Caribbean LGBT Histories and Activism
Caribbean LGBT Histories and Activism
On 21 June 2011, the Caribbean Region of the International Resource Network (IRN) proudly launched the Jamaica Gay Freedom Movement Archive through the Digital Library of the Caribbean. We hosted a historic cyber event with Larry Chang and Thomas Glave, based in Brooklyn at Brooklyn College, with host sites in the Bahamas and in Jamaica. During this event we not only celebrated the work of the Gay Freedom Movement in Jamaica but also created awareness about the long history of activism in the Caribbean around issues affecting sexual minorities. We also had the opportunity to spread the word about the work of the Caribbean IRN and assert our commitment to “preserving our stories,” particularly Caribbean LGBT histories/herstories and activism.
The Caribbean IRN was established in 2009 as a network for activists, scholars, artists, writers, and other individuals and organizations who do research and community work on issues related to diverse genders and sexualities in the Caribbean. One of our major goals has been to build a digital collection and help regional organizations and individuals preserve the histories/herstories of activism around issues affecting sexual minorities. We sought to offer space and support for this building and collecting of materials through the web. Our partnership with the Digital Library of the Caribbean (dLOC) has provided us with the webspace we need to share resources and build our digital archive. As we work to share resources and support our network in the region and diaspora, the Caribbean IRN has been building a collection of information, reports, resources, data, and creative and scholarly work on issues related to diverse genders and sexualities in the Caribbean. We have digitized and made these documents a part of our general collection through dLOC. Thus far, our collection includes a variety of materials (newspaper articles, scholarly papers, activist reports, open letters, creative expressions, interviews, organization and event fliers, photographs, and more) that offer insights into the complexity of LGBT lives, experiences, and community activism in the Caribbean. Our general collection presents multiple perspectives, from the personal to community and political organizing, from health agencies to academic research. It is a small but growing collection—a work in progress that brings materials on Caribbean sexualities together in this way (digital open access) for the first time. We also preserved the beautiful collection of materials from the Jamaica Gay Freedom Movement (1974–83). My colleagues Rosamond S. King and Vidyaratha Kissoon offer more detailed discussions about the acquisition, preservation, and contents of our collection in this issue of sx salon. Thus, for the purposes of my discussion here, I focus on the overall work of the Caribbean IRN and what it means for us to collect “our stories” and preserve Caribbean LGBT histories/herstories.
We facilitate our Caribbean IRN network through organizing and hosting events, seminars, workshops, and projects that forge greater understanding about the lives and experiences of sexual minorities in the region and its diaspora. Moreover, we have been able to support the amazing community organizing that is happening in the region. I feel honored to be part of this network that brings awareness to the complexity of our lives at home and abroad. I have had the pleasure of being on the board of the Caribbean IRN since its inception, and I co-chair with Rosamond S. King; we are on the board with Colin Robinson and Natalie Bennett, and our coordination consultant is Vidyaratha Kissoon. This has been an incredibly rewarding experience—work that bridges the divide between academia and community, work that consistently challenges those of us in the diaspora to ground ourselves in the local/regional, work that reminds us of the common and different struggles we face as sexual minorities—lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, questioning, queer, gender nonconforming, and all the names/un-names we give ourselves—and all the ways we identify or not. I believe it is imperative that we respect all the ways sexual minorities choose to live inside and outside the region—remembering that the ability to “come out” publicly is in many cases a privilege and may be an issue of safety. At the same time, visibility can be and is defined differently across the region and may or may not be the strategic choice of any given movement; yet and still, we have claimed and continue to claim space in many different ways.
The incredibly significant anthology edited by Thomas Glave, Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Lesbian and Gay Writings from the Antilles, suggests that our stories and voices not only claim “place” for ourselves but also unsilence histories/herstories. I believe that the exciting activism happening in the region and the work of those of us in the diaspora are part of the continued gathering and space creation made visible in Our Caribbean. As Thomas Glave writes in his poignant introduction to the anthology, we are in process:
For all of us, wherever we may be and however we may ultimately decide to identify ourselves and pursue our lives, an ending of silences and invisibilities begins here. In [Our Caribbean], the conversations that began long ago in imagining and desire continue. For as you surely know, and as I have learned and am still learning, the coming together that is this one, and others like it, widens, deepens, and—as far as I can see—has no end.1
Glave’s assertion reminds us that no matter our differences and various locations, we must still come together and tell our stories in as many ways as possible. While some may try to silence our voices, and blame our bodies or “lifestyles” for social ills across the region in various and different ways, our stories remind us that we have created many spaces and our voices remain vibrant and complex.
This is one aspect of our digital collection that I find most intriguing—the materials reflect the complexity and depth of our stories, while at the same time reveal the challenges and successes of activism and organizing across the region. The preservation of our stories becomes vital during this current moment in which we face intense homophobia(s) and the branding of “Caribbean homophobia” from outside the region. Given the rise of academic, activist, and public interest in Caribbean sexualities, we are at a critical juncture: we can take charge of this moment and transform the discourse about Caribbean sexualities and sexual minorities in the region. To do this effectively, we must continue to tell our stories, define ourselves, conduct research, and theorize about our experiences—especially through the preservation of our histories/herstories and of the activism across the region. In doing this work, we confirm we are not alone or some kind of “foreign” disease from the outside. Our stories, research, and theories affirm that we are here and we have been here as part of the Caribbean land/seascape; in all the ways we name and un-name ourselves, we can transgress the boundaries of identity and nation.
Moreover, the collection the Caribbean IRN is building offers multiple spaces for regional organizations to archive their histories/herstories and ensure that records are preserved for posterity. The fact there has been community organizing and activism in the region around issues of gender and sexuality since the 1960s and 1970s may come as a surprise to some and a relief to others. The myriad of responses and feelings to these histories/herstories are invaluable and emerge at key moment in which we can/must define ourselves for ourselves. A number of recent works reflect this—from Our Caribbean, in 2008, being the first of its kind in bringing together gay and lesbian writings (reflecting the legacy of our literary representations), to the recent 2011 academic collection Sex and the Citizen: Interrogating the Caribbean, edited by Faith Smith.2 Furthermore, in terms of visual representation, two Caribbean narrative films include lesbian and gay characters—the feature-length film Children of God (2010), directed by Kareem Mortimer, and Rain (2008), directed by Maria Govan—and there are a number of documentaries that engage LGBT issues, concerns, and stories, namely, Cynthia Cheeseman’s Sisters without Misters (2009), among others in progress. While these visual representations are a beginning for the telling of our stories through film (and we certainly need more written and directed from the perspective(s) of Caribbean LGBT people), we know there exists a longer history/herstory of our stories through literature and activism in the region, albeit a vexed one.
Hence, we still have a serious need for more perspectives and definitions, which is a current project of the Caribbean IRN. We are in the process of editing a collection called “Theorizing Homophobia(s) in the Caribbean.” This will be a multimedia collection of articles, essays, nonfiction, fiction, stories, poetry, activist reports, visual art, music, interviews, and other works that will define and reflect on the complexities of homophobia(s) in the Caribbean, while also expanding awareness about Caribbean LGBT lives, experiences, and activism in the region and its diaspora. 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 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 homophobia(s) across the region. A year later, the Caribbean IRN facilitated the workshop “Strategies to Confront Homophobia” at the 2010 Caribbean Studies Association conference. We expanded upon the issue of confronting homophobia by highlighting the realities of sexual minority organizing, offering possible sites/contexts for exploring this issue and by creating space for scholars, artists, writers, and activists to exchange. Since then, the board of the Caribbean IRN has been hard at work collecting submissions and searching for specific pieces for this collection.
To that end, we put out the following call earlier this year:
Homophobia in the Caribbean has received a lot of international attention recently. Certain Caribbean countries have been targeted by international organizations because of publicized violence committed against LGBT people and the apparent absence of public condemnation. However, the public and international human rights discourse that describes Caribbean homophobia rarely includes the larger contexts of poverty, structural adjustment, neocolonialism, and violence in general within the region. It has been accepted that homophobia in the Caribbean has its roots in laws, religion, and social perceptions of gendered identity. But LGBT activists and others living in the Caribbean have also recognized that there is a complex range of viewpoints and attitudes that must be accounted for in our defining of homophobia. Some scholars and activists have argued that what we need is a new set of theories, writings, and understandings of the kinds of homophobia(s) that exist across the region, and clear distinctions among Caribbean island-nations in terms of the work being done on the ground and the various cultural landscapes and shifts regarding LGBT identities. These theories, writings, and understandings should necessarily include discussions about gender performance, heterosexism, and transphobia that encompass homophobia(s), as well as the economic and social contexts mentioned above. We seek to disrupt the divide between academia and community, while locating theories and knowledge in multiple sites and discourses.
We also suggested a variety of themes that could be addressed in the collection, including citizenship, religion, language, colonialism, neocolonialism, poverty, structural violence, popular culture, politics of visibility, asylum discourse, migration, diaspora, and antiviolence work, among others. We have received a number of submissions, and we have also commissioned pieces from activists and researchers inside the region. This collection will be published online with open access and will feature a solid range and mixture of pieces from across the region and diaspora. We plan to have the collection ready for public viewing by early 2012. The support and interest we have received for this project and our growing digital collections reveal the excitement and possibilities in our ever-changing Caribbean land/seascape, particularly in terms of engaging with gender and sexuality.
As our literature, scholarship, community activism, and art grow, the desire for more resonates deeply with me as I search for radical and transformative images that do not simply tell us what is, but also imagine a future and possible futures where we exist in complexity. Nalo Hopkinson’s novel Midnight Robber comes to mind immediately as I imagine a possible future world grounded in Pan-Caribbean spirituality and culture with an expansive and transgressive representation of gender and sexuality. Certainly, we have a legacy of Caribbean writers who represent sexual minorities, but I think Hopkinson’s novel is particularly intriguing because of its future vision for Caribbean people in terms of gender and sexuality. As I work with the Caribbean IRN, I see only possibilities and a future where I exist and see myself reflected in abundance with my Caribbean sistren/brethren in the struggle—and in the vision of the great Audre Lorde, across and in celebration of our differences.
Angelique V. Nixon is a Bahamian writer, cultural critic, teacher, community worker, and poet. She joins the faculty at Susquehanna University this fall as an assistant professor of English, specializing in her research and teaching areas, which include Caribbean and postcolonial studies, African diaspora literatures, and gender and sexuality studies. Her work as a scholar and poet has been published widely in academic and creative journals and spaces, namely Anthurium, Black Renaissance Noire, Journal of Caribbean Literatures, MaComere, and sx salon. Alongside her academic and creative work, Angelique is deeply invested in community organizing and activism; currently, she serves as cochair of the Caribbean IRN board and is active with a number of community-based projects, including the grassroots collective Ayiti Resurrect.
1 Thomas Glave, introduction to Thomas Glave, ed., Our Caribbean: A Gathering Lesbian and Gay Writings from the Antilles (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009), 10.
2 Faith Smith, ed., Sex and the Citizen: Interrogating the Caribbean (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011).