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Cultural Policy: Attempts to reconstruct Caribbeanness

The Caribbean’s cultural identity has been prescribed by its colonial masters. Because of this, the region suffers from a history of trauma and continuously fights to overcome the lasting horrors of its colonial past. To reclaim control and to combat colonial systems, the archipelago and its island states began to develop cultural policy documents which serve to craft national identity and boost cultural confidence at the individual and community levels. These policies were designed so Caribbean people could shape their own culture, together with their own identity from their perspective. Cultural policy documents afforded the region and its people the power to name themselves. But instead of creating new Caribbean frameworks to accomplish these goals, the Caribbean adopted, claimed, perpetuated, and continues to employ colonially derived systems which cultivate Caribbean cultures and nationalisms that are patriarchal and reproduce colonial, Christian concepts of gender and sexuality. 

According to the National Cultural Policy of Trinidad and Tobago 2020-2025, “the Culturally Confident Citizen refers to citizens having a place and voice in the public sphere (the nation) and claiming an equal share of rights and recognition in relation to other citizens.”

Every citizen regardless of ethnicity, religion, and even gender/sexual orientation has the right to name themselves, the right to be seen and heard, the right to equality and equity, the right to be protected, and most importantly, the right to live freely. Despite these pronouncements, people who identify themselves beyond the gender binary and its correlating sexual orientation are demonized, invisible, voiceless, and erased. This marginalization of queer identities is preserved by the failure of national government to establish gender as an integral component of identity along with its continued use of binary gender language in official documents like cultural policy. 

In the text, gender and sexuality are first mentioned in the glossary. It is not discussed in any of the preceding chapters. Although these terms are outlined as aspects of identity, the cultural policy does a poor job in establishing the relationship between gender, sexuality, and national identity development. However, it reinforces other markers of diversity or difference by using words such as ‘ethnicity,’ ‘religion,’ and ‘social/economic class.’ The queer community in Trinidad and Tobago is not named. This is a gross oversight because “to name is to summarize. It is to plot onto a single point all the references of an identity...who is without name is without summary, and therefore without reference, lost and confused...” Without official documents recognizing this community, they remain relegated to in-between, marginalized spaces fighting for their rights which should be readily available to them.

Additionally, when a reference is made to gendered bodies, it follows the dichotomous pattern of ‘woman,’ ‘man,’ ‘boy,’ and ‘girl.’ These binary terms reinforce ideas of ‘natural’ versus ‘unnatural’ forms of being. As Kela S. Roberts noted in her blog, “Decolonising Queerness,” “much of our fears around queerness, much of what we think is wrong about it, is rooted in colonial era ideas of purity that were imparted to us via our colonial masters.” There is a colonial, Christianisation of gender in our Caribbean societies. Hence, the perception Trinidad and Tobago adopted is that male-female identities and its correlating sexual orientation is normal, it is natural. Any identity or orientation outside the norm is unnatural or illegitimate. As a result, queer communities are positioned as something to be feared, to be eradicated. These feelings in turn foster an environment of hatred and violence for non-conforming members. 

The cultural policy document does reference these terms in an interesting way though. When ‘woman,’ ‘man,’ ‘boy,’ and ‘girl,’ are used it is in reference to “special and vulnerable groups.” This gives me pause. Why are these groups vulnerable – more specifically why are men deemed a vulnerable community? Are they “special and vulnerable” based on their ethnic, religious or class identifications? Or is this the policy’s attempt to acknowledge the nation’s queer community? If so, it is deplorable as it does not clearly recognize queer groups, thus rendering them invisible and voiceless once again.

Trinidad and Tobago’s cultural policy perpetuates anticolonial constructs of gender/sexuality because it does not recognize these identities within its national frameworks. As a result, its queer community is ostracized and vilified which result in unstable, violent environments. Moreover, this exclusion is a glaring contradiction to the purpose of the cultural policy of the country. The nation cannot reach its goals of creating national belonging and boosting cultural confidence for every citizen if a portion of its community is not even written into the national script. But these goals are achievable only when the Caribbean, along with its island states, develop national frameworks that are derived from the Caribbean experience, the Caribbean culture and the Caribbean people. Without this restructuring, the power to identify a Caribbean culture, the power to identify a Caribbean identity would remain in the hands of our colonial masters.

References

Barry, Chavannes. 2001. “Jamaican Diasporic Identity: The Metaphor of Yaad.” In Nation Dance: Religion, Identity, and Cultural Difference in the Caribbean, edited by Patrick Taylor, 129–37. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Ministry of Community Development, Culture, and the Arts “National Cultural Policy of Trinidad and Tobago ‘Celebrating National Identity: Maximising Our Diversity.’” 2020. http://parlcloud.ttparliament.org:8081/PapersLaidViewer/TempFiles/White%20Paper%20-%20National%20Culture%20Policy.pdf.

Mahoney, Antron D. 2018. “The Dying Swan: Cultural Nationalism and Queer Formations in Trinidad and Tobago.” Interventions 21 (2): 235–54. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369801x.2018.1547209.

Shari Bissoondatt, an adjunct professor at Lynn University, is in her fourth year at Claremont Graduate University, and a Ph.D. candidate in Cultural Studies with an emphasis in Women’s and Gender Studies. She is originally from the island of Trinidad and Tobago but has lived in the United States for over 10 years. Given her cultural journey, Shari’s work emphasizes diasporic cultural movements, carnivalesque and their impact on fluid notions of cultural identity. To expand her work beyond theory, she examines the implications of cultural identity on cultural policy with an emphasis in the Caribbean region. Her dissertation is titled Culture in Cultural Policy: The Caribbean Cases of Trinidad and Jamaica. Shari also holds a MA in Media and Communication from Pace University, New York and a MA in Cultural Studies from Claremont Graduate University, California.

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