Book Review: Struggle for Gay Rights in the Caribbean Heats Up


Dr Glenville Ashby reviews Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Lesbian and Gay Writing from the Antilles for The St Kitts-Nevis Observer.

Injecting religious rhetoric into a culture steeped in unbridled machismo is tantamount to adding fuel to an already waging fire. In sociological terms, a poisonous and intolerant scenario has bedeviled the gay and lesbian community in the Caribbean.

That some island turfs are notorious for gay bashing, verbally and physically, is no secret. The International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association has sharply criticized policies and attitudes in the Cayman Islands and Jamaica, in particular. Our Caribbean: A gathering of Lesbian and Gay Writing from the Antilles addresses this human rights issue with clarity and salience. It is an unapologetic study of a contentious social problem through the prism of some of the region’s finest thinkers.

Overwhelmingly academic and annotated, it examines the social forces that have contributed to the virulent attitude toward selected individuals, so marked because of their sexuality. Old customs die hard, and social spasm will increase as the “gay question” moves to the front burner, if ever.

Our Caribbean is an eclectic compendium of abstract poetry, artistic tales and academic commentaries. Each story is instructive, poignant and pedagogical in depth and scope. These literary activists bang against walls that have imprisoned them from the rest of the community.

The contribution of Wesley Chrichlow is near faultless. In his “Charting a Buller Man’s Trinidadian Past,” he chronicles his life as a young man nurtured in an anti-gay climate. He employs the socio-cultural theories of notable luminaries – W.E.B Dubois, Henry Louis Gates and Marlon Riggs; and notable gay writer, Audre Lorde. In many ways, Chrichlow’s work is the anchor of this seminal undertaking. It encapsulates the writers’ resentments and frustration in a hostile world.

He offers a disturbing portrait – a psychological and sociological overview of life as a gay youth. It is a binary existence – one of near paranoia which he calls, “double consciousness,” or looking at one self through the eyes of others.

Chrichlow’s pain is piercing and palpable. In a struggle so grave, he questions the role of the clownish homosexual – the queer – the village fool, known for gossip and comedic flair. He recalls ‘playing his cards right,’ if only to mask his true feelings. “During my teenage life, in an effort to temporarily secure my masculinity…I participated in events such as stealing ( sugar cane, cocoa, mangoes…) breaking bottles with slingshots or stones…, engaging in physical fights, and “hanging out on the block” with the boys late at night.” He even cavorted with women to probe his sexuality. Chrichlow, like so many of these writers is confronting societies draped in homophobia, where anti-gay sentiments are promulgated by every institution and sanctioned by religious bodies.

Unfortunately, the Caribbean’s colonial trauma has created an identity crisis and a cultural zeitgeist based on political strongmen and masculine sexuality.

And while the region has combated racism, sexism and classism, it has failed to dismantle heterosexist views. As Chrichlow ingeniously argues, the Black Power movement – while effecting positive change has also reinforced a pernicious climate for gays and lesbians.

In revolutionary Cuba, as Mabel Cuesta articulates in “Other islanders on Lesbos: A Retrospective Look at History of Lesbians in Cuba,” garzonismo (lesbianism) remains a ghostly subject, absent from in any discourse on the role of women in the Revolution.

Throughout, there is an acute sense of pessimism and distrust of the so called heterosexist establishment. Heterosexuals are scrutinised, even subjected to reverse ‘discrimination.’ This is best exemplified in Cuesta’s work where she describes male attentiveness as suspicious. She writes of her experience building a small house with her partner: “Young men blossomed from every corner, handsome, very strong…..macho, probably promiscuous, probably abusers too.” Maybe, they fantasized about girl on girl sex, she surmised. Admittedly, her tone is far less crestfallen at the end.

At one point, Our Caribbean breaks from academic overload with gripping tales of uninhibited libido, courtesy Pedro Jesus. His “The Portrait,” is a hauntingly provocative exhibit of raw sex pouring from the imagination of the protagonist onto her canvas, and into her bed. It is a sexual contagion that destroys friendships, sadly playing into the stereotypical view of the prurient, lascivious homosexual. Arguably, it goes against the overall thematic grain, although it provides the most cinematographic and artistic impact.

Cultural change in the Caribbean and Latin America is unforeseeable. Unquestionable, though, is the global thrust for human rights. As the writers posit, “gay rights are human rights.” No longer can a state uphold or ignore gross violation of its citizenry without repercussions.

Our Caribbean proves a quintessential resource that will ignite debates on creation and the nature of man. Ultimately, it begs a question of conscience: Upon whose authority is violence against gays and lesbians based? For sure, a theological response is a throwback to the Dark Ages, brutally jarring the very sanctity of religious lore.

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