Sunday, 14 October 2012

Caribbean Queer Carnival

Trinidad and Tobago is another nation celebrating its 50th year of independence. It shares its early heritage with that of Jamaica, being the island from which the Carib people moved from mainland South America into what we now call the Caribbean islands. For the early lgbt heritage of Trinidad and Tobago see my article on Jamaica.

The Trinbagonian lgbt community has taken a keener interest in its heritage than the Jamaican, mainly through the work of CAISO (the Coalition Advocating for Inclusion of Sexual Orientation), an lgbt rights and community support organisation founded in 2009. Caiso is also the name given to a Trinidadian art form and the organisation includes art and history projects in its work.

Many stories of gay life in Trinidad and Tobago throughout the past 5 centuries emerged through CAISO’s project. In colonial times one of the most well-known Governors of the islands, Sir Ralph Woodford, reputedly had dozens of “pretty young men” around him. It is ironic that Woodford Square in Trinidad’s capital Port of Spain was named after him and is the area known for its nightly “parade” of transvestites.

The “after hours” scene enjoyed by gay Trinbagonians in the 1970s and 1980s included many bars who welcomed lgbt clientele – remarkably quite a few for such a small nation population. Bars such as Lote’s, Club Liquid and Just Friends were very popular, and smaller towns around the island also had their underground gay scene and venues. As with all lgbt communities Trinidad had its fair share of colourful characters, with nicknames like Stingy Brim, The Rocket, and Pongin’ Patsy being particularly well remembered.

For a bit more information about Trinidad’s lgbt heritage go here.

In recent years there have been successes and failures in the work of activists in Trinidad and Tobago. One failure was losing the debate on whether gay cruise ships should be allowed to dock in the islands. One success has been cancelling concerts by artists from other Caribbean nations who use violently homophobic lyrics in their songs.

Perhaps the biggest area where the lgbt Trinbagonians have been most widely celebrated is in art, particularly the native caiso form and carnival design.

In 1929 a group called The Society of Trinidad Independents was formed. Their aim was to promote local and indigenous art. Members of the group came from all ethnic backgrounds and they exercised a certain tolerance toward the lgbt community. Indeed, some of its leading members, such as Carlisle Chang, were gay. The Society became unpopular among the average Trinbagonian art-going public because of the blatant nudity in some of their works and their outspoken views on equality and prejudice.

Among the Caribbean as a whole there is a strong tradition of carnival and the lgbt influence is seen today in the work of Peter Minshall. Although not a Trinidad native he was brought up on the islands and is considered the leading figure in world carnival design. As mentioned in my Olympic Countdown series Peter worked on the Olympic ceremonies in Barcelona 1992 and Atlanta 1996, and he won an Emmy for Outstanding Costumes for a Variety or Music Programme for his work on the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002.

Although homosexuality in Trinidad and Tobago is illegal, there are many activists and lgbt rights organisations working in the country to encourage change.

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