As Barbados approaches its 51st anniversary of Independence, an academic and human rights activist is questioning whether a so-far small but increasingly significant group within the island’s community is truly independent and free.
“It is in part my argument that the project of freedom remains inchoate (just begun and so not fully formed or developed) if not interrupted in sexual minorities, and gender non-conforming people remain sub-citizens in the national project, and this citizenship is not experienced as fully theirs in mutuality with others,” Dr Rinaldo Walcott has said.
Walcott, a Barbadian who is Associate Professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, made this assertion while delivering the Dame Nita Barrow Memorial Lecture on the topic Gender Trouble: Queer, Trans and Future Freedoms.
From the outset, Walcott made clear, “it is the disappointment of limited citizenship for sexual minorities that I hope to pursue with you tonight”. Throughout his presentation, Walcott contended that Barbadians once abided with persons of the ‘gender non-conforming’ category but with the passage of time and a movement to more openness of such individuals, there arose a level of intolerance that limits the freedom of the non-conformers in this independent state.
He said that pressure born out of intolerance can be found in every area of existence on the island. “Recently it appears that queer organizing and assertions of sexual citizenship in Barbados have been coming under pressure from a range of religious forces,” he said, pointing to reports of an October 28 youth march through Bridgetown dubbed ‘stand up, step out’ which the Christian youth group organizes touted as an effort to take back the rainbow from its association with global gay fellowship.
The march of Christian youth groups was met by a counter-march of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, and Transsexuals, with the two sides rendezvousing peacefully at Independence Square.
Said Walcott: “These kinds of events do not flow from just anywhere. And their attempts to enter public sphere debates have an impact on how the nation, the state and citizenship is experienced by all.
“Indeed a counter-march by LGBT people made tension palpable but also pointed to the stakes of the debate for concerns about citizenship and freedom. In fact ‘Stand up, Step out‘ chose Independence Square as their protest site for a reason.”
The 2002-07 holder of the Canada Research Chair of Social Justice and Cultural Studies continued, “the symbolism of Independence Square strikes right into the heart of nation, citizenship and the state, and all that flows from it”.
“These two moments of contestation rolled into one are crucial for a thorough debate on what sexual citizenship and freedom might look like and come to mean in a post-Independence nation state.”
Walcott posited that the ability of all citizens to be themselves within the independent state is a true test of how far the territory has come in breaking the colonial yoke.
“That the nation state is the means through which we make most of the ways in which gender, sexuality, sexual minority status and violence are all experienced, [it] means that the nation state has to be the site of our most thorough ongoing engagement and critique.
“Indeed, a nation project that dispenses citizenship in only partial ways for some means that the promise of independence remains largely a disappointment for some, and that some is too many.”
He spoke of a “disjunctive experience for me between what I used to know and what I now know about gender and sexuality and sexual minorities in Barbados”.
In this regard, Walcott essayed back into the Barbados in which he was raised until departing at age 17.
“My memories of queer Barbados include evidence of gays and lesbians in all the communities that I lived in. These queer people were neither ostracized nor, from what I could discern at the time, lived in fear of their lives.
“The queer sexualities were known and their ‘abnormality’ as it was understood then fit the frame of reference that ultimately did not disturb certain gender roles and performances in ways that called attention to the hetero-normative structures of the society.
“My childhood in Barbados in the 1970s and the 1980s were marked by men who were tailors, women who played cricket and men who sold food, who were all understood to be same-sex loving people in the communities in which they lived and worked.
“From what I knew and saw they were part of their communities. Some people might have cat-called them, made jokes of them but they too could give as good as they got.
“There was a different tenor to what was at stake for same sex people. These then were ‘men acting like women’ and ‘women acting like men’.”
But he added, “this frame of queer sexuality in the Barbados that I knew was however mediated by other frames of queer sexuality that I later came to understand as undesirable”.
Walcott warned, “this change in attitude to sexual minorities might have many different roots, and routes … but the change is real and actual and should be a cause for concern”.
He spoke of the abiding nature of Bajans in the past in which they refused to utter the word ‘homosexual’. “Some men and women are thus said to be ‘that way’, or ‘so’”.
“Growing, I often heard adults refer to queer and gender non-conforming people as ‘being so’. Therefore I have wondered how the idea of ‘being so’ might be reinvigorated as a sight for re-engaging queerness in Barbados and the region.”
Walcott described this tolerant community attitude once found in Barbados and some places of the Caribbean as “homo-poetics rooted in the queer modernities of this region”.
“The anthology of ‘so’ is one that we might re-embrace. The Utterance of ‘so’ has a homo-poetic underpinning to it as well.
“The ability to be just ‘so’ in the world, in the nation, in the street might be a counter to the imagined imposition of foreign ways of being and living with gender and sexual difference and sexual minorities by re-engaging ways and modes of being already present among us. A different way of encountering the current demands of full citizenship by sexual minorities might take on a different moral, and more importantly, ethical mode,” he said.
“I want to suggest that reclaiming ‘so’ provides a foundation for a different kind of conversation to take place, a conversation that is not heavily encumbered by what some will read as the neo-colonial and imperial underpinnings of global gay imposition.”