Americas

‘On Being Queer in the Caribbean’

Gabrielle Bellot (Photo courtesy of The James Franco Review)

Gabrielle Bellot (Photo courtesy of The James Franco Review)

Gabrielle Bellot, an exiled transgender woman from Dominica, tells how the prize-winning work of exiled gay author Marlon James of Jamaica resonates with her and leads her to thoughts of how much change is needed in Caribbean attitudes toward LGBT people. Excerpts from her commentary in today’s New York Times:

On Being Queer in the Caribbean

“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. …

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.

Marlon James (Photo courtesy of mspmag.com)

Marlon James (Photo courtesy of mspmag.com)

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. …

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. …

Such rallies help to enforce the need for queer Jamaicans to hide their identities — or leave. …

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. …

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.

For more information, read the full article in The New York Times, “On Being Queer in the Caribbean.”

2 thoughts on “‘On Being Queer in the Caribbean’

  1. Pingback: Progress for LGBTI people and rights in the Caribbean | 76 CRIMES

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