Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Homophobia Boosts IQ's in Jamaica?

Could it be that Jamaica’s virulent homophobia is driving its gay teenagers to the top of academic rankings? The correlation between disenfranchisement and how driven one is academically is not immediately apparent; in fact, for people from indigent backgrounds, it is likely that on average, they will perform more poorly academically. This matrix does not seem to apply to effeminate gay men in Jamaica however, and I’ll explain why I believe so.

I was one of the top students in my high school. All of my close friends were doing exceptionally well, and among the five that are male, three are gay. Coincidence? Perhaps. In the grade below mine, the top student for four consecutive years (until he was forced to leave the school amidst rumours that he was gay and had had gay sex on campus) was very effeminate. I am desperately trying to reconnect with this young man today. I can’t speak to him identifying as gay, but he was definitely as effeminate as the rest of us who now identify as such.

I won a scholarship at the end of high school and was one of three men selected to study abroad. Of the three of us, two are gay. I have some friends who know both of us who used to joke that they only know gay Jamaican guys- the irony kills me. I know at least ten Jamaican men studying in America, half of them are gay.

I don’t know many people at UWI, but the few I know tell me that a significant proportion of the men there are gay. I have met a few myself, and they tell me about the large network of gay men of which they are a part. This never surprises me because I have had my theories for a while now. Now, there is a point beyond which this has to be recognized as more than coincidence.

If this is true, that gay men perform much better than straight ones on average, why is this so?

In Jamaica, it is not cool to be studious if you have a penis. You are called a sissy, gyal and a batiman- which are among the worst names you can call a Jamaican man. It shouldn’t be surprising then that the only boys who brave the onslaught of ridicule are the ones that are actually effeminate and are questioning their sexuality. Creating masculine men is a serious objective of Jamaican culture, and so those of us that exhibit feminine tendencies are reprimanded at every opportunity from a very young age. I lost count of how many times I was asked, “yaa gyal?” (“are you a girl?”) as a child. I was very close to my sister and would try on her dresses, and walk in her shoes. I would have gotten away with thinking this was normal, except for when my father came home and screamed at me to get out of my sister’s clothing. I never received dolls, but I would play with my sister’s, and we would design and make clothing for them. I knew I was different, because everyone told me I was so. I used to follow my brothers to the football field in the evening but I never had interest in playing. They would forcefully suggest that I join a team because supposedly, having a penis qualifies you to play football, and I would always embarrass myself. Then came the name-calling! When I went to school the teasing escalated tenfold.

Children want nothing more than to be accepted by their peers and it hurts when they cannot get the acceptance they seek. Now this is what I understand in retrospect: doing well academically is one of the surest ways to gain some respect in school. It is not always from peers, but adults are drawn to the star performers and they are very encouraging. How nice it was to be patted on the back and to hear, “good job”, or have your test score announced to the entire class.

In high school, people teased me relentlessly. One day, while participating in a science quiz in St. Catherine, someone who didn’t even know me called me a ‘he-she’ after I quipped that she was disrespectful when she said something vile about a friend of mine. For the entire day, her friends teased me. One of them later asked to see my fingernails. I asked why, and she said, “oh I was told you wear nail polish.” I showed her that I didn’t, and she remarked how strikingly clean they were for a guy. Aren’t they supposed to be clean, I asked back? One day, I was walking with a friend of mine, when a group of primary school students visiting my school shouted at me, “si di girly wan de!” (“Look, the effeminate one!”)- I had been on TVJ the night before.

It seems that only people who didn’t conform to gender stereotypes as children would have the opportunity to make the realization that they can gain some modicum of respect among their peers if they do well in school. More masculine males with homosexual proclivities never had to claw for respect, and so there was no extra motivation to do well academically. Beyond conforming to gender norms, by being good at sports, or dancing, there aren’t many ways to raise one’s social capital.

I am not suggesting that all effeminate boys make great students, because this is clearly not so. It is unmistakable though, that there are a disproportionate number of gay men doing well academically in Jamaica. Scientific studies suggest that gay men make up between 4 and 10 % of any given population, but I can promise you, in faith, that of all Jamaican men with stellar academic records, a greater proportion are gay than such statistics would suggest.

I want to do a survey of all the Jamaica men studying in America. I have a feeling my hypothesis holds true here too. Gay Jamaican men have a life-preserving imperative to leave the island, and getting a scholarship to study abroad is one of the less demanding ways to do so. Those who can’t find a way out before university seek out grad programs or jobs abroad after they complete their first degrees.

Isn’t it interesting? Jamaican popular culture is very homophobic. It hates gay people, and it wishes to eradicate them for the plague that it believes they are. Yet its very stance against gender non-conformity has pushed many gay men to the top of academic performance tables, and therefore in positions of power- maybe not politically, but otherwise. This is Jamaica’s big secret. Many of the sons of its soil whose achievements it celebrates are in fact same-gender loving. Who is going to tap Bruce’s shoulder and share this information? Little does he know, he might do well with some gay men in his cabinet. But then again, Gordon House is not known to attract the brightest minds.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Skinny-Jeans and Durags: Gay & Black Normativity

If only through watching American TV, many of us are familiar with the stereotypical characterization of the gay man. (The Jamaican stereotype is far more limited- cross dressing-limp wristed-go-go dancing- gyali gyali-he-shes.) Many gay men do not fit either stereotype. Interestingly though, the gay community and the media have helped to normalize the stereotypes, by which all other gay men are judged as being out or not, gay or straight. I do not feel as though I am a part of the gay community in America, but my situation is more complex- even though I apparently fit many of the stereotypes, I never grew up in America and so do not associate strongly with what I like to term ‘rainbow culture’.

I recently spoke with a gay man, two years my senior, who said that he did not fit into the gay community, and was made to feel unease for this reason. His experiences forced me to ask, is there any utility in perpetuating an exclusive dominant culture within a stigmatized population? Otherwise, what are the negative implications of having a dominant culture that everyone is expected to acculturate to, and do these implications merit a revolt against the normalizing culture?

My friend shared that people suggest that he is not out enough, or assume that he is not comfortable with his sexuality, for the mere reason that he ‘passes’ more easily than others who embrace popular representations of gay men, or. How we present ourselves has a lot to do with our gender identity. You would think that gay men should better be able to recognize that the male gender encompasses a diversity of gender identities, and would be more empathetic to those excluded by the now normative standards. 

Is this dynamic different in other minority communities? Some of the elements of the stereotypical African American identity are as follows: Baggy jeans hanging below the butt. Hoodies. Durags and hats. Air Force sneakers. Having swag. Walk around any major American city, and you will see many black men who present themselves in this way. Others who do not are teased for trying to be white, and they too feel excluded from the dominant culture of which they should supposedly be a part .

Many aspects of the Black identity are stigmatized, and so a perpetuation of the black identity as we have come to know it potentially furthers the marginalization of Black males as the stereotypical male representation is also the stereotypical profile of criminals. How is it sensible for stigmatized minority groups to present themselves in ways that further distinguishes them for the dissenting majority? Because it is comforting. It gives people something to cling to... a group within which they can give their lives meaning, independent of the majority's view of them. This seems to be more important than capitulating to the expectations of the majority through assimilation.

I am very put off by suggestions that I am merely acting out what society has prescribed as appropriate social roles for gay men, so I always feel compelled to make disclaimers as to why I fit some gay stereotypes. Insecurities surfacing? Perhaps. I still have some issues with popular representations of gay men, and how they in turn influence people to perceive me a certain way I mean, some people fit the stereotypes because that is what they are most comfortable doing, and there should be nothing wrong with that. It's the disappearance of choice that gets to me. But even if I fit the stereotype, do I dance well because I am gay? Am I loud and self-confident because society expects me to be so? Do I dress well because gay men are supposed to?

It so happens that I came out at a time and in a place where it was okay to make a fool of myself on the dance floor. It was okay to have an opinion to the contrary of the majority. And I could finally afford to buy my own clothing (I do have a certain style, but I think that has more to do with being Jamaican than being gay). So it is easy to look and say Fiyu came out to the gay identity that society has created for him. How much of what I do is innate? It's hard to see when you observe countless other gay men doing the same, and when your actions mirror popular representations. Should it matter? I'm still the process of trying to figure this out.

I wish people were able to come out without the fear of being murdered. Maybe then we would be able to deconstruct the many stereotypes that help to perpetuate our marginalization; some Jamaican people are of the opinion that gay people (i.e., what little they know about them) and their lives don’t matter. I would like to introduce Jamaicans to my friend, who doesn’t think he dances well, would never be caught dead in skinny jeans, is very reserved, yet fully cognizant of his sexuality.

I can acknowledge the utility of creating some singular identity behind which people can be mobilized for the greater cause, but gay men must be careful to recognize the diversity that exists in our community, and find way to engage people of various characters. The media has put us in a box; we need not reinforce its walls and make it more difficult for others to come in... we must be doing the opposite.

This issue matters to me because I can empathize with the extremely effeminate, flamboyant gay men. I'm as gay as they come in Jamaica, so I stand out easily- or so I think. Also, I believe I was much more effeminate when I was younger. I'm not quite sure if I lost (most of) it as I matured, or if Jamaica's efforts at social conditioning finally got to me. Flamboyant gay men are stereotypically bold. They are at the forefront of the fight for LGBT rights, and it makes sense that they are, since they are most easily identified as gay, and suffer the most homophobic hatred and violence. Those of us who can pass do so, because life is that much more challenging otherwise. But I also empathize with those that become outsiders to the gay community, because I understand well what it means to be ostracized from a community in which you feel you should belong.

It is impossible to create a singular identity for all members of any minority group. Or rather, it is difficult to create a singular identity that everyone will embrace. Every community is by its very nature exclusive. It is imperative that we have a certain sensitivity to this, and help to integrate people who may be different from prevailing standards as much as is possible. Diversity is good. After all, Isn't that the message we take to the majority?