The Other Caribbean Boys
One Friday night not too long ago, I boarded a train headed for another train headed for Revere Beach, a neighborhood of Boston that in the winter cold is barren but for locals. At the local bar of my destination, a stage normally home to heavy metal bands and moshing punks of color would soon play scene to a whole different cabal of unruliness: an LGBT fete, Caribbean style. The theme is camoflauge; I’m dressed in appropriate pants and a shirt emblazoned with the logo ‘GOOD VIBES’. The door to the venue is nondescript, but at ten to eleven the music’s already loud enough to be heard from the beach as you approach.
Inside, it’s still sparse for people. The DJ is playing Southern hip hop mixed with trap and exactly one multiracial gaggle of girls is dancing along. I settle at the bar and sip on a soda and lime. It’s not for another half hour when the first bit of Caribbean flavor enters the soundsystem — Chaka Demus and Pliers’ cult hit “Murder She Wrote” — and I finally emerge from my barstool to bust a well-needed wine.
A few more songs play and a few more spectators join the crowd, but it’s not till another classic plays that folks get into it. I close my eyes and sloooowly oscillate my hips, mouthing the words to this beloved song as I move. I need some action, tender satisfaction. My chemistry is going, Can you cause a chain reaction? I came alone and I'm just doing my thing, not caring about being sexualized but — most importantly — not worrying about being bashed just for moving my body the way it likes to move.
Eventually, though, someone takes notice. Two girls rush from the bar toward my direction and ask to dance. They are both effortlessly gorgeous, very decidedly not dressed in camo but the type of girls any gang of color wants to have in their clique. We trade dance moves, one girl going for a full on bubble while I stick to a more conservative bogle with my fingers cocked in an L shape in the air. When the DJ mixes back into hip-hop, we retreat away for some well-needed hydration.
As Remy Ma deep cuts come on, I survey the crowd. It is outstandingly full of women, running the gamut from banjee girl femme to cargo shorts and beret butch and back again. I see Dutch Rebelle, a local Boston performer with roots in the Haitian community; she stands saddity sipping a drink, only mouthing the lyrics to her favorite Remy bars. In one instant, one of the few men in the crowd comes towards her and greets her like a good cousin. This man is gorgeous too: well-dressed, thick in the waist, hair shaped up like the barber aced Geometry class. Now, I’m way too nervous to approach either of them, that’s for sure. But as I leave inevitably too early to catch the metro train back home, one thought crosses my mind — where are all the mandem?
Serendipitously, two days later, a video pops up on my Timeline and I find out exactly where they are: on the internet. The video clip is one excerpt of the multi-part series The Other Boys NYC, a video documentary of men of color from New York City. The documentary is broken up into fifty short sections, giving each man of color a five-minute spotlight to discuss a topic familiar to them. Scrolling through the thumbnails, I see both myself and the faces of many of my childhood peers reflected among the interviewees. I’m delighted to find that, perhaps as a symptom of profiling men from New York City, a healthy proportion of the men claim some background from the Caribbean.
“I try to mentally, like, tell myself: talk to people when you’re at a bar,” says Kheran, an Indo-Guyanese man from Queens. “Don’t wait to do it on an app. Because talking to people when you’re scared or shy is the best way to, like, build your communication skills and [better] create intimacy in your life.” I applaud Kheran’s tenacity, and part of me wonders why I was so afraid to approach mystery man in the club, for no other reason than to ask where he gets his shape-up done. (He was so fresh, I really can’t express in words just how.) But I met my partner of over a year on an app, and we’ve been doing great — no lack of intimacy or communication there, let me tell you. The underlying issue is that I can’t talk to men that simply aren’t there. I browse the other stories to see what else these men might be up to.
Some of them lead lives similar to mine, participating in organizing projects for their communities and others. “My passion is advocacy and activism,” says Donovan, a queer Jamaican man. Donovan has written articles for the Huffington Post about his experience balancing these identities. And from his words I can understand why he might not want to go and wine down to, say, “Gyal A Bubble”:
To see this phenomenon one need look no further than revered Jamaican MC Vybz Kartel, currently imprisoned for murder and subject of a boycott in 2004 for homophobic lyrics. I didn’t grow up in a Jamaican community, so I imagine it’s a lot easier for me to passively or begrudgingly accept the homophobia in dancehall than someone like Donovan, who’s had to deal with family and community which upholds that vitriol.
“The conversation [with my parents] was like, you’re gonna die,” Donovan continues with poise. “After that day, our relationship had changed forever. It was severed… and it took about 10 years for us to rebuild that.” Nowadays Donovan and his mother have reconciled, and his smile lights up when he shares the conclusion of this story: “When your mother tells you you’re fine, nothing [else] matters anymore.” Knowing how tight our communities can be, there’s no telling how many other Caribbean men are still living with their mothers and other family, for whom an advertisement emblazoned with ‘LGBT Caribbean Party’ is not just unshareable, but unspeakable.
Daren works in the tech industry in New York — a habitat I’m surrounded by in Boston but rarely dare to enter. He too balances his sexuality and Jamaican heritage, but a bit differently from Donovan: “In terms of ‘identity’, I really haven’t been able to, let’s say, couple being Jamaican and being gay [as a] joint experience. They’re very, like, silo’d experiences.” I wonder, would Daren even feel welcome at a party that combines the two experiences? Could it be painful or simply just anxiety-provoking to be in a space that meshes two seemingly contradictory experiences? Maybe even embarrassing or triggering? If so, I’d never want to subject Daren or anyone else to that environment for my own selfish want for company.
Not to mention that the DJ played only dancehall, not even soca (as would have been my preference) or one of the many vibrant genres from the French or Latin Caribbean. I wonder if someone like Marcos, Dominican by way of the Bronx, would even enjoy the party. But even if the DJ had dropped the new Maluma, Marcos may not have found the space welcoming, himself holding similar sentiments to Daren: “It’s very hard being Dominican and talking about my gayness because I don’t really correlate the two.”
Undoubtedly, some of the few men in the space were gender-nonconforming and/or trans men; more than one resembled Amari, who is Haitian and trans. Amari overcame a turbulent home situation after coming out and was homeless for several months. “From [a friend’s house], I went on to a homeless shelter and then continued working — I had like 3 jobs at the time.” I have an easy work schedule these days and enough income to afford the $10 cover and a few drinks, a luxury many working-class and poor Caribbean men may not be able to afford. (Yes, even as wotless as we can be.) “My story happens to a lot of people,” Amari reflects in a bit of a resigned tone. "It’s something that I feel like a lot of trans people share."
What to do when our community spaces may be inaccessible to those in our community? The Other Boys illuminates the gap that LGBT Caribbeans face even in the diaspora: a lack of cohesive space for collective grief and collaboration. Producer Abdool Corlette, who reps Guyana, emphasized the individual aspect of the project in an interview with Huffington Post Live:
As striking as this project is both visually and conceptually, I cannot watch this project become the “It Gets Better” of the QMOC scene. The next step from testimony is action: we need to reach out and form community. That is to say, as many digital and physical organizing and support communities as there are nightlife communities and more. As nice as it would be to see some local badmen in the club, how much more would it mean to have a network of folks with whom to study or pay bills, with whom to go get tested, with whom to have as an emergency triage in case of violence or even just microaggressions? How much stronger and more resilient could the mandem be in tandem — a bundle of sticks so tightly bound that no heterosexual Goliath could make even a fissure in the fiber?
Resilience, not tolerance, is the keyword these days. Over the past month, Michael Hobbes’s article “The Epidemic of Gay Loneliness” has crossed all my internet paths, each time free of discourse and, in fact, containing the internet equivalent of mourning silence. In this article, the broad category of “men of color” gets little more than a paragraph’s worth of material, a little ignorant of the fact that such men (including Caribbean men) have to deal with both white America’s norms of homophobia and that of their own families and ethnic communities. Hobbes’s ultimate point of action — “[figuring] out how to be better to each other” — is increasingly hard to grasp when the LGBTQ communities where I live in Boston are so segregated by race, national origin, and class. For Caribbean men, having to balance intra-community healing with potentially fielding violence from white LGBTQ folks as interlocking essential tasks seems patently unfair. This isn’t to advocate for either retaliation against white LGBTQ folks or separatism from them entirely. Rather, it illustrates that we need more spaces by us, for us, and accessible to us.
From where I’m standing, I’m taking small steps. I started a WhatsApp chat with all the gay and queer Caribbean men I know personally. I clicked ‘Like’ on The Caribbean Equality Project and Jamaica Assocation of Gays and Lesbians Abroad (JAGLA). And I’m keeping updated with The Other Boys, since supporting brother Corlette is the least I can do even if Trinis and Guyanese folk beef every day on Tumblr over whose curry bangs harder. On a long term agenda, I’m working toward getting certified as a peer counselor, subjecting myself to the ills of the mental healthcare system if it means I can make an inroad in that aspect of treatment in my community.
In the meantime, I turn to the elders whose defiance has made waves both socially and politically. Thomas Glave is a gay Jamaican literary who edited the compilation Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Gay and Lesbian Writing from the Antilles. The anthology isn’t readily available everywhere it needs to be, but the following excerpt from its invocation says all that needs to be said:
To add to what Glave so succinctly articulates: as much as the Caribbean needs us, the Caribbean within us needs the Caribbean within each other even more.