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 www.irnweb.org) 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 (dloc.org) 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 http://www.dloc.com/icirngfm. 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.
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.
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 The Caribbean IRN website is located at irnweb.org, Caribbean Region. (http://www.irnweb.org/en/resources/articles/view/the-caribbean-irn)