Dressed in baggy khaki pants and a crew neck sweater, with a fitted cap over her short braids, Natoya Nicholas takes a seat on a bench in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, one of New York City’s Caribbean enclaves. She smiles as she waves away the steam from a piece of jerk chicken.
Natoya, a 23-year-old lesbian is still haunted by her mother’s efforts to “make her straight” when she was a teen after moving from Trinidad to Crown Heights. Her story is similar to that of many LGBT people from the Caribbean.
According to the Council for Global Equality, homosexuality is criminalized in 11 Caribbean countries, Trinidad being one of them. Homosexuality is punishable by incarceration in most of these countries. In a 2006 article, Time Magazine dubbed Jamaica “the most homophobic country.”
Natoya has been living in New York since she was seven years old, and became a citizen in 2011. She says that many people from the Caribbean are dismissive of homosexuality, and either make inappropriate comments or turn their mouths up at the idea of homosexuality in Caribbean communities.
When she was young, Natoya’s mother would drag her to church, dressed in feminine clothing, which made her uncomfortable.
“My mother attempted it many a times,” she says, holding back tears. “It was really, really annoying that in order to fit in, I had to be who I was not and I hated it. I just wanted to be comfortable,” she said.
“Understanding what I was feeling was the hardest part,” she explained after taking a deep breath. Her mother was a devout Christian, and refused to believe her when she came out as a lesbian at age sixteen, acting as if it hadn’t happened. “After a while, my mother had no choice but to believe that what I was feeling was for real.”
Shortly after, Natoya was the talk of the entire family. “This right here, Crown Heights, is my old neighborhood,” she says. “Everywhere you turn you are surrounded by West Indian culture. We [have] the West Indian Day parade all down [Eastern Parkway] on Labor Day. The restaurants, the small shops and businesses, [all are] owned and run by Caribbean people. Even the drivers of the MTA buses are Caribbean.”
As people hustled up and down the subway stairs at the Utica Avenue train station, she spoke about how other people of Caribbean descent, both in New York and Trinidad, looked down on her. She gave an account of walking down Eastern Parkway and having a man with a Jamaican Flag hanging out from his back pocket exclaim in Jamaican patois, “Mi know nuttin ah di batty mon ting.” (I know nothing about those gay things.)
It seems many people from the Caribbean bring ideas about homosexuality with them from home, and researchers say it’s difficult to try to change their opinions regarding same-sex marriage and relationships.
“Many times I have walked through these streets and people I have grown up around have turned around and said things to me,” said Natoya. “One time I was walking my now ex-girlfriend to the bus stop, an older Jamaican man walked past me yelling in patois ‘Pull up yuh pants huh mon! Batty!’ (Pull up your pants gay.) and kissed his teeth.”
Natoya is reminded of these attitudes back home as well. She recently made a trip to Trinidad, and one night was denied entrance to a club, even though she met the no-sneakers dress code. “I knew exactly why. The bouncer said ‘Gwan nuh down di road and buy yuh a dress and proper shoes‘ (Go on down the road and buy yourself a dress and proper shoes.)”
Several new projects have emerged to address the issues faced by LGBT people of Caribbean descent. Among them is the Theorizing Homophobia(s) Project, highlighted by the Caribbean Commons blog from the City University of New York (CUNY).
A recently published article on the blog states:
…the public and international human rights discourse that describes Caribbean homophobia rarely includes the larger contexts of poverty, structural adjustment, neocolonialism, and violence in general within the region. It has been accepted that homophobia in the Caribbean has its roots in laws, religion, and social perceptions of gendered identity.”
Angelique Nixon, who writes for the Caribbean Commons blog, also manages and takes submissions for these projects to help educated others. The group works with the Caribbean community in New York City where same-sex marriage has been legal since 2011.
Natoya is often reminded of the negative experiences she’s had being LGBT and Caribbean. But she is still hopeful for the future. “I want other West Indians to feel safe and comfortable coming out of the closet. I know it is going to get better. It’s just going to take some time.”
Fi2W is featuring stories by students in the Feet in 2 Worlds journalism course at The New School.
Fi2W is supported by the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation and the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation.