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“Power is not just the ability to tell another person’s story, but to make it the definitive story of that person.”
– Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
In 2007, my father killed himself when he thought someone outed him. It was hard to feel much besides relief; he was more like an autocrat perpetually annoyed at having to be his family’s keeper than he was a father.
To the public, he was a family man, a deacon in the church, an upstanding Virgo. They saw him as a saint for housing young men in need. He provided for all the young men in a way he didn’t for his wife or children. Some stayed with us for years; others came by on specific evenings. “Uncle,” a long-time friend of the family, would come over every Saturday and spend the evening with my father in his room. My brothers said they were being gay, but I didn’t believe. Or couldn’t, until the Sunday I went through my father’s phone on a whim and found messages in which he promised another man a romantic weekend away and his endless love.
He became even more distant the years up to his death. My mother prepared meals he rarely showed up for. I only saw him during our rides to school and back. I brushed it off as for the best. The last time I spoke to him was two days before his death; he asked me to show him how to text on his new phone. But the relief I felt in his death was dotted with a fear of what people might say if they found out he was gay. Would we be punished because of his lifestyle? Would they assume that my brothers are gay because their father was?
These felt like logical questions. All I’d known about homosexuality was my country’s hatred of it. Gay men, unlike my father, were all poor, skinny, dark-skinned men with too-soft gestures. Or that’s how I’d imagined them. I’d heard enough stories about violence against gay men to feel like I’d seen the fights myself. I’d heard about parties of men who hunted battyboys and tied them to light posts before stoning them with canned goods. Stories of boys chased from bathrooms with pants at their ankles and a gun at their backs. And every story was expectedly punctuated with the battyboy’s fatal end.
Many Dancehall songs advocated for this kind of violence, some more explicitly than others. But in the early 2000s, Dancehall’s anti-gay lyrics received more and more attention from American publications, documentaries, and gay-rights activists. In 2006, Time magazine dubbed Jamaica “The most homophobic place on earth,” citing lyrics to Dancehall songs and the murders of two Jamaican gay rights activists as proof. In 2009, White American GLBT activists staged the Boycott Jamaica campaign against Jamaican products and tourism. Alongside owners of the infamous Stonewall Bar in New York City (“the birthplace of gay rights”), the activists “[dumped] Jamaican liquor – Red Stripe beer and Myers’ Rum – down the sewer.” More recently, VICE News, Buzzfeed, and other international media have produced documentaries that spotlight the queer and trans* youth living in the New Kingston gully. Their videos discuss my country’s high murder rate, unapologetic policemen, and testimonies from the youth about being kicked out of their homes and being forced to live in the gully. Dancehall’s homophobic lyrics always serve as the soundtrack.
But documentation of homophobia in Jamaica all has the same silhouette. This has become the single story of homosexuality in Jamaica. “The single story is created,” says Americanah author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie during her TED Talk, “when you show a people as one thing—only one thing, over and over again—[until] that is what they become.” To both Jamaicans and foreigners, gays in Jamaica have a single look, a single struggle. The fact that these documentaries are each produced in well-meaning First World countries and all show the same scenes, gives the single story even more credibility. Non-Jamaican allies see this story as the story. Jamaican homophobes pat themselves on the back for deserving international attention, still unrepentant. Gay Jamaicans feel that a life of violence and shame is inevitable.
The single story creates a homogenous gay population. Within it, homophobia is its own cause and effect, rather than the result of centuries of anti-black colonial oppression. Homophobia in Jamaica stems from the braying donkey of colonialism and the Christian cart it carried. Because European masculinity was their only representation of power, enslaved Africans in Jamaica emulated European gender roles and expressions. Christianity became the law. Heterosexuality, as well as providing for and being heads of their households, became the measure of a man. True masculinity was the ability to control what they couldn’t during slavery. After Emancipation in 1838 and the labor riots of 1938, Jamaican men became more invested in masculinity as autonomy. The more impotent they were at finding jobs and providing, the more strongly they held to heterosexuality. The Offense Against the Person Act (1864), which criminalizes sex between men for up to ten years, is still on Jamaica’s books. Effeminate men disavow these codes of masculinity, and are therefore punished.
Without this history, it is impossible to understand the nuances of queerness in Jamaica. Instead of providing context, American documentaries present a scene as its own context. These documentaries maintain the single story of queerness in Jamaica because the latter fits with society’s master narrative. Despite the Pulse shooting, bathroomgate, and the increase in deaths of queer and trans people of color, the U.S has never been called “the most homophobic country on earth,” because representation favors those in power. On the other hand, the image of the barbaric Third World natives who brutalize their own mirrors racist and xenophobic constructions of Third World blackness.
The single story creates stereotypes. The story of queer and trans youth in the gullies of Jamaica needs to be told. But the emphasis on these stories at the expense of other narratives misrepresents queerness in Jamaica: one part is shown as the whole. “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue,” Adichie says, “but that they are incomplete.”
Stories of lesbians, accepting families, and social change are left out. The lives of gay men and the violence against them are often the focus of conversations about queerness in Jamaica; meanwhile, the violence against LGBTQ women is ignored, likely because the sexual violence they face is identical to the violence enacted against women daily. Society already nonchalantly accepts this violence. Activist Angeline Jackson reported her anti-lesbian sexual assault to the nation’s foremost newspaper, The Gleaner, but until President Obama mentioned her assault during his visit to Jamaica in 2015, the story gained little traction.
Stories of grassroots organizations in Jamaica like J-Flag, We Change JA, and TransWave—the awareness they raise, communities they build, and LGBTQ Jamaicans they support—would be excellent to feature in documentaries about queerness in Jamaica. Collectively, these groups agitate to change social perceptions of queer Jamaicans, collaborate to ensure Jamaica’s annual Pride, and legislate to repeal the country’s buggery law. They show that queerness is not just a “foreign thing.” We need more of these stories of perseverance despite oppression.
True, it isn’t the responsibility of the documenter to fix the problems s/he documents. And the act of representation alone will never fix the problem, because the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. But it is the documenter’s responsibility to contextualize the problem. To see to it that their help is actually helping—unlike boycotters, whose lack of tourism dollars exacerbates the poverty of the queer Jamaicans employed in the tourism industry. Excluding these stories of queer people who carve out spaces for themselves and live in conjunction with rather than opposition to Jamaican culture limits what Jamaicans see as possible.
The single story gave my father two options: hide or die. It drained me of sympathy for his turmoil. The single story robbed both us of seeing other possibilities for his life. It took 9 years, living outside the country, and exploring my own queer identity to understand what my father might have been going through. It’s what I went through every summer and winter break in college—do I go back to Jamaica where I’ll have to hide? My country’s popular ideology that our culture is anomalous to queer culture made me dread going home; although I did not witness the violence, it was ever-present in my imagination. My father couldn’t see the possibility of being simultaneously gay, male, respected, and alive. Whether through foreign media or Jamaican grapevines, the ending to his story looked the same.
Gizelle Fletcher was born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica. She studies poetry at the University of Florida. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Muzzle Magazine, Kinfolks Quarterly, The Offing, and elsewhere.