I’ve been reading Cornel West tonight, specifically his essay ‘Prophetic Religion and the future of Capitalist Civilization’. I guess you could call it research. I’ve been trying to complete a book of essays called ‘Writing Down the Vision’ and I see the essays as an engagement in ‘the prophetic’. I’m always writing about prophets – warner women and seers for instance. Sometimes it’s the comic side that intrigues me, like how I want to write something about the Jamaican psychic, Safa (may his soul rest in peace), and the pseudo-Jamaican psychic Miss Cleo (is she out of jail yet?) neither of whom seemed able to see their demise coming.
But sometimes my fascination is quite serious. Cornel West understands the prophetic in much the way I do – not centred on some kind of clairvoyance or peek into the future, but centred on ‘the catastrophic, the suffering of oppressed people, not in any kind of abstract way, not in any kind of condescending way, not in any kind of philanthropic or charitable way; justice being not just in solidarity with dominated peoples but of actually having a genuine love and willingness to celebrate with and work alongside those catching hell…’
That’s what I believe prophets do. They extend genuine love towards those amongst us who catch hell. What Cornel West calls for is a kind of radical and ever-expanding empathy. It’s something I feel called to as well.
A lot of people catch hell, but who more so than the effeminate man? From the soft-spoken, slightly lisp-tongued and well-mannered clerk to the outrageously flamboyant and self-declared diva? Let me make it clear here that for this moment I am not talking about sexuality. The issue is not queerness or gayness, though there are clearly overlaps. I’m talking about the performance of gender rather than sexual orientation or preference. For it must be quite obvious that the effeminate man (whether he is gay or straight) is at times equally discriminated against and taunted by both straight and gay communities, by both religious and irreligious people.
You see, there is a popular idea out there – tautological in its construction, vague in its suggestion, but profound in its insistence. This idea is repeated ad nauseum and said as simply as one might say ‘the sky is blue’. A simple statement of fact. And the idea is this: that ‘a man must act like a man.’ (I am focusing on men here, but of course it goes the other way as well – for I’ve been heart-broken many a time to hear young women being put down severely for not being ‘lady-like’ – whatever the hell that must be, and whoever it is that decides what lady-like behaviour is). So this tautological idea that a man must act like a man is so powerful, so ingrained in most of us, that everyone becomes a gender-police. Society polices men, and men police themselves. If we are inclined otherwise we try desperately to lose our soft-spokenness, to act more aggressive, and to ‘man-up’ in whatever perceived way we feel we are being asked to ‘man-up’.
Sometimes this self-policing is done to comical effect. I remember a girl complimenting one of my friends in Jamaica. She liked his clothes – his fashion sense. But he became defensive. “What yu trying to say!?” he asked her. “That I know how to co-ordinate? No sah! Take it back! I don’t have any style. I don’t understand nothing bout fashion! Because man a man!”
It was a joke, but then again it wasn’t. My friend understood that such a compliment, given enough time, could escalate into discrimination. For if someone, diligent in their policing duties, decided suddenly – wait a minute, he does dress rather neatly, and with a bit of flair, and he is rather thin, and he does speak softly – then this police might come to the conclusion, ‘Him act kinda funny fi real!’ and then the next step, ‘Him don’t really act like a man.’
Is there any allowance for the fact that there must be many different ways to act like many different kinds of men? For sometimes I have even heard the accusation, ‘ but that man act like a gyal eeh’ – and observing the accused I have thought to myself – Actually no. He doesn’t act like ‘a gyal’. He acts distinctly like a man – but not the kind of man you would approve of.
Anyway, we really have to separate this idea of how a man behaves from what his sexual orientation may or may not be to realize the desperate unfairness, the moral bankruptcy, the complete baselessness of a discrimination that so many of us engage in and that has largely gone unchecked. In a country as homophobic as Jamaica supposedly is, the great problem is usually not with who a man sleeps with but with how he behaves in public. Jamaicans are more offended by what could be popularly perceived than by what actually is or isn’t. My neighbour in Jamaica, a pot bellied man who always comes over to ask if we are alright, once told me about his tenant. ‘Him not really gay you know, but some nights I see him bring a guy over. I think him just kinda freaky.’ Though the tenant was having sex with men, he wasn’t “gay” because he was a man who acted like a man. He caused no great offence.
And I don’t imagine that many of the abused men in Jamaica were stoned or beaten because they were actually found in bed with other men. It is more likely that they encountered violence because they were parading through New Kingston with their hips undulating a little too much for public liking. But what exactly is the ‘sin’ in an effeminate walk, or an effeminate gesture? Why does it cause such great offence to both straight and gay communities?
My thing is this: in a self-declared Christian country such as a Jamaica, the question of sexuality might cause moral outrage. But the question of gender is something else, and shouldn’t cause the same kind of indignation. Still, I have been to enough church services and sat through enough Christian men’s seminars and have heard speakers try to invent a spurious doctrine to justify this idea that ‘a man must act like a man’. It usually goes down well because the ideal of a hyper-masculinity is so ingrained that congregants welcome the opportunity to root the idea in scripture rather than in the secular culture they are otherwise asked to reject. But hyper-masculinity when preached from the pulpit is indeed a secular idea being baptized. The most bizarre of these sermons that I had the misfortune to hear was a whole reading of the fact that Jesus was a carpenter. The speaker insisted that this meant that Jesus was always physically exerting himself – that he was muscular; that he had biceps and a six-pack. (One could well wonder if the speaker was underlining a masculinity or a homo-eroticism?). He then spoke admiringly of the moment when Jesus went on a rampage through the temple, tossing over everything with his bulging muscles, being cross, angry and miserable, and this he concluded was the ultimate model of a man that we should all follow – this despite a more compelling and clear doctrine that requires Christians to admit to and even glory in their lack of strength. And I bet if a young Christian woman decided to follow this specific example of her saviour – if she bulked up at the gym and got into fights – she would then be accused of not being lady-like.
My previous blog on Elephant Man’s song ‘Log On’ drew a lot of feedback, both on and offline. In it I argued that Jamaica’s attitudes towards sexuality is shifting. But what I didn’t say was that our attitude towards gender needs to shift as well.
My friend Annie Paul responded to that blog with one of her own. She quoted a letter someone had written to her, and was kind enough to make the writer anonymous. While this friend remarked that things were changing, she (I don’t know why I imagine it was a she) made mention of the kinds of people who still caused great offence. Here is part of that letter:
I do believe that the gays are “Gay and Proud” and not afraid to flaunt it.
They are not hiding anymore, at least not the younger, effeminate ones.
We had a couple in our community who would flaunt it in your face, sat on verandah in female panties and bra, ran down one another with machete, had female names for each other, had male only parties, cross dressed, made passes at the census taker and the male teens, prostitution.
Anyway they were sent on their way.
I don’t want to deny this anonymous writer his or her right to be concerned with these supposedly gay men running down people with machetes and engaging in prostitution. But so much of the critique is wrapped up in a disdain for their flamboyant effeminacy. It is about gender rather than sexuality. It is not so much that they are gay as it is that they are proud. The letter-writer would be ok if the neighbours were gay and subdued – if they were the older kind who had the decency not to flaunt it, or if they were gay men who at least acted like ‘men’ – who conformed to her own conservative idea of how manliness ought to be constructed.
And how ominous is that small sentence at the end — ‘they were sent on their way’ and an even more bone-chilling one shortly after: ‘It’s time to listen to what some Jamaicans are saying about why they are often driven to hostile thoughts and actions.’ This is truly scary – the suggestion that a certain behaviour, an overly flamboyant effeminacy if you will, can cause such offence that it drives right-thinking people towards a violence they feel justified in.
And again, everyone is involved in this discrimination. I have heard gay men insist that other gay men ought to be masculine, straight-acting, and anything but camp or effeminate. Effeminacy is apparently off-putting to everyone, but again what is being policed is not sexuality, but gender.
The effeminate man, whether he is gay or straight, catches a whole lot of hell, and for this I feel the need to extend towards him what Cornel West calls a genuine love and a willingness to celebrate his being and his right to that being. I feel called towards a radical and an ever-expanding empathy.