Monday, 14 July 2008

Talking Sex…Jamaica-Style!

I had the most amazing reaction to a presentation I made last week when I spoke at the ACS Cross Roads (Cultural Studies) Conference at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona campus. My paper which was entitled: “Enforced Heterosexuality and the “the fear of a Gay Planet”: Critiquing Contemporary Narratives of Masculinity in Jamaican Popular Culture” examined the current Jamaican sexual politics. It was located in the larger context of Adrienne Riche’s concept of a Western enforced heterosexuality and ‘the fear of a gay planet’.

I focused, however, on how Jamaican national identity is constructed, historically, by ancient, colonial jurisprudence which seek, in the main, to criminalize certain expressions of sex; in the process, enshrining a culture of sexual violence, hatred and gendered and racial discrimination. My presentation highlighted how race, class, colour and gender are subsumed under the sexual lingua franca of the modern West, with its great preoccupation with ascertaining and locating personal and cultural identities and subjectivities through sexual practise. The overall intent was to question the impermanence, albeit the seeming illogicality of applying labels like homo-, hetero- and bisexuality in our current Caribbean/ Jamaican realities.

In the post presentation discussion, a member of the audience – a Jamaican woman, who I later learned was also a Ph.D. and a film maker, announced that she was ‘queer’. Her comments came as part of a very heated exchange with another male member of the audience – an American, who originally challenged my contentions about the politics of sexual labeling here.

The Jamaican woman ‘came out’ as a way of shutting up the, apparently, obtuse American, at least this was how I read it. He, cynically, queried whether or not there were gay people in Jamaica. His comments were directed at me. The woman, however, demanded that he clarify his use of the word ‘gay’ as he seemed to have missed my point. He responded that, the distinctions were ‘semantic’.

Needless to say, this further ignited the woman’s already excited passions. She stated very loudly for all to hear: “I am queer! I am Jamaican! I live in Jamaica!...What do you mean by gay?” Her last question trailed off into an anguished appeal for more than just clarification, but also reflected what I thought was the pain of having one’s identity erased from the discussions. Incidentally, this was the very point I was making, at the time.

Discussions about sex here have been hijacked by an extreme focus on male homosexuality which, basically, denies the experiences of everyone else in the debate. The American, obviously, missed this nuance, in his blithe disregard for these apparent complexities which, in part, explain sex and sexuality in Jamaica as well as the woman’s own placement in that dialogue.

The ACS Conference was, certainly, living up to its billing. It was more than ‘filling a gap in the international cultural studies community’. By all appearances; it was also therapy. At one point, I wondered whether I was in church. After all, the audience’s contribution had an eerie feeling of an ‘altar call’ in which I was, fortunately or not, placed in the role of high priest.

Yes, all bets were off. It was open season and sex was the target! Indeed, this was only one panel. I heard there were others where the responses were even more dramatic. Pity, I only saw one other. I was preoccupied with professional work and church commitments as well as the need to catch up on needed rest.

For my part, I had never witnessed this much passion expressed in relation to a topic by any audience of this kind. But, then again, this was the start of a long weekend of ‘academising’! Plus, we were talking sex – the very stuff of our beings and, incidentally, the title of today’s entry which I thought would have made for interesting reading, especially with the "Jamaica-style" added!

The other panelist, herself, a Jamaican who teaches at Brandeis University in the United States expressed ‘concern’ that the Jamaicans might not have demonstrated the appropriate levels of meekness which it is claimed come so ‘naturally’ to us. According to her, we/ they (the Jamaicans) were in a rabid, no nonsense mood, causing fear and disquiet amongst the foreigners.

Indeed, the Jamaicans (in the audience) seemed eager to divest themselves of the ideological baggage of foreign imposed labels, with their narrow, taxonomical definitions authored by the West. Admittedly, I did not know what to expect or even how I was to dress for the occasion. One friend/ colleague had earlier questioned whether my jeans and blue striped polo shirt were appropriate. Notwithstanding that I had presented at other conferences, both here and overseas before, I was still uncertain because of the sheer magnitude of the ACS Cross Roads Conference.

I sought the advice of an older, female colleague on the matter. She, however, wasted no time in informing me that she had other, more urgent commitments. Left, then, with the full brunt of my anxieties, I was forcefully reminded that I had volunteered to bell the proverbial cat. The troublesome issues had been placed squarely on the agenda – sex in Jamaica! How very interesting! How very intimidating! The opportunity was clearly now mine to ensure that I saw my own way. After all, a presentation with a title like “enforced heterosexuality and the fear of a gay planet….masculinity…popular culture…Jamaica” was bound to ruffle more than some feathers.

Allow me a few indulgences, if I could, to share my position on some of these very troubling issues; that is, in the context of my presentation. Firstly, I make no special claims on the issue beyond a simple effort to argue that the limitations of sexual labeling, especially, in Jamaica are symptomatic of a society fundamentally vested in racist, colonial elitism. I wished to suggest that this be considered as a legitimate premise for rigourous academic interrogation of sexuality in Jamaica. As a result, traditional approaches to theory and methods must, by necessity, be reconfigured.

The standard academic practice of excluding rather than including the voices of those without conventional theoretical platforms or ‘authenticity’ on which to make their voices heard must be urgently revisited. Any efforts to read sexuality as a purely physical act is, largely, aimed at disregarding the likely nuances suggested by my position as well as to reify traditional systems of oppression in the society, as a result.

Rewind to the earlier mentioned confrontation and my presentation. With my recent encounters with some members of the ‘progressive liberal (pink) media’ (read the entry before the previous one!), uppermost in my mind, as well as the Jamaican Prime Minister’s now infamous remarks to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC): “Not in my cabinet”, I eagerly anticipated the discussion. I was, however, completely surprised at the point at which the confrontation erupted between the American man and the self-declared ‘queer’, Jamaican woman.

Vainly, I tried to intervene by way of reiterating that the matter was not semantic, as the American had claimed. I stated, in between, the face-off, that the Western, white, male, intellectual, elitist agenda which is primarily responsible for demonizing Jamaica as ‘the most homophobic place on earth’, was vested in constructing the debate purely around sex. In so doing, other critical issues which were in need of being ventilated were suppressed such as the importance of desire in constructing fear of the ‘other’.

I argued that, if the matter was purely a question of sex, then, there was need for explanation of the phenomenon of ‘gay parties’ in Jamaica which do not sit well with the constructions of the country as either the ‘most homophobic’ or even a mildly homophobic place on earth. It also did not explain the vast numbers of ‘gay paraphernalia’ which complement this phenomenon, specifically the Jamaican media’s fascination with ‘gayness’. If sex were the only consideration, in other words, there would be no need for the trafficking and wholesale consumption of videos of gay parties, many of which have been circulated here in the last year.

Indeed, the fascination throughout all levels of the society with this state of affairs would cease to be, primarily, because the tapes were not explicitly sexual. If they were then surely the repugnance (?) of it all, (to strictly heterosexual sensibilities, that is) would result in a boycott. However, there was clearly more at stake than meets the eye, as reflected by media reports, on this issue last year.

It is possible that, the mostly upper- and upper-middle class owned and controlled Jamaican media have very real investments in maintaining ideas about ‘gayness’ as a purely ‘effeminate’, largely garish and definitely offensive. By so doing, they direct attentions away from some of the more problematic areas of sexuality and its relationship to constructing the national identity as well as citizenship issues, by forcibly placing it into the realm of ideological conjecture and, therefore, beyond the reaches of the so-called ‘common man’.

The collective commitment to maintaining ‘homophobia’ as part of the popular set of ideas which discursively govern the performance of masculinity in Jamaica begs questioning in the wider context of the complexities of the race-colour-class triad which originated in plantation hierarchies, historically. Though real for many, these are often difficult issues to explain in clear and precise terms.

The conflation of ‘uptown’ with ‘brownness’ and the transference of values of respectability to that group automatically renders its inverse – ‘downtown’, oppositional. The binary created means that to be black, at the very least to be perceived as black means that one starts from a place of deficit.

The anxieties of the brown, upper classes of Jamaican society, therefore, demonize the black under-classes, for the most part, the vast majority of whom exist outside of the reaches of privilege. Constructions of Jamaica as 'the most homophobic place on earth' locate these concerns squarely at the feet of the mass of black, disenfranchised bodies who populate Jamaica's underclasses. In so doing, further alienating black, lower-class Jamaicans from the 'nation' as an ideological construct.

It might even be reasoned that this is but another of the manifestations of the complex and disabling triple jeopardies of race, class and gender at work in post-independence Jamaica for many. The international gay lobby is in many ways, then, complicit with and exaccerbates these imbalances in the society's internal class logic and, therefore, further exposes vulnerable black youths to greater risks.

Obviously, talking sex 'Jamaica-style' is hardly sexual. No titilation and racing pulses here, at least, not in sense in which we traditionally consider sex. We are more likely, it appears, to come to blows rather than to make love on this one!


longbench said...

a couple brief observations:

1. based on your critique of western frameworks and the bits of analysis you offer here, there are no "gay" people in Jamaica. There is a lot of something elses, but not that.

2. while you jettison the categories of homo, hetero, etc. b/c as western construct, they do little to help understand sexuality in postcolonial ja, you wholeheartedly the western idea that gave birth to those categories ie. the notion that sexuality is the core or center of our human selves.

3. your project is a fascinating one; as I read this though, I wonder whether you should pay a lot more attention to the arguments and language that you are importing in order to make your mark on this topic. The methodologies and theoretical frameworks that you are treating here as "traditional", "standard" etc. have all been extensively critiqued and even rejected within mainstream academic discourse. I guess if you are only talking to Jamaicans, then these critiques seem very cutting-edge. Outside of Ja, that's not so true. So, you need to get current on postcolonial sexualities and quickly, so that your work makes the mark that it should, and can.

Raw Politics....Jamaica Style! said...

Hi Longbench,

Thanks for your comments. I could not agree with you more! I am, in fact, not a sexuality person, per se. Rather, I am interested in deconstructing how these ideas suggest who or what is considered a citizen in Jamaica. This is fundamentally what my research is based on. So that, my interests in the topic has come, almost as by the way.

That said, I share the position. Howeverr, my real objectives are to very much try and provide "new" insights into the analysis of sexuality, generally, and Caribbean Studies, more specifically. In that regard, I am less interested in the overarching discourse which is widely considered "Western intellectual agenda", insofar as alot of what that agenda has been about is, primarily, race. In this regard, I am offering what I hope is a re-reading ins some instances as well as an inversion in others of the theoretical models used to silence difference. We must challenge these ideas about homophobia and class which we have recieved as part of the institutionalised wisdom of the ages which continue even in the present. That also means creating new theories and methods for research.

So, to come to your point about "alot of something else", you are very correct. Indeed, I am interestsed in knowing what those "something elses" are and to see whether there is space inside the academy for this type of consideration.

One of my recent experiences tells me, however, that that is an uphill struggle even right here in the Caribbean. One of my articles on a similar theme was rejected by a noted Caribbean academic journal for what it claims was that, my reacitons as I described in the article to certain aspects of the field work, might be considered "homophobic". Note, it might be "considered" homophobic. Whether it was or not did not quite matter. There was a template against which I should have been writing and was, therefore, measured and found wanting. That tells me immediately that we in the Caribbean are (also) overly reliant on a set of ideas which often do not make a real effort to either see or hear our own realities. We have to reposition these discourses in ways so that the subaltern can, indeed, speak!



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