What does it mean to bring the terms queer and Caribbean together? We use this question as a critical site of orientation because it has generated such debate within Caribbean studies. Queer is a difficult word to define partly because its slipperiness –whether codified as a noun, adjective or verb – is a hallmark of its very meaning. Queer can be used to denote non-normative practices and identities of gender and sexuality. It can gesture to possibilities that are only imagined or on the horizon. It can index a radical project of deconstructing existing social orders. Conversely, it may also operate as a vehicle for reinforcing dominant relations of power (e.g. US homonationalism). And there are others. The indeterminacy of queerness allows Caribbean studies to revisit the ways the Caribbean has also always existed as a site of discursive struggle, multiplicity, and contingency. Its borders have always been unstable and its sovereignty and meanings fraught.
How does bringing queerness and Caribbean together unsettle the ways they have each been conceptualized and mobilized? As a critical and political term, “queer” emerged in a North Atlantic context and became institutionalized in academic settings in the 1980s and 1990s. Bringing Caribbean studies to bear on Queer studies unsettles its North Atlantic-centricity in at least two ways. First, it compels an engagement with other geographies and cultural terrains. In this way, it opens up a consideration of how queerness takes shape in and through global relations of power. What does queerness look like through the intimacies of empire but also through the critical and political formations of postcolonialism, neo-colonialism and homonationalism? What does queerness – as sexuality, as possibility, as deconstruction, as normativity – look like in the Caribbean? In what ways are these iterations of queerness relevant to Caribbean studies? Second, it offers an opportunity to think through the intertwined politics and mobilities of language and space. Caribbean scholars in anthropology, cultural and popular studies, and literary studies have reminded us that there have also always been vernacular ways of naming the non-normative practices and possibilities of Caribbean intimacies, gender and sexualities. How do we reconcile these names, epistemologies, and practices with global itineraries of “queer”? And the ways they travel and interact with each other across and within different nodes of relation?
Conversely, what insights might Queer studies have to offer Caribbean studies? Such an exchange is potentially generative because both fields are oriented toward interdisciplinarity and intellectual promiscuity. Queer studies may offer additional methodological tools to address key concerns in Caribbean studies like experimentation in literary form, the problem of historical representation, and critical approaches to frameworks of development. For instance, in the realm of history, we might combine the path breaking work of Kamau Brathwaite with more recent scholarship on queer historiography to question the political utility of recuperating queer Caribbean subjects. If Faith Smith maintains that “by virtue of being indigenous, African or Asian, and even by residing in the tropics, one is probably already marked as deviant, queer, or perverse,”1 then a specific project of recuperation in some ways becomes moot. The project becomes not about excavating new (old?) subjects but re-orienting our frameworks to recognize the Caribbean’s inherent challenge to colonial modernity and Victorian norms of respectability. In this context, the oft-recited narrative of Caribbean homophobia is revealed to be less about the realities of the region itself and more about how queer violence is mobilized as a stand in for projected fantasies and imaginaries of excess. (This is not to deny the very real violence that queer subjects experience in the Caribbean but to point out how narratives of such violence limit the capacity to envision the region otherwise.)
We have chosen five artifacts to gesture to the different ways of thinking about the intersection/relationship between Caribbean studies and Queer studies. In highlighting the work of the Audre Lorde Project, the drag performance of Lola Von Miramar, the queer Caribbean Visualities project, the Caribbean International Resource Network, and the art and activism of Assotto Saint, our curation involves a consideration of the following: 1) the linguistic diversity of the region; 2) the ways queer Caribbean life has always traced a bridge beyond the Caribbean sea, and; 3) the diverse forms of archiving and creative practices: writing, visual arts, performance and their relationship to community and social justice work in which Caribbean queer subjects have been engaged.
Curatorial Note: Assotto Saint’s body of writing is still understudied and underappreciated. He was a Haitian born poet playwright and activist who died in June 1994, aged 38, but who left behind a remarkable body of work. Much of his work was collected in the volume Spells of a Voodoo Doll which includes his poetry, drama, fiction, essays, song lyrics and the obituaries that he wrote for comrades who had died at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis. He also edited the anthology The Road Before Us: 100 Gay Black Poets in 1991. The biographical note about Saint that we include here is from the extensive Black queer archive, The Ubuntu Biography Project, which was curated and edited by Stephen A. Maglott up until his death in 2016. The Ubuntu Biography Project also includes entries on Caribbean figures like Staceyann Chin, Nalo Hopkinson, Godfrey Sealy, G. Winston James, Cheryl Boyce Taylor, Thomas Glave , Topher Campbell, June Jordan, Claude McKay and others.
Curatorial Note: The Audre Lorde Project bears the name of the pioneering writer, activist and theorist, Audre Lorde. It was started in 1994, in the wake of Lorde’s passing in 1992 and lists among its co-founders the Trinidadian activist Colin Robinson who served on its board for several years. It is a centre for community organizing committed to queer liberation and equality. Its intersectional work can be seen in its declared commitment to social and economic justice. This site offers information about the ALP including details of its various programmes and initiatives, its newsletters, updates on events, and resources for the community.
Curatorial Note: Part of the Caribbean International Resource Network (IRN), Caribbean Sexualities connects academic and community-based researchers, artists, and activists in Caribbean and its diasporas around themes of gender and sexuality. In addition to maintaining a blog and Facebook page, the Network has produced online materials for a short course on “Advancing Sexuality Studies.” The Caribbean IRN has curated two online multimedia collections “Theorizing Homophobias in the Caribbean: Complexities of Place, Desire and Belonging” and “Love | Hope | Community: Sexualities and Social Justice in the Caribbean” which feature critical essays, creative writing, activist reports, film, visual and performance art, interviews and music. Finally, the Network maintains an online archive with the Digital Library of the Caribbean which contains, among other materials, the Gay Freedom Movement in Jamaica Archives.
Curatorial Note: The Caribbean Queer Visualities project brings together the work of a generation of Caribbean visual artists and offers a series of insightful essays about their work. The project emerges from a series of gatherings between the artists and writers which took place between 2014 and 2016. We selected this artifact because it includes the work of artists from the Anglophone, Francophone and the Dutch Caribbean. The artists included in this project are Andil Gosine, Ebony G. Patterson, Jean-Ulrick Desert, Jorge Pineda, Charl Landvreugd, Richard Fung, Leasho Johnson, Nadia Huggins, Kareem Mortimer, Ewan Atkinson. Images of their work are shown alongside essays by Davis Scott, Vanessa Agard-Jones, Nadia Ellis, Maja Horn, Jerry Philogene, Terri Francis, Rosamond S. King, Patricia Joan Saunders, Angelique V. Nixon, Roshini Kempadoo, Jafari S. Allen, and Erica Moiah James.
Curatorial Note: Lola von Miramar is the drag alter-ego of Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes, Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures at the University of Michigan. von Miramar is an over the top Puerto Rican society lady with a penchant for poetry and cooking. In this episode of Cooking with Drag Queens, von Miramar demonstrates how to cook a Puerto Rican version of arroz con pollo. The cooking demonstration is interspersed with clips of La Fountain-Stokes narrating how von Miramar came into existence and describing her character. The video brings together Puerto Rican drag performance and food through diasporic cultural production.
Curatorial Note: CAISO is a feminist civil society organization committed to ensuring wholeness, justice and inclusion for Trinidad and Tobago’s LGBTQI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex) communities, by developing analyses, alliances, and advocacy. CAISO builds human rights collaborations among LGBTQI groups and with other non-government organizations in Trinidad and Tobago and in other countries. In doing so, it works to strengthen human rights mechanisms and their use in T&T to deliver justice and build resilience in forging a nation that all citizens can share. Of particular interest is CAISO’s 2020 LGBTI Policy Agenda that advocates for change in multiple areas of T&T society to improve the conditions for LGBTQI communities.
Matthew Chin is an assistant professor in Women, Gender and Sexuality at the University of Virginia. His research examines the histories of racial and sexual formation in the Anglophone Caribbean.
Ronald Cummings is an associate professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at Brock University. He coedits The Literary Encyclopedia: Anglophone Caribbean Literature and Culture. He has also co-edited Caribbean Literature in Transition 1970-2020 (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming, 2021) and The Fire That Time: Transnational Black Radicalism and The Sir George Williams Occupation (Black Rose Books, forthcoming, 2021).
Smith, Faith. Sex and the Citizen: Interrogating the Caribbean. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.
Image Credit: A. Patterson, Sailor, digital photograph, from Looking for “Looking for Langston,” 2019
Smith, Sex and the Citizen, ↩