Myths and Methodologies for Researching Same Sex–Desiring People in the Caribbean
NIKOLI ATTAI, K. NANDINI GHISYAWAN, RAJANIE PREITY KUMAR AND CARLA MOORE
The Caribbean region has been framed by the Global North as dangerous and “unsafe” for queer people, and much of the discourse produced about homophobia has fixed queer subjects as dying and at-risk of dying in their homelands because of their aberrant practices and desires. Caribbean feminist researchers Kamala Kempadoo and Halimah DeShong (2013, 1) suggest that research on gender and sexualities within the Caribbean must be “grounded in Caribbean cultural, social, or political experiences” in order to think more critically about people’s nuanced and multiple realities. While Caribbean feminist research shares a number of objectives with Western feminism(s), including different methods, what makes Caribbean feminist research distinct is its evolution out of Caribbean epistemologies. Regardless of the method(s) used in our own individual research, as researchers both inside and outside of the region we have grounded our work in the specificities of Caribbean history and experiences. We are also attentive to the fact that “[t]he field is not a pre-existing thing that we go to, but it is something we define. It is something that we make through our interactions with participants, and in a collaborative defining of boundaries. By saying ‘okay this is what I am going to research, and these are the people I am interested in meeting’, we set the field up as a space” (Ghisyawan, Roundtable, January 2017; hereafter cited as “Roundtable”).
This chapter is formulated from a roundtable discussion of the same title presented at the Beyond Homophobia conference in Mona, Jamaica, January 2017. Utilizing qualitative research methods, including interviews, participant observation and subjective mapping, each discussant in this roundtable had conducted research on same-sex/gender desire in a Caribbean territory where sodomy acts, read as homosexual acts, were outlawed
at the time of the fieldwork being conducted.1
We collaborated to explore common themes emerging from our respective work, particularly the methodological challenges posed by having to negotiate misconceptions of the field, such as the depiction of the region as violent and unsafe for same sex–loving people, the labelling or naming of these groups of people, the need for self-reflexivity in research practice, and ethical responsibilities in the field. Beginning with a brief summary of our individual work in different sites in the Caribbean, we reflect on the various myths about homophobia in the Caribbean and our different methodological approaches to navigating these issues in diverse research sites.
In 2012 Carla Moore interviewed three same gender–desiring men who are a part of Jamaica’s dancehall culture to find out how they bridged the separation between black Jamaican-ness, which theoretically should never be queer, and queerness, which is theoretically read as white. She realized that while same-gender desire was not new to Jamaica, LGBTQ identity politics was. More than that, straight and same gender–desiring black Caribbean sexualities, especially the kind put on display in the dancehall, were always already queer in that they did not or could not conform to white heteronormative expectations of the right way to do sex and gender. Moore pinpoints this as the context in which Jamaica’s notorious homophobia arises.
Work pertaining to Jamaican homophobia and same-gender desire (in this case queerness as out-of-the-closet same-gender desire) often positions the queer body in one of two ways: dying in Jamaica (and/or dying to leave Jamaica by any means necessary) or thriving in the diaspora (in particular Global North refugee havens such as Canada and the Netherlands). These narratives reify the idea of queerness and Jamaican-ness as incompatible and the queer body as a white body or a body located in an ideologically white space. They also ignore the important work done by local queers to survive and delegitimize survival techniques premised on staying in rather than getting out. This gives rise to what Moore (2012) calls homohegemony, in which white, queer liberalism serves a neocolonizing function by instructing Global South and Third World countries on the right way to be queer.
Similar to Moore, Nikoli Attai’s “decidedly happy critiques” of queer liberation politics in the Caribbean speak back to the deleterious discourses of queerness and queer liberation in white academia, by white and diaspora NGO elites, and some Caribbean advocates located within and outside
the region. His multi-sited research over the last five years (in Jamaica, Guyana, Barbados, and Trinidad and Tobago) has been geared toward, first, interrogating these problematic narratives, and second, privileging the alternative ways that nonheterosexual people have been resisting phobias and reimagining autonomy, citizenship and belonging. He explores the stakes of using the logic of dying, or as Moore puts it, “dying to leave”, to liberate bullers;2
how trans people create communities of exile in the Caribbean and specifically in Trinidad, a development that disrupts the allure of “safe havens” like Canada, the United States and the Netherlands; and how Trinidad and Tobago’s carnival provides a useful space for gay Caribbean men to resist the tenets of heteromasculinity as they actively participate in it, create space for themselves and maintain connections with each other.
Rajanie Preity Kumar and K. Nandini Ghisyawan both work with same sex–desiring women, in Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago, respectively, starting from the question of how manifestations of heteronormativity and heteropatriarchy in family, religion, legal systems, education systems and media shape the lives of these women.
Ghisyawan’s project entitled “Queering Cartographies of Caribbean Sexuality and Citizenship: Mapping Female Same-Sex Desire, Identity and Belonging in Trinidad” (2016), shows how same sex–loving women refashion notions of Caribbeanness, sexual identity and citizenship through their discursive navigations of heteronormativity and same-sex desire to produce “queer safe spaces”. This research sought to challenge the invisibility of female same-sex desire in the region, particularly in Trinidad, and to reassert this desire into the contexts from which it has been actively erased by colonial heteronormative power structures and discourses, such as religion and ethnic nationalisms. This project connects the spatial and the social, incorporating subjective mapping exercises as a decolonial queer methodological tool that can reveal about the place and position of same sex–loving women, their same-sex desire and their agency in Trinidadian society, and the ways in which their practices engage with and challenge colonial and neocolonial discourses pertaining to Caribbean femininities, genders and sexualities.
Although beginning from the same point of inquiry, Kumar’s work focuses on the ways in which sociocultural attitudes of Guyanese women’s sex and sexuality may or may not exist in tension with current LGBT discourses, human rights and movements flowing from the Global North. Her multi-sited ethnography examines Berbice (rural) and Georgetown (urban), focusing on four key areas: (1) questions of home, (2) the urban-rural binary as it intersects with religious, racial and class backgrounds to impact sexual practices, (3) women’s experiences and continuums of violence, and (4) queer activism and citizenship. She also pays attention to how Guyanese women enact resistance and carve out alternative ways of existing and belonging.
As noted in our introduction, the Caribbean is often imagined by the Global North as a space that is inherently dangerous and unsafe for queer subjects and researchers. This has resulted in producing a homophobic narrative that queer subjects are either dying in their countries or dying to leave their nation for “safer” life in the North. As a result of this narrative, a second misconception has led to the Caribbean being conceptualized as a site that is also unsafe for researchers to conduct research. Moore notes, “When I started my research my mother told me that they go kill me cause she’s like ‘this is the most unsafe research that any human has tried to do’ and ‘why will you try to do it?’” (Roundtable).
This perception of an unsafe region is largely perpetuated by rights discourses disseminated through extensive human rights campaigns about discrimination, homophobic legislation, HIV and AIDS and the precarious existence of at-risk groups like trans sex workers and same sex–desiring men. Places like Toronto have become a hub for these interventions and have produced powerful and problematic material to emphasize Canada’s “obligations to protect human rights and to provide a sanctuary for people fleeing persecution due to their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression” (Canada Research Team 2015, 10; emphasis added). Such politics diverts attention from the more complicated realities in the countries that we study, but as our collective research and findings indicate, activists and groups, researchers inside and outside of the region and our participants often resist and disrupt this narrative. In defining our fields of research, we deliberately refuse to portray the Caribbean as homogeneously homophobic and destructive for same sex–loving and gender-nonconforming people. Our research projects show Caribbean space as nuanced and complicated, and as one that fosters diversity and resilience.
Violence, including homophobic violence, is systemic and unavoidable. However, both research participants and researchers have actively negotiated threats to safety in creative ways. For the subjective mapping exercises used in Ghisyawan’s research, she asked participants to draw a map of where they felt safe to express themselves regarding their sexuality. This activity engages the idea of the constancy of violence by raising questions of safety and thus the inverse: danger. The women exhibited what Zygmunt Bauman (2006, 3) refers to as “derivative fear”, or the fear of being susceptible and vulnerable to danger even without the presence of a direct threat. Dangers and threats to safety ranged from discomfort around certain family members, ostracism from religious communities, hateful rhetoric in various community spaces including religious and political arenas, to fears of confrontation and physical altercations in public spaces. Participants spoke of explicit acts of interpersonal violence that they had dealt with, mainly citing sexual assaults in early childhood to more recent incidents of rape (Ghisyawan 2013). The women felt these attacks were not directly related to their sexual orientation given the time and manner in which they occurred, yet acknowledged that violence was pervasive and discursive, making spaces “safe enough” some of the time (Ghisyawan 2016). In drawing the maps, some participants struggled to identify safe spaces and opted instead to draw the spaces they felt were particularly unsafe. One participant, Sandy, mused over the exercise, calling it “interesting”, adding “maybe ‘nowhere’ will be my response, but I will draw something for you”. “You don’t want to be lesbian Krystal. You might as well kill yourself. It very fucked up, especially in the Caribbean. Maybe I don’t want to be in the Caribbean, period. I should draw that,” Sandy said as she started drawing what looked like walls (Ghisyawan 2016).
Another assumption is that researchers will adversely affect the field of research or harm participants through their research ...