TRT Exclusive: Queer and Caribbean: LGBTQ+ Culture & The Island Identity

LGBTQ CultureErick Diaz and Holyoke Mass. City Councilor Jossie Valentin

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In part one of a two-part series, The Rainbow Times examines the LGBTQ culture through the lens of Caribbean lifestyle.

By: Mike Givens/TRT Assistant Editor—

Not too long ago, Erick Diaz and a few of his friends visited a Latin nightclub in Providence, Rhode Island.

While socializing together, Diaz overheard a comment that would jolt him from his carefree conversations and remind him of a startling reality for men like himself.

“Long story short, I overheard some guys behind me talking about the way I was dressed and how I looked ‘faggety,’” he said. “When I looked back to see who was speaking, the guy looks at me with these piercing eyes.”

Like so many openly gay men who express their identity on their own terms, Diaz suddenly became aware that in a bar with straight people, he may not have been completely safe to be himself.

Diaz said one of the men aggressively asked him, “What the [expletive] you looking at?”

“It was a bit scary,” he continued. “I have had many negative interactions with heterosexual Caribbean men. I blame it on insecurities surrounding their sexuality.”

 

“The Abominable Crime”

Composed of more than 7,000 islands and two dozen countries, the Caribbean is home to a diverse and vibrant culture and people. The Dominican Republic, where Diaz hails from, is just one of many island nations that dot the southern Atlantic east of Mexico and Central America and north of South America. Other countries such as Jamaica, Haiti, Barbados, and Cuba are situated in the area, as well as the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

The history of many of these islands is rooted in colonialism, Christianity, and patriarchy, which directly contribute to the myriad national identities that define the social and moral fabric of the region’s cultures.

“We have to be really careful not to talk about Caribbean culture as a monolith,” said Dr. Diana Fox, a cultural anthropologist and professor at Bridgewater State University (https://goo.gl/9jTzBp; BSU). “There are certainly important overlaps, all of [the islands] experiencing European colonialism and slavery and East Indian indentureship following the end of slavery, but the various colonial powers left different religions, languages, legacies, and even different attitudes around gender and sexuality.

“The Dutch speaking, English speaking, French and Spanish Caribbean are importantly distinct in certain ways. Even within the English-speaking Caribbean, there are variations that have to do with where the islands are located, how close they are to the United States, the demographics, the percentages of African, Indian, and Chinese, Lebanese … The [Caribbean] is an incredibly diverse society and that has some impact on understanding the nature of the conditions of LGBTQ persons in the region.”

Though there is an inherent diversity in the region, when it comes to the rights of LGBTQ people in the Caribbean, Fox said that there are general patterns that can be observed.

“It’s fair to say [LGBTQ rights are] a struggle … ” she said.

Fox referenced the 2013 film, “The Abominable Crime” as a powerful documentary on homophobia in Jamaica. The film explores the lives of a group of queer Jamaicans and the violence they experience for living openly.

The homophobia Diaz experienced in that Providence nightclub by a group of Latin men, though common throughout the United States, has its roots in centuries-old social mores around masculinity that permeated Caribbean culture.

“There were certain behavioral patterns that were introduced during slavery that entrenched existing heteronormativity such as using black male studs as slave breeders, which reinforced a kind of masculinity that was ranked,” said Fox. “ If you were going to be a man selected to reproduce with a woman who was selected, that would heighten the status of the male. That was one factor that has lead to a kind of privileging of heterosexual normativity.”

Diaz said that the Dominican Republic is saturated in patriarchy.

“There is also a very strong presence of ‘machismo’ in the Dominican Republic, which only exacerbates the homophobia that persists in the culture,” he said.

Diaz continued by relating an anecdote that he characterized as chilling.

“My recent trip to [the] DR was last summer and the day I got there my mom was telling me a story about how a young, beautiful man was killed,” he related. “The man was robbed for his motorcycle and was then tied up, sodomized, [and] killed. Many people said that the reason they killed that man was because he was out and proud.”

Fox also said that colonial “anti-buggery,” or anti-sodomy, laws effectively outlawed same-sex relations and many of those laws still exist in many Caribbean countries. Religious influence has also played a significant role in attitudes around sexual orientation and gender identity. According to Fox, during the colonization of Caribbean countries, Christianity heavily influenced the lives of natives and in the 1980s Christian fundamentalism saw an uptick in anti-LGBTQ sentiment that lead to increased violence.

Given that anti-sodomy laws are still in effect and anti-LGBTQ sentiment runs high in many Caribbean cultures, Fox said that police are often complicit in allowing acts of homophobia and transphobia to take place and acts of discrimination run high.

Diaz said that the Dominican Republic in 2017 has policies and practices that promote discrimination.

“Right now queer people have limited rights in the Dominican Republic,” he said. “Like in many other countries, many queer people, especially transgender women, have been victims of hate attacks. Also, the Dominican Republic does not recognize same-sex marriage as legitimate.”

The homophobia and transphobia is not unchallenged, however. There is a small, but ever-present human rights movement active in the Caribbean to support LGBTQ people and their rights.

“The human rights movements have a local flavor to them,” she said. “They tap into important cultural norms and beliefs and value systems, but they’re also transnational. They’re connected to LGBT movements, particularly in the US, but also in Canada, even Great Britain. They’re pulling on energy and support from the global community.”

Though the human rights movement is growing in the region, it still faces an uphill battle when it comes to educating the mainstream public.

“There’s an interesting relationship that Caribbean people in general, and I would say in Jamaica in particular [have with the human rights movement],” Fox continued. “They’re very suspicious of the movement … outside the movement, there’s a lot of critique that it’s a western, white, middle class movement that is bringing American culture and lasciviousness [into the Caribbean] … a lot of negative stereotypes … so they associate the human rights movement with the LGBTQ movement.”

Fox said that negative, fabricated stereotypes about queer people have been associated with the human rights movement in the Caribbean, which also advocates for women’s rights, the environment, an end to child marriage practices, among other issues.

“Because there are a lot of stereotypes like gay men are pedophiles, they see human rights as a support of pedophilia,” Fox said. “The human rights movement, in the eyes of many, is a negative.

“It’s a real effort. It’s one of the things that people in the movement have to do is make it palatable and undo the wrongheaded assumptions.”

Fox said that in Jamaica, racial dynamics can mix with gender and sexual politics to create a troubling caste system. Dark-skinned Jamaicans have a tendency to be treated poorly, can be the subjects of employment and healthcare discrimination and violence.

“They’re the ones who suffer the most,” she said. “The darker, the poor, and gay men, which is considered worse than lesbians … ”

Fox said that she’s heard anecdotes of corrective rape where heterosexual men will gang rape masculine lesbian women with the intent of making them straight. She said she’s also heard stories of queer people being slashed with glass or knives and being beaten up, sometimes in the presence of police. Queer people who’ve been outed have received threatening notes, had their tires slashed, and have had the walls outside of their homes graffitied.

Fox noted that there are also positive stories that she’s heard. Underground circuits where queer people socialize together, neighborhoods where same-sex relationships are tolerated. Two years ago, Jamaica had its first Pride event in New Kingston. Last year, there was a full pride week and a parade at the University of West Indies Campus. There have also been Family Night activities for queer and straight families and other festivities.

 

Caribbean Culture Meets Massachusetts Mores

Giftson Joseph is from Haiti and says that there is a misconception that all Haitian people are homophobic.

“The misconception about Caribbean culture is that everyone is against homosexuality or that everyone is violent toward LGBTQ individuals,” he said. “ … As a Haitian person I can only speak on my experiences in Haiti. It’s really about the location in Haiti and who you surround yourself with.”

Joseph said that knowing how to navigate the social politics of the island nation are key to protecting oneself from violence and discrimination.

“To be queer in Haiti, it’s about navigation, knowing where are the right places to go,” he said “There still is a heavy stigmatization and an anti-gay atmosphere that still reigns over Haiti to this day like most of the Caribbean.”

Joseph stressed that religion and class can play a big role in moving up the economic ladder and positioning queer people to live in communities that are more affluent and open-minded.

Living as an openly gay male in Massachusetts is much easier than in the Caribbean, according to Joseph.

“As a person of Caribbean descent, it is easier to be in Massachusetts because there are laws here that protect you or at least are intended to protect you … ”

Joseph also stressed that there is more access to opportunity and the freedom to be yourself without fear that you can be discriminated against without repercussions.

Like Joseph, Holyoke, Mass. City Councilor Jossie Valentin agrees that there’s more freedom to be oneself in the Bay State than in the Caribbean.

Having lived in Puerto Rico up until she was 21, Valentin realized that it wasn’t safe for her to live openly as a lesbian in her home country.

“In the 90s, being queer in Puerto Rico was very much taboo, especially for women,” she said. “The stereotype of the GLBT community was that of the very flamboyant gay man who is always the character on TV that everyone is mocking, and that is still the case today.”

Valentin said that she came out when she was 16 while in college and realized that her sexual orientation as well as her gender expression were not welcomed.

“For me to be out, to be comfortable and be myself, not just as a gay woman, but also with the gender expression I’m comfortable with—I usually present as more masculine—I needed to get out,”she said.

In 1998, she moved to Northampton, Massachusetts and described it as “paradise” as she felt accepted in the LGBTQ community in the western part of the state. She later moved to Holyoke, which she said was “night and day” from Northampton, but that over the years, acceptance for LGBTQ people has really grown in the city.

“I will always be Puerto Rican anywhere I am, but I am very proud of being a resident of Massachusetts, particularly with the leadership we have statewide,” she said, noting that she’s proud to have elected leaders like U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren and Attorney General Maura Healey in positions of power in the Commonwealth.

In Puerto Rico, Valentin said that she encounters discrimination and harassment living openly, particularly when she’s with her wife, who is more feminine.

“Straight men have made comments or have tried to get her attention, trying to dismiss the fact that we’re a couple,” she said. “That’s happened in Puerto Rico, not here in Massachusetts.”

Valentin observed that in Caribbean culture, the pressures to conform to traditional notions of masculinity, can vary.

“There’s very much a huge difference between, for example, the Puerto Rican queer community and the Dominican queer community,” she noted. “The machismo we experience from Puerto Rican culture is actually even double the amount when you look at the Dominican culture, the Jamaican culture.”

Valentin theorizes that because Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States and has experienced an “American influence,” queer lifestyles may be more mainstream than other Caribbean islands.

Joseph noted that throughout the Caribbean, optics play a large role in how one is treated.

“Gender expression and heteronormativity play a big role in how you will be treated in Caribbean social relationships,” he said.

In the next issue of The Rainbow Times, queer Caribbean identities will be further explored and more LGBTQ New Englanders will discuss their experiences in their homes countries as compared to the United States.

[This article first appeared on the Dec. 7, 2017 issue of The Rainbow Times].

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