By: Mike Givens/TRT Assistant Editor—
In part one of this series, The Rainbow Times introduced our readership to LGBTQ Caribbean expatriates living and working in Massachusetts. In the final part of the series, we’ll delve further into their lives and explore the queer Caribbean experience.
As a youth, Claudia grew up as an effeminate gay male in rural Jamaica, an economically depressed area that saw few jobs and opportunities. Unfamiliar with gender dysphoria or that there would someday be an opportunity for her to live authentically as a woman, she accepted herself as a gay young man.
“I’ve always been feminine since I was younger,” said Claudia, who asked not to be identified by her real name for this article. “If I ever tried to pretend to be masculine, it wouldn’t work. It was like I was putting on a show.”
At the age of 16 and still living as a gay male, Claudia moved to a small Jamaican city, and the homophobia was rampant. Often called names such as “batty boy” and “faggott,” Claudia had to live with the fear of being attacked by a mob or that a threat of having her family’s house burned down would come true.
“For me it became unhealthy because I couldn’t focus,” she solemnly reflected, noting that she was often worried for her safety. “ I had to think about my safety when coming from work, or going home, or doing any activities when in the community.”
By her mid twenties, Claudia was accepting her womanhood and wanted to leave the island.
“Jamaica for me was not a safe place at all because I would not be able to express myself … ” she said, noting that living in Jamaica as an openly gay male was “a tough road” for her, which she knew would be even more difficult as a transgender woman.
In November of 2013, Claudia came to the United States on a temporary visa and became enamored with the freedom she had living as a woman. In the last four years, she’s described her experience of living in Massachusetts as “amazing” and has made peace with her decision to leave Jamaica behind.
“I feel empowered,” she exclaimed. “I feel like I’m in a place where I can be myself. I feel like I can accomplish what I want to accomplish.”
Claudia said that there’s still a fair amount of prejudice in Massachusetts, but that the prejudice isn’t as bad as the discrimination and threats of violence she experienced in Jamaica as a transitioning woman.
“You have to present yourself in a particular way in order to be respected,” she said of social dynamics in her home country.
Dr. Diana Fox, an anthropologist and professor at Bridgewater State University (BSU), said that Christian fundamentalism and socially entrenched heteronormative mores contribute deeply to a pejorative attitude towards LGBTQ identities on many of the islands in the Caribbean.
“Generally, [Caribbean islanders] view homosexuality as immoral—lacking Christian morality in particular,” she said, noting that many view LGBTQ people as pedophiles, spiritually lost, and predatory.
Charlene E. Charles hails from Trinidad and Tobago, more than 600 miles southeast of Puerto Rico and right off the east coast of Venezuela. Having travelled back to the country to see family and friends with three different partners, she said that she’s had a lot of experience observing LGBTQ culture on the island.
“There are multiple spaces for queer folks in Trinidad, such as clubs, cafes, restaurants, LGBTQ centers, groups that organize movie events, seminars, workshops, safe spaces, talks, and social gatherings,” she said. “There are also groups that are working with LGBTQ youth, and one focused on changing the [anti-buggery] laws in the country.”
Dr. Krystal Ghisyawan, who earned a doctorate in sociology at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad and coordinates the sexualities working group of the Caribbean Studies Association, said that the LGBTQ experience in the Caribbean is dependent upon several factors.
“There is huge diversity in the region when it comes to norms and expectations related to sexual practices and sexual identity, including within islands and among them, with there being vast differences in how day-to-day life is configured,” she said. “Race, age, socioeconomic status, religion, gender identification and expression, are some of the factors that shape day-to-day realities across the region.”
According to Ghisyawan, in particular, social and economic support can be crucial for positive experiences for LGBTQ people.
“Having the support of family or friends, a safe place to live and work, being able to financially support oneself … really determines the extent to which a person can be LGBTQ and explore that identity,” she continued.
While there are ample spaces for LGBTQ people in Trinidad and Tobago, Charles said that homophobia and transphobia still exist.
“Unfortunately it is not a very safe country for [trans] folks,” she said, noting, “there have been many murders in the past years that have not gotten media attention, and it is rumored that there is serial killer targeting trans women
“I have personally seen many trans women out in public and working in stores while shopping in the city of Port of Spain, so it appears that there is some freedom for [trans] women, but there is definitely a safety concern.”
Ghisyawan elaborated on the dangers that face trans people, particularly trans women.
“For trans persons, issues of privacy, visibility, and safety become even more important,” she said. “Their transgressions of gender and sexual norms, especially male-to-female trans-persons, is often met with disgust and anger. More than their sexuality, their embodiment of femininity is seen to directly challenge the social order.”
Yvon Adony M. Gachette grew up in Haiti as a child and currently lives in Cambridge. While growing up in Haiti, he said he never observed violence towards LGBTQ people, but did take note of how queer lifestyles were demonized.
“The attitude towards queer people in Haiti is generally negative, it’s an abomination in the eyes of the Christian majority there, it’s an ‘abomination’ even to those who are not even devout,” he said. “Growing up there, I observed the way they refer to homosexuality and condemn it even worse than theft and murder at times.
Ghisyawan said that religious discourse in many Caribbean nations contributes to entrenched ways of thinking about LGBTQ people.
“Many countries have what is called religious nationalism, where religious doctrine is very influential on state policies,” she said. “This includes refusals to accept gender diversity and non-reproductive sexual contact. Christianity is dominant, but some regions have other religions being widely practiced.
“Guyana, Suriname and Trinidad for instance, have large numbers of Hindus, and Muslims in smaller amounts. Mega-churches from outside the region also have grasped the attention of many Christians within the region, further contributing to anti-gay rhetoric and the ex-gay ministries.”
Though homophobic and transphobic sentiment was high during his childhood, Gachette said that violence was more verbal than physical.
“For example, I remember seeing crossdressers being out and open and unapologetically being themselves, referred to as “gason makomè”, which is Creole for “lady boy” … the extent of the homophobic abuse is ridicule, not bodily harm as I can remember.”
Race and Class
When it comes to living in the United States, Charles said that she can’t imagine living anywhere other than the Bay State.
“In Massachusetts, I am able to be who I want to be where and whenever I want to,” she said. “I have never felt uncomfortable around other Caribbean non-queer people, and have never felt the need to hide my queer identity from them. Many of my family reside in Massachusetts and are all very accepting of me and my fiancé. I have not knowingly experienced homophobia from others in the Caribbean community.”
Holyoke City Councilor Jossie Valentin immigrated to Massachusetts from Puerto Rico in her early 20s and noticed for the first time in her life something she identified as “skin privilege.”
“When I moved to Massachusetts in 1998, being a pale-skinned Puerto Rican [I did not realize] that I was a person of color and what that really meant,” she said.
Valentin said that moving to the Bay State forced her to realize the stark reality of racism. Having straight hair, no discernible accent, and pale skin, Valentin said that she was often told she didn’t, “look Puerto Rican.”
And other injustices exist as well for Caribbean-identified people. Erick Diaz from the Dominican Republic said compared to other people of color, say American-born blacks, Caribbean people can face severe challenges.
“Being displaced from your home country to the U.S. puts you at a disadvantage [when] comparing yourself to someone who was born here,” he said. “Also, language can be a barrier to care, housing, education, and the list goes on. However, I am a firm believer that race determines class as well as your access to healthcare, housing, [and] education.”
For Charles, the inequities exist, but she found a safety net in a strong sense of community when she came to the U.S.
“When I came to the U.S., there were clubs in high school and college that specifically catered to those of Caribbean descent, we sought out each other, and leaned on each other for support and shared resources with each other,” she said. “For Caribbean people, they come to the U.S. and immediately seek out others and build a community with them. Getting access to healthcare, housing, and education seemed simple because there was always someone who had already gone through it there to show you how to and where to go to get what you needed.”
Like Valentin, Gachette said that colorism is very pronounced in Caribbean countries and in Haiti he definitely noticed a toxic dynamic between those with differing skin tones.
“Colorism is one thing, so even within any given Caribbean country there is a disparity between dark skin and [light] skin,” he said. “In Haiti, for example, where the [more than] 90 percent majority [of the population] is black, light skin and white Haitians are favored.
“I think that the same prejudice is found in the U.S., anywhere, really. And I think it goes without saying that if you’re Asian, you’re easily more tolerated by the powers that be than Black [and] Caribbean folks, therefore having more access to get by … ”
Breaking Through Stereotypes
According to those interviewed for this series, there are an abundance of stereotypes that persist about Caribbean people.
Valentin, for example, said that she consistently observes a perception of Latinx people being a drain on public resources.
“There’s the stereotype that we’re lazy and live off the government and live off of transitional assistance,” she said. “Some of the hardest working people I know are Puerto Ricans.”
Valentin says this misconception of Latinx people flies in the face of the actual reality of the work immigrants actually do.
“Mexican immigrants, Puerto Ricans, [and] Dominicans are put in the same conversation and put down as lazy, yet those are the folks doing the work that other folks don’t want to do,” she said, noting that these immigrants often take on housekeeping and farming jobs.
Charles said she notices a consistent perception of Caribbean people as homophobic and transphobic, but that the reality is much different.
“ … many of my friends and family who live in Trinidad today, who would [have] considered themselves to be homophobic, have sat and talked to me about how I have changed their views and have made them think differently,” she said. “They’ve become more open and accepting and are able to have conversations with their children who are growing up in a very different time than they did in the 70s and 80s when in the Caribbean queerness was associated with HIV/AIDS.”
Gachette said that there’s a strong misperception of all Haitians being practitioners of voodoo.
“Interestingly enough, if the majority of us in fact practiced and lived by voodoo philosophy, Haiti would be the most LGBTQ friendly place,” he said, noting the irony of the stereotype. “The stigmatized religion we are taught to fear and reject—while favoring Christianity—is the one that has always been accepting of different sexualities and gender expressions.”
Pride and Prejudice
Claudia has applied for asylum in the United States and has been waiting for four years for an interview. She has a work visa and is hoping that after her interview, she’ll be granted asylum based on persecution of her gender identity in Jamaica. She’s involved in a local LGBTQ task force in her community and enjoys working with other Jamaican expatriates to get them settled in Massachusetts.
“I’ve been struggling, but have always met supportive people,” she said of her journey to build a life for herself in Massachusetts.
But given her Caribbean roots, is she proud of her Jamaican culture?
“No, because back there I was scared,” she said, noting that she couldn’t live authentically as female in a country where people are routinely killed for living authentically. “I can’t go to Carnival and dance and shake my booty. I’m scared.”
Cultural anthropologist and BSU Professor Diana Fox, though, observed that there is a some hope on the horizon.
“On Cape Cod, and New England generally, there is an expanding Jamaican population, that comes for seasonal migratory labor,” she said. “Some of the Jamaican people have settled on the Cape, in Provincetown, of all places, which is really interesting.
“They work in restaurants and also in the hotels and guest houses, in the kitchens and as housekeepers and throughout New England there are people who come from Jamaica to pick apples.
Fox said that this exposure to the LGBTQ community, particularly in places like Provincetown, can have a small impact on attitudes.
“They are exposed, especially in Provincetown, to an actively public gay community and this is diametrically opposed to what they experience, for the most part, at home,” she continued. “But I think that this migration process is important because over time as people meet people who are LGBTQ, their stereotypes start to break down. It is also mainly young people migrating to the Cape who already have more open attitudes in part because of social media. They have no choice but to interact with the local population, whereas in Jamaica straight people can refuse service. Many people actively refuse service to LGBTQ people. I had that experience myself when in Jamaica filming a documentary, and a man selling coconut water refused to sell me a coconut.”
Fox said this accidental exposure helps open the minds of Jamaican migrants and carry those ideas back to Jamaica when the season is over.
Unlike Claudia, Jossie Valentin said she’s quite proud of her Puerto Rican heritage.
“Everywhere I go, I talk about being a woman, being a lesbian, and being Puerto Rican,” she said. “And those three are not interchangeable in terms of priorities for me. They’re all the same. They’re all equally important to me.”
Diaz from the Dominican Republic echoed Valentin.
“I am very proud of my roots,” he said. “I love being Dominican. The island is very beautiful as well as the people. The culture is a melting pot of three different worlds colliding together—those being Africa, Spain, and Hispaniola itself.”
Charles said her Caribbean identity is at the forefront of who she is.
“Yes I am very proud of my culture,” she said. “For me … I am first Trini, second multiracial, third woman, forth queer. My Trinidadian heritage plays a major part in who I am as a person, the foods I eat and cook, the way I speak and dance, and my values.”
*Part one of this story erroneously stated that fundamentalist Christianity was introduced into the Caribbean during the Colonial period. While Christianity was introduced in the Caribbean around the time of colonialism, fundamentalism emerged in the Caribbean in the 1980s.
[This story first appeared in the Jan. 4 issue of The Rainbow Times]