In a farewell letter that went viral, one writer describes a love affair gone awry. After a whirlwind romance with the United States, a Trinidad native decides to return to the island, unable to endure living in a country that doesn’t love her back as a Black woman. The author doesn’t specify how she identifies. But one thing is for certain, for Black lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) men and women, especially, residing in a country that celebrates you for the color of your skin often comes at the price of having to hide pieces of your identity.
“I don't wear my sexuality on my sleeve,” says Siobhan, a 39-year-old lesbian and Trinidad resident. “For anyone to know [that I’m gay], they have to ask and who is asking determines the answer.”
Who can blame her?
While things are certainly progressing in the Caribbean, there are reminders that there is still work ahead. Trinidad’s government refused to include sexual orientation as a basis for discrimination in the Equal Opportunities Act. A little over a week ago, more than 1,000 people in Haiti participated in a street demonstration to protest the legalization of the freedom to marry. Dwayne Jones, a gender-nonconforming 17-year-old in Jamaica, was recently stabbed to death and dismembered.
“[Our] supporters are getting louder,” Siobhan insists.
The part-time filmmaker grew up on the island as a child. After living in the U.S. for almost two decades, she returned to Trinidad to do some soul-searching. Although Siobhan admits to being a private person, she won’t hesitate to respond to intolerance, and feels perfectly safe doing so—a product, perhaps, of the changing climate in Trinidad and other places in the Caribbean.
Just earlier this month, an LGBT workshop was held at Trinidad’s national library where various LBGT advocacy groups convened to share best practices. Researchers presented findings that suggest gay or transgender Caribbeans who embody hegemonic standards of beauty—light skin and straight hair—have a better chance of being accepted.
Across the Atlantic in Kenya, Kat Dearham, a mixed race queer woman dating a transgender Kenyan man, must navigate a culture that privileges her fair skin.
“I love being in a space that values and nourishes Blackness and Africanness; it's so unlike anything I've experienced in North America,” explains the 28-year-old Canadian researcher. “At the same time, it's also been frustrating for me as a light-skinned mixed race girl not to have my own Blackness recognized. I'm constantly being read as White.”
In Kenya, Kat’s complexion elicits more than acceptance. It provides protection. Coming out as LGBTQ to neighbors or acquaintances might risk what she describes as “awkward interactions or constant religious diatribes.” But for her Kenyan partner or close friends, the threat is far worse.
“I haven't personally been the target of physical violence, though I have many friends who have,” she says. “Because I'm a light-skinned foreigner with relative economic privilege, I'm really cushioned from the worst.”
She goes on to note that the people who are most vulnerable to violence are those in slums and rural areas. Queer and trans sex workers, for example, are targeted and criminalized for their livelihood. Kat also assures that while Western media primarily reports on gay bashing and corrective rape in countries like Uganda and South Africa, there is work happening on the ground, led by a community of fierce LGBT Africans.
And it’s this community that has helped her crave out a place she can call home.
“There are always tensions no matter where you live, whether around gender, sexuality, race, ability or anything else,” says Kat, who recalls feeling isolated when she first moved to the African country. “We need to find others like us in order to survive and flourish.”
But when you have privilege, whether that be straight, economic, White or otherwise, there are fewer boxes to check and more passport stamps to comfortably and authentically collect.
“There is no tension for me,” Siobhan shares candidly, reminding me that she doesn’t flaunt her sexuality.
Yet her future in Trinidad is clear. There won’t be one.
For Siobhan, finding community hasn’t happened. She has only heard about one gay club in Trinidad. Despite feeling too old for that scene, she plans to attend the club’s Pride celebration next year with a straight guy friend who she describes as “very Trinidadian.”
“I love this country with all my heart, but one thing that was clear upon my return was my inability to reacclimatize having spent my entire adult life abroad,” she explains, pointing out that it’s been hard to find others with her same interests, from women to golfing. “No one wants to be the 'odd man' out. It does a lot for the psyche to be surrounded by likeminded people.”
Kat can relate.
“It's really stressful to live in a place where I don't have the same protections as my hetero peers, and where my partner is so stigmatized and has such a hard time getting the medical services he needs,” she admits. “That has a huge impact on our quality of life. But part of why I'm here is to help change that however I can.”
Kimberley McLeod is a D.C.-based media strategist and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) advocate. A native of Trinidad and Tobago, she is the founder and editor-in-chief of ELIXHER, an award-winning online destination for Black LGBT women. Follow her on Twitter @KimKMcLeod.