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Exploring Queer Caribbean Leaders in Pride

By Shanna-kay Gillespie

The Caribbean for some is often seen as a place for relaxation, serenity/ peace however this can be quite the opposite for LGBTQ+ natives. As with most of the world, queerness in the Caribbean is ridiculed and demonized. For many queer people, migrating to other countries is the only way that they can accept themselves and find "safety". In order to understand the Caribbean and its dynamic, we must first start at the begin- or as close to it as possible. So, where did it all begin? If you guessed slavery, then you are right.

British slave traders are responsible for kidnapping approximately 3.1 million people from the coast of West Africa, smuggled them beyond the Atlantic Ocean and submitted them to slave labour and abuse on colonial plantations that aided the British crown. Britain's colonial legislation systematizes racial divisions amongst the white planter class and enslaved Africans. Due to this, slaves were restricted access to social and economic advancement.

Indentured labourers were brought into the Caribbean to create a workforce to replace African slaves. These labourers were Chinese, Africans (again), Whites, Portuguese, Syrians, Lebanese, and East Indians. With this new introduction to the Caribbean, changes were seen throughout the islands, demographically, economically and culturally. Each race had its own lifestyle and language which unified to form our different dialects. The mixing of religion, races and cultural practices also took place, all creating what we know today as, the Caribbean.

This piece is not meant to be another repetitive piece about slavery but before we can understand why islanders are inherently homophobic, we must understand what lead to this reaction; a reaction that was undeniably, created by the British colony. Interestingly, pro-and anti-gay activists revert to the language of colonialism, racial division and racial tension as their talking points when discussing queerness. In reference to the Caribbean, queerness impacted areas such as kinship patterns, politics, race relation that are not model beliefs of Western settler nations and the Global North.

The English-speaking Caribbean anti-gay legislation is obtained from the 1861 Offences against the Person Act. The Jamaican law, for example, is influenced by the Victorian era.

"Whosoever shall be convicted of the abominable crime of buggery with mankind or with any animal, shall be liable to be imprisoned and kept to hard labour for a term not exceeding ten years".

"One of the more unique legacies of the British Empire is that while only 25% of non-Commonwealth countries criminalise same-sex activity, almost 80% of ex-British colonies maintain anti-buggery and anti-sodomy laws. There was something distinctively pernicious about British colonial rule and its attitudes towards sexuality".

Systemic homophobia in the Caribbean can be categorized as a form of cultural resistance. Rather than repeating our colonial past and forcing our points, we should bring awareness to the activists on the ground. To create real change, the experiences of everyone in the region must be highlighted and to do so, LGBTQ+ women should be a part of this conversation. Even though the road is rocky, the Caribbean is home to a lot of great pioneers that are equally and persistently fighting to create safe spaces for queer persons within the region. For the context of this piece, I will be focusing on three activists that were crucial to the queer liberation movement throughout the Caribbean.

Noted as Puerto Rican first queer lawmaker is Ana Irma Rivera Lassén. She is a lifelong activist and human rights attorney who was elected Senator for Accumulation, all while creating history to become the first Black and openly queer woman lawmaker in Puerto Rico. Rivera co-founded and edited the feminist publication El tacón de la chancleta in 1974 to bring awareness to the concerns that impacted Puerto Rican women. After she became a lawyer in 1980, she sued a judge and won when she was denied entry into a courtroom for wearing pants instead of a skirt or dress. By 2012, she created history by being the first, black woman and lesbian to occupy this position. Rivera believes that the accusation of an "Americanized feminism" adopted in Puerto Rico has no value. She sees Puerto Rican feminism "as part of a Latin American and Caribbean movement, a root that later became invisibilised due to the media stereotypes of US feminism inpopular imagination."

Indo-Caribbean women have also transgressed the norms and broken the cultural barriers that police their sexuality. The writings of Rosanne Kanhai are essential to Indo Caribbean women experiences. Rosanne's gives insight on the indo- Caribbean experience with her work "Matikor: The Politics of Identity for Indo-Caribbean Women". Her work offered an in-depth, explicit look into the sexuality of indo-women within the region. "Matikor is a festival that was introduced to the Caribbean by indentured immigrants. Matikor provided a rare opportunity for women to claim a space of celebration and articulation. They shared gossip and jokes, sang traditional songs, and performed dances that were celebratory and sexually suggestive". Rosanne Kanhai is a Trinidadian born, woman of color. She is a Professor of English, Women studies director at Western Washington University.

Activist, Kenita Placide believes that queer women are often excluded for their contributions to the LGBTQ movement. Her activism creates spaces for women to have a voice in LGBTQ groups and society. She has been an activist for over twenty years, after serving ten years as an executive director for the St. Lucia's based NGO "United and Strong". Kenita later co-founded the "Eastern Caribbean Alliance for Diversity and Equality", this organisation works across nine islands in the Eastern Caribbean with a total of 18 organisations, most of which are LGBT-led.

Great work is continuously being done throughout the region and as we navigate towards the future, we must ensure that everyone is being included in our discussions.

References

Forster, Agnes Arnold. "The Queer Caribbean: Conflicting Uses of the Colonial Past." The Queer Caribbean: Conflicting Uses of the Colonial Past. 06 June 2020. Web. 13 July 2021. https://notchesblog.com/2014/05/29/the-queer-caribbean-conflicting-uses-of-the-colonial-past/

Hernandez, L. Martinez. "The Queer Hispanic Caribbean: Contemporary Revisions and Its Genealogies." New Perspectives on Hispanic Caribbean Studies. 2020. Web. 13 July 2021. https://www.academia.edu/44869510/_The_Queer_Hispanic_Caribbean_Contemporary_Revisions_and_its_Genealogies_

Pragg, Lauren. "The Queer Potential Indo-Caribbean Feminisms and Heteronormativity." Academia.edu. 2012. Web. 15 July 2021. https://www.academia.edu/17322141/The_Queer_Potential_Indo_Caribbean_Feminisms_and_Heteronormativity.

Staples, Louis. "The Queer Caribbean Women Fighting a Vital, Dangerous Culture War." Dazed. 02 Jan. 2018. Web. 14 July 2021. https://www.dazeddigital.com/life-culture/article/38491/1/the-queer-caribbean-women-fighting-a-vital-dangerous-culture-war

Tellis, Ashley, and Sruti Bala. "The Global Trajectories of Queerness." Google Books. Leiden: Brill Rodopi, 2015. Web. 15 July 2021. The Global Trajectories of Queerness

Shanna-kay Gillespie is a Jamaican textile artist. Her works are combinations of various cultures, popular topics and personal experiences. She has a passion for activism and is a Writer at Feminitt Caribbean.

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