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Feeling empowered: LGBT representation in the West Indian (Indo-Caribbean) Community

Featuring Natasja of NatasjaWrites

Growing up in the US, I was blessed to be raised in a diverse city where I could learn from and observe different cultures and cultural norms. I was always fascinated with how much LGBTQ awareness and rights were advancing within just my generation. In 2015, the US Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriages. It is a privilege to live in a country where at least the law has moved towards supporting some LGBTQ rights.

Having learned so much about rights, awareness, and equality, I failed to realize at a young age that not everyone was on the same page. I remember feeling so disgusted to hear blatant homophobic remarks being perpetuated by teenagers who I knew had to have picked it up from their family. I realized people can live in the same world yet have entirely different experiences based on their surroundings and input. Some of this input is forced when we’re younger – whether it is the family we grew up with, the schools we went to, or the places we lived. However, as we get older, we get to choose our inputs and make more informed decisions.

The disheartening part for me was loving when I reconnected with my extended family and traveling to a large West Indian community. That’s when I really noticed how varying our views were for LGBTQ topics and how the younger kids just absorbed what was heard around them. Those who should have known better didn’t do better. It’s a shame when communities exclude those who do no wrong and are looking for inclusion.

Furthermore, much of the stigma against LGBTQ communities is propagated through culture and media – we all can think of songs that sound great but are outright homophobic. Within culture, there are taboos that stem from religious beliefs or deeply-rooted systemic discrimination. For example, Guyana still has discriminatory laws technically in place that makes it illegal for certain types of sex and for sex between males – with punishments ranging from 2 years to life in prison.

There is still more room for growth and equality. Beyond that, there is even more room for more diverse representation in whose stories are being shared. Sharing one’s story has a power that can not only resonate with someone but also help them feel not alone. In an effort to support voices and representation in our community, I reached out to Natasja (she/her) who has been open about her story and her journey and asked her a few questions.

1) What has been your experience seeing how LGBTQ is represented in your cultural community?

I didn’t see any representation of queer people in my cultural community until recently, only a few months ago after connecting with the Indo-Caribbean community online. The first time, I was listening to two performance artists who were talking about their own experiences and (the intersections of) their identity. I felt so connected. I felt less alone. It was both emotional and exciting to see more people like me. On a rational level I know I’m not the only one, but it can definitely feel like it. It can feel lonely. I wish I had this kind of representation when I was growing up, but it’s nice to know that our visibility is growing… and hopefully future generations will feel less alone.

2) Have you encountered resistance or hate, and how have you handled it?

We live in a cis/heteronormative world, so it’s hard not to encounter resistance or hate. In my family (and cultural community in extension) I was often confronted with terrible things people said about queer people—It’s one of the reasons why so many of us remain closeted. When it comes to family or the people in my cultural community, I dealt with it by not sharing that part of myself with them (and many other parts of myself, not just related to my sexuality), and by going into disagreements and arguments. I think it was amusing for many to bait me with something they knew I would react to, and would lead to some “fun” verbal sparring. Fun for them, probably. Not for me. I’m working hard on trying not to engage so much anymore, because it’s very taxing on my mental health. Outside of my cultural community, I’m more open about my sexuality and I’ve also experienced negative situations. A lot of erasure too, especially as a bisexual person.

3) What do you think can contribute to growth in your cultural community regarding LGBTQ life?

I don’t have all the answers, but I think it takes brave people who dare to be their authentic self in a close-minded (and sometimes toxic) community that demands conformity. It takes visibility and representation. It takes active listening—gender, sexuality, attraction can be complicated or confusing so to build bridges we need to communicate—and standing up for queer people, not just queer people doing all the labor. We need to create a safe and nurturing environment for people who don’t (want to) conform. Not to be cheesy, but it takes love, respect, and commitment.

There are different types of community, and that no longer has to be the physical one we grew up in or the one our family belonged to. We can connect via social media or online and no longer feel alone. We can see more people who look like us and think like us. Being the minority for the majority of one’s life is no longer so overbearing. There’s respite in connecting with others via their stories.

For many West Indians, holding on to our community and culture in new lands is a struggle. It’s even more difficult when that culture rejects you or doesn’t always accept you. There are so many ensuing fears – not knowing who will accept or shame you, who to open up to. To Natasja’s point, the more we can create and nurture safe environments – the better; this takes having allies and a commitment to respect.

The hope is these stories can resonate with others who are also now encouraged to open up and show their true self. The goal is one day the generations after us can be met with love and respect. The work we do today is important for tomorrow and time to come.

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