caribbean people to build our own capacities. The media furor around Grenada’s ICCPR review saw their government take a pro-LGBT position publicly, for the first time I believe, in light of a possible tourism boycott.
In terms of less effective collaborations at the regional level, I think the ongoing international Stop Murder Music campaign could benefit from more Caribbean leadership and involvement, though it has had its fair share of global successes. The deficiency in that one, I think, is that Caribbean LGBT activists outside of Jamaica were not originally envisioned as key stakeholders in a campaign which largely saw North America and Europe as the sites to contest hyper-violent, anti-gay music from Jamaica, which was largely penetrating and becoming part of the wider “region’s psyche,” to quote some of the scholarly words of the late Dr. Robert Carr.
8. Do you think the Caribbean as a region is shifting in terms of tolerance and acceptance of diverse genders and sexualities? If so, how?
Definitely! I think the level of debate has risen in many of the larger territories like Jamaica, Guyana, Belize, Trinidad and Tobago and even some of the smaller islands like St. Lucia and Grenada. This is in large measure due to the unwavering advocacy of local LGBT groups. The more reasoned, rights-oriented debates I think signal progress in the level of tolerance and respect for LGBT Caribbean people. Our issues are now highly visible in the region’s media. Even in notorious Jamaica, the incidence of homophobic violence does not appear to be as high as a few years ago. But there is still so much more work to be done. We have only just begun.
9. What are some specific changes you would like to see in your country to change or lessen homophobia(s)? In the Caribbean as a whole, how can we move towards these goals?
For Guyana, I would like to see the laws criminalizing same-sex intimacy and cross-dressing repealed. I would also like to see “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” enacted as grounds for discrimination in our constitution. Attitudes will not change over-night and public education is long-term work. But if we do not strip away institutional forms of homophobia and provide means of protection and redress, then LGBT Guyanese cannot even hold the state accountable for violating their fundamental rights. Legal and policy reforms are important first steps to full equality and citizenship I believe. In the Caribbean region, we can only achieve these with the development of highly sophisticated advocacy strategies and powerful agents and allies, which strengthen the movement by winning hearts and minds and becoming politically significant. The region’s political leaders seem to be following public opinion on these issues, so we have work to do in this regard; but also, the movement needs to become a political force that cannot be ignored by prejudiced politicians where the populace is supportive of our humanity and rights.
Martinique – Fred Cronard
1. Tell us about your work in the region and any organizations that you represent.
Since 1998, I worked in the field of fight against AIDS in Martinique. In 2002, I started my first preventive actions in the LGBT groups of Martinique. It was the first actions implemented in Martinique for this group. In 2004, a group of people living with HIV and gays, we have created Association Martinique Vivre Ensemble [Martinique Living Together Association] (AMVIE). AMVIE was working on the principle of community engagement of people living with HIV and LGBT. In 2005, AMVIE has developed the first programs to prevent HIV and STIs and the fight against discrimination of LGBT people in Martinique. In 2007, I was elected president of the AMVIE. In 2011, AMVIE has decided to merge with the AIDES association, based in Pantin (France). AIDES is the largest association of fight against AIDS and hepatitis in France. Currently, I’m president of AIDES Martinique.
There are no laws against homosexuality in French law. There are laws that protect the privacy of individuals, and who condemn homophobic acts. However, there are homophobic attacks, and it is always difficult for LGBT people assaulted to complain.
This is especially true in Martinique and other French departments of America of Martinique, Guadeloupe, French Guiana and St. Martin (French part). The police sometimes refuse to accept the complaint of a person LGBT assaulted. There are few (or not) programs for LGBT rights developed in the French Department of America (Martinique (1), Guadeloupe (1), French Guiana and St. Martin (French part)). There are few (or not) of cooperation between the associations of Martinique, Guadeloupe, Guyana and St. Martin with NGOs in the Caribbean region, in the fight against AIDS and the fight for LGBT rights.
In 2006, a seminar was held in St. Maarten by the Ministry of Health of France. There were 153 participants from France, and various Caribbean countries (Dominican Republic, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Haiti, St. Lucia, Suriname, etc.). A workshop was devoted to relations between men (MSM). Few links have been developed and maintained by the associations of French Department of America and the Caribbean NGOs.
In 2010, a program of cooperation with the Caribbean, funded by the European Community, and entitled “Setting up of a regional HIV observatory between French territories and other countries in the Caribbean” was implemented. The project leader is the University Hospital Centre (CHU) of Pointe-à-Pitre (Guadeloupe). Investigations are carried out in the public men who have sex with men (MSM), crack users, sex workers, migrants. The scientific coordination of the investigations is provided by the Clinical Investigation Center – Clinical Epidemiology (CIC-EC) French Guiana (Hospital Centre (CH) Cayenne). AIDS coordinated some of these investigations, including MSM, Martinique, Guyana and St. Martin.
AIDES Martinique priorities for 2012 for LGBT people are:
– Strengthen our prevention efforts : preventing HIV/STI, testing HIV rapid tests
– Develop actions for the rights of LGBT people
– Develop visibility actions
– Develop advocacy at local and regional
– Develop links with NGOs in the Caribbean
2. This project is offering a space for Caribbean activists, writers, scholars, and artists to define and redefine homophobia. We think this is necessary because so much has been discussed and defined outside of the region. How would you define homophobia(s) in your country? What social, cultural, and political factors contribute to homophobia(s)?
There are few known studies on homophobia in Martinique, and more generally in the French Departments of America. The experiences of the associations are very recent and provide some data. As part of the “Setting up of a regional HIV observatory between French territories and other countries in the Caribbean “, an inventory was made. An inventory of work (surveys, studies, and other academic work) made in Martinique and out of Martinique is in progress.
In Martinique, homosexuality is lived hidden, due to discriminatory behavior of the population. We cannot really speak of “community” LGBT in Martinique. There is no sense of belonging to a community. We identify people who claim to be gay (known in Martinique “Macoumè”). Beyond these gays, men have sex with men, without being defined as gay or bisexual. It is a male sexuality lived hard, “shameful?” Among gay people, the experience of homosexuality is different according to the generations and social class. Without speaking of visibility, there is a display of homosexuality among young gays.
A small group of transgender people is identified with an activity of prostitution. These are people of Martinique, with possibly one or two people of St. Lucia. These people are not integrated into the group of gays. Their clients are mostly men “heterosexual” socially integrated, often married and a father.
The meeting places are:
– Outdoor meeting places, which are often frequented the night in Fort de France (the capital of Martinique) and on the beaches. The absence of security makes these places dangerous places, favorable to attacks.
– The private dances are also meeting places.
– Internet networks
3. How useful is it for us to talk about different kinds of homophobia(s)? How would talking about different kinds of homophobia(s) help us to include concerns for transgendered and gender non-conforming people?
Homophobia manifests itself in a number of attitudes, behaviors and actions that it would be important to identify. We need to identify the foundations of homophobia to develop strategies to combat it. The arguments most often advanced are: religion (it is forbidden by the Bible, God wanted that the woman is the natural companion of man) or societal (requires men and women for the reproduction of the human species and the sustainability of the society).
Many other arguments can be identified:
– The homophobic attitudes of men who have sex with men and who seek to protect themselves? Homophobic, so I’m not gay!
– Homophobic assault offenders, because homosexuals abused rarely report, and are therefore easy targets. Often these attacks take place on outdoor meeting places without security
– Attacks (racketeering) homophobic people who think that homosexuals have money, they rarely report and are easy targets
– The homophobic acts of people that do not support LGBT visibility, but that can be tolerated if they are hidden (they stay in their private sphere)
– The homophobic acts of people who think that homosexuality is against nature, that LGBT people are perverse
– Acts homophobic people (macho) who think that homosexuals are weak, do not represent the criteria of masculinity, virility?
4. What changes have you seen and experienced (in the last 5 to 10 years) with regards to LGBT or sexual minority issues in the region and in your country in particular?
The main change in recent years, since 2004, was the creation of associations involved in LGBT. These associations are An Nou Allé, AMVIE (now AIDES Martinique) and CAP. These associations were able to develop preventive actions and actions of visibility and advocacy. They mainly concern gay men. The only active association to date is AIDES Martinique. Recently an association of lesbian was created.
Apart from the associations, there are Internet networks, which are places of exchange and encounter for gays. Speak publicly about homosexuality and attitudes of discrimination and stigma is likely to fight against homophobia.
5. What are the strategies you use for organizing against homophobia and its effects (ex. ostracism, depression, violence, etc.)?
The strategies we are considering:
– Building capacity, self-esteem, removing guilt of the LGBT
– Ensure the visibility of homosexuality
– Respond to homophobic actions
Actions can be:
– Implementation of group discussion among LGBT
– Develop community action (peer)
– Establishment of an observatory of homophobic violence, for a systematic response and assistance to persons victimized
– Encourage discussion in schools about sexuality, emotional and sexual orientation
– Conduct public debates by seeking the involvement of political, artistic, sporting, etc.
6. What are the major challenges and successes you have faced in organizing?
This is the creation of the association and actions implemented. The association may develop a public debate within the population, through the various media, newspapers, television. In May 2012, we will organize a “Diversity Week” as part of World Day against Homophobia. During this week, several actions will be implemented in the direction of the students, the general public and LGBT. On this occasion, we will invite NGOs in the Caribbean.
7. What kinds of regional or diaspora collaboration have been effective? What kinds of regional /diaspora collaboration have not been effective?
For now, we have no regional collaboration or relationship with the Diaspora. This is one of our concerns for the future. The French departments of America are fairly isolated from each other and with the countries of the Caribbean.
8. Do you think the Caribbean as a region is shifting in terms of tolerance and acceptance of diverse genders and sexualities? If so, how?
We have few links and rather limited knowledge of the initiatives developed in the Caribbean. We need to develop links with the actors of the Caribbean to find ways of collaborating and joint actions.
9. What are some specific changes you would like to see in your country to change or lessen homophobia(s)? In the Caribbean as a whole, how can we move towards these goals?
We are at the beginning of a process rather recent, dating back six years. We still need a method, action and collaboration to better evaluate our work and develop the society of Martinique. I think we are the right direction. Interesting initiatives are being developed. We need to pursue them.
I hope that this early work with you and others in the Caribbean will allow us to have a better understanding of our region and to identify actions that we can develop together.
Tieneke Sumter, Chair of Women’ S Way Foundation &
Chrystabelle Beaton, member and LGBT advocate from the LGBT Platform Suriname.
1. Tell us about your work in the region and any organizations that you represent.
Women’ S Way was founded in 2008 but became a foundation in may 2011. It is our mission to create a platform for women who (also) Love women in Suriname and the rest of the CARICOM. Our goals are to strengthen the emancipation of women who (also) love women, promote and stimulate the wellbeing and health of women who have sex with women (WSW) and advocate for social acceptance. We offer a meeting place for women (also on FB), organize discussions, lectures, training and leisure activities like parties and trips. We also collect data of the needs of the WSW community.
The LGBT Platform Suriname was established in August 2011. It is a network of 5 organization (Suriname Men United, He + HIV Foundation, Women’ S Way Foundation, Club Matapi and Proud 2 be) who decided to work together after a member of our parliament, Mr. Assabina, requested an anti-homosexual policy from the government in Parliament. He called for the destroying of the root courses of homosexuality, which according to him is a disease. We were pleased to see that the chair of our parliament stopped him and asked him not to discriminate since our constitution respects and protects every individual. Also other parliamentarians came up for the rights of LGBT’s. This was the start of a long discussion in the Surinamese society and even Human Rights Watch came with a statement. Mr. Assabina was forced to apologize.
The LGBT Platform Suriname wants to secure the rights of LGBT’s and create more awareness about the rights of LGBT’s and acceptance of people with a different sexual orientation or gender identity. Our first activity was to organize the National Coming Out Day (NCOD) and walk in October 2011. We receive an official permission from our President to use the park in front of the presidential palace. A group of 250 and 300 persons participated in this activity. We were able to dominate the news for more than one week. Parents and member of parliaments walked with us while the police guided us. With help of the Dutch Embassy we were able to organize a training for aspirant LGBT advocates; to develop information material about homosexuality which was distributed at several public events. The COC Netherlands made it possible for us that one of our members could attend the UPR meeting in Genève and could give a statement on behalf of the LGBT Platform Suriname.
We would like to define homophobia almost as a disease that spreads fear and hate against LGBT’s in our societies. Most of the time some out of content taken religious scripture is being used to do so. Heteronormativity and the fear for sexual freedom is the main cause of all homophobia in Suriname and in other places in the world. Although we don’t have laws is Suriname that prohibited homosexuality in practice, LGBTs are being stigmatized and discriminated. Our laws don’t provide any regulation in case someone has changed his or her gender. Many experience discrimination in their family, workplace and school etc. Suriname has many different ethnic and religious groups and some of them are against LGBT practices. Women’ S Way is often confronted with women who knows that they love women but feel the pressure to choose a man for their love ones. Some are afraid to have relations with women since they fear they will burn in hell when they die.
According to our government, Suriname is not ready for a specific LGBT policy. To do so, a public discussion is needed with several (religious) groups. We don’t agree with this statement since it is the task of the government to protect ALL her people and should not leave that to any opinion of a religious group. Assabina is a maroon man and when he made his statement, he said that according to his cultural background homosexuality can’t be accepted. The statements of Assabina has stimulated anti gay organization and people to bring their opinion forward and create fear and hate. Some (maroon) LGBT’s have told us they would stay in the closet because they are more afraid of the negative responses from their loved ones in the community.
3. How useful is it for us to talk about different kinds of homophobia(s)? How would talking about different kinds of homophobia(s) help us to include concerns for transgendered and gender non-conforming people?
We think it is important to talk about homophobia since daily LGBT people are being discriminated. Not too long ago a transgender person was being beaten and threatened by her/his neighbors because of who s/he is. S/he was brave enough to go the media and tell her/his story. We also are aware that many transgender persons are not getting the medical treatment they need since the medical system doesn’t know them by their ‘new’ gender. We heard that they are buying illegal hormone injections and injected themselves without any doctor guidance. They are not aware that they put themselves at great risk. At this moment, there is a lawsuit of a transgender who wants to change her gender in her passport. Our law does not provide for this so we expect that this case will be brought to the OAS.
We have noticed that in the Caribbean LGBT issues are being placed in the health corner in the last years. The HIV epidemic and the funding that came with it has contributed it to this. We think it was a safe start and helped bring the MSM, transgender and the health issues of Sex workers on the agenda. Unfortunately the specific issues of lesbian and bisexual women were absolutely not addressed.
In Suriname, we saw the same pattern, but in the last 5 years, we have seen the first shifts to an also more human rights approach. Suriname Men United has helped to create this path with the help of the Schorer Foundation from Holland. Homosexuality is in Suriname a topic that is almost every week in the media. This was not so 10 years ago. Last year the journalist price was given to a news agency who covered a topic about the recognition of LGBT rights in Suriname. The LGBT rights are becoming more and more on the political agenda in the region and Suriname. And hopefully this will lead to move it out of the health corner.
The LGBT Platform tries to create more public awareness by providing information about homosexuality. Several members has shared their personal stories in the media to empower those who struggle with their sexuality and the response of their love ones. We try to build alliances with women organizations, NGO’s, members of the union, media, religious leaders, parliamentarians and companies. We are now in the process of developing a long-term lobby and advocacy plan. Based on the response we are getting out of the (LGBT) community, people tell us it was time that the LGBT organizations decided to work together which will help to the further reorganization of the rights of LGBT’s.
Women’S Way Foundation is providing several activities to women who (also) love women. We are working together with social workers and a psychologist if counseling is needed. Self acceptance and coming out yes or no are some of the topic we address in our activities. With the help of Mama Cash, we were able to create a safe place were women can come and meet each other in the last year. By being part of the LGBT platform we promote the rights of LGBT’s and create more awareness in our society.
6. What are the major challenges and successes you have faced in organizing?
The major challenges we face is how to find answers to deal with the homophobic response of several religious groups and persons in Suriname. We are aware that the more we will become stronger in our call for equal rights for ALL the louder the voices will become of the homophobes. Building the capacity of the LGBT community and our organizations is the next challenge we face. Working on the rights of LGBT’s is a full time job and we do it now in our spare time. In order to get the job done it will be important to receive more support and (financial) resources. We are still weak in documenting all the cases of discrimination. We are a were that only data will convince our government that LGBT’s are being violated and discriminated although our constitution says that they should be protected. We need to involve more relevant groups, (non) governmental organizations and companies to include sexual orientation in their policies.
Our successes are the establishment of the LGBT Platform Suriname, the activities in relation to National Coming Out Day; the first steps in establishing dialogs with several groups; the development of the information kit; the training of 14 LGBT junior advocates ; the several public awareness activities; the several activities we were able to organize for lesbian and bisexual women. But most of all we gave LGBT’s a face in our community and we made it very clear that we are everywhere and not going anywhere!
7. What kinds of regional or diaspora collaboration have been effective? What kinds of regional /diaspora collaboration have not been effective?
The LGBT Platform Suriname and Women’ S Way are just starting to be part of CariFLAGS. As being of one of the few Dutch speaking organizations in the region, we were more focused on collaborating with Dutch organizations. As an organization for lesbians and bisexual women, who are assumed not to be at great risk to contract HIV and so we have had no voice in the region’s activities in the last years. We are glad that we can contribute in changing this for the years to come. We are also aware that Suriname is in a relatively better position as compared to other countries in the region since we don’t have laws that prohibit homosexuality (or homosexual acts). But because of that we feel we have a responsibility to support our fellow LGBT’s in the region in their struggles.
We think that the region is making steps in shifting to tolerance and acceptance of divers genders and sexualities. The HIV epidemic and the funding that came with it has contributed to this. The fact that PANCAP is refining the draft Regional Anti-Discrimination Model Policy, ‘as we speak’, could be a big step forward. Unfortunately it is still in the health instead of the human rights corner. But it is important to start somewhere. It is our assumption that the region will be almost ‘ forced’ to make some bolder steps in the years to come since LGBT rights is high on the political agenda of the USA and a relative big amount of money will be invest in the region to bring LGBT rights and the tolerance of diverse genders and sexualities on the political agenda of our governments.
Collecting data on violation and discrimination of LGBT’s will help us to provide the scientific basis to convince our governments where actions should being taken to ensure that each (LGBT) citizen of Suriname can live a life free stigma and discrimination. We want our government to make a bold statement that homophobia will not be accepted and tolerated. Our long term goal is that it is possible to have civil marriage or unions for LGBT’s in Suriname. That means that some laws and policies must be reformulated to be inclusive and more neutral formulated. We have an example of one big Surinamese company who has a policy where the (LGBT) partner is fully recognized. The (LGBT) partner who is being registered as the formal partner at the company receives all the rights as pension etc. It would be nice if we can interest other companies to do so since we are aware that chancing laws will take time.
It is important that we create a support system in the region for all LGBT organizations. We think that CariFLAGS will be able to fulfill that role. Building regional capacity in addressing LGBT issues (not only from a HIV or health perceptive) will become more and more important in the near future. Develop a regional lobby and advocacy plan to ensure that the rights of LGBT’s not only become part of our governments but also be addressed is important. In our opinion, a regional LGBT NGO with full time staff should be established or identified (if this already exists). This NGO should be the secretariat of CariFLAGS and its job should be to push the LGBT agenda in the region and help to feed the LGBT movement in the Caribbean.
This interview was recorded on 29 January, 2012 using a web conferencing platform. The recording is largely audio, using the video format for convenient hosting.
Bahamian Filmmakers Maria Govan and Kareem Mortimer have been the first Caribbean filmmakers to include representation of sexual minorities in Caribbean narrative film. In Govan’s film Rain (2008), one of the supporting characters is a lesbian, and while the story is not focused on her sexuality, it does represent and reveal a beautiful relationship her and her partner. In Mortimer’s Children of God (2009), the film centers on two gay men and represents male same-sex desire, while also representing homophobia as perpetuated by religion. And it is the first Caribbean film to do this work explicitly.
Bahamian writer and scholar, as well as co-editor of this collection, Angelique V. Nixon wanted to bring these two important voices together in one interview to discuss their decision to represent sexual minorities in their films.
Kareem Mortimer is a Bahamian filmmaker that has worked globally. Over the past five years he has won over 25 awards for his previous three film projects and has had his work distributed in over forty countries. He has written and directed the short Narrative film Float; the documentary I Am Not A Dummy and the feature films Children Of God and Wind Jammers. Kareem is currently involved in pre-production to a film shot entirely in Creole called Passage.
Maria Govan – (Writer/Director/Producer) A woman of Greek, Scottish and Bahamian descent, Maria’s creative voice is deeply rooted in a dialogue with her home, the Bahamas. She has written and directed Junkanoo: The Heartbeat of a People, Where I’m From: HIV and AIDS in the Bahamas, and Rain. Rain, Maria’s debut narrative feature film, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2008. Rain was awarded special mention in the New Visions competition at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, Best New Director at the Pan African Film Festival, Graine Cinephage in Creteil France, Best Film for Youth in Seoul Korea, and has won numerous audience awards along the way.
“It’s a Girl Thing” Problematizing Female Sexuality, Gender and Lesbophobia in Caribbean Culture
Critical Essay by Charmaine Crawford
THE SUBJECT OF LESBIANISM IN SCHOOLS is a cause for grave concern, as it has a negative effect on every level of society. It is imperative that this matter receives the attention that it warrants, so as to bring about some form of resolve to save our young people from the moral decadence that this lifestyle brings (report by Harewood 2010: 11A).
Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of use who have been forged in the crucibles of difference – those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older – know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish (Lorde 1984: 112).
Lesbianism has been a cause for public concern in the Barbadian popular imagination in the last few of years. Led by religious conservatives and their supporters, the first sign of discontentment was highlighted in the Nation newspaper’s sensationalist coverage of lesbianism that took place over three consecutive Sundays in April 2010. Teenage girls were condemned for frolicking with one another, lesbians were asked to repent and convert back to heterosexuality and lesbianism was equated with many social ills in society. Social angst about female homosexuality was not quickly abated because, in February 2011, the Hollywood movie Black Swan was temporarily banned from cinemas because of its ‘lesbian’ content. The “L” word was being used regularly in media as if it was common practice. But this had nothing to do with a change in attitude towards homosexuality but it was, more so, a master technique based on dominant power relations are employed in order to first name, and then deal with, the ‘undesirable’ thing instead of ignoring it altogether. So, in this case, the approach of de-silencing was purposeful in simultaneously denouncing and de-legitimizing same-sex female sexuality. This attack on lesbians is a clear case of lesbophobia is Barbadian society.
Like any other ‘phobia,’ which has some categorization of aversion attached to it, lesbophobia can be defined simply as the fear, dislike or hatred of lesbians or women who are sexually, physically and/or emotionally attracted to other women whether on an individual or group level. But scholars, such as Kulich, critique the use of terms that have ‘phobia’ attached to them, like ‘homophobia’ and ‘lesbophobia,’ because there is tendency to suggest that perpetrators of bigotry have some kind socio-psychological problem that do not make them fully responsible for their feelings of panic and/or actions of contempt toward “nonnormative sexualities and genders” (2009:24). As a result of this, the litigious behavior of homophobes is often reduced to an individual pathology instead of being linked to the structural heteronormative codes. Despite this, I think there is a political importance and relevance in using the term homophobia, and lesbophobia specifically, because attitudes of disdain (more so than fear) and violent actions against homosexuals do occur and are debilitating to individuals who are doubly victimized as a result of buggery laws in most Caribbean countries. The term ‘anti-gay’ does not capture the same intent to hurt, harm and exclude non-heterosexuals in society. I heard a woman say in an academic setting that she is ‘anti-gay’ – or heterosexist – but not homophobic. She, in turn, takes a sort of moral high ground on issue because she is not exhibiting aggressive behavior toward gay men and women. In this case, erratic homophobic behaviour is substituted by the liberal stance of tolerance: I don’t accept you but I will put up with you as long as you don’t get in my way. But, ultimately, heterosexist ideology legitimizes homophobic acts, whether it is in the form of harassment, discrimination or and/or violence.
Lesbophobia culminates through the intersection of sexism and homophobia as two mutually constituted regimes of oppression that produce the effects of harm – whether its prejudice, harassment, discrimination and/or sexual and physical violence – against women who love and have sex with other women. Capezza (2007) notes that that sexism and homophobia are embedded in traditional gender role identification and expectation for men and women. She goes on to argue that,
Traditional gender role beliefs are linked to sexism and in turn to homophobia due to perceived violations of traditional gender role expectations. If a person endorses such traditional gender role beliefs, then they are [more] likely to express hostility toward individuals who violate these norms, such as nontraditional women (e.g., career women) or homosexual men (2007, 249).
While gender ideology shapes and normalizes men and women’s perceptions and attitudes about masculinity and femininity and produces asymmetrical power relations between men and women (Barriteau 1998), there is a more substantive ideological basis to lesbophobia that gives it weight and legitimacy. Drawing on Jacqui Alexander’s (1991) work on female sexuality, morality and state control, I argue that lesbophobia is the byproduct, or an effect, of a heteropatriarchal ordering of gender and sexuality that simultaneously privileges and reinforces heterosexuality or opposite sex relations (heterosexism) and men’s dominant (patriarchal) claims over women’s bodies for physical, sexual and reproductive purposes. Atluri adds that, “both lesbians and gays threaten the natural, moral state of heterosexual, patriarchal family, and therefore their suppression is often integral to maintenance of patriarchy” (2001:12). Therefore, the individual and institutional efforts to police and control lesbians are proscriptive in restricting female sexual autonomy that is freely expressed, not solely procreative, and that may not involve or focus on men.
Feminism, Male Homosexuality and the Obscure Lesbian Subject
How has lesbianism or female same-sex sexual relations been explored and located within, and across, Caribbean culture? With the exception of Silvera (1992), Alexander (1991, 1997, 2005), Elwin (1998), King (2008), French and Cave (1995), Wekker (1997; 2006), Tinsley (2010), and the anthology by Glave (2008) that captures both gay and lesbian subjectivities and experiences through fiction and non-fiction writing, there is paucity in scholarly research that has thoroughly investigated or theorized female homosexuality in the Caribbean beyond a cursory glance. Documentation of the diversity of female same-sex sexual experiences in the Caribbean, across race/ethnicity, class and culture, is even more scant. Furthermore, at times the gendered-sexualized subjectivities of lesbians tend to get subsumed, or overlooked altogether, when discussing women (read as heterosexual) and gay men, generally, as subordinate groups within a heteropatriarchal order. This homogeneity of difference, which Lorde (1984) cautions us about, is just as troubling as intolerance to difference based on essentialist notions of gender and sexuality and monolithic constructions of collective identity.
I think that there is a particularity, and also a peculiarity, in the ways in which lesbians are marginalized in society. The particular subordination that lesbians face is clearly borne by them violating, or maybe more discursively transgressing, dominant norms of gender and sexuality. But the peculiar aspect of the subordination of lesbians is somewhat more nuanced in understanding based on their intersectional identity and “nomadic” existence and movements between different social locations and categories, such as ‘Woman’ and ‘Homosexual’ (Braidotti 1994).
Caribbean feminists have made valuable contributions to examining women’s subordination to men in relation to how asymmetrical gender relations operate through the sexual division of labour via family, work and political economy and through exclusionary practices of the church and state to disadvantage women and confer more rights, power and privilege to men than to women (Barriteau 2003, 2004; Mohammed 2002; Reddock 1994; Robinson 2003; Massiah 2004). Other scholars have looked at violence against women violence (Clarke 1997), female sexual vulnerability and HIV/AIDS (Douglas, Reid and Reddock 2009; Muturi 2009) and women’s participation in commodified sex markets, such as sex tourism and prostitution (Cabezas 2004; Kempadoo 1999, 2003). But the heterogeneity and complexity of women’s gendered identities and sexual relations have to be more thoroughly investigated beyond a heteronormative lens. Men’s relationship to, and with, women tend to be taken as a given here both socially and sexually. It is rarely questioned how lesbian women, in defying codes of heterosexual femininity, may have less leverage in negotiating power relations with men on a personal and public level. In addition to this, some liberal feminists, in their quest for equality with men, may overlook how their own heterosexual privilege in women’s organizing and civil liberties does not take into consideration how lesbian women’s rights are denied (such as in marriage and adoption, domestic violence laws that exclude same-sex couples and laws that criminalize sex between women).
Scholars have also investigated homosexuality in the Caribbean focusing on homosexual male experiences and non-normative gender and sexual expressions and sanctions against them by their families, church and state (Crichlow 2004; Murray 2009; Glave 2008); there has also been as examination of hegemonic masculinity in shaping dominant heterosexual male norms on gender and sexuality that contribute to hypermasculinity and homophobic sentiments (Lewis 2003; DeMoya 2004; Chin 1997); and, finally, there has been discussions about stigma and discrimination against MSM and the challenge in combating HIV/AIDS (Carr 2005). While these perspectives are instructive in highlighting how homosexual men are constantly being threatened and surveillanced in society (inclusive of acts of public violence used against them) for deviating from hegemonic codes of masculinity, the category “homosexual” seems to uphold androcentrism which privileges masculinist perspectives of same-sex desire and does not address the misogyny that might be produced against lesbians, and women generally.
In this paper, I will examine how lesbophobia manifests in a post-colonial Caribbean landscape in multiple ways, whether it is through societal sanctions such as stigma discrimination and violence, or through fabricated claims of sexual immorality against same-sex female sexuality promoted by the church, state and media. From a critical feminist perspective, I will first critique dominant notions of gender and sexuality by exploring the relationship between patriarchy and heterosexism in ordering female sexuality and sexual relations. I will then discuss the ways in which lesbian sexuality and bodies are constructed to denote a kind of corporeal disorder that is unsettling or disruptive to dominant notions of hetero-femininity or womanhood associated with gender identity, sexual pleasure and motherhood. Finally, I will demonstrate how the media plays a role in manufacturing and reinforcing lesbophobia through sensationalist accounts that serve to pathologize and delegitimize same-sex female sexuality.
I. SEX/GENDER DUALISMS AND HETEROPATIARCHY
Western modern social and political thought on gender and sexuality has informed patriarchal and heterosexist ideologies. Eisenstein states that ‘patriarchy,’ as a social system of male power, “precedes capitalism through the existence of the social ordering of society which derives from a biological, [social] and political interpretation of biological sex” (1979, 25). Patriarchy reinforces male authority in marriage, the family, sexual division of labor, church (Judeo-Christian religions) and state whereby men exercise power and control over women’s sexuality and productive and reproductive labor (Rubin 1975; Lerner 1986; Johnson 2005); patriarchy has also limited the autonomy of non-dominant men depending on race, class and sexuality (Mohammed 2004; hooks 1992). Patriarchal practices are not unitary and have varied in different societies and socio-cultural and political contexts; therefore, feminists have debated the origin of patriarchy and have challenged the universality of it, which shows that it is more useful as a concept than a grand theory (Bryson 2003). Patriarchal ideology promotes a dual sex/gender system through the reification of the somatic characteristics and ontological experiences of men and women as being inherently different, oppositional, and unequal in value, to one another. Men and women are reduced to their biology or sex (biological determinism) based on their physical and reproductive attributes and capabilities with women being perceived as the “weaker” or lesser sex. Through sex/gender power differentials and binaries, women are subordinated and are classified as inferior to men, in turn, making unfair treatment towards them justifiable.
Nineteenth century Enlightenment ideologies – implanted during colonial period and sustained in the post-independence period in the Caribbean – were salient in reproducing Eurocentric gender tropes based on middle-class patriarchal cultural norms. Through gender hierarchal categorizations and roles, men and women are supposed to behave in appropriate ways according to their gender. For men, masculinity is equated with strength, instrumentality, rationality and power whereas, for women, femininity is associated with weakness, affect, irrationality, and passivity. For instance, the ‘cult of womanhood’ defined what was acceptable and respectable femininity based on race/colour, class and sexuality at the time. In 19th century Jamaica, “the ideal woman [white and heterosexual] was to be obedient to institutions and (male) symbols of authority, pious, and righteous (shunning all vice identified by moral institutions). She was depicted as passive, meek, powerless and expected to follow customs that prescribed her place in society” (Moore and Johnson 2004:138). Similar gender ideologies and customs are recognizable in other European colonized territories across linguistic and geographical boundaries. For example, in Spanish colonies, such as Cuba, Roman Catholic influences reinforced women’s role as mothers in caring for children and others. Women were also expected to live virtuously through their reverence to the Virgin Mary. The popular gender stereotypes, “boys don’t cry” and “act like a lady,” hold boys/men and girls/women in gender straightjackets whereby they are forced to behave in particular ways to meet dominant gender standards. In this case, docility is to be avoided for boys/men whereas it is to be expected in girls/women. Moreover, masculinity is validated and valued through its oppositional relationship to the feminine, and vice versa.
Political economy changes precipitated by industrialization and modernization, from the 19th to early 20th century, contributed to shifts in the sexual division of labour. Under patriarchal capitalist relations female subordination and invisibility heightened through men having access to women’s productive, reproductive and sexual labour for the purposes of capitalist accumulation through the private/public dichotomy (Mies 1987). The demarcation of spheres along gender lines relies on nuclear family arrangements based on heterosexual monogamy. Women are expected to be dependents of men, as mothers and wives, within the household where they are primarily responsible for childcare and domestic duties. But not all women meet these gender standards. African-Caribbean women were seen as violators of respectable femininity due to the racialization and sexualization of their bodies by white colonists (Reddock 1995). In the post-emancipation period in Trinidad, while many working-class women fell short of dominant gender standards, others tried to achieve it through nuclear familial arrangements, not working outside of the home and domesticity (Brodber 1982; Reddock 1994). Men, on the other hand, were expected to be providers and protectors of their wives and children and seen as autonomous agents within in the public sphere. The male breadwinner construct is ideologically pervasive in defining masculinity in the Caribbean, and elsewhere, even though not all men are not able to fully achieve or maintain such as role.
Not only does patriarchy order gender relations, but it also shapes sexual relations as it relates to men’s access to, and control of, women’s bodies, sexuality and reproduction. Accordingly, patriarchy and heterosexism intersect in forming ‘heteropatriarchy.’ This is exemplified through the religious edit that women are made for men as well as the emphasis on procreative sex within marriage. Heterosexism – the view that sex between men and woman is the only ‘natural,’ ‘normal’ and acceptable sexual orientation – is normalized and legitimized through familial, societal, cultural, institutional, and individual and religious beliefs and practices (Adams et al. 1997:162). While men and women are defined and seen as different from each other – man is not woman and vice versa or masculinity is everything femininity is not – this difference is bridged by the complementarity of opposites, which is no less sexist because its confers a difference in worth and function with men holding privilege and power over women. Richardshon states that [heterosexuality] depends on a view of differently gendered individuals who complement each other, right down to their bodies and body parts fitting together; like ‘a lock and key’ the penis and vagina are assumed to be a natural fit” (Richardson, 7). Put simply, heterosexism relies on sex/gender binaries. Moreover, if the penis and vagina are assumed to be a ‘natural fit,’ then two penises or two vaginas in sexual activity do not match, in turn, contradicting patriarchal notions of gender and sexuality.
Really, it is through the heterosexualization of sexuality – manufacturing and institutionalizing heterosexuality as the norm – that the ‘unnaturalness’ of homosexual sexuality has come into being, as deviant, inferior and perverse. Foucault (1990) has been instrumental in discussing how sex is about power relations and how bourgeoisie hegemony relied on sexual repression and the ‘normalization’ and ‘naturalization’ of heterosexuality in the 19th century. This was purposeful in controlling the birth rate and supporting religious moralist doctrines and Victorian social codes of respectability. Since sex is about power; thus, hegemonic power was used to police sexuality and institute laws that normalize a particular type of sexuality – heterosexuality. Sexual prohibitions were enforced against homosexuality as it threatened heterosexual monogamy which capitalist industrialists were so reliant on through the nuclear family unit and a man’s role as breadwinner with wife and children (Hawkes 1996; Kitzinger 1994). The church also had a stake in controlling the sexed lives of men and women to ensure that they copulate with each other. Heterosexual procreative sex with the marriage was reinforced while all non-productive sexual activities, anal sex, oral sex, masturbation and prostitution, were deemed taboo. Therefore, sex for pleasure, and women’s sexual agency, had to be managed in order to ensure that men, affluent men in particular, had an available source of women to reproduce their lineage in the transference of wealth and property. Moreover, much of the social angst about homosexuality in the Caribbean has been inherited from an Imperial colonial missionary project that instituted and legitimized heteropatriarchal religious ideologies of gender and sexuality in society. Racism has also informed how gender and sexuality have been constructed in Caribbean colonial context. For instance, through racist-sexist iconography (e.g. ‘wench’ and ‘jezebel’) black women’s bodies were delegitimized as deviant and hypersexual compared to white women, who were seen as epitomizing true beauty and hetero-femininity.
Constructionist and post-modernist perspectives have been essential in deconstructing dominant notions of gender and sexuality beyond binaries, fixity and biological determinism, which includes the process of ‘queering’ – complicating and diversifying – representations and practices of gender and sexuality (Butler 2007; Esptein 2002; Harding 2003). Judith Butler purports that gender and sexuality are socially constructed signifiers that become ‘naturalized’ (or taken as a given), not by a biological predisposition, but through performativity – the repetition of acts and rituals that reinforce what gender and sexuality should look like, should be, and how they should be performed on individual and institutional levels (2007). Heterosexual gender rituals are performed and practiced on a day-to-day basis (e.g. fairytales, soap operas, cultural festivals, etc.), and they are rarely questioned. But performativity is also imbued with power relations between different genders and sexualized bodies; therefore, power can be used and abused by anyone regardless of their gender and sexual identity (hetero-bi-homo).
The denaturalization of sexuality allows us to explore human sexuality beyond biological deterministic notions of sex, gender and sexuality. I beg the question: Is there only one way that male and female bodies should look, feel and act sexually? In denaturalizing sexuality, Jeffrey Weeks argues that:
We must see that sexuality is something which society produces in complex ways. It is a result of social practices that give meaning to human activities, of social definitions and self-definitions, of struggles between those who have power to define and regulate, and those who resist. Sexuality is not a given, it is a product of negotiation, struggle and human agency (2003:19).
Therefore, there is no essence to human sexuality that can be captured in some kind of natural order. I argue that reproduction does not naturalize a particular type of sex act (such as coitus) or sexual relations (such as heterosexuality) because sex and reproduction are not intrinsically linked – men and women do not solely have sexual intercourse with each other in order to reproduce or can they always achieve this. Men and women of various sexual orientations make choices about having and wanting children inside and outside of marital and social partnerships based on their knowledge, and the technology, that is available to them.
Female Sexuality and the Lesbian Threat
Davina Cooper, in Power in Struggle: Feminism, Sexuality and the State, states that “as a form of disciplinary power, sexuality organizes identity, knowledge, behaviour, manners, dress and social interactions around particular desires, libidinal practices and social relations” (1995:67). Enlightenment constructions of femininity, as docile, pious, chaste and procreative, have rendered sex for women as a functional act, not for pleasure, and absolutely dependent on men. Male sexuality is recognized as a force to be reckoned with, powerful, expansive and penetrative whereas female sexuality is seen as a passive and receptive force of the later. Kitzinger argues that “sex, as it has been constructed under heteropatriachy, seems necessarily to involve the eroticizing of power and powerlessness, dominance and subordination: that is what makes it erotic” (1994:207). In this case, women’s sexuality is restricted through men’s claims over their bodies for sex and reproduction; and heterosexual sex is simply reduced to missionary position – man on top and woman on the bottom. While men have been granted sexual autonomy through codes of hegemonic masculinity, women have been seen as relying on men for sex, and only receiving it through them. Due to sexual double standards and codes of morality, women, unlike men, who are sexually free and uninhibited, in wanting and demanding sex, are often ridiculed and characterized as ‘whores’ and ‘sluts’ or loose women because they violate gender and sexual codes of ‘respectable’ femininity.
In the Caribbean, lesbians or women who do not conform to heterosexuality as a compulsory or standard way of life, or those women who challenge rigid gender codes of femininity, sell their sex for money or do not adhere to heterosexual monogamy, are viewed as disruptive to the dominant heteropatriarchal order. Rosamond King points out respectable femininity in the Caribbean has been informed by power relations race, class and cultural lines from our colonial past. She states “black and brown Caribbean women’s sexualities have always been considered ‘queer,’ odd, and less moral by European (and often by ‘coloured’) elites. Women who choose extramarital sex and childbearing, non-monogamous relationships, non-nuclear family structures, or lesbianism have always been maligned by those in power” (King, 193). Likewise, Jacqui Alexander (1991, 1997), in examining female sexual morality, state and the law in Trinidad and Tobago and The Bahamas, argues that Caribbean states in the post-independence period have adopted techniques of the master through legislature, derived from European Enlightenment gender ideologies in order to police and regulate sexual and reproductive practice through law. She goes on to point out that morality and economics converge in the law that deems sexual relationships that do not reproduce a workforce to be deserving of surveillance and punishment. Heteropatriarchy is reinforced through discriminatory sodomy laws used by the state to criminalize sexual acts associated with homosexuals (but which are not exclusive to them) and that contravene marital heterosexual sex. Alexander notes that:
Biology and procreation sanction nature and morality to such an extent that when eroticized violence threatens to dissolve heterosexual conjugal marriage, a textual restoration is enacted by criminalizing lesbian sex and sex among gay men – an act of reasserting the conjugal bed. Indeed, the reinscription of the conjugal bed occurs precisely because no alternative sexualities are permissible; by legally outlawing other alternatives that “reject the obligation of coitus,” the power of marriage is reinscribed, and with it the reinforcement of “obligatory social relationship between ‘man’ and ‘woman’” (1991:138)
Lesbians are seen as particularly threatening because they out rightly challenge compulsory heterosexuality – the idea that women should be, and want to be, with men. Adrienne Rich states that, “lesbian [or same-sex female] existence comprises both the breaking of a taboo and the rejection of a compulsory way of life. It is also a direct or indirect attack on male right of access to women” (1993:238). Because so much of economic and socio-cultural operations, whether productive or reproductive, rely on the myth of femininity for the purposes of capital accumulation, caring for others and male aggrandizement, lesbians challenge male authority because their work and bodies cannot be readily tapped into on a private level. Sexism underlines the “man-hating” indictments directed against lesbians since women are not expected to be sexually engaged, and powerful, without men. Lesbianism really exposes the unstableness of heterosexuality. Butler argues that, “For, if to identify as a woman is not necessarily to desire a man, and if to desire a woman does not necessarily signal the constituting presence of a masculine identification, whatever that is, then the heterosexual matrix proves to be an imaginary logic that insistently issues forth its own unmanageability” (1993:239).
This also raises questions about how lesbian women are positioned in relation to motherhood and family. Dominant Euro-American norms of gender and sexuality have defined what motherhood is, and is not, based on a nuclear heterosexual family model and exclusive mother-child relations (Crawford 2011). The institution of motherhood is premised on heteropatriarchal relations: “Motherhood is what mothers and babies signify to men” (Rothman, 1989, 27) so women have children with, and for, men (Comeau, 1999). Therefore, lesbian women are not seen as legitimate mothers in the areas of gender, sexuality, reproduction and familial relations (Benkov 1998) because men do not privately control their sexual and reproductive labour. Although in the Caribbean there is a high visibility of female-headed households and matrifocality validates the central role that elder women play in caring for children and others (Barrow 1996; Clarke 1999; Mohammed 1998; Smith 1996), there has been little investigation or discussion of how some of these childcare and familial arrangements occur for lesbian women, outside of a heterosexual and/or Euro-American nuclear family norm. While women, generally, tend to be problematically de-sexualized as mothers in reinforcing codes of female morality and chastity (you can not be sexual and maternal), I think that for lesbian mothers the opposite is true. The de-sexualization does not readily occur due to stigma against lesbian sexuality. The ‘good mother’ construct relies on women conforming to codes of respectable hetero-femininity. Since there is greater threat of lesbian mothers being seen as unfit mothers or ‘bad mothers’ due to their non-heterosexual lifestyle, many women may lead closeted lives in order to protect themselves and children from ridicule and discrimination or to prevent losing their children in custody cases (Benkov 1998). While in some incidences heterosexual women may be valorized for their role as mothers, this praise or privilege is not readily extended to lesbian mothers.
Delegitimizing Lesbian Sex
Since traditional research on human sexuality has been informed by androcentrism and phallocentrism (Williams 2002), in the heteropatriarchal imagination, lesbian sex tends to be rendered not real sex because of the absence of the penis. Therefore, there is a lot curiosity about what two women do sexually. Not only because of the common argument that same-sex couples cannot procreate with each other – which I have already addressed in denaturalizing sexuality – but because penal penetration, coitus specifically, is associated with the sex act, which is represented through the objectification of the male sexual organ as dominant. Hegemonic masculinity thrives in reproducing and maintaining gender and heterosexual conformity. In interrogating masculinity in the Caribbean, Linden Lewis explains:
Hegemonic masculinity refers to practices of cultural domination of a particular representation of men and manliness. It refers to an orientation that is heterosexual and decidedly homophobic. It prides itself on it capacity for sexual conquest and ridicules men who define their sexuality in different terms. Hegemonic masculinity often embraces certain misogynist tendencies in which women are considered inferior. Departure from this form of masculinity could result in a questioning of one’s manhood (Lewis 2003:108)
Although gay male sex is abhorred by homophobes as unnatural, there is a way in which heterosexual men view gay sex as in involving real sexual activity due to the corporeal and sexual threat to their masculinity, which they do not feel with lesbians, who after all are women – females – and pose no phallic threat to them. Since heterosex is erroneously viewed as natural and real sex, with men dominating or ‘doing it’ to women based on hegemonic notions of masculinity – the supposed active masculine over the receptive feminine – then two men having sex tend to be reproduced along gender lines within the heterosexual matrix (Butler 2007). One partner is seen as dominant and the other subordinate, with the receptive male partner being feminized as the latter. Homophobia and sexism work in tandem in preserving heterosexual masculine integrity: one of the fears that heterosexual men have of being sexually propositioned by gay men is the fear of ‘emasculation’ (being seen or treated less than a man) by being sexually penetrated (read simultaneously as subordination and feminization) and, consequently, being treated like women (women don’t screw they get screwed). Not only is this a simplistic understanding of gay male sex, but it is also a misogynistic viewpoint that reduces all women as mere sexual objects of men. Firstly, it reduces sex in heterosexual relationships to one thing, sexual intercourse, overlooking the variation of sexual practices that occur between men and women and the autonomy that heterosexual women have in initiating and participating in sexual activity. Secondly, lesbian sex is de-legitimized as non-sex because women need men to satisfy them sexually. While lesbian libidinal desires vary, with women pleasuring women in different ways inclusive of penetrative sex (object rather than organ), in popular discourse lesbian sex is either passive or vanilla of sorts or are pornographic scenarios of two ultra feminine women (usually straight) engaging in sexual play, produced by, and consumed through the male gaze, and symbolic phallus, for the pleasure of heterosexual men.
Gender Ambiguity and a Queer Lesbian Identity
Lesbians, and women in general, who break gender codes by not being clothed in representations of “femininity” or who have more masculinized features or appearances – androgynous, tomboy or butch – are seen as aberrations to the normative gender regime. Non-feminine lesbians are contemptuously characterized as “hard”, “man-like”, “man royals,” “bulldagger” and the like. A queer lesbian identity clearly, violates, the cult of femininity in both bodily performance and behaviour but it is also unsettling to hegemonic constructions of masculinity that classify the andro subject as being solely biological male (Butler 2007). Gender ambiguity (or gender queer or transgender) in lesbianism that is noticeable is often translated into intolerance and violence against women because they defy codes of hetero-femininity – “I will remind you that you are a woman.” Both gender identity and sexual identity are called into question. Since clothing is also important in how gender is performed, one’s gender identity is often conflated with sexual orientation when an individual’s appearance seems to be deviate from ‘appropriate’ representations along the masculine-feminine scale. Generally, a woman might be held suspect of being a lesbian if she does not wear stereotypical feminine attire (wearing dresses, high heels, make-up, etc.) or behave in a gender-specific way, even if she is not gay. Makeda Silvera eloquently discusses the gender and sexual transgressions of some lesbian women (indentified as ‘man royals’) in Jamaica while growing up, and retaliation against them, because they appeared to be more masculine than other women in dress, style and social behaviour. Butch lesbian women are seen as particularly dangerous to sex/gender dualistic order, which relies on mutually exclusive categories. In disrupting a causal connection between sex and gender identity, butch women occupy a space of ‘in between’ as not feminine, but biological female, or as masculine but not biological male in performing socially and sexually in their daily lives (Capezza 2007). Likewise, female athletes are particular targets of lesbophobic sentiments, regardless of their sexual orientation, because their corporeal stature contravenes strict gender assignments. Moreover, gender ambiguity in lesbianism promotes a queer lesbian identity that contravenes strict categorizations based on sex, gender identification, and desire. It offers an alternative way of conceptualizing and understanding how the female body can be marked by different gender and sexual identifications, as multiple and malleable, beyond essentialist ways of being. Therefore, it is important to further investigate how power operates, and is exercised, in same-sex female relationships given their variation.
In this section, I discussed how heteropatriachal ideologies are instructive in delegitimizing lesbians as women based on dominant notions of gender and sexuality. Lesbophobia is a byproduct of this and is further manifested on the practical level through the interplay of sexism and homophobia; therefore, lesbians are devalued and discriminated against because of their gender as well as their sexual orientation. The specific form of oppression that lesbian women encounter as a result of lesbophobia will be discussed in the next section.
II. LESBOPHOBIA: DIRTINESS AND DISORDER
Violence Against Lesbians
Gail Mason (2002) examines violence against lesbians as homophobic and anti-lesbian acts. She emphasizes that both gender and sexuality inform the particularized violence against lesbians. While Mason credits feminists for taking a strong stance against male violence against women, especially in intimate partner heterosexual relationships, through activism, advocacy and legislation. She, however, argues that there is a paucity of feminist literature when it comes to the “specific problem of homophobia-related violence towards lesbians” (2002:38). Similarly, literature on homophobia violence tends to focus on gay male victimization. While gays and lesbians are targets in public spaces, with gay men being particularly vulnerable to random violent acts against them on the streets, lesbians encounter additional aggravation in personal and private situations. Mason suggests that for lesbians “a significant proportion of incidents take place at home or work, involve on-going campaigns of harassment, and are committed by one, older man acting alone, who may be known to the woman” (2002:). Furthermore, the sexualized-gendered violence against homosexual women because they are “lesbians” – really hate crimes – includes physical and sexual assault from beatings, sexual molestation, rape (both individual and gang related) and/or sodomy.
Male power, desire and violence coalesce as lesbians are sexualized, demonized and then, ultimately, punished for their gender and sexual non-conformity. While some heterosexual men might sexually harass lesbians in similar ways to other women on the basis of gender – due to (hetero) sexist beliefs and attitudes that reinforce men’s claims to women’s bodies warranting this as a patriarchal right – there is another dimension to their abusive behaviour as a result of homophobic attitudes. There is both attraction and repulsion when a woman’s lesbianism is uncovered. There is the heightened excitement that men derive from conquering a doubly unavailable female source while at the same time men may harbour feelings of disdain towards lesbians because their sexual disinterest in men is taken as a personal attack or a rejection of their masculinity, which is defined through heterosexualized acts (Mason 2002). Moreover, the attempt by men to “fix lesbians” by having forced sexual relations with them is indicative of how men will use violence to reinforce male dominance and legitimize hetero-sex. Lesbians who are identifiably gay are been prime targets for lesbophobic acts against them in the form of gang rape in Jamaica (Williams 2000).
In 2011, a student spoke to me about her experience with homophobia after I conducted a workshop on gender and sexuality at UWI Cave Hill campus, which included a frank discussion on homosexuality and homophobia in the Caribbean. I will share her story in this piece because I think that it is a good example of the workings of lesbophobia. Carol, a lesbian, recalls being sexual propositioned by a male colleague of hers, who was initially unaware of her sexual orientation. Exercising male prerogatives, he did not seem to be deterred by the fact that she did not want to have sex with him since he thought she was playing hard to get. When she told him that his sexual advances were unwelcomed and further explained that she was a lesbian to make it clear that there would be no possibility of sexual relations between them, his response shifted from intrigue, impertinence and then to viciousness. While this male aggressor felt he had sexual claims over this woman because of gender, his harassing behaviour intensified when he found out that she was lesbian. In order to prove his masculine prowess, his discreet proposition turn into a persistent vulgar tirade of what he could do to her. He told her that he could “suck her” since he assumed that she did not like to “fuck” in not wanting to be with men; he then became physically intimidating by blocking her attempts to leave. Finally, he retreated only after she said that she would notify the police about being sexually harassed, but not before he maliciously insulted her about her physical appearance. This incident is one of many that happen to lesbian women, which usually go unreported.
Throughout the Caribbean LGBT groups, such as J-FLAG in Jamaica, UGLAAB in Barbados, CAISO in Trinidad and Tobago, SASOD in Guyana and BLEA in Bahamas, have been vigilant in denouncing homophobic acts that have lead to stigma, discrimination and violence against LGBT individuals and those presumed to be homosexuals. They have advocated on various levels to ensure social justice for homosexuals both in relation to civil liberties as well as human rights. It is clear that democracy is curtailed by homophobic beliefs steeped in fundamentalist religious moralism that privilege heteropatriarchal theocracy over rights in defining and deciding whom is worthy of equal and fair treatment in society. LGBT people in the Caribbean are constantly negotiating their identities and realities within a heteronormative landscape. While many are contributing to the growth and development of their societies, and carving spaces to socially convene and establish community linkages, the politics of exclusion through homophobia – from isolation and ostracism from family and friends, slurs and epithets in everyday life, being mocked, stalked and threatened, being denied services and protection before the law to sexual and physical violence – operate to control and police homosexuals, keeping them in a state of fear and self-surveillance.
There is a public/private division related to the way in which homophobic violence manifests itself differently for gay men than for lesbians. As stated earlier, while gay men are assaulted in public usually in mob style or in front of a crowd – as a way to shame, punish and deter – there is a private dimension to how violence takes places against lesbians, which makes it seem less apparent and less visible. Since lesbians, as women, appear to pose limited physical and sexual threat to heterosexual men in public, they are less likely to be disciplined via mass violence. Instead lesbian women are more vulnerable to attacks by men in their private and community spaces and the assaults tend to include physical and sexual violence, and sometimes mutilation of the genitalia (Du Long 2005). The perpetrators usually know the women and/or they are familiar with their whereabouts. For example, in Jamaica in 2006, two women who lived together were found murdered. It was alleged they were in a relationship and lesbian content was found on the scene. “Police quickly named an estranged male partner of [one of the victims) as the prime suspect, and said the apparent relationship between the women was the likely motive for the crime” (Human Rights Watch 2006). In another account, a woman was gang raped and then murdered in her community after some guys found that she is a lesbian. They did not want her to spread her ‘disease’ to the rest of the women in the community (Du Long 2005). A LBT women’s group in Jamaica, called Women for Women, stress on their website that lesbophobic attacks are underreported. Because of the anti-sodomy laws, lesbian women may be less likely to come forward with cases of rape and other forms of sexual assault because they fear further abuse and persecution by law enforcers and the state (WFW 2010).
Lesbians as Disorderly Subjects: Dirtiness and Contamination
Lesbophobic sentiments are always reinforced through lesbianism being seen as a corporeal ‘disorder,’ which is signified through ‘dirt’ and ‘contamination.’ Mason points that ‘dirt’ or ‘dirtiness’ or what is believed to be unclean has long been associated with both homosexuality and women’s bodies. If what lesbians do sexually, as homosexuals, is deemed unnatural or a disease, and the dominant order is in turn repulsed by it, then discrimination and violent acts against them are seen as justifiable. The ‘dirtiness’ of lesbians as “disorderly subjects” is also expressed through misogynist beliefs about women’s vaginas (Mason 2002:46). In patriarchal popular lore, women’s vaginas have been equated with uncleanliness and pollution, whether through menstruation or childbirth, where fluids and odours are emitted (salty, fishy, musky). But there is also a heightened fear of dirtiness – and also of contamination – in imagining two women engaging in tribadism (two vaginas rubbing together). So, lesbophobia is expressed and operates on many different levels, even on a linguistic basis: “The language of dirt functions as an effective insult because it invokes corporeally specific images of lesbian sexuality” (Mason 2002:47).
The notion of lesbianism being “dirty” or “nasty” is captured in Atluri’s work on homophobia, heterosexism and nationalism in the Commonwealth Caribbean. She recounts a discussion that ensued on the walls of one of the female bathrooms at UWI, Cave Hill campus as a result of an ad or request being posted that read: “Want pussy to suck email me at […]” (Atluri 2001:18). Someone responded with utter disdain and wrote back:
Re: To the slut who wrote the above and any other lesbian garbage on campus. With so many men out there how the hell could you even dream of wanting a wanting a woman! There’s absolutely nothing remotely sexy about a woman. Lesbianism is pure nastiness and wutlessness. Gun shot to you all. Yours Sincerely, A REAL woman! (Atluri 18).
Lesbophobia operates in different ways in this scenario. In the first instance, the rebuke against lesbians based on washroom graffiti is telling of how lesbians violate dominant standards of womanhood in the respondent’s eyes due to gender and sexuality. In upholding heterosexism and patriarchal sex/gender relations, lesbian sexuality is read as deviant because “REAL” women are sexually attracted to men and they should ultimately desire men and NOT women. As disorderly subjects, the body and sexuality of the lesbian woman are marked as dirty on two counts, in turn, contravening respectable hetero-femininity: lesbian sex is seen as corporeally unclean or “pure nastiness” and lesbian sexual behaviour is denoted as “wutlessness” (promiscuity or looseness). Terms like “slut”, “bitch” and “whore” were further used to insult the person who wrote the salacious ad/request. Finally, homophobic violence is symbolically evoked against lesbians, in order to ‘right’ a ‘wrong’ behaviour, through the sentiment: “Gun shot to you all.”
Lesbophobia in Barbadian Popular Media
Same-sex relationships between females at secondary schools across the island [Barbabdos] are causing authorities great concern. According to reports, the problem has gotten so out-of-hand during the past two to three years that some principals and teachers have had to find ways to protect first and second form school students from being pounced upon by older students who seek to recruit them into their circles (Harewood 2010: 5A).
The Nation newspaper’s coverage of lesbianism in Barbadian society, which took place over three consecutive Sundays in April 2010, demonstrates how lesbophobic beliefs operate to pathologize same-sex female relations. In this case, patriarchal religious ideologies colluded with the media to reinforce heteronormative moralizing ideals about female sexuality, dismissing the variation of women’s sexed lives that are not exclusively heterosexual. As disorderly subjects, lesbians are presented as deviant and morally corrupting to women and ultimately a threat to the family and to straight men. A woman named Sherry-Ann stated in the Week Two coverage that: “I know a lot men who do not mind having a lesbian for kicks, but they are now disgusted because the women are taking away their women” (Harewoood April 18, 2010:13A). In this case, the thought of lesbian sexuality as a legitimate sexual preference outside of masculine persuasion raises concern because the heteropatriarchal order is doubly threatened – men do not have access to these women and lesbians might be sexual competition for men. Mason makes an important point in relation to how heterosexism operates on an ideological level: “As a discourse, the straight mind does not see lesbian sexuality as a legitimate sexual preference with a value of its own. Rather, lesbianism represents the rejection of a social order, which decrees that only men should be entitled to sexually exchange women” (Mason 2002:50). Moreover, in the coverage there is a major stake in keeping all women in their place. Patriarchal religiosity is invoked to scare teenage girls into compliance. A woman named Nicole warned: “Young people must be made to know that God does not want us to experiment” (Hareword April 18, 2010:12A).
Lesbians are, unequivocally, presented as disorderly subjects in the Nation’s tri-Sunday coverage of lesbianism. Lesbians are seen and presented as both deviant and dangerous to readers in order to manufacture lesbianism as a social problem that needs to be fixed for the good of the public. The misapplication of utilitarian principles in order to denounce lesbians, through the print media, demonstrates how the systemic nature of lesbophobia is produced and reproduced in a public forum. The “Lesbian Problem” is summed up in the following points:
1. The fear of contamination is invoked as girls are warned to stay away from lesbians and homosexual activity in general. Since there is the possibility that anyone can engage in homosexual acts, there is the fear of sexual boundaries being violated. Repression is needed to prevent any hetero-homo crossovers. This inadvertently speaks of the malleability, or the not fixity, of sexuality although it was not intended by the informants; and, ironically, it challenges the so-called naturalness of heterosexuality.
2. The deviance and the dirtiness about lesbians are promoted through lesbophobic sentiments. Lesbianism is not a “normal” sexual behaviour or is reduced to a “lifestyle” and is ridiculed through religious edict: “woman was made for man.”
3. Lesbianism is some kind of dysfunction that is brought on by abuse, sexual coercion or familial breakdown.
4. Lesbians are sexual predators: they are sexually promiscuous and are out to get or recruit teenage girls.
5. Cultural relativism: lesbianism is not accepted in the Caribbean; it is just tolerated. Influences from outside (Hollywood) are leading girls astray with this kind of lifestyle.
6. Identity obscurity: displays of same-sex female relationships are reduced to a lesbian identity, without fully knowing what girls are feeling and how they identify.
7. Sexual repression: teenage girls should avoid same-sex sexual experimentation.
8. Woman can be saved from lesbianism if they repented and accepted God in their life, redeeming them as a respectable heterosexual woman.
Master techniques via the print media are employed through sensationalist, anecdotal accounts to highlight to the threat of the ‘lesbian menace.’ This biased perspective is explicitly and unapologetically lesbophobic. The coverage began on Sunday April 11, 2010 with the personal accounts of Marcia Weekes, counselor, playwright and founder of Praise Academy, who claims the incidences of lesbianism in schools are on the rise and attempts should be made to stop such behavior (religious influence). Her concerns are expressed as:
The growth of bisexual and lesbian relationships in Barbados, and even the wider Caribbean, has escalated in the past two years, according to counselor Maria Weekes. And she is deeply worried (Harewood April 11, 2010:14A).
I am unclear how Weekes is able to measure the increase of same-sex female relationships without some kind of empirical study, and, so even, how would the findings be verified. How and where would lesbian women be recruited? And can all girls/women who engage in sexual activity with other girls/women be classified as lesbians? It is obvious that the motivation to quantify “lesbianism,” in this case, is based on the presumption that its occurrence is something out of the ordinary, outside of the heterosexual norm. But I think that lesbian existence and occurrence are not one and the same here. Weekes is not questioning lesbian existence –she has seen it or has come to know it through ‘othering’ sexual difference– but she is, instead, calling to attention the rate of, or propensity for, lesbianism. Fear is incited based on the possibility of mutation as a result of contamination via the spread of ‘dirt’ conceived through the act of lesbianism. The warning is sounded: We will tolerate a few of you but not too many.
Weekes goes on to state: “Young female couples are seen at times displaying their love for each other in public spaces like Queen’s Park (a popular meeting place), at the beach, on the street corner – even in the school corridor and the classroom” (Harewood April 11, 2010: 14A)
The agency that girls are displaying the public challenges hetero-norms and the assumption that homoerotic displays and desires should be contained to the private sphere. But for Weekes the closet is being opened too wide, which is contributing to the so-called “braziness” or boldness of girls who are disrupting standards of respectable hetero-femininity. Really, lesbian invisibility (what is hidden from public view) is required to make sure that compulsory heterosexuality is maintained for women. Girls could not possibly be genuinely attracted to other girls, because they are supposed to naturally like boys, so instead something perverse is taking place. Weekes then attributes lesbianism to several factors such as vice, abuse, personal problems and familial breakdown. Her lesbophobic is rant venomous and hypocritical because she does not seem too concerned about the morals of girls being corrupted by boys who might be visibly groping or rubbing up on girls or having sex with them in deserted public spaces.
Clearly, the lesbophobic sentiments in the coverage is purposeful in heightening fear in individuals by conveniently, and dangerously, promoted bigotry through a self professed moral authority that seeks to protect the public from sexual indecency. As Weekes professes: “I was at a particular school telling a group of females that lesbianism is wrong” (Harewood April 11, 2010:15A). The “wrongfulness” of homosexuality is created or constructed through the reification of its presumed polar opposite – heterosexuality. Therefore, homophobes who believe homosexuality is a sin think that they have the right to impose their ideas onto others because heteronormative structures allow it. Hence, moralism trumps rights when discussing sexual minorities in the Caribbean. Social justice is obscured by a parochial belief system.
Weekes paternalistically seeks to counsels those who have fallen: “It’s very strong in the arts, but I make it clear from a leadership standpoint that if a person has an issue with their sexuality, we will do whatever we can to help. No person should feel comfortable living that kind of lifestyle” (Harewood April 11, 2010:15A). Homosexuality gets reduced as a ‘lifestyle” as a part of a fad subculture that is whimsical, transient and unstable, unlike heterosexuality, which is not read as a lifestyle in of itself. This concern about a homosexual lifestyle is also voice in Week Two’s coverage:
“Many people think Barbados is a sheltered society but a lot of ordinary-looking men and women are into this lifestyle.”
“Its all over the island today, especially in the schools. Some hide out in churches, and some
are paid [as a means of living] to engage in same-sex relations.” (April 18 2010, 12A-13A)
Instead of denying that lesbianism exists, ironically from these accounts, it is something that is seen as occurring in Barbadian society, even though it is made out to be immoral and disruptive. The solution to a homosexual ‘lifestyle’ is conversion back to heterosexuality through the help of the church. Being saved and further indoctrination is the prescription to getting women back on track in becoming dutiful wives and mothers, which lesbianism supposedly threatens. Interestingly enough, the issue of sexual conversion brings up the idea of malleability of sexuality. If you can change from homo to hetero then the other way is also possible, in turn, contesting the naturalness of heterosexuality. But espousing lesbophobic beliefs is necessary in policing female sexuality and preventing hetero-to-homo crossovers.
Lesbianism is also pathologized through it being seen as a byproduct of a disorder or some kind of dysfunction caused by family breakdown, low self-esteem, abuse or sexual coercion. It is not seen as legitimate form of female sexuality whereby young women seek pleasure and intimacy from other young women just because they find it desirable. Weekes states that:
They are looking for unconditional love at home; and because many are not getting this kind of love, they are acting out in different ways. Some are young people who were violated from as early as five or six years old; so they experiment, even from primary school levels, with one another (Harewood April 11, 2010:15A).
The causal link between lesbianism and maladaptive behaviour and/or social malaise is faulty. Weekes overlooks that fact many girls who are abused or who are facing familial and personal challenges are not lesbians nor are they drawn into lesbianism. Trying to find the cause of lesbianism suggests that what girls are doing is out of the ordinary and is not a part of teenage sexuality; heterosexuality, in turn, is naturalized. Therefore, for lesbianism to occur it has to come into existence through some disastrous situation or it is being used in a strategic way to prevent something unwanted, like pregnancy.
Lesbianism is also seen as contributing to aggressive and disorderly behaviour among girls, and, once again, is not seen as being attributable to other factors such poor conflict resolution skills: “What is more of a concern is that they are aggressive, operate in groups, stick together, and recruit younger students” (Harewood April 11, 2010:14A). Due to gender socialization, girls are not seen or expected to be confrontational and the link between peer pressure and girls joining gangs, regardless of sexual orientation, is not made. Some girls are contesting the codes of femininity and their gender transgression is being reduced to lesbianism. Therefore, gender and sexuality are conflated and are seen as one in the same.
This was a critical feminist perspective in theorizing the relationship between gender, sexuality and lesbophobia in Caribbean culture. I have examined how lesbians are constructed through a heteropatriarchal gaze as ‘disruptive women’ because they are perceived as violating dominant norms on gender and sexuality. Due to the overt homophobic violence directed towards gay men, it often goes unnoticed how lesbians are disciplined for contravening moralistic codes of heterosexual femininity, until sensationalist accounts appear in the media. Clearly, there needs to be a more nuanced or complex investigation of female sexuality that interrogates how different groups of women understand and experience their sexual lives.
Efforts launched to combat lesbophobia, and homophobia in general, have to be multifaceted and account for how simultaneous oppressions related to gender and sexuality (along with race and class) produce a particular social reality for lesbian women, who are positioned between two socially marginalized groups, women and homosexuals. Differences do not just have to be accounted for but they also have to be interrogated in understanding how power and privilege are actualized for, and can be abused by, the disadvantaged. Moreover, in forging strong alliances between feminist and LGBT groups in activism and organizing, the links between heterosexism/homophobia and patriarchy/sexism, and actions to combat them, have be articulated as a major goal in the fight for social justice for all.
 Sharpe and Pinto (2006) as well as Kempadoo (2009) do general reviews of sexuality in the Caribbean that account for some of the pieces mentioned above.
 “Although many people use the term gender and sex interchangeably, they have distinct meanings. Sex is a designation based on biology, whereas gender is socially constructed and expressed” (Woods 2011:21). Gender is the social construction of biological sex. Gender signifies that we become who we are, man, woman or both, through processes of socialization, power relations and systems. Notions of masculinity and femininity are social constructs that are produced and reproduced through language, communication, culture, religion, race, nationality, class, sexuality etc.
 This is an alias name.
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Charmaine Crawford (Ph.D) is a Lecturer at the Institute of Gender and Development Studies, The University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus, Barbados. Her research interests include gender and sexuality in the Caribbean, representations of gender and sexuality in black popular culture, Caribbean transnational motherhood and Caribbean domestic workers in Canada.