By Kela S. Roberts
Queerness, exists in the nebulous space between reality and an almost alien fiction in the Caribbean region. It is both prolific and unknown, a hidden open fact, something that doesn’t exist but permeates our interactions, our music, our art. It is an expression of humanity, one which can make you less human. It is the ultimate enigma. As a region, we are a people afraid of this queerness, openly, ashamed. It is something that has been hypersexualized and demonized, something that as a collective, we are frankly ashamed of. Topics around sex, sexuality, and expressions of this pervasive reality are thus difficult for us to actually have a conversation about it.
Where does this veneer of moralistic shame come from? Why do we continue to hide behind it, and why do we continue to chastise persons who express this sexual and gender identity differently from the so-called ‘majority’?
Much of it can be traced to colonialism, and certain patriarchal values imparted onto us and in order to trace, we must look back. This is not an exhaustive piece on understanding the root of this fear of queerness and by extension, open sexuality in the Caribbean. Rather, it is a questioning of persisted norms on the topic, a small attempt at tracing the origins of these norms, and a challenge to all who read, to do self examination, and ask why and where these norms originated.
White colonial conditioning in tandem with the Christianisation of the people of the Caribbean imparted onto the collective consciousness, a sort of puritanical self hatred. These virtues of modesty and shame were instilled into the enslaved and subsequently onto other groups of people within the region to police the perceived immorality of their ‘difference’ and to root out any differing norms around gender and sexual expression.
This moral policing was cemented in the foundations of the law, which, contrary to the notion of the separation of church and state, is quite influenced by puritanical Christian values, imparted from the Protestant and Catholic values of the colonisers of the time. Christopher A.D. Charles notes in his work on the origins of homophobia in Jamaica, that so called anti-buggery laws brought into practice since the mid 16th century were heavily rooted in the religious and moral views of mainland Britain.
Relations between men were criminalised, and between women, largely ignored as ‘non threatening’ but still seen as reprehensible, against the ‘natural order’. The puritanical values of the church became the moral heartbeat of the region through colonisation. Sex itself beyond procreation, sex for pleasure, sex as expression became taboo as the veneer of morality was placed on all groups within the region as a form of policing. So-called natural realities became hammered into the collective. As such, 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.
In the modern context we forget that under colonialism, all of us, whether heterosexual or cisgender or otherwise would have been considered something ‘queer’ under the systems that once opressed us. By nature of our very non-white, hypersexualised, different and non-Christian roots in far flung corners of the world, our ancestors were considered the other, they were considered something queer. The new cultures they created, Carnival, our indigenous music, our pageantry were all seen as alien, vulgar, and once vehemently policed by the state under the guise of moral preservation. The post-colonial reality of the region still lives under this shadow. Fire and brimstone rhetoric are cast to those who fall outside of what we presently see as the norm, norms that our ancestors and we, ourselves would have fallen outside of.
To decolonize the notion of Queer as other would take a reckoning that many might be uncomfortable with; an understanding that the morals that we view as our own, as natural, as divinely ordained are in fact not any of those things. They were prescribed to the region, by powers that wished for our subjugation, purposefully made to facilitate maximum dehumanisation, to make alien things that are natural, in order to break and modify, for control. We continue to perpetuate these ideals, this false image of puritanical and moral highground, while underneath bubbles the truth, the very sexual , very queer truth that we continue to hide in plain site. This reckoning is not something easy, and by no means is this piece the reckoning. This is but a tracing of what has been considered queer in the region, and how certain values of heteronormativity have been placed on the collective consciousness.
In order to decolonise, we must understand the past, how it shaped us and how it continues to shape us. We must fight fire and brimstone and stand ablaze in the truth of humanity, in the truth of expression and acceptance, simply in the truth. That would be the beginning.
Charles, Christopher A.D. “Representations of Homosexuality in Jamaica.” Social and Economic Studies, vol. 60, no. 1, 2011, pp. 3–29. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41635290. Accessed 6 July 2021.
Kempadoo, Kamala. “SEXUALITY IN THE CARIBBEAN: THEORY AND RESEARCH (WITH AN EMPHASIS ON THE ANGLOPHONE CARIBBEAN).” Social and Economic Studies, vol. 52, no. 3, 2003, pp. 59–88. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27865341. Accessed 6 July 2021.
Kela S. Roberts is an International Relations and History graduate. She is freelance writer and a member of the Feminitt Caribbean writing team, with a passion for understanding gender issues and furthering women's liberation.