“... the court feels compelled to state in conclusion that it is unfortunate when society in any way values a person or gives a person their identity based on their race, colour, gender, age or sexual orientation. That is not their identity. That is not their soul. That is not the total value to society or their value to themselves.”
– Justice Devindra Rampersad in his historic judgment deeming the buggery laws of TT unconstitutional
I GREW UP in a world with a high tolerance for nonconformist expressions of gender and identity. In this world of the arts, the notion of gender fluidity was accepted, even if not considered to be normal by some.
In this world, a kind of unconscious link was made between being artistic and choosing to identify in a way that was different to one’s biological origins. There was also an acceptance of the connection between gender fluidity and being artistic or brilliant at one’s craft.
At least that was one response. The other reaction to sexual difference can still be seen today; that is, a range of hostile reactions ranging from ostracism to outright violence.
Across the globe, artists are using their talent to address these challenging notions of gender, society and identity. Whether through fashion, photography or performance, they challenge stereotypes and address the sociopolitical imbalances that form part of the discussion about gender.
“Gender identity and gender roles are important determinants of the distribution of power and access to resources; in nearly all societies, traditional gender roles privilege straight men. Through the imposition and continuous reinforcement of rigid gender norms, these societies deprive non-male identifiers of rights, power, and resources.”
Gender is thus a political matter on many levels. For instance, activists agitating for equality for women often refer to a society dominated by patriarchy and constant bombardment of media images that diminish women, but which are designed to please men. One female artist from India says, “I identify as queer and being queer in India is still punishable by law.” In response, she uses her choreography to contribute to the debate about sexuality and politics in her country.
One transgender columnist from Dominica, in exploring the genesis of homophobic attitudes in the Caribbean, writes in the New York Times that this “hatred is rooted in the legacy of the colonial laws of the British Caribbean, which criminalized sodomy, reinforced by the powerful influence of anti-gay evangelists.”
Sexual identity in TT has to a large extent been influenced by our shared cultural experiences. We learned early on what was right or wrong, normal or unacceptable based on the values within our particular community. “Culture shapes the ideas of what behaviours are acceptable for men and women as well as what behaviours are appropriate between men and women ...”
However, I suspect that we have not really explored these traditions to assist with our interpretation of gender and sexuality. For instance, in traditional African spirituality, although we may refer to the Orisas or gods as male or female, they are actually gender neutral. In Hinduism, gods may be represented as male, female, a combination of both or gender neutral. In our Carnival, the dame lorraine masquerade derives from a West African Gelede tradition that celebrates the female form, often portrayed by men.
For me, whatever one’s position in this debate, the time has come for us to treat with the questions of sexuality, identity and nationhood. I am thinking in particular of young people who may be struggling to cope with their own internal battles surrounding gender or sexual orientation.
As I watched the drama surrounding the judgment unfold on the steps of the Hall of Justice, I wondered how could we use our indigenous cultures to begin the process of deconstructing gender? How can we use the arts as a non-threatening means of having an open conversation about gender and sexuality in our schools, places of work or other spaces where social interaction takes place? How can we equip parents and educators to manage an already charged and dysfunctional sexual environment?
The reality is that as a society we are still a great distance from having logical or rational discourse on these questions. In my world, artists routinely push boundaries. They use their ability to interpret life in unorthodox ways to influence thought and challenge traditional narratives. As we go through our own growing pains as a nation, perhaps we should look to the world of the artist, to find the answers that elude us.
Dara Healy is a performance artist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN