There is a West Indian proverb that goes like this: “Little boy nah climb ladder to turn big man.”
When I marched this year at Boston Pride with the Island Pride contingent, I felt, in a certain way, like a big man for the first time. I’ve been writing about navigating life as a gay Trinidadian-American for a while now, but marching on the road this past weekend, behind a truck blasting soca music and surrounded by other LGBTQ folks from the West Indies, was a kind of affirmation of my identities of both West Indian and gay quite like no other. This year’s theme at Boston Pride was “Rainbow Resistance,” a call to uplift marginalized communities within the LGBTQ rights movement. And that Saturday in the early summer sun, gyrating my waist as I marched and taking a wine with eager folks in the crowd, red-and-black Trini flag cascading from my belt-loop or pumping with my fist in the air, I felt not only uplifted, but liberated. Free.
June may be Pride Month worldwide, but it is also Caribbean American Heritage Month in the United States. And those two observances have some monumental intersections: this year in particular, folks from my father’s native Trinidad and Tobago are celebrating their recent striking down of the colonial-era sodomy law. Those of us in the diaspora in the United States are celebrating too, albeit cautiously. Though times are changing and attitudes are shifting, one legal decision won’t automatically change the opinion of family and friends nor the larger cultural weights of homophobia and patriarchy that are embedded in West Indian heritage. There are interruptions to those phenomena — after all, Trinidad being the island that made Carnival famous can’t easily distance itself from a certain cultural degree of effeminacy and flair. But I know that we in the diaspora still have a long way to come before we can fully actualize that wotlessness, as we say, into a politic of acceptance and affirmation of our LGBTQ bredren and sistren.
And it’s taken me a while, too, to find that affirmation in myself; to grow from an insecure boy into a man who is not burdened by his history, but in fact weaponizes that history in pursuit of his own destiny.
In many ways, my family history appeals to a certain Caribbean stereotype that is as tragic as it is laughable; I am illegitimate by birth, the child of a Caribbean man’s secret family, a casualty not of wotlessness, but “horn,” as we say in Trinidad. Growing up in the aftermath of these poor decisions, I didn’t have a strong conception of myself as a Caribbean person in the diaspora. So too inaccessible was the history of my ethnic group — Trinidadians descended from South Asia via indentureship, or Indo-Caribbeans, who filled the gap in labor created by the outlawing of slavery in 1833. I always claimed my island superficially, but I admittedly grew up ill-prepared to reckon with that history and its consequences for a long while.
In the absence of these cultural and familial comforts, I internalized a need for community. I started coming out to friends early on in high school, and by senior year, I was president of my gay-straight alliance and counted on a group of friends who were gay or bisexual or trans themselves. Now, while most of these friends were also of color — products of our very segregated habitus of northern New Jersey — I left high school bound for college in Boston without having fully connected the dots between being gay and being Caribbean.
It wasn’t until I was an adult that I first felt that my being Caribbean and my being gay could coexist. A few events precipitated this shift. One was a college professor, himself gay and of Caribbean parentage, who allowed me into his class and encouraged me to speak my truth. Another was the contents of that class, in which I learned about the history of the Caribbean and global movements towards decolonization. And the third was a more intimate encounter, with a fellow diasporic West Indian kid, a classmate I’ll call Nathan.
I met Nathan the night of my college senior gala, and when I met him, I had to stop myself from asking him: “Where have you been all this time?” He was a year below me, but we had overlapped for three years without knowing of each other. After being set up by mutual friends, we spent the night vibing and dancing, and I vaguely remember us canoodling in the back of a chartered bus on the way back to campus. I learned that he was half Bajan, and from a world that played on certain stereotypes of their own — one of his aunts makes costumes for Carnival festivities out of her basement as a side hustle. He came into my life at a time when I was really struggling with my mental health, but one thing I was ready to receive from him was his parallel truth: that he could take up space as an out man of color from a Caribbean background without feeling torn apart at the intersection of those experiences. We didn’t date for very long, but we’re still friends to this day, and he knows how much me dating him meant to my own identity formation.
In my emergent adult life I’ve settled into these identities and myself — become who I was meant to be all along. I am no little boy atop a ladder, a palm tree, or someone else’s shoulders. I am a testament to my island’s resilience throughout history, an active builder of community and creator of culture, a being fully realized. I live in my truth in a canon of individuals who, having lived in a Caribbean setting both colonial and post-colonial, concealed their full humanity out of fear of reprisal by the powers that be. More importantly, though, I don’t live in that truth alone; I exist in the same space as groups like Island Pride in Boston, the Caribbean Equality Project in New York City, and solidarity groups in places like Trinidad, Jamaica, and Guyana that are uplifting LGBTQ folks back home and asylum seekers who are fleeing the realities of violence and subjugation. I live in the same moment that Dominique Jackson, a trans woman actress and author originally from neighboring Tobago, stars in Pose, a prime-time television show focused on the Black and Latinx ball scene. And I’m harnessing that circulating community power in my life as a mental health professional, where I am working toward providing culturally-competent care for Caribbean diaspora populations. For as much as I owe to my predecessors, I am also crafting a legacy that will be disseminated and passed down to those after me.
For Carnival season this year, Trinidadian singer Destra Garcia released a song entitled “Family.” I first heard this song in the most appropriate of settings — in a roti shop — and its lyrics of community strength have resonated with me: “I can be myself with you, you know what I feel… When the tension’s rising / you are my soca family.” I know that the song isn’t explicitly about social acceptance — Garcia discussed in an interview that the song is a nod to her loved ones after suffering from an injury. What she does say about writing the song, however, is this:
“I think that, you know, you must never give up. No matter what. There’s no obstacle too big for you to cross over. No hurdle, no mountain too big to climb. Because lying down on the bed and feeling like it was over, and then getting that inner strength… It have nothing you cannot do.”
It’s this message that holds true for LGBTQ persons of Caribbean origin: for as much that has attempted to be stripped of us throughout history, our power is limitless. Insolent as we are simply to exist, we surely will not stand to be forgotten or drowned out by any persons from within our communities or outside of them.
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