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date: 18 May 2021

LGBT Rights, Sexual Citizenship, and Blacklighting in the Anglophone Caribbean: What Do Queers Want, What Does Colonialism Need?

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter takes up questions of sexual citizenship by examining the desire for and impact of LGBT rights discourses in the Anglophone Caribbean. The chapter works through the difficulties and aspirations of queer politics in the Caribbean to articulate a vision of citizenship and/or freedom that is not overdetermined by white Anglocentric models. Popular measurements of homophobia tell a partial story of queer life and sexual politics in the Caribbean, and this chapter attempts to fill that gap by pointing to the ways that queer people engage, challenge, redefine, and dissociate from laws and policies that mark their sexuality as antagonistic to nationhood. The chapter draws on Rinaldo Walcott’s mobilization of homopoetics to contextualize the political and cultural tensions between LGBT rights organizations in the Global North and organizers in the Caribbean. It offers blacklighting as a way to name the processes by which organizations and governments in the Global North doubly impose LGBT rights frameworks and forward antiblack narratives about Caribbean citizens. In closing, the chapter asks for a return to the question of LGBT rights and its deployment in the Caribbean and proposes a means of engagement that holds blackness alongside sexuality in matters of rights and citizenship.

Keywords: Caribbean, queer, citizenship, sexuality, blackness, blacklighting

In 1993, Michael Warner asked “[w]hat do queers want?” (Warner 1993, vii). Almost a quarter of a century later, the question remains. What do queers want now? Rights? This chapter takes up questions of sexual citizenship in the Anglophone Caribbean, claims to nationhood by queer subjects, and the limits of rights frameworks by activist groups doing work in the Anglophone Caribbean. In considering Warner’s concerns, we examine what LGBT-identified people in the region want and whether this is compatible with the demands of the “gay international” (Massad 2002). According to Massad, the gay international aims to identify and subsequently “rescue” LGBT people from the oppressive conditions in which they live. The universalizing nature of this white neoliberal project reinscribes a colonial relationship in which countries in the Global North assume a responsibility for liberating LGBT people in the Global South. Although Massad focuses specifically on the Arab and Muslim world, the gay international’s reach is global; and similar strategies are being deployed in the Caribbean, where LGBT politics point our attention specifically to the perceived benevolence of the Global North as a body of people, organizations, and interests whose goal is to provide rights that “liberate” LGBT persons from oppression. Countries like Canada, the United States, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom are often represented as exemplars of modernity, (p. 250) progress, and inclusivity, a myth upheld by the discursive creation of its antithesis, the backward and undeveloped Global South. This is clearly depicted in the types of activities being spearheaded and funded by large international groups that focus extensively on issues of decriminalization, extreme violence, wanton homophobia and transphobia, and a need for asylum in safe havens located in the Global North. In offering a critique, this chapter proceeds from the position that LGBT rights as a universal framework privileges those identities that coalesce at axes of power, specifically race, class, gender, and citizenship, and are insufficient for taking into account the multiple ways that LGBT people are affected by and challenge dominant ideas of gender and sexuality in the region.

Research that seeks to examine the prevalence of homophobia in Global South countries often employs discrete measurements as an illustrative and comparative tool. In using the term “discrete,” we are referring to the ways that sexuality, or perhaps more appropriately sexual orientation, is articulated as independent of race and class formations. Furthermore, these measurements are organized into binary categories where the absence or presence of specific laws and policies is used to determine how homophobic a given country is (Carroll and Mendos 2017). Examples of such laws include (de)criminalization of same-sex sexual practices and gender-nonconforming behaviour, legalization and recognition of same-sex marriage, child adoption, and protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation (e.g., employment, hate crimes). On these accounts, Caribbean countries already fall short. This research reinforces itself with case studies displaying homophobic violence for the purposes of correlating the absence of LGBT rights with the supposedly dire conditions in which LGBT people in the Caribbean live (Human Rights Watch 2004, 2014). In deploying these particular models of sexual rights in law, international human rights organizations not only ignore the specificities of Caribbean cultures and politics (specifically the organization of gendered and sexual relations) but obscure the ways in which sexuality is tied up in other kinds of social, economic, and political dynamics. Instead, we turn to other analytical and descriptive methods to speak to LGBT life in the region, centering those living there and honouring the complexity of the sociopolitical landscape within and outside the region.

From a brief overview of scholarship on LGBT sexual politics in the Anglophone Caribbean, we present important work on Caribbean sexuality that disrupts a discourse suggesting that LGBT people are at the mercy of homophobic governments, church organizations, and citizens in the region. Next, we reflect on the political and economic effects of intervention by international LGBT organizations since 2008 before proceeding to three case studies from Guyana, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago that present valuable opportunities for rethinking LGBT sexual politics in the region. Following this, we outline our critical framework using Walcott’s concept of “homopoetics” to offer a means through which we attend to some of the existing gaps in current human rights discourses regarding sexuality (Walcott 2009). In concluding, we highlight how these moments of queer liberation in the Anglophone Caribbean cannot be captured by “rights talk” (Smith 1999), especially as they divert from the gay international’s popular “death narrative” models that continue to frame perceptions of a backward, violent, and (p. 251) dangerous region. Further, we assert the vitality of LGBT communities in the region as useful for articulating freedoms on terms that resonate with those living in and working closely with queers there.

LGBT Sexual Politics in the Caribbean: A Brief Context

Aside from the Bahamas, all of the (independent) British Caribbean retain legal sanctions under sexual offences acts, carrying varying penalties for engaging in same-sex activities: for example, between 2 and 10 years imprisonment in Guyana, up to 10 years in Jamaica, and possibly a life sentence in Trinidad and Tobago (Carrico 2012, 8). While these laws are rarely enforced, they remind LGBT people that they are falling short of claims to legality merely by virtue of their sexual and gendered practices. Additionally, severe social penalties are attached, and often, the sociocultural policing of desire and erotic autonomy perpetuates unfortunate and sometimes deathly circumstances for those who transgress. Transnational feminist scholars theorizing Caribbean gender and sexuality have made significant contributions to understanding the complex realities that LGBT people face. M. Jacqui Alexander argues clearly that the state has placed sexual inscriptions on some bodies, thereby outlawing their very existence. This, she posits, is achieved through heteronormative conventions of personhood and desire that are enshrined in the assumption that identity, sexuality, and gender are fueled by a “natural” affinity for male and female mutual attraction and that any other forms of sexual intimacy are unproductive (Alexander 1997, 83). Legal scholars Yasmin Tambiah (2009) and Tracy Robinson (2009) further Alexander’s work about Caribbean sexuality, arguing that the coding of morality and the discursive construction of homosexuality render it criminal and unacceptable. In interrogating the parliamentary debates surrounding the creation of the Sexual Offences Act in Trinidad and Tobago in 1986, Tambiah notes that sentiments remain tied to the colonial referents that shape contemporary values and beliefs about sexuality. This she believes has encouraged many Trinidadians and Tobagonians “to regard homosexuality as not only repugnant and deviant but also sinful from a religious viewpoint” (Tambiah 2009, 149). There continues to be tangible evidence of these attitudes, as we highlight in the following sections, across the region. On the other hand, Robinson has posited that regional laws, through drafting and revision, have worked to “continuously define boundaries of authorized sex and sharpened the notion of danger of the homosexual other” (2009, 4). She argues further, “in the early twentieth century the sex you did and its contribution to reproducing the nation helped to define your worth as a citizen. By the 1990s whom you had sex with was being increasingly affirmed as a yardstick for belonging in criminal family laws” (14, italics in original). Through these regional laws, there comes a reassertion of heteronormative gender norms that are in turn “performed” in order to address acts of deviance and punish (p. 252) “gender traitors” (Alturi 2001, 9). Hence, the state, church, and society punish homosexual men and women for deviating from heteronormative standards and to reinforce belonging and citizenship that are linked to conformity to the nation.

In addition to these important arguments, and despite the continued criminalization of same-sex sexual intimacy, Alexander and others privileged the disruptive potential of such practices in disrupting the hegemonic power wielded by heteronormative mainstreams. They therefore also focus on the ways that LGBT people negotiate and challenge these boundaries in ways that are useful for dispelling the perception of an exceptionally homophobic Caribbean. Or, as Alexander argues succinctly, while LGBT people’s erotic autonomy signals danger to the heterosexual family and the nation, it more importantly brings with it the potential of undoing the nation entirely (Alexander 2005). More recent scholarship by scholars like Lyndon Gill (2012) and Krystal Ghisyawan (2016) has provided valuable contexts for the potentiality of such praxes of resistance and explored effective sites of community-making in order to subvert dominant ideas of gender and sexuality. Gill, for instance, proposes grass-roots organizing by black gay men in the face of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Trinidad and Tobago as one moment in which activism can attend to the political, communal, and spiritual needs of community members in a context of marginalization. He further argues that the “contagious erotic subjectivity” embodied by such organizing becomes a tool for building, holding, and transcendentalizing community (Gill 2012). Krystal Ghisyawan’s “queer cartographies” of lesbian identities also offers viable ways to think about the space-making practices of same-sex loving women in Trinidad, especially in connection with their relationships to state, societal apparatuses, and institutions that police sexual behaviors and limit their experiences of citizenship (Ghisyawan 2016). Carla Moore’s (2014) theorization of “queer marronage” in Jamaica’s dancehall scene provides valid contextualization of the multidimensional interactions that allow LGBT sensibilities to flourish in the already transgressive yet hypermasculine, homophobic space of the dancehall, and Moore’s intervention builds on Carolyn Cooper’s earlier challenge to pathologizing narratives about homophobia in Jamaica. Rather than reading dancehall lyrics as iconic examples of homophobic sentiment in Jamaica, Cooper argues that the politics of translation are not as linear as they have been made out to be (Cooper 1994).

Among others (Lazarus 2016; Wahab 2012; Gosine 2015), these studies are important for debunking claims of exceptional homophobia in the Caribbean that are bolstered by a refusal to grapple with the fact that such assumptions of violence are steeped in white, racist ideologies about black people as exceptionally violent. Evelyn Nakano Glenn (2009) argues that assumptions like these are examples of the negative inheritances of European colonialism, where “the ideology of white supremacy that European colonists brought [to the region] included the association of blackness with primitiveness, lack of civilization, unrestrained sexuality, pollution and dirt” (169). Instead, scholars refuse to accept such pathologizing narratives of Caribbean gender and sexuality, by emphasizing the agency that LGBT people exercise in their claiming and co-opting of transgressive spaces in their communities and countries. In the following section, we provide brief insight into some of these moments in Guyana, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago to (p. 253) call attention to the fact that LGBT Caribbean people are indeed negotiating and resisting in ways that resonate with their communities and that are rarely critically considered by many scholars and activists.

Repealing Guyana’s Cross-dressing Law

In early February 2009, seven transgender women were arrested in Georgetown, Guyana, and fined under the country’s Summary Jurisdiction Offences Act of 1893, which criminalizes, among other things, “cross-dressing” by men and women for “improper purpose” (SASOD, 2009). Shortly after these arrests, a consolidated action against the Guyanese government was organized to call attention to the discrimination faced by the litigants at the institutional and social levels because of these colonial laws. This issue has engaged numerous human rights organizations and legal experts, including the Faculty of Law UWI Rights Advocacy Project (U-RAP) that continues to provide legal assistance. The proceedings dragged on from 2010 to 2018, having been adjourned repeatedly until September 13, 2013, when Chief Justice Ian Chang determined that “the police violated the human rights of the four litigants in the case during their crackdown in February 2009 when they arrested them under section 153(1)(xlvii) of the Summary Jurisdiction (Offences) Act” (Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination et al. 2013). Each of the four transwomen was awarded $40,000 (GYD) “for breach of their rights to be informed as soon as reasonably practicable as to the reason(s) for their arrests under Article 139 (3) of the Guyana Constitution” (Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination et al. 2013).

Despite establishing that gender non-conforming clothing would no longer be illegal, Chang failed to clarify what constitutes an “improper purpose” (Singh, 2017). This ruling was appealed in June 2018 at the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), Guyana’s highest appellate court, with the defendants emphasizing that the inherent uncertainty about what constituted “improper purpose” left trans persons more vulnerable to state-sanctioned homophobia. With legal counsel from a team of attorneys from U-RAP,1 the litigants argued that transwomen remained unprotected by the Chief Justice’s decision, that the “hopelessly vague” cross-dressing law failed to provide a precise explanation of what is being prohibited and that it contravened Guyana’s constitution in which “all persons are equal before the law and entitled to the equal protection and benefit of the law” (SASOD Guyana 2016). The Guyanese state continued to disregard the vagueness of this law leaving a consideration of what is “improper” up to those in positions of authority over vulnerable persons, especially working-class transwomen. Examples of how dominant ideas about legible gender and sexuality abound in this case alone, where the trans women experienced harsh treatment from legislative officials. For example, Alissa Trotz, a Guyanese scholar and activist, notes one such example of the merging of religious (p. 254) mores to legislative decisions when Chief Magistrate Melissa Robertson’s instruction to the defendants that they were “confused” and should “go to church and give their lives to Christ” (Trotz 2013). The implications of such vagueness were again evidenced in January and March 2016 when Petronella, another transwoman and victim of assault, was barred from entering the court to appear before Magistrate Dylon Bess because she wore female clothes. “Bess reportedly told the transgender woman he only knows about two genders, which are male and female” (Wills 2017). Trotz argues further, “[t]he imprecision attached to ‘improper purpose’ gives wide discretionary powers to the police and the justice system in a context where the cards are heavily stacked against LGBT persons” (2013). Amar Wahab also argues that such “[a] defensive, institutionalized homophobia [and transphobia] is structured primarily through state law and practice, in conjunction with religious edicts that traverse and organize the popular domain” in Caribbean societies (2012, 486). Drawing on the rich theorizations by Caribbean scholars, we argue that these trans women continue to threaten the fragile, cherished fiction of powerfully hypernormative black male masculinity, which the state imagines as legitimate and cannot be imagined within such black masculinist discourse without exploding it (Tinsley 2010, 170–80).

The CCJ finally brought this contentious case to a close on November 13, 2018, arguing that “a law in Guyana, which makes it a criminal offence for a man or a woman to appear in a public place while dressed in clothing of the opposite sex for an ‘improper purpose’, is unconstitutional. The law, Section 153(1)(xlvii) of the Summary Jurisdiction (Offences) Act, is to be struck from the laws of Guyana” (CCJ 2018). However, the case evidences not only how transwomen’s gender and sexual identities are policed, but the legal and social discourse points to a larger issue of regulating the ways that poor black people can occupy space—especially when private becomes public. Such acts by the state follow the precedent of colonial vagrancy laws where, in countries like Guyana, it remains illegal for persons to occupy public space and use “any solicitation, means, or device to induce the bestowal of alms upon him.”2 Reports on this case focus largely on the cross-dressing charge; however, this was but one of several put forward by the state. Charges also included damage to property, larceny, and loitering (Stabroek News 2009). Therefore, by detaining these transwomen, the state maximizes opportunities to cleanse public spaces through detainment. A similar rhetoric is evident in Jamaica’s treatment of Kingston’s “gully queens” where, in addition to being at the mercy of homophobic legislation and citizenry, they are viewed as disruptive and dangerous to the city’s middle-class residents in their occupation of Kingston’s sewer drains and sometimes illicit acquisition of items (Star 2017). We argue therefore that these transwomen are multiply displaced in ways that move beyond a discourse of sexual and gender rights, but much of the LGBT rights talk mobilized by these arrests obscures the other ways in which these subjects become criminalized. What would it mean to consider how these litigants are fighting against not only a system of gender and sexual oppression but also one that is rooted in longer histories of containment of Caribbean people? We also acknowledge that although they continue to face legislative persecution, they are continuously exercising their autonomy to force legislative change, which could eventually encourage wider political, (p. 255) cultural, and social change in Guyana and across the region. These transwomen refused to remain victims of their country’s colonial, patriarchal, and misogynistic laws. Instead, with support and counsel from regional activists who understand the intimate nuances of the situation, they continue to actively claim transgressive space in Guyana.

Quality of Citizenship Jamaica Members Participate in Feet Washing in Kingston, Jamaica

On December 8, 2014, the Anglican Reverend Father Sean Major-Campbell washed the feet of two lesbian representatives from Quality of Citizenship Jamaica during a special church service to commemorate International Human Rights Day. He also allowed a transman to give testimony about struggling with identity issues and the difficulty of living a trans life in Jamaica. In this unprecedented move, Father Major-Campbell urged parishioners “to move beyond praying and talking about justice to becoming active agents in the promotion of human rights” (Serju 2014). The “feet washing” was conducted as a symbolic gesture of the reverend’s humility and acceptance of these women’s humanity, a move that was met with resentment by the largely unaware and conservative congregation.

Inevitably, this event provoked numerous homophobic responses from church members and wider society, with parishioners feeling betrayed and forced to accept his surprising embrace of the lesbian women in the church. Comments ranged from mere shock to feelings of betrayal. One parishioner remarked, “You hear human rights, and human rights is broad, but I don’t know how suddenly gay rights become human rights and human rights is now gay rights” (Serju 2014). Local newspaper commentary from Kingston revealed residents’ disgust. For example, one man exclaimed, “No, sah! No matter if a human right or human wrong. … It’s like he is doing that as a sign to the LGBT community that he and his congregation are ready and willing to accept these persons and their lifestyle” (Gleaner 2014).

In this moment, Father Major-Campbell, a public queer ally with support from other local activists, challenged religious dogma considered to be exclusively heterosexual and unavailable to those persons who defy heterosexist mores of sexuality and gender identity. This action also occurred months after a mass church rally in June 2014 by the group Jamaica CAUSE (Churches Action Uniting Society for Emancipation), which gathered an estimated twenty-five thousand supporters in Half Way Tree, St. Andrew, to oppose plans for legislation to repeal the country’s sodomy laws. Local newspaper reports highlighted the fundamentalist homophobia expressed by church officials who sought to “declare again that Jamaican children belong to Jesus” (Skyers 2014). While Major-Campbell’s efforts are hardly surprising given the debates within the global Anglican community over sexuality and gender, the militaristic action by CAUSE (p. 256) Jamaica situates the Protestant church as the last frontier of citizenship whereby Jamaicans are commissioned to protect the soul of the nation. It was only in 2011 that Shirley Richards, past president of the Kingston Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship, exclaimed, “the battle has only just begun. Now as never before in our history, churches are going to have to unite to fight a common battle. Weapons will have to be carefully chosen. This battle is not one to be fought with weapons of war as in the Middle East. Instead, we will have to fight back cultural imperialism with a moral revolution!” (Richards 2011). Not only were they intent on defining the parameters of acceptable sexuality, but also adjacent were concerns of marriage and abortion where these issues collapse easily into each other, exposing the conservatism embedded in ideas about the productive citizen.

As Zeidan (2013) argues in his discussion of transgender peoples living in Iran and Saudi Arabia, LGBT activists have to take seriously the fears that citizens have about non-normative sexuality in relation to the integrity of the nation. As well, Alexander usefully theorizes that such sentiments work to reinforce compulsory heterosexuality, and “[e]mbedded here are powerful signifiers about appropriate sexuality, about the kind of sexuality that presumably imperils the nation and about the kind of sexuality that promotes citizenship” (Alexander 1994, 6). As with the cross-dressing case, this bold move to claim space in the church has caused significant unease. However, it is evident here how, through religious allyship, these lesbian women were able to claim space within the highly homophobic environment of the church, typically cherished as the bastion of morality and respectability. Latoya Lazarus (2016) thinks about these possibilities despite the fraught relationship between Jamaican Christianity and sexual rights and wonders if and how Jamaican Christians could actively shape interpretations of sentiments about non-heteronormative gender and sexuality discourse in a localized context (35). In this work she proposes that—despite conservative Jamaican Christians being seen as perpetuating somewhat hostile relationships that impede much meaningful engagement on issues of sexual and reproductive rights—there is opportunity to challenge such dominant discourse that views Christians and Christianity, in general, as threats to any substantial progress (36–44). Despite an intense discomfort by Jamaicans about this scenario, then, and although its political efficacy may not be immediately tangible, it will be interesting to observe, as one Advocate writer imagined, “[w]hether an ongoing conversation can now occur among the open-minded pastor, his entrenched congregants, and the broader community across Kingston and Jamaica” (Senzee 2014).

The Alliance for Justice and Diversity: Watch Stop Send Campaign

“Do you believe in God?” one of Akil Thomas’ attackers asked him. Thomas replied: “Yes.” His attacker continued: “… because you are going to die here tonight.” Thomas was then stabbed 13 times—six stabs to the back, two to the chest, two in the arms, (p. 257) two in the neck and one on the right side of his head, close to the temple. One of the stabs punctured his lungs.

(Dowlat 2014)

Grief and regret were expressed yesterday over the death of Keon Alister Patterson, a 28-year-old transgender woman who was shot dead at Nelson Mandela Park, Port of Spain, on Tuesday night. Patterson’s friends and loved ones took to social media yesterday to express their sadness. “Friends for life,” wrote one friend. “Why have you gone and left us?”

(Hamilton-Davis 2017)

Reminders like these, of the violence that gay Trinidadians face, circulate in local news so that the community is continuously forced to confront this reality. Activists in the region have sought to highlight such facts of homophobic violence while calling attention to the various ways that social, cultural, and systemic conditions inhibit queerness in the region. During the 2017 Carnival season, the Alliance for Justice and Diversity (AJD) in Trinidad and Tobago adopted an unconventional approach to addressing the realities that the queer community, and especially gay men, faced in Trinidad. Instead of only emphasizing homophobic violence, it piloted a “watch stop send” campaign geared toward sensitizing local queer communities about the need to ensure their own safety. With funding from the Canadian High Commission in Trinidad and Tobago, the organizers produced four posters to “offer simple messages: Be aware. Watch out for each other. Help find solutions.” The director of the Coalition Advocating for Inclusion of Sexual Orientation (CAISO), Colin Robinson, explained in a media release, “our LGBTQI communities here are resilient and have a long history of collaboration and of solution-seeking. Instead of panic, fear and victimhood, we are calling for people to increase our responsibility and vigilance, to take more loving care of each other, and to ensure each other’s protection” (Trinidad and Tobago Guardian 2017). The AJD’s “Keep Safe” campaign was launched around the same time that Trinidadian activist Jason Jones sued to have the country’s sodomy laws repealed (C News 2017). In doing so, it nuanced the discussions on queer reality by calling into question responsibilities for personal and communal safety situated within, rather than external to, the queer community.

Rather than pretend that homophobia and transphobia do not exist in Trinidad, the AJD responded to an immediate concern about community members’ safety but also resisted painting this form of violence as overly exceptional. Whereas “hate crimes” may be deployed to illustrate the inhospitable environment in which queer people live in the Caribbean—thereby validating asylum claims elsewhere—the “Keep Safe” campaign presents an opportunity for us to think community and care in a way that grapples with the everyday lives of queer Trinidadians. Earlier campaigns, like CAISO’s “The Homosexual Agenda,” envision the possibility of belonging by calling on different segments of the Trinidadian and Tobagonian society to be accountable for a politics of inclusion. For example, three advertisements from a twelve-ad series in local newspapers reflected on this idea of national belonging, calling on people to “love the skin you’re in,” “To better follow the two highest Christian commandments,” and to “let friends, family, coworkers and caregivers whom you trust know and love the real you” (p. 258) (Coalition Advocating for Inclusion of Sexual Orientation 2015a, 2015b, 2015c). Effectively, these strategies sought to legitimize people’s queerness by including them in the realm of belonging and citizenship while couched in the prevailing respectability politics of the day. These very acknowledgments are embedded in the group’s call for communal accountability on more interpersonal levels that cannot be accounted for by legislation.

Considering these moments of protest, we call attention to the fact that, despite an incitement to discourse by those invested in rights talk, there exists a queer Caribbean characterized by continuous fights for not only visibility but legibility. A notion of visibility here gestures to the fact of LGBT presence and labour in Caribbean families, schools, churches, and workplaces and in the making of nation-states. Legibility, on the other hand, refers to a process of understanding that seeks to usher in new sensibilities about the multiple ways that Caribbean people’s sexualities and gender identities can exist beyond limiting notions of the acceptable heteronormative citizen. It asks that we make distinctions between LGBT realities in the Caribbean and white neoliberal representations of gay life in North America and Europe. It also demands that people resist the impulse to uncritically align Caribbean queerness with victimhood, disease, and threats to national sovereignty. It is this mode of reading that allows us to engage LGBT realities in the Caribbean within a context that attends to the complex realities in the region. This is evident in each of the examples in this chapter where, unlike the premise of international LGBT rights discourse typically clinging to the myth of the nation as a means of expressing belonging, Caribbean LGBT people seek to acknowledge more nuanced ideas of citizenship across legal, religious, class, racial, and cultural intersections.

Blacklighting: Building Queer Theory from the Caribbean

Rinaldo Walcott defines homopoetics as “the practice and analysis of how black queers relate (or not) with other queers all the while producing modes of being that are both in concert with and against hegemonic gay and lesbian identities, homonormative inclusion, and black homophobia” (Walcott 2013, 147). For Walcott, homopoetics is an epistemological intervention that uses black queer theorizing and experiences as a point of departure. Here, we deploy Walcott’s homopoetics as a reading practice that allows us to attend to the uneven geographies of belonging and conflicting notions of nationhood within rights discourses that argue for universal models of sexual citizenship. This allows us to write into a space where existing scholarship on LGBT rights and Caribbean geopolitics is still grappling with the “problem” of the black queer Caribbean citizen. Specifically, we are interested in homopoetics insofar as it allows us to notice where LGBT rights cannot take us or, more specifically, what it cannot achieve for people living (p. 259) in the Caribbean. Where the singular focus on sexual orientation pre-empts more radical possibilities for how we may imagine different ways of relating to each other, our strategy allows readers to follow the circulation of rights discourse both in and outside of the Caribbean in a way that takes note of the contradiction and slippages embedded in this practice. Walcott suggests that the vocabulary of an LGBT rights model does not work for all members of this imagined community, noting, for example, the erasure of those who are poor. Such a claim demands that we not only ask what queers want but, in the case of LGBT rights in the Caribbean, who it is for. LGBT rights discourses, when implemented without regard for the Global North–Global South geopolitical context, result in the maintenance of colonial violence (Dryden and Lenon 2015). Walcott argues further that once these rights are implemented, the benefits are often accrued to those who possess bourgeois mobility, manifesting in a travel culture across multiple geographic sites, be it international pride festivals, cruises, large nongovernmental organization meetings, or other gatherings. Or, as Mark Padilla (2008) captures in his ethnography of the pleasure industry in the Dominican Republic, gay sex tourists use their whiteness and foreign money to fulfill a preconceived fantasy of the animalistic sexuality of Caribbean men (162), positioning them as “global erotic commodities” (207) that further reify these colonizing arrangements between white queers and the other.

The terrain of LGBT rights discourse in the twenty-first century has necessitated the creation of terms to describe state responses and transnational relationships regarding discussions on sexuality, human rights, and nationalism. We take the occasion of this collection to reframe global phenomena through what is taking place in the Caribbean. Whereas “pinkwashing” is now commonly known as a strategy by which an entity promotes itself as LGBT-friendly to deflect accusations of other forms of violence (Puar 2011) and “gaslighting” involves manipulation where a victim’s beliefs are undermined, we conceptualize blacklighting as a discursive practice by which primarily First-World governments, their representatives, public figures, and the gay international target and coerce formerly colonized nation-states (like those in the Caribbean) to implement policies and laws that privilege Euro-American conceptions of human (and, in this case, sexual) rights. This practice thrives in a context where black people are constructed as backward, predisposed to violence, and in need of civilized intervention. To be successful, practitioners must portray the countries in question as depraved in matters of morality and underdeveloped in matters of culture. Implied in such a move is that those on the other side possess qualities that are more refined and desirable. Like pinkwashing, this process involves deflection of homophobic violence in countries of the Global North; and, like gaslighting, it is dependent on manipulation of fact. While we want to make clear the deeply antiblack nature of this practice, we note that blacklighting is not only practiced by entities outside the region. Of all the Caribbean nation-states, Jamaica is often used as the yardstick by which its regional neighbors measure their own homophobia.

The “Stop Murder Music” campaign of the 2000s is probably one of the most popular blacklighting project by rights activists from the Global North. Seeking to “shed light on ‘murder music’ being produced in the Caribbean … [it] enable[d] many Canadians of (p. 260) different backgrounds to voice their concerns about human rights violations against the LGBT community in the Caribbean” (Larcher and Robinson 2009). The most tangible impact of these investments has been the banning of Jamaican artists like Sizzla Kalonji, Buju Banton, Beenie Man, and Queen Ifrica on grounds that their antigay lyrics continue to incite violence (Milmo 2006). Sizzla alone, for instance, was barred since 2008 from entering twenty-nine European countries “because of complaints [by the Lesbian and Gay Federation in Germany] ‘that [he] has songs in his repertoire that meet that country’s legal criterion of ‘incitement of the people’” (RJR News 2008). Another “Boycott Jamaica” campaign launched in 2008 by San Francisco resident Michel Petrelis saw white Americans gather at the Stonewall Inn in New York to throw bottles of Jamaican beer and rum down sewers in a symbolic response to the country’s alleged display of rampant homophobia (Wahab 2016). These developments occurred in tandem with pronouncements by Jamaica’s (former) prime minister, Bruce Golding, who in a now infamous BBC HARDTalk interview vehemently denounced growing acceptance of Jamaican homosexuality (Miller 2015). The impulse to cripple Jamaica’s economy in light of such political and cultural sentiment has been denounced by Jamaican activist groups like the Jamaican Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays, who emphasized the lack of consideration for the ways that LGBT Jamaican nationals already surviving in precarious economic, social, and physical situations would be affected. The group further reminded international entities, “We who live in Jamaica best know and understand the dynamics of our situation. We also know that change is a slow and tedious process and those engage [sic] in it must be patient” (Blaze 2009). This damaging rhetoric persists today, with countries like Canada at the helm of activism in the Anglophone Caribbean still proclaiming countries like Jamaica exceptionally dangerous for LGBT people. For example, groups like the Canada HIV/AIDS Legal Network and Rainbow Railroad have worked with key diaspora informants to emphasize that “across the region, homophobia, stigma, discrimination, and violence are wreaking havoc on the lives of LGBTI people, and their families” (Armstrong 2015). These sentiments readily depict a region crippled by violent homophobia and allow Canada to position itself as “a peace-keeper, a middle power, and a land of freedom” (Dryden and Lenon 2015, 8). This discourse, we argue, avails the Caribbean queer as a site through which imperialistic control is mapped onto bodies and communities, notwithstanding the fact that such sexual praxes are sites of resistance against prevailing control mechanisms.

It is important to acknowledge the vast expansion of LGBT human rights activism in the Caribbean. Unfortunately, much of what is understood about LGBT experiences has been propagated through blacklighting by the Global North and through discourse that remains deeply rooted in mortality, disease, and the need to escape a violently homophobic region. This has been achieved through political and economic relationships between diaspora activists and international funders who have exerted their power to influence human rights politics, especially LGBT advocacy campaigns elsewhere. But what are some of the nuances of resistance to prevailing homophobia and heteronormativity that are overshadowed by current frameworks? How do we privilege the “unglamorous, messy, everyday work” that LGBT communities across the region are doing, often (p. 261) with limited financial and institutional resources (Robinson 2014)? Unfortunately, little has been formally documented to capture such a long and undulating history of queer movement making and resistance in the Caribbean. Beside Larry Chang’s Gay Freedom Movement of the 1970s in Jamaica (Glave, 2013), Herskovits’ (1947) Trinidad Village, and other more recent accounts of queer community-making in the islands by scholars like Thomas Glave (2008), Angelique Nixon (2015), Vanessa Agard-Jones (2013), and David Murray (2012), very little has been documented to historicize queer Caribbean people’s efforts over the years. Since 2008, however, the region has witnessed moments aimed at highlighting the realities of homophobia, discrimination, and human rights infringements meted out to persons on the familial, communal, and institutional levels. Many persons have also engaged publicly across the region on a wide range of issues such as gender-based violence, discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and community-building.


So, what do queers want and for whom are LGBT rights sought? If we begin with the premise that queer life thrives in the Caribbean and that the people who live in these countries have something to say about their own path to liberation, the terms under which “rights,” “citizenship,” and “liberation” are discussed would be radically different. A homopoetic reading would indicate that homophobia exists in the Caribbean, as well as other places, but would acknowledge that its production is always contextual. It would complicate “queer migration to liberation” narratives (Murray 2014) and comment on how these relationships obscure the antiblack, xenophobic, and neoliberal violence that queer immigrants face in developed countries. We might find, for example, that, contrary to popular belief, some LGBT-identified individuals find the white North American landscape far more hostile to their personhood. It also begs the question of white queer interest in the Caribbean. How is the advancement of LGBT rights intimately tied up in the expansion of empire, capitalism, and white gay cosmopolitanism? How do the largely white stakeholders of international LGBT organizations engage with queer communities of color in their own countries? The “Boycott Jamaica” campaign would suggest that their investment is less about the quality of life for LGBT Jamaicans and more about a presumed entitlement to political and economic capital.

With respect to the cases discussed in this chapter, they demonstrate the everyday labour that goes into articulating a vision for queer liberation. It is slow, messy, and not without complications; but it is carried out on terms that queer communities in the Caribbean can relate to. The law is a curious system, and the cross-dressing case in Guyana suggests that its citizens are having a difficult conversation about what kind of environment they want to build for its citizens and what that will look like for people who are queer. Like many of its neighbours, the Caribbean nation-state is young and still reckoning with the ongoing effects of colonialism. To be clear, this observation is not intended to (p. 262) mark Guyana as immature in its development. Instead, we are cautioning against the impulse to recolonize the region through political intervention and that countries in the Caribbean must be given ample space to work through these issues in a fashion productive for their own people. To that end, homopoetics can be mobilized to reframe how marginalization and disenfranchisement are taken up by different communities.

Indeed, the concerns of the citizenry are about more than same-sex intimacy. The “homosexual” has become the symbol upon which a multitude of wars are being waged. In many cases, anxieties about homosexuality mask fears about issues that are tangential at best, unrelated at worst. Comments such as those made by Shirley Richards prove that the “homosexual” is the activating sign for concerns about pedophilia, reproductive rights (i.e., abortion), destruction of the nuclear family, bourgeois respectability, and national sovereignty; the so-called problem of the “gully queens” add public disturbance to the list. This is layered on top of stereotypes about the homosexual as the vector of HIV/AIDS in the region. The neoliberal slant of LGBT rights discourse would have us frame these issues as separate, but liberation cannot be achieved for queer people in the Caribbean without addressing these other concerns. As a practice of relationality, there is great potential here for coalitional work between community groups pursuing advocacy work that takes up these other issues. Finally, what might be the limits of LGBT rights within the context of the mundane? What happens when the promise of rights does not translate into protection? Legal recognition and policy change are but tools in a larger effort to enhance the conditions of peoples’ lives in the Caribbean. The “Keep Safe” campaign represents an important moment in an ongoing discussion about sexual rights in the Caribbean. It asserts the presence and participation of queer people during a major national event and highlights efforts to provide support and resources for LGBT populations, all the while demanding more from the Trinidadian government. It is not a case of dependency on blind appeals to the state, but it is about demanding government accountability while living queerly regardless. These deployments, when put in conversation with the blacklighting motives of the gay international, highlight the nuanced ways that LGBT Caribbean people satisfy their queer needs. More importantly, they also take us to a place that is attentive to difference in ways that that many of those invested in human rights have thus far omitted.


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(1.) The legal team comprised Mr. Miles Fitzpatrick SC, Mr. Nigel Hughes, Dr. Arif Bulkan, and Mr. Gino Persaud.

(2.) Summary Jurisdiction (Offences) Act, Law No. 4 of 1972 (as last amended by Law No. 10, 1998), Laws of Guyana, ch. 8:02.