Though you might assume a pansexual Caribbean would experience very specific challenges, I never had any problems dating. My grandmother was a Jamaican woman, and she never raised me with traditional religious values about gay people being sinful. Thankfully, I never had any internalized self-hatred that so many religious people are raised with. When I came out to my mom she didn’t really understand the difference between pansexual and bisexual, but she accepted me regardless. However, that isn’t the case for all queer Caribbean people– not everyone has had an easy road like me.
Laekin King, a queer Panamanian 23-year-old grad student at Howard dates women said she doesn’t want to come out to her parents. “I don’t really feel like it’s necessary,” she said. It was her social life that was largely affected by her Panamanian parent’s rules, not her romantic one. She would avoid hanging out with her friends because she knew it would mean she’d be out too late for her parent’s liking.
Some of the queer Caribbeans I spoke to dealt with mental health issues because of who they are. Jeshurun Joseph is a social worker born in St. Thomas and said being gay in his house was a “big no, no.” To avoid having to tell his parents who he’d be with when he’d go out with dates, he would just lie. He lied so much, it almost became a second language.
Jeshurun felt as though he had to sneak around. He mentioned that St. Thomas has about 50,000 people living on it and that meant everyone knew everyone else. If he wasn’t careful, word of his after-school activity could have certainly gotten back to his family. For Laekin, going to school in New York City helped eliminate that problem. For comparison, St. John’s University in Queens has a population of over 20,000 students.
Queer dating in the Caribbean can probably be best compared to dating in any other conservative culture. Religion is deeply rooted in the overall culture and social norms. Most people I spoke too talked about growing up in the church. Mohamed Q. Amin is a gay Caribbean and Muslim activist who noted that arranged marriages are common in his home country of Guyana and a young person not getting married in their early 20s can reflect badly on the parents.
Trinidad and Tobago native Azziel Smith always felt attracted to women and has dated them exclusively for the past three years. Azziel said the church was a large part of her upbringing as well. She “grew up very Christian because that’s what was shoved down our throats.” Jeshurun’s grandfather is a pastor, so he was deeply involved with the church. Religious beliefs and being queer usually don’t mix well and it certainly didn’t mix well for Jeshurun.
Jesh dealt with a lot of self-hatred growing up. His parents had a very “fire and brimstone” view of their Christianity and “the wages of sin is death” was a common saying in his home. There was even a point when he and his brother had a pact. “If I ever end up like that [gay] just kill me.” He was ready to jump off his balcony when he came out to his mom via text and when things between he and his family only seemed to get worse after he came out, he started to cut himself. Suicide became a very real thought.
Meliq August, a non-binary teaching artist in New York City has their own gender-based obstacles when it comes to dating. They discovered they weren’t cisgender at 21 years-old and then came to realize they’re bigender at 23 years-old. It’s been difficult for them to date because people don’t read them as non-binary. “People think I’m a lesbian,” they said. “It’s weird to exist in a world where you know who you are but no one sees who you are.”
Meliq plans on starting hormones within the next year and worries about what it will be like going back to Belize, their parents’ home country after they begin hormone replacement therapy. Their parents plan on retiring there in the next five years and they felt very unsafe the last time they visited.
For Meliq, dating means that you can meet someone and be very infatuated, but that person may not be in love with the idea that you want to start hormones, grow facial hair or get a breast reduction. It means that having sex with cis people always leads to dysphoria and a constant worry about how they are being perceived. “It’s like, are they only attracted to me because they view me as a woman?”
The key difference between growing up queer in the Caribbean and being queer in America is how socially acceptable it is to be a homophobe. Azziel waited until she left her home country for school in New York before she came out to her dad and she said that’s pretty common for other Caribbean people. Queer kids are scared of getting kicked out “or worse” when they come out and having that distance helps people feel safe.
“You can get beat up and call the police, but they won’t call it a hate crime,” said Jesh about the attitude toward homosexuality in the Caribbean. “And if you let them know that you got beat up because you’re gay, they will just tell you what’s wrong with who you are.”
Laws against homosexuality are still in effect on some Caribbean islands. There is a law in Belize that bans queer people from even entering the country. From what I’ve read it hasn’t been enforced, but the creation of that law certainly comes from an anti-queer place. Similar “anti-buggery laws” can be found in Jamaica as well. While “buggery” is considered queer sex in the context of this article, the law also includes acts against animals. An article in the Jamaican Observer says that “every opinion poll taken in Jamaica finds that over 90 per cent [sic] of the population does not want to see a change in the [buggery] law.” Killing gay people is even a popular theme in music. Laekin named songs like “Chi Chi Man” by the group T.O.K. The term “chi chi man” itself is a slur for a gay man.
But there’s hope for us. Caribbean people are not going to back down from being who we are and we’re choosing to be active voices in our queer communities. Belize ruled the law that criminalized gay sex as unconstitutional in 2016 and the country had its first Pride Week last year. Jesh calls himself an “aspiring change agent” who has dedicated himself to social work within the LGBTQ+ community and for people of color after what he experienced growing up. Meliq uses their job as a tool to educate their students and Mohamed Q. Amin founded The Caribbean Equality Project.
The Caribbean Equality Project or CEP is a non-profit organization based in Queens, New York that aims to “empower and strengthen” the marginalized voices of LGBTQ+ people from the Caribbean and of a Caribbean background. It was launched the same day the U.S. Supreme Court recognized same-sex marriage and was a direct response to anti-LGBTQ+ violence in Richmond Hill, Queens. Mohamed and his brother, Zaman, were victims of a hate crime in that same neighborhood in 2013 and he knew he had to do something.
CEP provides safe space for queer Caribbean people to network, share resources, and open up about their experiences. Its monthly support group UNCHAINED is meant to be an intergenerational space to end stigma and work towards healthier relationships within and outside Caribbean families. Their YouCaring Campaign was started to help support UNCHAINED and its mission to support its community.
At the end of the day, these queer Caribbean people just want to be accepted by their families and be safe in their home countries. Luckily, everyone I spoke to currently has a positive relationship with their parents. Jeshurun’s parents are on good terms with his boyfriend and Mohamed’s mother has been to some of CEP’s events. Did I mention his brother does drag.
Caribbean queer people are resilient and courageous. We’re proud of who we are. We’re proud of ourselves for looking our parents in the face when we came out. We’re proud of our parents for at least trying to understand us. We’re proud of our culture despite its flaws. We’re proud of the activism we will continue to do in order to make sure our communities are safer for us all.