For heterosexuals, Jamaica is a kind of heaven, but for gays and lesbians, it may seem like paradise lost. In the past few years there's been much talk on the radio, in newspapers, and in magazines about dancehall--a kind of hip-hoppy descendant of reggae--and the fact that some of the form's top performers traffic in violent and repugnantly homophobic lyrics.
As a Jamaican-American, I grew up listening to the island's music. Jamaica's musical past goes far beyond reggae: There's the warm rhythms of mento, the sweet sway of calypso, the jittery jump of ska. The past is more tolerant too. In the music of Jamaica's global superstar, Bob Marley, the vicious gay bashing of dancehall is nowhere to be found.
I've made a study of Jamaica's cultural, political, and sexual history for my new novel about 18th-century Jamaica, Kingston by Starlight. It tells the story of Anne Bonny, a real-life Irish woman who journeyed to Jamaica, dressed as a man, became a pirate, had a relationship with another cross-dressing woman, and was put on trial for her alleged crimes in 1720. Kingston by Starlight is a story of adventure and beauty, rapture and revenge, the lower depths and the high seas. It's also, I think, a story about the true soul of Jamaica.
Some dancehall performers may never admit it, but gay life is intertwined with the history of the Caribbean; it's part of the legends, the literature, the landscape. There are suggestion and shadows, winks and hints, that some significant portion of the region's celebrated and notorious pirate population may have been gay. B.R. Burg, in his book Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition: English Sea Rovers in the Seventeenth-Century Caribbean, writes of the piratical institution of "matelotage," in which one buccaneer was matched to a shipmate, each pledging mutual cooperation and companionship, with the understanding that if one died, all booty would go to the survivor. Yes, of course, it may have all been perfectly chaste, but to modern observers it sure sounds like a same-sex marriage at sea.
In the more recent past, writers with Jamaican roots, such as Audre Lorde and Michelle Cliff, have published novels about gay life in the region; younger lesbian writers such as Patricia Powell and poet Staceyann Chin have written about the experiences of Jamaican homosexuals. Chin's work is inspiring and insightful; it takes you by the hand and grabs you by the throat. A few years ago Chin performed at Calabash, an annual literary festival held in Jamaica. There had been worries about how she would be received, but once she got got into her reading, the fears fell away like scabs off a healed wound. The largely Jamaican audiences were won over by her work. I talked to Chin recently about this, and she sent me this e-mail: "Yes, it is OK to say I was well-received at Calabash, but it is also important to note the other times when I was not received well by a Jamaican audience (and there were times that ranged from testy to downright unsafe)." The struggle continues, but at least the battle is being fought.
I left Jamaica when I was a child and was raised in Brockport, N.Y. I also went to school at Harvard--a collegiate fantasyland where sexual and racial difference is embraced (except when it comes to getting a tenured position on the faculty). So the homophobia that some critics had ascribed to Jamaican culture had always mystified and disturbed me. I didn't subscribe to it, and I felt it didn't have deep, legitimate roots in the Jamaican culture that I knew. I saw it as some foreign weed planted in Jamaica's rich red soil to choke the life out of our native fruits. I felt homophobic hatred could be uprooted and overcome if an artist was talented and determined enough. …