Us vs. them (Caribbean): ‘If they only knew …’

Maurice Tomlinson (Photo by Jalna Broderick, courtesy of Gay Star News)
Maurice Tomlinson (Photo by Jalna Broderick, via Gay Star News)

First of two articles about the challenge of breaking through emotional barriers that people erect between themselves and victims of persecution who act or look unlike them.

This article, by activist lawyer Maurice Tomlinson, focuses on affluent gay men’s barriers to understanding  poor LGBT  Jamaicans, Trinidadians, and themselves.  The following article, by activist/commentator Scott Long, will focus on the difficulty keeping relatively affluent Westerners’ interest in non-white victims of repression, particularly in news coverage of Egypt.


When asked how many slaves she had helped to liberate, the great American abolitionist, Harriet Tubman, said: “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.” I often feel the same way about privileged gays, or “rich queens” in, and from, the Caribbean.

Last week I heard from one such person at a screening of “The Abominable Crime” film, which was hosted by my new employer, the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.  This film chronicles some aspects of homophobia in Jamaica, and the Trinidadian gentleman critiqued the documentary’s accuracy.  He said that gays in the region are “thriving” and while that may very well be his reality, I challenge his assessment.

As I pointed out to him, us “rich queens” certainly aren’t exposed to the sorts of physical attacks experienced by the “scared/scary queens.” They are LGBTI people from the lower social-economic strata who either have to hide or develop a dangerous persona in order to survive. They are more vulnerable to attack because they walk in the public thoroughfares, or rely on public transportation. They also have more entry-level and insecure job-prospects. Finally, their tenancy arrangements are incredibly insecure as they can only rely on the goodwill or boredom of family, landlords and/or neighbors not to force them out unto the street.

LGBT youths lived in this  drainage gullly in New Kingston, Jamaica, until police forced them out.
More than a dozen LGBT youths lived in a drainage gullly in New Kingston, Jamaica, until police forced them out.

On the other hand, us privileged gays drive or take cabs wherever we need to go; we also pay a premium to live in gated-communities; and we self-select into the best parties/resorts. However, that does not mean that we escape the effects of homophobia unscathed.

For example, gay and lesbian Indo-Trinidadians are sometimes forced into heterosexual marriages. Some of these persons escape their unhappy couplings through suicide via the tragically named “Indian tonic” (the weed killer, Gramoxone). Even privileged gays cannot be seen with a same-gender partner for too long without arousing suspicion. And so, we practice “serial monogamy” where relationships have a very short shelf-life due to the intense scrutiny of a disapproving public.

These transient pairings lead to inconsistent condom use, and HIV. You simply don’t stay with any partner long enough to be reasonably certain about their HIV status. There is also incredible job-insecurity and psychological pressure as it is often professional suicide to be OUT, unless you are independently wealthy. Few Caribbean countries actually provide for non-discrimination in employment, housing, health care, or other services on the ground of sexual orientation and/or gender expression. And even in those territories that offer such protection, the societal stigma discourages the use or activation of these human rights mechanisms.

Scene from the promotional video for "The Abominable Crime."
Scene from the promotional video for “The Abominable Crime.”

What troubles me is that us “rich queens” are very quick to blame the “scary queens” for any misfortune that befalls them. If they were only more like “us.” And, for heaven’s sake WHY do they have to give “gays” a bad name?

Here’s the thing: To the majority of our Caribbean societies gays are ALL defined by one thing; how we have sex. And they think its “icky” (even if some secretly engage in it from time to time). So, while they tolerate those of us who can “pass” for straight, they are generally NOT ready to throw their arms open to embrace us as a group.

My earnest wish is that we would realize how we all exist in a state of homophobic bondage. This includes the heterosexual community, which has to constantly police us and our intimacy. As Prof. Rex Nettleford, the former vice-chancellor of the region’s preeminent university, said: “The jailer and the jailed are both in jail.”

And for my colleague rich queens, let us work to achieve FULL liberation for ALL queens because, in the words of Dr.Martin Luther King Jr.:  “None of us is free until all of us are free.”

Written by Colin Stewart

Colin Stewart is a 45-year journalism veteran living in Southern California. He is the president of the St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation, which supports LGBTQ+ rights advocacy journalism, Erasing 76 Crimes. Contact him at [email protected]

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