Over the Borderline
Homosexuality and the Caribbean: you think you know all there is to know about this don’t you? Think again. Meet Shebada, a cross-dressing stage sensation who has won his way into the hearts of the Jamaican working class. Then meet the murderous gay gangsters who have worried their way into the minds of the middle-class. Annie Paul welcomes you to the sublimely surprising world of Jamaican masculinity.
The first time I saw a drag queen pageant was in Trinidad and Tobago some ten years ago. Our venue was a nightclub in the centre of Port of Spain, and the audience mainly consisted of straight couples. When I tried to use the ladies’ room that evening, I had a problem. The ladies’ room was blocked by a crowd of six-feet-plus macaw-like glamazons in high heels vying with each other for one full-length mirror. I remember thinking that this would be unimaginable in Jamaica – even though there was a muscular, six-foot-two Miss Jamaica competing for the crown that evening right in front of my eyes.
In recent years, Jamaica has earned considerable notoriety for its unremitting hostility to male homosexuals – or, as they are derogatorily referred to in Patwa, battymen. (Batty stands for buttocks). The reputation for violent homophobia came about, in part at least, by a profusion of anti-homosexual lyrics in reggae, particularly in its current avatar, dancehall. Dancehall is a site for the ritualistic ‘murder’ of anyone deemed to be in violation of the codes of conduct in communities that produce the music. Male homosexuals (the ‘battybwoy’ or ‘battyman’ dem) are perhaps the all-time favourite recipients of this expression of communal hostility. At least one function served by the offending figure of the homosexual is as a deviant foil to normalized heterosexual identity. Jamaican critic Tanya Batson-Savage, writing in The Sunday Gleaner some years ago, put it this way: “Dancehall demands not only lyrical dexterity, but also aggressive heterosexuality from deejays”.
Dancehall lyrics often advocate death or bodily harm to male homosexuals who are explicit about their sexual preference. Although there have been several documented instances of homophobic violence in Jamaica, actual data relating to hate-crimes, especially in comparison to other cultures, is not easily available. The critic Carolyn Cooper and other scholars of Jamaican popular culture suggest that threatening lyrical language is merely rhetorical and not an actual instigation to violence. Cultural studies lecturer Donna Hope further suggests that attitudes towards homosexuality are mediated by class; upper-class gay men are less likely to elicit public disapproval than their working-class counterparts. Nevertheless, or at least regardless of the competing claims to intent and consequence, Jamaican entertainers have been subjected to an intense and prolonged campaign by mainstream gay-rights groups across Europe and the US, resulting in a prohibition on a number of musicians from performing in those countries.
In a 2008 BBC HARDtalk interview, Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding infamously declared that he would brook no homosexuals in his cabinet. Two years later, in response to a question as to why homosexual acts were illegal in the country, he attempted to explain the ‘Jamaican’ perspective on homosexuality. His response, partially reproduced here, is instructive:
“It is rooted in a number of things. Firstly, we are a predominantly Christian country and a fervently Christian country. It may not be reflected entirely in terms of how we live sometimes, but we are passionately committed to certain basic Christian principles…But we have become quite tolerant. We are tolerant provided that homosexual lifestyle does not invade our space. And what do I mean by that? Persons who wish, because of their own inclination, to live in a homosexual relationship, do so in Jamaica and there are many such persons in Jamaica. The society in Jamaica in general do not want to be… do not want it to be flaunted. They don’t want it to be sort of thrown into the face, because there are some real fears. There are some real fears. The basic unit of a society is a family, and there is a passionate concern in Jamaica about protecting the integrity of the family. And it is felt that encouragement or recognition of the appropriateness of the homosexual lifestyle is going to undermine the effectiveness of that family unit and, in that process, undermine the basic fabric of a society.”
(Is Jamaica homophobic? Bruce Golding interviewed by David Hirschman, 2010, on BigThink).
Music, politics, and the politics of music: thankfully, Jamaican culture extends beyond the frame of the familiar. What seems like a swaggering national certainty on sexuality is undone when we set the discursive space of dancehall music against that of “roots plays” or popular theatre, whose roots, as it were, lie in British pantomime, vaudeville, burlesque and farce. Both arenas are stage-centric, performance-oriented, and cater by and large to similar communities. And each arena offers a fascinating journey through the myths and realities of gender and sexuality in twenty-first century Jamaica.
In December 2008, a highly publicized schism erupted in the dancehall scene, a schism which went on to occupy national and even regional attention: the rivalry between two factions named Gaza and Gully. While Gaza and Gully duelled, a wildly popular star called Shebada emerged, acting out flagrantly androgynous roles to full houses, the latest act in a long tradition proudly carried on in “roots” theatre. The Gaza-Gully smackdown was a conventional clash, duelling DJs being a time-honoured tradition in the Jamaican music industry. There was however another, less conventional, and less noticed clash happening simultaneously: the clash between the hypermasculine, violent, thug-like persona of the DJ and the sexually ambiguous, semi-feminine, gay-ish and equally confrontational persona of Shebada.
It is commonplace in Jamaica for impoverished urban areas to be informally named after global war zones. Thus, there are locations named Angola, Tel Aviv, Vietnam and, of course, Gaza. In a widely publicized interview, Cliff Hughes, a prominent local journalist, asked Vybz Kartel on TV Jamaica why he had chosen the name Gaza for his area, and what the frequently uttered phrase “Gaza mi seh” meant. Kartel, who often refers to himself in the third person, responded,
“”Gaza mi seh” means “Fight for what you believe in against all odds, against all adversity.” When I left the Alliance, Vybz Kartel came under so much pressure, I said to Black Rhino and others we need to form a group. But we need a perfect name. The first war was just happening in Gaza, Israel was bombarding them but the people were fighting back regardless, and Vybz Kartel said to Laing [Isaiah Laing, prominent promoter associated with the annual Sting show], we’re going to use that name coz it means to me–dem people deh serious and dem nah back down.”
Kartel made no mention of the reason he felt obliged to look for a new name for his neighbourhood, the Portmore community formerly known as Borderline, in the first place. The reason he needed a new name is umbilically connected to the complicated discourse around masculinity and sexuality in Jamaica. And yet the details of how Borderline came to be renamed Gaza have never been considered worthy enough to discuss on national media.
Perhaps this is because the renaming had everything to do with Shebada, the star of a super-successful series of plays put on by a company called Stages Productions. Stages produces roots theatre – farcical, over-the-top performances with picaresque characters acting out the issues of the day. Sex is a big part of their work, subtlety is not, and Stages – whose slogan is “Comedy is serious business” – always plays to full houses. Since 2006, the year it came into existence, Stages has explicitly foregrounded alternative sexualities in its plays, and Shebada, whose stage persona is camp as they come and about twice as provocative, has performed with the company right since inception. In the very first Stages show, the insanely popular Bashment Granny, there is a scene where a policeman confronts the sinuous Shebada and asks, “Yu a man or yu a woman?” Shebada unabashedly replies, “Mi deh pon di borderline,” emphasizing the retort with an exaggerated sway of his hips. The phrase became so popular in the context of discussions about sexuality that Vybz Kartel decided that the name of his community had been irrevocably contaminated by association. To set things right, he proceeded to adopt the name of the most violent place in the world he could think of – the contested territory of Gaza in Palestine.
Shebada’s stage persona is an interesting one. Shebada is not a weird, problematic character – he’s the star of the show – in something of a contrast to the ridiculous, unnatural semi-criminal who is a dire threat to society, which is how ‘battymen’ are represented in dancehall. There has always been a tradition of gay characters in roots plays. In the 1980s and 1990s, we had Oliver and Shu Shu, both sufficiently similar to Shebada, but they never attained the kind of popularity and star power that the latest incarnation of this popular tradition has.
What makes Shebada tick? In her thesis for the University of the West Indies, titled Democracy, Performance and Sexual Politics in Jamaica, Tanya Batson-Savage devotes a chapter to the phenomenon. She analyses the provenance of plays such as Bashment Granny and the genre of roots theatre so beloved by Jamaicans, refers to the slackness/culture divide (slackness is anything filled with obscenity, vulgarity and sexual explicitness) and unpacks former Prime Minister Golding’s grandstanding on the issue of gay sex:
“Bashment Granny falls in the comedy sub-genre, roots theatre, a kind of farce which generally appeals to the Jamaican lower-class masses. Roots comedy productions often focus on the sex lives of the characters, which has allowed the genre to be more associated with Slackness than with Culture. Most roots plays are staged in school and church halls or community centres. The productions generally use a single setting, often a living room or a tenement yard. Roots theatre also encourages the removal of the fourth wall, making audience and cast interaction a definitive element. Actors adlib as they take on the comments from the audience who are often an active part of the story, sometimes even called on to bear witness to the proceedings in the plot. Played most often for the working class, roots plays are less mediated by middle class sensibilities and more reflective of the Jamaican working class.
A creature of the border, Shebada is the meeting point for transgressive masculinity and femininity and highlights that sexuality was one of the borders being contested in the 2007 general elections.
The borderline of sexuality in Jamaica is a particularly contentious one, which is often vocally and publicly defended through the media and popular culture, especially dancehall, but also makes its way into politics and academia. Barry Chevannes highlights that heterosexuality is one of the markers of prescribed masculinity. The obsession with heterosexual masculinity is reflected in popular music wherein numerous deejays chant against homosexuality decrying it as a crime against God and man. The overt recriminations against homosexuals, most explicitly expressed in dancehall lyrics, suggests that Jamaica is intolerant of any deviance from the heterosexual norm. However gender is far more complex than the binary oppositions performed in dancehall lyrics.
Yet, it was important that Golding declare on which side of the sexual border he stood, as done in the Sunday Observer of 8 July through an article headlined “Golding says ‘no’ to homosexuality: Psychologists, academics predict increased violence amidst move by gays to gain acceptance”. The story points to the growing agitation by homosexuals in Jamaica to gain acceptance. In the article, Golding is cited as making it clear that the JLP [the Jamaica Labour Party] is not prepared to cross the borders of sexual behaviour considered normative by the society, asserting that the JLP is not willing to go against the country’s “culture” for the good of a minority group. To employ Cooper’s trope of ‘Slackness’ versus ‘Culture’, Golding declares that as a guardian of Culture he will not allow the Slackness of deviant sexuality to cross the borders. Golding’s statement speaks not only to middle-class conservatism, but to a conservative stance which goes across the borders of class and shade.
With its presentation of crossdressing and sexual fluidity, Bashment Granny plays with several social taboos. The name ‘Shebada’ [she/border] speaks to the character’s sexually transgressive nature and can literally be translated as borderline femininity.”
Shebada’s star started rising in the mid-noughties when Bunny Allen of Stages Productions hired him to be the central actor in his theatre company. Early in his career, Shebada’s plays were watched almost exclusively by women, but this changed over time. Now they are watched by both men and women, sometimes attracting greater crowds than the most popular dancehall DJs in Jamaica can pull in.
The plays also attract gay patrons. Allen once said that he and other producers were disturbed by the flamboyant, in your face behaviour of some gay attendees. In recent years, young gay men have become more daring about being seen in public; they have even been known to converge on dancehall events, apparently without fear of being beaten up or otherwise harassed. In 2009, at a carnival parade, crowds started pelting stones at a group of obviously gay men who were enjoying themselves by ‘wining’ on each other in the procession. To the surprise of the onlookers, the young men had come prepared, and they pulled out stones they had stored in their bags and flung them back at the hostile crowd.
In 2008, Constable Michael Hayden of the Jamaican police force defiantly announced to the media that he was being persecuted by colleagues because he was bisexual. Such openness on the part of young gay men represents a transformation from the discreet and self-effacing ways of the past, though some were inclined to think that Hayden’s frankness was actually a ploy to quicken migration to one of several western countries that offer asylum to those persecuted for sexual orientation. Gay Jamaica Watch, a blog that analyses homosexuality in the country, offered a succinct summary in a post entitled New Age Gays in Dancehall, The Shebada Phenomenon: “Is like Jamaica ah get foreignized”. The post went on to state:
“Some people believe that the homosexual community is territorializing the dancehall space and staking their claim for acceptance within the culture. Now, it seems, even the anti-gay songs are no longer a hallmark of shame for the New Age gays who see the songs as a badge of honour.”
Shebada’s persona is definitely a nod to this so-called new-age gay identity, though it’s not entirely clear what the term new-age entails. Perhaps it simply means a new phase of homosexual identity – being out and about as opposed to remaining in the closet as the culture here has traditionally demanded.
Marlon James, a Jamaican novelist, thinks that this phenomenon of aggressive visibility represents a “discrepant discourse” in the public sphere. In an interview I conducted with him last year, he talked of the contradictory signals of dancehall and his bemusement at watching the crowds at Passa Passa, a popular street dance and one of the most hardcore dancehall events in the island. Passa Passa takes place on Wednesday nights in Tivoli Gardens, home of the notorious Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke, an alleged crime lord who was extradited to the United States in June 2010. Since Dudus’ forced exit, the street dance has gone into decline, but the brand is still spoken of with awe. Marlon James said:
“–Its funny–you go to Passa Passa and there was one guy–you know Jamaican dancehall moves are very sort of graceful, almost effeminate–I know I’m going to get killed for this but it’s very ornate and very delicate–and somebody pointed him out to me and said y’know that’s one of the biggest gunmen out here–this whole idea of the super graceful killer, I find it fascinating, you know? Almost like a ballet dancer who kills on the weekend…”
Naturally, the press in Jamaica has had a field day with the rise of the aggressively visible homosexual. “Men in tight pants clash in New Kingston” screamed a headline in one of the dailies here, earlier last year. A few months later, national media sensationally reported that Senior Superintendent Fitz Bailey of the police had announced that young gay men were behind most of the organised crime in Jamaica. What Bailey actually said was that 80% to 90% of the culprits arrested for perpetrating a murderous lottery scam were homosexuals. How did he know this? Somewhat incredibly, according to Bailey, because the criminals self-identified as homosexuals when they were arrested, apparently so that they could be kept away from hostile, gay-hating inmates in prison. Bailey said there was one ‘area leader’ or don who declared his sexuality openly when arrested.
This year saw a second instalment of the lottery scam unfold, and it proved to be even more incredible. Acting on intelligence that two men reputed to be masterminds in the lottery scam were at a particular nightclub near Montego Bay, police officers stealthily swooped in on the club and arrested all hundred and thirty patrons for good measure. The police, however, were in for a surprise. The Jamaica Observer breathlessly reported from the scene:
“The sun beat down on the large group of ‘women’ being detained under a shed as policemen and soldiers milled about, keeping them under guard, Saturday.
Some stood in stocking feet, their high-heeled platform pumps in hand, their garish make-up melting, their lacefront wigs still firmly attached to their heads. The see-through lace minidresses, shorts and tights in which many of them were clad were enough, under normal circumstances, to elicit a second glance, but even more so yesterday morning, for these were no ordinary females.
They were, in fact, crossdressing males who had been rounded up in a pre-dawn raid of a party that was in full swing at a night club in Discovery Bay, St Ann, on Saturday.
The cross-dressers, police said, comprised the majority of the group of about 130 partygoers taken into custody by members of the lotto scam task force during an intelligence-driven operation.
“This nightclub — which had 130 persons — in reality, there were not more than about 11 genuine females. We thought there were many females, but most of them are males dressed up as females,” noted head of the lotto scam task force, Superintendent Leon Clunis.”
In contrast to the sexual permissiveness of roots theatre, the hysterical denunciation of male homosexuals in the dancehall space is pierced with anxieties about masculine identity and control of the nation on the part of marginalized black males as represented by DJs. As far back as 1998, Trinidadian artist Christopher Cozier articulated the unspoken lines of difference between those who self-identify as belonging to the Trinidadian/Caribbean nation (Us) and those beyond such national boundaries (Them) in his blackboard installation Art and Nation. Demarcated as two columns titled ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ , one of the categories of “themness” – along with “White People” and “People from Big Countries” – was “Bullers”, the Trinidadian term for male homosexuals.
More recently, the Jamaican visual artist Ebony Patterson has been working on rhinestone-studded portraits of young Jamaican men in colourful, lace-bedecked garb, wearing make-up on their bleached faces. Represented in familiar antagonistic poses spun from Kingston’s fervid dancehall culture, Patterson’s innovative tapestries riff on the contradictions of local masculinity: extreme machismo laced with fantastical frills and foppery. Perhaps this is a natural consequence of a “born fi dead” (born to die) culture, the subject of Lauri Gunst’s acclaimed ethnography of Jamaican gangs, or the inevitable outcome when boys raised by grandmothers with a penchant for Victoriana eventually become thugs.
In one of Ebony Patterson’s most recent projects, Cheap and Clean (March 2012) she explored the formation of taste and gender-related dressing among young men. In another project, commissioned by the journal Small Axe, and titled Of 72, Ebony painstakingly created 73 flags featuring masked faces adorned with feathers, beads and sequins. The title referred to the seventy three people killed by Jamaican security forces during their incursion into Tivoli Gardens in pursuit of Dudus, who was wanted in the US for drug-running and gang-related charges. Only one of the seventy three people killed was female, but viewers were hard-put to identify the lone female in the crowd because so many of Patterson’s masked gangsters were effeminate; plucked eyebrows, coiffed hair and all.
Ebony Patterson’s work illuminates not only the embattled frontier of Jamaican masculinity but also the fraught nature of sexuality in the country – where, although there is an inherent machismo that is aspired to and constantly broadcast, men seem to want to appropriate the accoutrements of femininity too. It would be foolish, of course, to read this desire as a renouncement of heterosexuality.
Perhaps this is why the ‘out and bad’ or aggressively present homosexual becomes a lightning rod, the fetishized symbol of external interference and pressure to conform to international, ‘alien’, values. Thus the repeated calls for the exile, chastisement and eventual extermination of the homosexual may be seen as a physical enactment of the “Gaza mi seh” logic of Vybz Kartel. Which is to say, “Fight for what you believe in against all odds, against all adversity.” Kartel is saying that Jamaicans must emulate the embattled Palestinians (“dem people deh serious and dem nah back down”) and vigorously defend their homegrown sense of morality, their sense of what is right, against the ravages of globalization.
The posturing of dancehall DJs on the subject of homosexuality is quite similar to what happens in American hip-hop, and strongly suggests that the defence of masculinity in both instances is directly linked to its proponents’ lack of access to traditional symbols of masculine prestige and power. As the American cultural critic Tricia Rose writes in her 2008 book, The Hip Hop Wars:
“Hip-hop reflects the important role that homophobia plays in defining masculinity. Women who are considered too independent, tough, or powerful are negatively labelled as lesbians. Men insulted for being too weak are often called “faggots.” In this version of heterosexual masculinity, the parameters of manhood are being protected when homosexuality is equated with “femininity,” and both are designated as weak and subordinate. This general culture of homophobia is compounded by black males’ long-denied access to the full powers of patriarchal masculinity, which in turn may have encouraged a particular brand of black homophobia.”
The clash between DJ culture and gender-bending Shebada suggests that popular attitudes towards homosexuals may not be quite what we assume they are in Jamaica. The massive popularity of a character like Shebada, and the fact that current Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller won the 2011 elections in a landslide, despite announcing that she would have no problem with gay ministers in her cabinet, suggest that change is in the air. Certainly, theatre that reaches a large number of people, like that performed by Stages Productions, seems like a good place to campaign for the normalization of behaviour that is considered ‘different’. It would also seem as if homosexuality per se is not decried in Jamaica: that the nation grieved and mourned for Professor Rex Nettleford when he died in 2010, even though he was widely known to be gay, is proof of this. Crucially, however, Nettleford never publicly identified as being gay, and it is this – the freedom of people with an alternative sexuality who want to be out and about, who want to be overt, not covert – that makes the nation nervous.
To complicate the situation further, I will remind you that according to the newspapers, the nation is also made nervous by the presence of by murderous gay gangsters.
I think we can say that something like a contemporary gay livity exists. In the spirit of this livity, the last word deserves to go to Jamaican poet Kei Miller. In A Smaller Song, Miller addresses a prominent local gay rights activist and gently reminds him that there may be, after all, something to sing about as a gay man in Jamaica:
“…And Thomas, on days when the terribleness is too big, and your song is too big for my mouth, and the sadness of this island comes upon me like wings, and I think I want to fly away from here, then I try to remember smaller things. I try to sing a smaller song…
I sing a smaller song because we gather. Because as awful as this island can be, I have known men from the Antilles who have come here because their own islands were too lonely. I sing for those far houses in Stony Hill, and Jacks Hill, and the verandah of Brian’s house where we have met under the cover of music and sweat. I sing because of the lyrics we have always been able to turn on their heads. Boom Bye Bye to who? We are still here. Thomas, I sing because we gather, and we dance.
…I sing a smaller song for the ways we exist flamboyantly and invisibly at the same time. The ways we exist incredibly. Haven’t you seen us in New Kingston? In gold shirts. In pocketless pants. Haven’t you seen the bold transgression of our hips? Haven’t you heard the sirens of our lisps? And despite it all, we dodge the radars. We limbo away from bullets. We live our incredible and abundant lives. And isn’t that something, Thomas? Some days, isn’t it enough to sing about?”