I have been wanting to write this piece for a while now. I suppose it’s a little darker than my other posts but I don’t really enjoy “oh you must try this spaghetti bolognaise from..” or “it’s only 20Euros from the airport by bus” travel writing. I’m moving my writing in a new direction this year to more poetic travel prose while also asking bigger questions about travel; our global citizenship, places where minorities cannot go, escapism through travel, ethics and larger ideas such as these.
Paradisiacal Homophobia and the Caribbean Psyche.
“Over the last decade the attitudes of Commonwealth Caribbean people towards homosexuality have been discussed at length in the popular media. This is especially true of media outside of the Caribbean, which has taken a keen interest in what has often been called ‘Caribbean homophobia’.” (Gaskins, J. 2013). The main culprit of extensive homophobia in the Caribbean, for me, would always be Jamaica. However, my visit to the Central American-Caribbean hybrid nation of Belize was my first insight into what it is like to be a LGBT traveller. In 2005 popular gay magazine Advocate suggested in an article that the Bahamas should be moved to a ‘watch-list’ so that LGBT travellers would know to avoid it as a destination, showing how homophobia in the Caribbean spreads throughout all of its nation states. Research before visiting these places is important as attitudes between these states can differ slightly, from physical affection in public to hotels rejecting bookings from same sex parties. It makes me contemplate my situation in the world as these places are seen as the epitome of idealistic paradise. They are home to the textbook white sandy beaches, clear skies and turquoise waters. However, underneath the surface lies something much more ugly. For example; a newly-wed (heterosexual) couple can book a Jamaican honeymoon or wedding without a second thought of rejection or discrimination. It arises the question of where minorities can and cannot go in the world.
My experience of homophobia in Belize was during a festival on the island of Caye Caulker. I am eating authentic Belizean food from street stalls – barbecue chicken and rice, washing it down with a lukewarm beer because even on a night temperatures are high. Steels drums are pounding in the background, which pours Caribbean atmosphere into the street. Locals shout loudly to each other and dance by the sea. Idealistic-no? As I talk with my friend a group of locals approach my other -slightly drunk- friends and ask them “Tu Eres Maricon?” over and over again. Obviously their Spanish is none existent and they don’t understand what is being asked, much to the amusement if the local Belizeans. However, I was able to translate the accusation as “You are a faggot?”. In that situation you forget the delicious food, intoxicating beer and music flowing through your ears. You feel small and vulnerable . This is because of what we know of the homophobic Caribbean psyche. That this situation could become dangerous quite quickly. “Male homosexuals, especially, face constant threat from organized homophobic gangs. They risk physical harm and even death if they publicly reveal their sexual orientation.” (Wahab, A and Plaza, D. 2009). Although the attention in this situation was not on me, the only homosexual in that group. I still felt I had to get out of that situation so I made my excuses and left to go to the beach with one of my group. As eye contact from one of the locals would make me feel as if he had discovered my secret, which could potentially cause me harm. Now there is no way of that local knowing exactly that I was homosexual but it wouldn’t matter. There is this paranoia that even a slight queerness could somehow break this masculine shell of what it means to be Caribbean. The point of this incident is to express how LGBT travellers need to be aware in countries that are backwards when it comes to same-sex equality.
Why does the Caribbean have a particular problem with homophobia? Where does it come from? Well evidence suggests it comes from two sources. The first, which is ironic to me, is the British colonisation of the Caribbean. Coming from Britain myself, which has come a long way in regards to LGBT rights – same sex marriage, anti-discrimination acts in the workplace and many gay spaces in cities for example. Yet the message it left behind for its colonies has resulted in a vicious oppression of the LGBT minority. The main example during my research was the “Buggery laws”, which made same-sex intimacy illegal in 11 of the 12 Commonwealth Caribbean countries. “The term “buggery” is considered interchangeable with sodomy and was used in English legal documents to describe sexual intercourse between men.” (Gaskins, J. 2013). This shows the major influence British colonisation had on the psyche of homophobia in the Caribbean, which is still rife today. The second example is Christian fundamentalists from the US. The homophobia in the Caribbean is promoted “by the literal interpretation of Christian texts condemning sodomy” (Wahab, A and Plaza, D. 2009). An incident in 1998 Bahamas resulted in a group of Christian fundamentalists protesting the arrival of a cruise ship carrying gay passengers, which was used as an argument to re-instate the sodomy laws the Bahamas had previously decriminalised (Gaskin, J. 2013). I believe that both of these influences have created a ‘hostile paradise’ for LGBT travellers today.
So, what can a LGBT traveller do before going to a country that has strict negative attitudes towards homosexuality? And I would suggest that you still go to these places. An aspiring traveller like me believes that I should be able to step onto any beach, road or park that I want. To be stopped from doing so because of my sexuality would be a failure to myself. However, unfortunately caution should still be taken in certain places. The UK Government posts these tips:
1) Excessive physical shows of affection, by both same-sex and heterosexual couples, are often best avoided in public
2) If you intend to visit cruising areas or use a dating app, find out about the local situation and take sensible precautions if you meet someone; some dating apps have safety tips; in countries where attitudes towards LGB&T people are hostile, police have been known to carry out entrapment campaigns
3) Be wary of new-found ‘friends’- criminals sometimes exploit the generally open and relaxed nature of the gay scene
4) If you receive unwelcome attention or unwelcome remarks it’s usually best to ignore them
5) You’re more likely to experience difficulties in rural areas so it’s best to exercise discretion
6) Some resorts can be quite segregated – when you are outside the ‘gay neighbourhood’ expressions of sexuality may be frowned upon
7) Some hotels, especially in rural areas, won’t accept bookings from same sex couples – check before you go
8) Avoid possibly risky situations – don’t do anything that you wouldn’t at home.
If you do run into any trouble while abroad and you are unable to contact the local police, because of fear of further discrimination then the British Embassy in that country is your best option.
I hope you enjoyed this post. It’s an incident I’ve been wanting to write about for a long time. It actually inspired by Dissertation idea. I believe it shows an insight into minority travellers. This is where I want to take the blog this year. Rather than just describing a destination to you in the sense of where you can visit, how much things cost and public transport etc.. I want to discuss the big ideas and emotions around travel. They won’t all be serious like this but I want to push my writing into the more academic as well as poetic prose, to suit my personal writing style.
Wahab, A and Plaza, D. (2009) Queerness in the Transnational Caribbean-Canadian Diaspora, Caribbean Review of Gender Studies.
Gaskins, J. (2013) ‘Buggery’ and the Commonwealth Caribbean: a comparative
examination of the Bahamas, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago