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.
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. http://www.soulrebels.org/dancehall/w_compassionate_013.htm.
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.
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---. “Caribbean Sexuality: Mapping the Field.” Caribbean Review of Gender Studies 3 (2009): 1-24.
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Trinidad and Tobago Ministry of Legal Affairs. Sexual Offences Act, Chapter 11:28. Port of Spain, 2006, Updated December 31st 2009. Accessed at www.legalaffairs.gov.tt.
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---. 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. http://www.xtra.ca/public/National/More_dancehall_acts_cancelled_over_ho...
“Reggae Compassionate Act.” Soul Rebels. 2007. http://www.soulrebels.org/dancehall/w_compassionate_013.htm.
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.
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