Guyanese Speak Out on Homophobia
Though there has been attention paid to the uniquely Caribbean flavors of homophobia in places like Jamaica, the situation facing LGBTQ persons in Guyana has not received as much coverage. The hard-boiled nation which straddles the Caribbean Ocean and the northern reaches of the South American Amazon is host to some of the most repressive anti-gay legislation in the world, where a conviction for same-sex acts can carry a term of life imprisonment. The cultural taboo for same-sex acts and gender nonconformity can generally be described as suffocating, with localities like Linden playing the stage for a ‘March Against Sodomy’ in August of this year. In addition, media coverage which is sympathetic to LGBTQ issues — or even for victims of homophobic crimes — is increasingly hard to come across.
While activists both in Guyana and in the diaspora are undertaking the work to destigmatize and decriminalize the lives of LGBTQ persons, it’s important for Guyanese folks both in and out of the closet to know that they are not alone. To that point, Lesser and Leeward interviewed a range of Guyanese and Guyanese-American folks* who identify as LGBTQ in order to make sense of this complex and under-examined situation. Their words are below.
*To protect the livelihoods of persons interviewed, all quotes are attached to a pseudonym unless otherwise noted.
What is it about Guyana that makes the situation for LGBTQ Guyanese so intense and dire?
"I think it’s that people have a lot of shit on their plate. It’s a country that has been struggling economically for years. It has a huge issue with racism between Indians and Africans. Right? I mean, that’s changed I think in [more] recent years. But in the Guyanese Caribbean world that I have [grown up] with, racism is a huge deal. Add on to that, then, questions about migration, citizenship… It’s like, people are just bogged down by shit! And then to add onto this questions of gender and sexuality, while crucial and important, I think people just haven’t created the [space] to make this conversation universal across the Guyanese Caribbean. I think it’s important that people are starting to do that work, but again I feel like it’s something that’s gonna take time.” - Isham Jay, Guyanese-American, Rhode Island.
“As long as the population is poor and, like, below the standard of living they should be... people don’t really care so much about the education of their child. They don’t care so much about the quality. If you get twelve or twenty CXCs, that’s great, that’s a bragging right. But no one really cares so much about the well-being of the children and their education in Guyana. And when you have that divide where it’s like, the population isn’t as educated as it should be, access to the stuff that they might need to find out whether or not they are LGBT isn’t gonna really be there. So there are probably lots of people in Guyana who are [LGBT] and, like, just don’t know it because they don’t have the access to, like, resources and information. And they haven’t ever been introduced to the terms and stuff like that. But they’d know to call a butch woman an ‘anti-man’ or something like that because the homophobia is the greater culture than the LGBT… [That, and] there’s not a lot of sense of community or togetherness in Guyana. It’s very much everyone for themselves.” - Ericka Maraj, non-resident Guyanese, Eastern Caribbean.
What are the common threads between social inequality in Guyana and issues in other Caribbean nations or communities?
"If you speak to other West Indian people… as soon as you’re old enough to speak, you’re out here singing that T.O.K. song, ‘Chi Chi Man’. And you don’t even know what it means until you’re an adult. And these are the messages that are being spread! Like these songs play on the radio… no one says anything about it, no one comes forward to say, ‘Oh, this is a hateful message’, or anything. Like, hate music is a part of a lot of Caribbean music! It’s not so much these days, but when I was younger, I remember that there was this artist Dr. Evil. I don’t know if you know who he is, but he was so popular! And I used to be like 11 years old singing ‘I brought this AK to spray on all gays’. You singing these lyrics at 11, fam! … As soon as you’re able to speak or whatever, you’re indoctrinated against people.” — Ericka Maraj, Eastern Caribbean.
How does homophobia impact the wellbeing of LGBTQ Guyanese?
“As of last year, it changed to #2, but before that, Guyana was #1 according to the World Health Org[anization] for suicide rates. And that makes me think a little more in terms of dealing with mental health issues and coping mechanisms, because if there aren’t none, then there’s higher risk for mortality as opposed to suicide attempts that didn’t actually result in mortality. [In my community] alcohol is a big tool for coping for our community. Especially when you think about the men in our community and notions of masculinity that they have to uphold, notions of being the head of the household, they can’t really express their emotions ‘cause then they feel some type of way about it. And, like, emotional vulnerability is perceived as this gendered thing as well, and so the ‘best’ way to deal with that is to turn to alcohol, which is accepted for us. I’ve seen alcoholism across many, many people in my family, and the use of that as a tool for coping with what was depression for most of them... I think coping is kind of the key behind addressing this, right? Addressing mental health issues and addressing the intersections with identity and Caribbean communities. Because if there were more structured or available ways to cope that were healthier alternatives, then we’d be less likely to see these statistics of suicide, for example, in Guyana.” — Indira, Guyanese-American ally, Massachusetts.
"Guyanese folk [are] quick to end their lives, either [by] poison intake, hanging or pill overdose… I was always a shy child always kept too myself because from a young age I knew I was gay and my dad [would] rather satisfy the public eye than to have his child happy.” — Allen, asylum seeker, New York.
SPOTLIGHT: SASOD Guyana
Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD) is a human rights organisation and movement based in Georgetown which is leading change to end discrimination based on sexuality and gender. SASOD engages in multi-pronged advocacy to challenge injustices and discrimination, lobby and engages government to change laws and policies which discriminate against LGBT people, and utilizes the United Nations and Inter-American Human Rights systems to pressure and hold the State accountable for its human rights obligations to LGBT people. SASOD also provides services, referrals and develops programmes and researches solutions to address sexual health, mental health, literacy and remedial education, entrepreneurship and employment, and emergency shelter and housing for LGBT people.
How does it feel when you meet other LGBTQ Caribbean people, especially Guyanese? Do you feel a sense of community in these encounters?
"It’s a very empowering feeling for myself. Knowing that, for me as an openly gay individual, knowing that someone I don’t know personally — I’ve never met, I’ve never seen — that person is connecting with me and understand… I wanna put it as, I like to say: ‘See me as me.’ Not see me as gay, not see me as Caribbean, not see me as American. See me as a human being. I look at that aspect of things… if that mutual respect is there, then that person respects you regardless of your gender or your identity.” - Mishka, Guyanese immigrant, New York.
“It's a feeling of kinship. And I know that seems really artificial because I probably know nothing about that person’s life. I don’t [necessarily] know anything about where they’re from, you know what I mean? There’s so many different barriers between us, and yet I still feel, like, a sense of connection. Even if that connection is artificial, right, like, oh, we’re all from the [same] community and we also happen to both sleep with men. That’s [still] great.” - Isham Jay, Rhode Island.
"There are upperclassmen [at my university] I’m connected with, and it’s really amazing to have these connections about being queer and then connections about being Caribbean, cause that’s just something I’ve never been able to have before in the same conversation. And that’s pretty dope… [I feel] comfort and safety just knowing that I can be my full self and, like, say whatever comes to mind around someone and they’re not gonna judge me for it. And it also somewhat provokes some pride, cause in that moment we’re all just living our truth, which is pretty dope.” — Lala, Guyanese-American, Massachusetts.
What has been helpful for you in staying strong despite adversity?
“I contacted [Caribbean Equality Project] and my life has changed drastically… [CEP] put me onto Immigration Equality and they got a law firm in [New York City] to handle my case for free.” - Allen, asylum seeker, New York.
“My mom is actually super supportive. And I don’t know where that comes from. I came out and it was not a huge deal at all, and I feel very lucky because I know not a lot of Guyanese — not a lot of people in general, but especially Guyanese, people abroad, don’t get that support.” - Isham Jay, Rhode Island.
“With my friends in person... they all know about me, they all know how I am, and they just accept it. I truly feel that sense of, like, community and safety. Because I know those people are, like — they have my back, they know who I am, they’re cool with everything in that kind of way.” - Ericka Maraj, Eastern Caribbean.
Where you’re at right now, do you see acceptance of LGBT people and issues?
“[In the Guyanese neighborhood in Queens] we’re seeing businesses... accepting the LGBT community with open arms. They themselves may not label their business as LGBT, or as an LGBT bar or club or business in itself, but it’s LGBT-friendly. Some of them are business owners who are LGBT, and they’re more accepting now [and] they’ve become sponsors of LGBT organizing and community events. So with that type of a change, it’s a dramatic change [even] within the last three years.” - Mishka, New York.
“Work that people across this community as well including the Caribbean Equality Project.. help to normalize situations that, if you even think about five [or] ten years ago just weren’t accepted, people who identified a certain way didn’t feel comfortable coming together... I never thought that these things were present in my community, right? To see people making intentional efforts to give rise to this voice and give rise to these perspectives that we don’t see in our household all the time — but it coming from our community specifically is so powerful. It’s so, so powerful, and needed. And I keep thinking about what does, I guess, like… what’s the hope to hold onto? And a lot of it is rooted in the future for me and, like, newer generations so… to know my [younger] sisters have resources accessible to them, I think it just creates an entirely different community, or aspect of the community.” - Indira, ally, Massachusetts.
“Now basically I live in a basement working two days a week [while] my asylum case is processing… waiting for my documents to come so I can start school and get a job. I turned 22 [and] I’m not happy where I am in my life right now but at least I'm safe.” — Allen, New York.
SPOTLIGHT: Caribbean Equality Project (Queens, New York)
Caribbean Equality Project (CEP) is a non-profit organization based in Queens, New York, committed to strengthening the marginalized voices of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people of Caribbean origin and descent. The organization was founded in 2015 by Mohamed Q. Amin, from Guyana via Queens, in response to anti-LGBTQ hate violence. To date, CEP is the only educational-based agency serving the Caribbean-American LGBTQ community in New York City and is dedicated to cultivating a supportive and progressive Caribbean community free of violence, oppression, and discrimination. CEP aims to achieve this goal through advocacy, community organizing, public education, cultural, and social programming.
How can Guyanese people use their history and culture to move forward?
“I think it’s about acknowledging the complexities of our identities as Guyanese people. These questions of how people rethink the postcolonial, heteronormative family — which is the result of the colonial enterprise, right — that’s a difficult think to unpack. Because most postcolonial movements were like: ‘Okay, the colonizers are gone, get married, have children, birth the nation.’ (laughs) And also using history, and using our historical presence to really think about our queer potential. Like I think about my family. My grandfather… had an arranged marriage. He ended up… divorcing his wife and marrying my grandmother, who was from an African descended community. And that was a huge deal at the time. This was in the 50s and 60s. And their house was burned down! Their house was set on fire, not burned down completely, but set on fire multiple times. And so that is already a kind of queerness in Guyanese history, the idea that there was so much racial mixing between the Indians, Africans, Chinese, Portuguese, the Amerindians, et cetera. So I think it’s important to understand that that quality, that resilience, queerness, whatever we’re going to call it, is innate to Guyana.” - Isham Jay, Rhode Island.
“In the Hindu religion, there is a celebration called rakshabandhan, and that’s a bond that’s built between a brother and a sister. And it’s the same bond that is built between LGBT communities and LGBT brothers and sisters. And that bond comes with confidentiality. That bond comes with respect. That bond comes with trust… Have faith in your LGBT brothers and sisters because that’s who we are: we are a community.” - Mishka, New York.
“Just because you’ve been taught [that] your identities contradict, [know that] they don’t. They’re both very integral parts of who you are. You don’t have to give up one to be accepted as the other. Because you embody both, and it’s possible to be both, because you’re here.” — Lala, Massachusetts.
If you could send a message like people like you who are back in Guyana, what would you want them to know?
"I would definitely want them to know that, like, the community exists both here and in Guyana. And we’re eager to find the rest of us! I think one of the most common sentiments I get from people of color — Caribbean people specifically, Caribbean queer groups — is just a want and a need to find everyone we know who identifies the same way as us. Cause we know people out there but it can be so hard to have to reckon with an identity that may not have been accepted — or that we’ve been taught isn’t accepted when we’re growing up. But the community does exist.” — Lala, Massachusetts.
“Trust no one and run. And be strong, pain is temporary. Things do get better eventually.” - Allen, New York.
“You are not the only person who is in the closet. Every single other person who is out was in the closet before… And they’re still here! And now those individuals who are now out who were in the closet are fighting for their rights… There’s always hope, hope that one day there will be a space for them as well in the Caribbean. To be accepted, to be free, to be free from chains, to be free from shame, to be free from all these discrimination that happens. Yeah, and they’re not alone. That’s my message to them.” - Mishka, New York.
“There are other people like them out there. There are totally other people out there and they can reach out for help and community… once you have community, you can begin to become educated from there. The community is the catalyst for everything to move forward.” - Ericka Maraj, Eastern Caribbean.
"Your experience is valid and it is seen. You matter... you have a very valid experience and it is worth our attention, it is worth our conversation. It is worth a movement.” — Indira, ally, Massachusetts.
“We’re all in this together.” - Gershon, Connecticut.
All names of participants interviewed for this article have been changed to protect the livelihoods of the interviewees. The quotes published in this article reflect the viewpoints of the persons interviewed, and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoints of Lesser and Leeward. All quotes have been presented in the closest authentic rendering of speech obtained via electronic conversation.