On Being Queer in the Caribbean

Tallahassee, Fla. — “Listen. Dead people never stop talking.” So begins Marlon James’s novel “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” which last month won the Man Booker Prize.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Such rallies help to enforce the need for queer Jamaicans to hide their identities — or leave. “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” Mr. James told The Guardian, “was a novel of exile.” Exile, certainly, is common in Caribbean literature; a large number of Caribbean authors write about the nations they grew up in while living elsewhere in the world, and so many of their novels depict characters who are conflicted about their national identities.

The exile of race, caused by our history through slavery, colonialism and indentured servitude, is woven into the poems of Derek Walcott and the novels of Jean Rhys. There are also the stories of those who left the islands to seek opportunities in the land of their colonizer, like the protagonists of Samuel Selvon’s novel “The Lonely Londoners.”

And then there is the experience of those of us, like Mr. James, who are queer — either the internal exile of living a lie at home to avoid ostracism or assault, or the external exile of fleeing home in order to finally be ourselves.

Caleb Orozco, a gay Belizean who mounted the first legal challenge to an anti-sodomy law in the Caribbean, is practically exiled in his own home. He leaves his house only for brief trips, in which he faces anti-gay slurs from passers-by, and has to fortify his home with six locks every time he returns.

When the house of the Jamaican activist and writer Dadland Maye was burned down, and he was attacked by men with guns, Mr. Maye had to seek political asylum in the United States. A former Carnival queen from Antigua named Tasheka Lavann made headlines in August when she fled to Canada because she felt unsafe after coming out as a lesbian. And such narratives are inscribed in Mr. James’s novel through the character of Weeper: A gay gangster from Jamaica who pretends at first to be heterosexual, Weeper makes peace with his being queer only when he travels to America.

The Caribbean, to be sure, is not uniformly hostile to us. Some queer individuals find ways to exist within specific communities, or manage because their wealth insulates them from the worst abuse. In Jamaica, for instance, there are the so-called rich queens, who can either buy privacy or who can afford to come and go from Jamaica more easily.

We are also beginning to see transgender people in the Caribbean speak publicly about their identity. For instance, Kayla Marraste in Trinidad and Ashley Gordon in Jamaica have spoken about the challenges of being openly transgender in their islands’ news media. Despite largely negative reactions on social media, that these interviews appeared at all is a sign of change.

In Trinidad recently, Jowelle de Souza, a transgender woman, even ran for political office. While she faced opposition from some religious groups, crucially she also received support from a leading interfaith organization.

With Marlon James’s Man Booker win — the first for a queer Caribbean writer, as well as the first for a Jamaican — history has been made. It can be made again if Jamaica and the wider Caribbean make a sustained effort to enact laws to protect our rights. Mr. James’s victory helps make us visible in a way that could lead to a new era not only of unafraid Caribbean writing, but also of queer Caribbean people living less in fear of whom we love or who we are.

That Mr. James left Jamaica in order to be himself is a story we are likely to hear again. But if we continue to speak out, perhaps we can make this history of exile briefer, as well.

by Gabrielle Bellot
Source – The New York Times