David A.B. Murray: Flaming Souls: Homosexuality, Homophobia, and Social Change in Barbados

Article excerpt

David A.B. Murray

Flaming Souls: Homosexuality, Homophobia, and Social Change in Barbados

Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012, 144 pp.

In his new book, David Murray focuses exclusively on the Caribbean island of Barbados and the spectre of homosexuality therein. He visits the National HIV/AIDS Commission meetings, listens to call-in talk radio shows, and documents transnational cellphone love affair dramas. He notes the burgeoning interest in lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered rights as human rights across the world, and the regular vilification of the Caribbean region generally (and Jamaica more specifically) as one of the most homophobic places on earth, which has "potentially serious economic and political repercussions for these places, cultures, or nations that were found 'guilty' of such discriminatory practices" (5). He set out to discover how homophobia really operates in Barbados. Who are the perpetrators, victims, and resisters? He unravels some of the complex historical, social, political, and economic terrains through which gender and sexuality are produced and argues that the gay male gaze is simultaneously central and marginal to the formation of the Barbadian imagined community.

In this text, Murray effectively communicates two main ideas. First, he explains that homophobia is certainly not universal throughout Barbados. He cites a number of gay interlocutors who expressed feeling supported by peers, family members, and co-workers who have "no issue" with their sexuality. At the same time, others reported (increasing) hostility, harassment, and violence. His analysis shows the value of not painting the entire Caribbean or even all of Barbados with the broad strokes of a homophobic brush. Similarly, there is no single identification, definition, or performance of sexuality, desire, or gender in daily Bajan (Barbadian) life. He explains that differently gendered men, depending also on their race, religion, and class, are treated/perform differently and should not be judged based on North American queer life, (trans-)gender definitions, or activist standards.

Second, he shows the global dimensions of both homophobia and homosexuality. Increasing homophobia, Murray suggests, is directly related to anti-globalization and anti-imperialism sentiments in the nation, which are concomitant with realignments that have resulted in a submissive, subordinated, and "hyperfeminised" economy in Barbados. Many locals have no interest in taking their moral cues from Euro-America, whose history of causing suffering and inequalities in the Caribbean and elsewhere are less than exemplary. Relatedly, the perception of the Caribbean as homophobic (read: backwards, uncivilized) is a continuation of a modernist, racist perception of the region. Murray (Chapter 3) shows the complexity of engaging in human rights debates in Barbados--there is nothing universal about them despite the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights--particularly where different aspects of the declaration contradict each other. Where it is impossible to defend both individual freedoms and the public interest, lawmakers encourage protection of the status quo. He argues that just as sexual and gender identities are made locally but always in relation to the global, rights must be made locally, framed in terms of vernacular based on internal debates that are informed by global practices--not imposed from the international (read: Euro-American) community.

The book could be improved substantially with a deeper critique of the international gay human rights movement and its lack of theoretical engagement with the nationalistic position of Barbados. Nationalisms are but one set of political positions across a wide-ranging set of heterogeneous Black conservative communities. In Barbados, human rights narratives of Black communal solidarity and bio-nationalism are shored up by discourses of family, sexual taboos, religion, morality, and so on, which are called upon to legitimize the rejection of same-sex sexual practices and identities. …