Charmaine Crawford – “‘It’s a Girl Thing’ Problematizing Female Sexuality, Gender and Lesbophobia in Caribbean Culture” – Critical Essay (Barbados)

“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.[1] Documentation of the diversity of female same-sex sexual experiences in the Caribbean, across race/ethnicity, class and culture, is even more scant.[2] 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.


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[3] 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.


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[4], 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[5], 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.


[1] 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.

[2] The fiction by Shani Mootoo has been important in problematizing ethnicity, gender and sexuality in relation to Indo-Caribbean female same-sex relations.

[3] “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.

[4] This is an alias name.

[5] Jamaican Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG), United Gays and Lesbians Against AIDS Barbados (UGLAAB), Coalition Advocating for Sexual Orientation (CAISO), Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD), and Bahamas LGBT Equality Advocated (BLEA).


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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.