Queer in the Caribbean

By Bellot, Gabrielle | International New York Times, November 2, 2015 | Go to article overview

Queer in the Caribbean


Bellot, Gabrielle, International New York Times


To find themselves, and safety, many gay and trans people choose exile.

"Listen. Dead people never stop talking." So begins Marlon James's novel "A Brief History of Seven Killings," which last month won the Man Booker Prize.

The statement has a particular resonance both in the book and outside it. In March, Mr. James, who was raised in Jamaica but now lives in the United States, came out as gay in a piece for The Times Magazine. "Whether it was in a plane or a coffin," he wrote, "I knew I had to get out of Jamaica."

Mr. James's novel, which revolves around an assassination attempt on the reggae star Bob Marley, exposes some of the homophobia for which Jamaica and other parts of the Caribbean have become known. This hatred is rooted in the legacy of the colonial laws of the British Caribbean, which criminalized sodomy, and reinforced by the powerful influence of anti-gay evangelists.

As a queer transgender woman from another Caribbean island, the Commonwealth of Dominica, I found that Mr. James's exile resonated with me. While attending university in Florida, I, too, decided one day not to return home after coming out. In much of the Caribbean, being transgender is simply conflated with being gay; I was terrified of being ostracized at best and physically assaulted at worst.

Growing up hearing casual slurs, I had hidden my identity for over 20 years. My parents warned me against breathing a word of my transition to anyone on the island. I felt like a shameful secret; home came to feel like a phantom limb. Had I been forced to pretend to be a straight male in Dominica, I firmly believe I would eventually have killed myself, becoming like one of those dead voices that populate Mr. James's novel.

When Mr. James was awarded the Man Booker Prize, I, like many Caribbean writers and activists, wondered how the Jamaican media would respond. The win was widely celebrated, but there was little discussion of his sexuality. Radio hosts expressed "regret" that he was queer, while others reportedly brushed off his being gay as a rumor.

An editorial in the Jamaica Observer asked if it was necessary for Jamaicans to be in exile to write well, yet, incredibly, failed to examine the reason for Mr. James's exile: his fear of what would happen if he were to live openly as a gay man. Rather than start a conversation, the mainstream Jamaican media largely killed off his queerness.

And the many voices of queer individuals in Jamaica and the wider Caribbean who have been assaulted, forced into pretending to be heterosexual or cisgender, or even murdered, need to be heard. Such stories are not hard to find. Between 2009 and 2012, the Jamaican advocacy group J-FLAG reported 231 attacks against L.G.B.T. people.

In 2013, a queer teenager named Dwayne Jones went to a dance party dressed as a woman; when partygoers realized that this was not a cisgender woman, the 16-year-old was chased, beaten, stabbed, shot and run over by a car.

While the cause of same-sex marriage has advanced in the United States, the Caribbean has seen an increasingly vocal pushback against the granting of legal protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. For instance, at a rally in September of nearly 20,000 people in Jamaica to protest against L.G.B.T. rights, speakers opposed the decriminalization of sodomy, attacked same-sex marriage and warned about schools supposedly teaching about gender nonconformity or nonheterosexual orientations. Alveda King, a niece of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., appeared via video to advise Jamaicans not to fall for "the anti- procreation agenda" coming from America. …

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