Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Friday, December 28, 2007

Homosexuality: A topic of inexplicable fear

As the year winds down, and we have extended vacations, we get a lot of time to think about many interesting social and personal issues. Many prejudices exist in our lives and in the Caribbean we have many taboos and prejudices. Some of the region's harshest wrath is reserved for homosexuality. Without much discussion I will say that the prejudice and vehement opposition is about male homosexuality. The term of endearment most commonly used in the Caribbean for male homosexual is "sissy". Parents warn their sons "You don't want them to think you are a sissy." Nothing positive in those notions. I have hardly ever heard mention of issues to do with lesbians, and disparaging terms such as "dike" or "butch" don't feature much in Caribbean dialogue. A woman may occasionally be accused of being "too much of a man" but that is usually because she has followed male ways to get herself success at work. Ironically, it's often taken for granted that a woman will "boss" her man or men (sons cant escape for ever) around. We live in societies where women often rule the roost. I am not going from there to say that a certain reaction by men to this "bossiness" is in sexual preference, though some have argued this point.

Women especially--and in The Bahamas I would go as far as to say that some women are obsessed by the subject--have harsh negative views about men they believe are homosexuals. I have noticed over the past few years that a conversation amongst women about general social developments always comes to a point where one woman says, "He looks gay" or "He's a sissy. That's why his wife left him: she caught him with another man." Now these observations rarely have any facts to back them up. The story often drifts around the observation that the man concerned is also known as a womanizer, but that is taken to be a cover. Next to cancer it seems that the fear of her man being a homosexual ranges amongst the worst fears a woman can have. It is a "black mark" to scar any opponent.

If a man is indeed homosexual these harsh attitudes would drive almost anyone to remain "in the closet" as long as possible. I have not heard of stories as wild as the tales from Jamaica where homosexual men or suspected homosexual men (often transvestites) have been publicly pilloried and attacked--even set on fire-- with little respect for context, and have been attacked in churches and at a funeral service.

The Caribbean has a lot of contradictory attitudes concerning sexual activity and we are very good at seeing some very antisocial behaviour as alright while condemning other activities, even ignoring some that are common but we do not wish to deal with. Strangely, the women seem to stand by their men if they catch them "boning" another woman or if he is known to be a "sweethearter". They defend fathers who molest their own children. That I cant figure out. I used to think that Caribbean women were worried by male homosexuality because of the competition, and that another man being seen by their man as better than herself was of course the deepest insult. Can that explain having a less damning attitude when another woman is given preference by her man?

The region tends to turn a blind eye towards over forms of sexually deviant behaviour, such as child abuse, men abusing women, and even incest, often with comments that suggest that these are somehow part of a "natural order". Yet any sign that a man may not be as manly as people would deem to be correct, quickly turns into an accusation that he is homosexual. Yet this is a society where men love to preen themselves and wear jewelry: a Caribbean man will often wear more rings and chains than his female partner--he may not have the range to choose from but at any given time he will be equally weighed down.

Effeminate men exist all over the world, not least because their close family, friends, or other social contacts had no problem with this way of behaviour or speech, but this is not the same as being homosexual. The Hirjas of India (shown in the picture above) are known transvestites who are rarely homosexuals, though many have taken steps to make them physically more like women, including genital surgery.They identify themselves as "incomplete men", "incomplete women", or "in betweens", but the Indian national census counts them as women. Eunuchs are still very common in many developing regions in Asia and Africa.

To me, being homosexual is like being left handed in a world of right handed people. You are uncommon but you are not much different in most ways from those around you. Many men who are homosexual do not fit into the stereotype of being "limp wristed" or fey; they may not have any desire to dress up in women's clothes. Often when homosexual men "come out" they belie the stereotypes. They may be burly and anything but weak looking as is clearly the case with those who have been professional athletes.

I have never met a homosexual man who "looks gay", and known very few effeminate men who were actually homosexuals. The homosexual men whom I know or knew are or were as mixed as any heterosexual men that I knew. They are not all working as flight attendants for British Airways or Qantas; they are not ballet dancers, ice skaters, or theatrical. However, none of them is married. Only one homosexual man that I know (with whom my wife worked for several years) was married; he has a good relationship with his son who is not himself gay and knows and acknowledges that his father is gay. When homosexuals kiss or hug each other I see nothing overtly physical about them that would allow me to single out their sexual preferences at a glance. I played on a soccer team where one of my team mates was homosexual and he never did anything within that team to "betray" that he was gay: he never propositioned anyone or tried to do any funny business in the team bath or in the toilets. He had his preferred partners and his preferred hang outs. He was a great footballer too.

The one encounter I have ever had with a man who tried to "entice" me was when I was in my early teens in England, and was using a public toilet, and he asked me if I liked the size of his penis. I did not know much about homosexuals at the time except that we used a term "bender", "bent" or "queer" to describe such people. I don't know if this man was homosexual or a child molester. I did not bother to find out but kicked him in the crotch and with my heart pumping like fury ran like the wind!

I found a very interesting website about homosexuality, which if nothing else appears to put this subject into a wider international context. What is fascinating is how different societies tolerate male homosexuality. For example, on the Pacific Island of Papua New Guinea, all Etoro men engage in homosexual acts and most also marry and engage in heterosexual acts with their wives. However, heterosexual intercourse is prohibited for up to 260 days of the year and is forbidden in or near their houses and vegetable gardens. In contrast, homosexual relations are permitted at any time.

I know that my views are much more tolerant than those of many in the region. That may be because I have grown up in "more liberal" societies in Europe and North America. My parents never uttered a word against any social group and I think that shaped my views more than anything else. (My mother, like many people in her generation, had a negative view about Rastas and was most concerned when I first grew a beard. "You wan' turn Beard man?")

In the Caribbean we start sexual stereotyping very early with all the "blue is boys...pink is for girls" labelling from even before birth. We can often see a violent reaction to a boy showing that he may be sensitive to more than so-called "masculine" things: "Get out of the kitchen, boy. Leave that to your sister [mother]!" "What you doing smelling flower? You want people to think you is a sissy?" We are especially afraid of something that we feel homosexual men will bring to our societies. I am not clear what that fear is, and it may be nothing more than a very severe reaction to things that are not the norm. Women see their close bonding with other females as a strength, yet any sign of closeness amongst men--except if it involves drinking and sports--leads to cynical condemnation.

We are a judgmental region and our views on sexual preferences are much in that vein. We have anti sodomy laws without realizing that these laws affect heterosexual relations too. When I was teaching recently it shocked my group of mature students when we did an Internet search of sodomy laws in the region and found that most of them were regularly indulging in illegal acts, even though all of them was performing these acts with someone of the opposite sex.

In the Caribbean we are confused and hypocritical in our attitudes toward sex in general. We love women to flaunt themselves and not just in our festivals (carnivals), and we love sexual innuendo or explicitness in our music. We love to promote heterosexual vigour. We seem to abhor homosexuality, which has forced many to hide behind a heterosexual veneer just to be safe. More than a handful of the region's senior male politicians are reported to be homosexuals but I do not think that any one of them is willing to make that public for fear of a dramatic end to political power. Maybe in the coming year we will see one or a few politicians or other prominent individuals decide that enough hiding has been done and will stand up for what they are. At least this would start the necessary process of demystification. But then again I am waiting to see my first flying pig.


Trinidad. Adventist. Gay?! said...

Interesting to hear another view.

Anonymous said...

Thank goodness for a voice of reason. The chat on Down to Brass Tacks, on homosexuality was so bigoted that it was depressing. If i were gay in Bim i would be so far in the closet that i would be in Narnia

Michal said...

Hello, very interesting!

Maybe you would explain me the think about Barbados, which I still dont understand. I am from Czech Republic. Two years ago I visited Barbados for vacation with my boyfrient. I was trully the most woderful and romantic holidays I've ever had. We stayed in St Lawrence, not far away south-east from Bridgetown. We were walking along the beaches holding hands, swimming in the sea together, sometimes kissing, also traveling along the island using public buses. Everywhere Barbadian people was very friendly, and we never felt that what we do is not accepted in Barbados.
Few days ago we came back from Jamaica. It was something absolutely differend. After two years from our holidays in Barbados we found out, that homosexuality is not legal in Barbados and according to the local law there is a death penatly for that. Why we didn't felt unaccpetance from any of local people? We were just lucky? Or Barbadians accept it among the tourists?
In Jamaica, where we were this year we felt much worse. We felt that we provoke people just by walking along the beach together, even if we did not do anything else (we knew already, that is forbidden in Jamaica also - accoridng to local law is 10 years of prison).
We were really supprised, especially because of Barbados. What do you think about it?

Thanks in advance.


Anonymous said...

"In the Caribbean we are confused and hypocritical in our attitudes toward sex in general."

I think that this is one of the best descriptions I have ever heard. Forget homosexuality--talking about sex, especially if you are a woman, is not something that proper girls do. It means that somehow, you are a slut.

But on the topic of the article, you speak very truthfully. One of my friends came out as gay to his parents, and then very nearly went mad as they sent him to church to 'pray out the gay'. He became suicidal and extremely ill. In the Caribbean, it is dangerous to be gay.

Discussion of gay people and gay rights is always tainted by them being "evil". When the popular singer Rihanna presented her song "Te Amo" about a girl who loved her, my country was shocked. My office and my hairdresser spent hours dissecting the song, and came to the conclusion that she should not bear our country's name and sing about "such nastiness". If I mention that my friends at college [in the States] are gay, my family says "Well, you could be friends, but sure as hell don't be gay yourself".

It is not a particularly pleasant environment.

As for the commenter who said "If i were gay in Bim i would be so far in the closet that i would be in Narnia"--I've never heard a truer description of how I feel. Hence the anonymous post.