Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Queer in the Caribbean

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of their independence I’m going to look at the lgbt heritage of 2 Caribbean nations – Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago. Their histories contain many common elements that would contain much duplication of information if treated separately, though I’ll have a look at the more recent history of Trinidad and Tobago later in the month.

The Caribbean gets its name from a South American people who settled in the islands called the Caribs. They left no written history and all we know of their culture comes from artefacts, archaeology and written accounts by European invaders in the 15th century. Any references to same-sex relationships come from a European Christian perspective in which anything the native people did was seen as evidence of the “lower status”.

The Caribs were a more war-like race than the Arawaks, another South American people who had settled there earlier, and they took the islands from them. The male captives, if any, were imprisoned, and it is recorded that the Caribs ate parts of their captives bodies to give them more strength. The Europeans, when they arrived, built up this practice to make it appear that Carib cannibalism was actually quite common and more widespread and frequent than it really was.

Reports by Spanish invaders referred to this and other acts as “against natural law”. As occurred in other parts of the world these other acts may have involved the rape of male captives as ritual humiliation. Consequently the Spanish Queen Isabella considered the “unnatural acts” by the Caribs as justification for their slavery.

The influx of slaves from Africa was the major factor in the change in the ethnic make-up of the Caribbean. Like some of the native gods and deities of central and south America some of the gods and deities from Africa had dual or intersexual natures. These beliefs mingled with the native deities and resulted in an early form of voodoo. Even today Caribbean voodoo and its related beliefs have a number of deities with lgbt aspects.

During the following centuries Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago became home for European settlers, bringing with them their own beliefs about same-sex relationships. This, in turn, influenced the laws of the islands once self-government and independence was gained in the 20th century.

The slave trade also brought with it other sexual practices – rape and prostitution. The early white colonists were predominantly male. At first, only those who were firmly established could bring their families with them. The only outlet for sexual urges (where you didn’t have to pay) was with slaves. Being regarded as property and not people this gave slave owners a warped justification for the rape of male and female slaves (that’s why so many African-Americans have European ancestry). Although they don’t specifically say so, recent studies into present Caribbean attitudes to homosexuality imply that this abuse from slave owners is a major factor in the current homophobia in Jamaican and Trinbagonian society.

The influence of the Anglican church is another big factor. The church’s disapproval of homosexual practices (quite different from their attitude to homosexual desires, though the two have often been confused) helped to give moral justification to present Caribbean attitudes.

But not everything about lgbt culture in Jamaica is bad. Some very influential and successful gay and bisexual men have Jamaican roots. Perhaps the most influential of these was Claude McKay (1889-1948) (pictured right).

Claude was born in Clarendon, Jamaica. He was the son of land-owning black West Indians of African descent. As a teenager Claude began to write poetry, not in standard English but in his own local dialect. His first poems were published in 1912.

After moving to the USA later that year he became part of a cultural explosion among the African-American community in Harlem, New York. His poems and novels of life in the suburb became one of the main contributors to the growth of the Harlem Renaissance – the cultural movement of the 1920s and 30s which influenced many areas of literature and entertainment. It saw the birth of an African-American national consciousness which went on to become the Black Rights Movement. Its influence spread to music and the creation of modern jazz and soul.

Many other descendants of African slaves who passed through the ports of Jamaica, Trinidad and the Caribbean also made huge contributions to the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Rights Movement. These include Countee Cullen, Bruce Nugent, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Wallace Thurman.

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