Introduction by Rosamond S. King & Angelique V. Nixon

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 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 ( 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 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.

Sexuality Studies

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.

Giving Thanks

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).

ii Information about the Caribbean IRN is at

Savannah Shange – “Mediated (Be)Longing: Consumer Citizenship and Queer Caribbean Diaspora” – Critical Essay (United States)

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.

Queer (Il)Legibility

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.

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.….

—. “Recording Academy Awards Grammy to Anti-Gay Singer Buju Banton,” 2011.…. 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. 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

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.…

“Reggae Compassionate Act.” Soul Rebels. 2007.

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.

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).


Alexander, M. Jacqui. Redrafting Morality: The Postcolonial State and the Sexual Offences Bill of Trinidad and Tobago. In Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism. Eds. Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Ann Russo and Lourdes Torres, 133-52. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University, Press, 1991. 

 — . “Erotic Autonomy as a Politics of Decolonization; An Anatomy of Feminist and State Practice in the Bahamas Tourist Economy.” In  M. J. Alexander and C. Mohanty.  Eds. Feminist Genealogies, Colonial Legacies, Democratic Futures, 63-100. London: Routledge, 1997.

—. Pedagogies of the Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory and the Sacred.  Durham. Duke University Press, 2005.

Atluri, Tara.  When the Closet is a Region: Homophobia, Heterosexism and Nationalism in the Commonwealth Caribbean.  Working Paper No. 5.  Bridgetown: Centre for Gender and Development Studies. Cave Hill, University of the West Indies, 2001.

Barriteau. Eudine. “Theorizing Gender Systems and the Project of Modernity in the Twentieth Century Caribbean.” Feminist Review.  59:186-210, 1998.

—.  Confronting Power, Theorizing Gender: Interdisciplinary Perspectives in the Caribbean.  Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 2003.

—. “Constructing Feminist Knowledge in the Commonwealth Caribbean in the Era of Globalization. In Gender in the 21st Century: Caribbean Perspectives, Visions and Possibilities. Eds. Barbara Bailey and Elsa Leo-Rhynie, 437-465. Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers, 2004.

Barrow, Christine. Family in the Caribbean.  Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle Publishers, 1996.

Braidotti, Rosi. “The Subject in Feminism.” Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory. New York: Columbia University Press, 233-244, 1994.

Benkov, l. (1998). “Yes, I am a Swan: Reflections on Families Headed by Lesbians and

Gay Men”. Mothering Against the Odds: Diverse Voices of Contemporary Mothers. C.

 Garcia Coll, et al. New York, The Guilford Press: 113-133.

Brodber, Erna. Perceptions of Caribbean Women: Towards a Documentation of Stereotypes. Cave Hill, Barbados: Institute of Social and Economic Research, The University of the West Indies, 1982.

Bryson, Valerie. Feminist Political Theory. New York: Palgrave MacMillian, 2003.

Butler, Judith.  Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity.  New York:

Routledge,  2007.

—. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Self. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Cabezas, Amalia L. “Between Love and Money: Sex, Tourism and Citizenship in Cuba and the Dominican Republic.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 29 (4): 987-1016, 2004.

Capezza, Nicole M. “Homophobia and Sexism: The Pros and Cons to an Integrative Approah.” Integr Psych Behav (2007) 41:248-253.

Carr, Robert. “Homosexuality and HIV/AIDS Stigma in Jamaica.” Culture, Health and Sexuality, 1-13, 2005.

Chapkis, Wendy. “The Meaning of Sex.”  Sexuality and Gender.  L. Williams, Christine and Stein, Arlene.  Eds.  Massachusetts and Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2002: 209-219.

Chin, Timothy. “Bullers and Battymen” Contesting Homophobia in Black Popular Culture and Contemporary Caribbean Literature.” Callaloo Vol. 20, No. 1 Winter 1997 (127-141).

Clarke, Roberta. “Combatting Violence Against Women in Caribbean.” In Women Against Violence Breaking Silence: Reflecting on the Experience in Latin America and the Caribbean. Ana Maria Baasiliero. New York: The United Nations Development Fund for Women, 1997.

Clarke, E.  My Mother Who Fathered Me. Kingston: The University of the West Indies

Press, 1999.

Comeau, D. “Lesbian Non-biological Mothering: Negotiating an (Un)familiar Existence.”

Journal of the Association for Research on Mothering Fall/Winter 1(2), 1999.

Crichlow, Wesley E.A.  “History, (Re)Memory, Testimony and Biomythography:  Charting a Buller Man’s Trinidadian Past.” Interrogating Caribbean Masculinities: Theoretical and Empirical Analysis.  Ed. Rhoda E. Reddock.  Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2004.  185-222.   

De Moya, Antonio E. “Power Games and Totalitarian Masculinity in the Dominican Republic.” In Interrogating Caribbean Masculinities: Theoretical and Empirical Analysis.  Ed. Rhoda E. Reddock.  Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2004.  68-102.

Douglas, Dianne, Reid, Sandra and Rhoda Reddock. “Gender and Sexuality: Behaviour, Attitudes  and Taboos Among UWI Students on St. Augustine Campus.” In Sex, Power and Taboo: Gender and HIV in the Caribbean and Beyond. Eds. Dorothy Roberts, Rhoda Reddock, Dianne Douglas and Sandra Reid. Kingston: Ian Randle, 2009: 216-238.

Du Long, Jessica. “Lesbian Activists in Jamaica Tell Horror Stories” and “Lesbian Attacks Less Visible.” WeNews – Lesbian and Transgender – Wednesday March 9, 2005.

Elwin, Rosamund, Ed. Tongues on Fire: Caribbean Lesbian Lives and Stories. Toronto: Women’s Stories.

Epstein, Steven. “A Queer Encounter: Sociology and the Study of Sexuality.” In Williams, Christine L. and Stein, Arlene.  Eds.  Sexuality and Gender.  Massachusetts and Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2002: 44-59.

Foucault, Michel.  The History of Sexuality Volume I:  An Introduction.  New York:  Vintage Books, 1990.

French, Joan and Cave, Michelle D. “Sexual Choice as Human Right: Women Loving Women.” Paper presented at the critical perspective on Human Rights in Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago, 1995.

Glave, Thomas. Ed. Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Lesbian and Gay Writing from the Antilles. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008.

Harding, Jennifer. “Investigating Sex Essentialism and Constructionism. “ In Constructing Sexualities: Readings in Sexuality, Gender and Culture. Ed. Suzanne Lafont. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2003:6-17.

Harewood, Cheryl. “ Girls Gone Wild, A Concern.” Barbados: Nation newspaper, Sunday Sun, April 11 2010, 5A.

—. “Schoolgirls Look to Each Other for Love: Counsellor Worried about the Rising Practice of Lesbianism.”  Barbados: Nation newspaper, Sunday Sun, April 11 2010, 14A-15A.

—. “Nicole on the Straight Path” and “Crusades Against Lifestyle.” Barbados: Nation newspaper, Sunday Sun, April 18 2010, 12A-13A

—. “Lesbianism Not of God” (compilation of evangelists). Barbados: Nation newspaper, Sunday Sun, April  25 2010, 11A.

Hawkes, Gail.  A Sociology of Sex and Sexuality (Chapters 2-4). Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1996:17-71.

Hill Collins, Patricia. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment. London: Unwin Hyman, 1990.

Hodge, Merle. “We Kind of Family.” Gendered Realities: Essays in Caribbean Feminist Thought.  Ed. Patricia Mohammed.  Barbados, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago: University of the West Indies Press, 2002, 474-485.

Human Rights Watch. “Jamaica: Investigate Murder of Alleged Lesbians”

Johnson, Allan. The Gender Knot: Unraveling our Patriarchal Legacy. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005.

Kempadoo, Kamala. Ed. Sun, Sex, and Gold: Tourism and Sex Work in the Caribbean. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999.

—.  “Theorizing Sexual Relations in the Caribbean:  Prostitution and the Problem of the “Exotic”.  In Eudine Barriteau Ed.  Confronting Power, theorizing Gender:  Interdisciplinary Perspectives from the Caribbean.  159-185.  Kingston: UWI Press, 2003.

King, Rosamond S. “More Notes on the Invisibility of Caribbean Lesbians.” In Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Gay and Lesbian Writing from the Antilles, ed. Thomas Glave, 191-96. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008.

Kitzinger, Celia.  “Problematizing Pleasure: Radical Feminist Deconstructions of Sexuality and Power.  In Power/Gender: Social Relations in Theory and Practice.  Eds.  H. Lorraine Radtke and Henderikus J. Stam.  London: SAGE Publications, 1994: 195-209.

Kulick, Don. “Can There Be an Anthropology of Homophobia?” In Homophobias: Lust and Loathing across Time and Space. Ed. David Murray, 19-33. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2009.

Lerner, Gerda. The Creation of Patriarchy. Oxford University Press, 1986.

Lewis, Linden. “Caribbean Masculinity: Unpacking the Narrative.” In Linden Lewis. Ed, 94-125. The Culture of Gender and Sexuality in the Caribbean. Gainesville: University Press of Florida. 2003.

Lorde. Audre. Sister Outsider Essays and Speeches. Crossing Press, Toronto, 1984.

Mason, Gail. The Spectacle of Violence: Homophobia Gender and Knowledge. Routledge, 2002

Massiah, Joycelin. “Feminist Scholarship and Society.” In Gender in the 21st Century: Caribbean Perspectives, Visions and Possibilities. Eds. Barbara Bailey and Elsa Leo-Rhynie, 5-34. Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers, 2004.

Mohammed, Patricia. “Towards Indigenous Feminist Theorizing in the Caribbean.” Feminist Review. 59: 6-33, 1998.

—.  “The Caribbean Family Revisited.”  In Caribbean Portraits: Essays on Gender Ideologies and Identities.  Ed. Christine, Barrow.  Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers, 1998: 164-175.

—.  Gendered Realities: Essays in Caribbean Feminist Thought. Jamaica: UWI Press, 2002.

Moore, Brian, L. and Johnson, Michele, A. “ ‘Manners Maketh (Wo)Man’ Transforming the Jamaican Character.” In Neither Led nor Driven: Contesting British Cultural Imperialism in Jamaica, 1865-1920. Eds. Brian L. Moore and Michele A. Johnson. Kingston, Jamaica: The University of the West Indies Press, 2004:137-156.

Morrissey, Marietta.  “Explaining the Caribbean Family: Gender Ideologies and Gender Relations.”  In Caribbean Portraits: Essays on Gender Ideologies and Identities.  Ed. Christine, Barrow.  Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers, 1998: 78-90.

Mies, M. (1986). Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale: Women in the International Division of  Labour. London, Zed Books

Murray, David A. B.  “Bajan Queens, Nebulous Scenes: Sexual Diversity in Barbados.”  On line Journal Caribbean Review of Gender Studies: A Journal of Caribbean Perspectives on Gender and Feminism.  Issue 3, 2009.

Muturi, Nancy. “Sexual Violence and Women’s Reproductive Health in Jamaica: A Communications Perspectives.” In Sex, Power and Taboo: Gender and HIV in the Caribbean and Beyond. Eds. Dorothy Roberts, Rhoda Reddock, Dianne Douglas and Sandra Reid. Kingston: Ian Randle, 2009: 87-109

Plummer, Ken. “Symbolic Interactionism and Sexual Conduct.” In Williams, Christine L. and Stein, Arlene.  Eds.  Sexuality and Gender.  Massachusetts and Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2002: 20-32.

Reddock, Rhoda. “The Early Women’s Movement.” In Women, Labour and Politcs in Trinidad and Tobago. Ed. Rhoda Reddock. London: Zed Books, 1994:162-181.

—. “Women and Slavery in the Caribbean: A Feminist Perspective.” We Specialize in the

Wholly Impossible: A Reader in Black Women’s History. D. Clark  Hine, et al. New York,

Carlson Publishing Inc. 1995: 127-141.

—. Caribbean Masculinities and Femininities: The Impact of Globalization on Caribbean Cultural Representation.  In Gender in the 21st Century: Caribbean Visions and Possibilities. Eds. Barbara Bailey and Elsa Leo-Rhynie. Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers, 2004: 179-216.

Rich, Adrienne. Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. New York,

W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1995.

Richardson, Diane. Theorizing Heterosexuality. Buckingham and Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1998.

Robinson, Tracy. “Beyond the Bill of Rights: Sexing the Citizen.” In  Eudine Barriteau. Ed. Confronting Power, Theorizing Gender: Interdisciplinary Perspectives from the Caribbean, 231-261. Kingston: UWI Press, 2003.

Rothman, B. K. Recreating Motherhood: Ideology and Technology in a Patriarchal Society. New York, W.W. Norton & Company, 1989.

Rubin, Gayle. “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the Political Economy of Sex.” In Toward an Anthropology of Women. Ed. Rayna Reiter. New York: Monthly Press, 1975.

Sharpe, Jenny and Pinto, Samantha. “The Sweetest Taboo: Studies of Caribbean Sexualities; A Review Essay.  Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society.32 (1): 247-277, 2006.

Silvera, Makeda. “Man Royals and Sodomites: Some Thoughts on the Invisibility of Afro-Caribbean Lesbians.” Feminist Studies 18(3): 521-532, 1992.

Smith, R. T. (1996). The Matrifocal Family: Power, Pluralism and Politics. New

York, Routledge.

Weeks, Jeffrey. “The Invention of Sexuality” (Chapter 2).  Sexuality.  Second Edition.  London: Routledge, 2003

Wekker, Gloria. The Politics of Passion: Women’s Sexual Culture in the Afro-Surinamese Diaspora. New York, Columbia University Press, 2006.

—. “ One Finger Does not Drink Okra Soup: Afro-Surinamese Women and Critical Agency.” In M. Jacqui Alexander and C. Mohanty.  Eds. Feminist Genealogies, Colonial Legacies, Democratic Futures,330-352. London: Routledge, 1997.

Women for Women. “Violence Against LBT Women in Jamaica.” Feb. 16, 2010.

Williams, Christine L. and Stein, Arlene.  Eds.  Sexuality and Gender.  Massachusetts and Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2002.

Williams, Lawson. “ Homophobia and Gay Rights Activism in Jamaica.” Small Axe, March 2000: 106-111.

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.