Decision on Guyana’s dress code: Teheran on the Caribbean

 My Wardrobe, My Right: Trailer for documentary on the dress-code law, made by SASOD (Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination), Guyana

Around 8:30 on the night of February 6, 2009, two young women, Falatama and Gulliver, were planning to go off to a snack shop in Georgetown, Guyana’s capital. Instead, as they stood on a street corner waiting for a taxi, a police car drove up. Officers arrested them both.

They were hauled to Brickdam Police Station, photographed, and made to strip. Then the policemen threw them in a cell, and held them there for a weekend during which three other arrested women joined them. They asked repeatedly why they’d been detained, but the cops refused to answer. They were denied a lawyer or a phone call. Only on Monday, when they were all dragged before a magistrate, did they learn the charges. This inaugurated a court case that, pursued to higher tribunals, lasted four-and-a-half years. The issue was never what they were doing on that streetcorner, but what they were wearing:  Falatama, a jersey top, skirt, and slippers; Gulliver, a pink shirt and tights. Those clothes were against the law.

Brickdam Police Station, Georgetown, Guyana

Brickdam Police Station, Georgetown, Guyana

That month, police in Georgetown launched a crackdown on trans* folk. Between February 6 and 10, cops arrested at least eight people, picking up some twice. Police ordered them to “bend over” for a “search” after they stripped in the police station; they told them to put on “men’s clothing.” Chief Magistrate Melissa Robertson fined detainees GY$7,500 (US$36) each, under a law dating from 1893, when Guyana was a British colony. It criminalizes anyone who

being a man, in any public public way or public place, for any improper purpose, appears in a female attire; or being a woman, in any public public way or public place, for any improper purpose, appears in a male attire.

The magistrate also offered them free (except for the $7,500) advice: to “go to church and give their lives to Christ.”

Last week, on September 6, Guyana’s Chief Justice delivered a ruling in the case. I’d followed the matter since the victims were first arrested — early on, Human Rights Watch produced one of the first international statements on the arrests — so it held more than usual interest for me. The decision was a mixed bag. One victory: the justice found the police had violated the claimants’ rights by holding them incommunicado and denying them contact with a lawyer; he awarded them damages. Curiously, he held that there was no particular inconsistency in a magistrate, an officer of a secular state, telling the arrested victims to go to church:

The Court has extreme difficulty in accepting the proposition that the mere exhortation … to the applicants to attend Church and to give their lives to Jesus Christ constituted a hindrance to their freedom of thought and of religion of the applicants. Otherwise, every religion leader, in propagating the religion to which he or she subscribes would be guilty … At the highest, the Chief Magistrate can be accused of proselytising. But, proselytising does not constitute a hindrance to freedom of thought and of religion.

The way is thus clear for every local judge to bellow and Bible-thump like a street-corner preacher.

But the Chief Justice refused to find the “cross-dressing” law unconstitutional. He held that it was not discriminatory (after all, he wrote, it applied to both biological men and biological women); moreover, he considered its appalling vagueness (what defines the masculinity or femininity of “attire”?) not to be a constitutional issue. He tried, at the same time, to constrict the law’s ambiguity somewhat in his decision. For instance, he observed that attire means only textiles, not other bodily accoutrements.

It is not an offence for a male person to wear a female head wig or ear rings in a public way … Nor is it an offence for a female person to wear a pair of male shoes or finger rings.

This is OK. Just don't try putting on a necktie: Guyanese policewomen wearing sensible shoes

This is OK. Just don’t try putting on a necktie: Guyanese policewomen wearing sensible shoes

The Justice’s most important concession, though, lay in emphasizing the one significant limitation in the text of the law.

It is important to reiterate that neither male nor female is prohibited … from being cross-attired in a public way or place if the purpose of doing so is not improper … It is only if such an act is done for an improper purpose that criminal liability attaches. Therefore it is not criminally offensive for a person to wear the attire of the opposite sex as a matter of preference or to give expression to or to reflect his or her sexual orientation. [emphasis added]

This is generous, and surreal. Never mind that the decision seems to confuse “gender identity” with “sexual orientation.” What the hell is an “improper purpose”? It’s for courts to decide. It is “ultimately a question of fact in the prevailing social conditions and particular circumstances.” This of course leaves individuals in exactly the state where the law should not leave them — in a quandary as to whether any particular act is illegal or no. I want to go to the snack shop. Is that an improper purpose or not? You can’t be sure till you’re arrested. Tell it to the judge: he’ll determine your motive’s decency. Every courtroom becomes a priest’s confessional, exposing inner states of mind. Gulliver — legal name “Quincy McEwan,” now head of Guyana Trans United — said after the ruling, “The trans community is very worried, and still fearful of arrests, in light of this decision.” 

It’s easy to see, in fact, what was on this particular judge’s mind. Same-sex sex is still illegal in Guyana, under another colonial law that has been debated lately, but is not yet near repeal. Sex work is also criminal, despite the advocacy of a nascent sex workers’ rights group. And laws against loitering are meant for use against both groups — against cruising or gathering with others of your own kind. Those purposes are “immoral.” So both “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” are relegated to the realm of pure expression. You can dress to express, but the minute you dress to impress — to attract attention, to encourage somebody to find you attractive, to be noticed at all — you’re potentially a criminal. This leaves hardly any room to breathe, or to be, at all. 

I know many people on the excellent legal team working on this case, and, despite the partial victory, it is good news that they intend to appeal. The judge’s ruling reveals the insane niceties of distinction inherent in enforcing any gendered dress code. What is improper? What, indeed, is “attire”? The built-in ambiguities — for as the definitions multiply, the uncertainties also amass — reveal the scope for repression that still remains: as well as the room for Puritanical inquests, not just into the character of clothing, but into the nature of a person’s yearnings, purposes, and desires. Such a law is intrinsically oppressive. It gets not only into your clothing choices, but under your skin. Dress codes are no less totalitarian, in their demands upon their victims, in Georgetown than they are in Teheran. 

FEMEN objects to hijab and male oppression, with large phallic object behind

FEMEN objects to hijab and male oppression, with large phallic object behind

But where are all the humane and earnest internationalists who lament the horrors of the hijab? Where are the North American and European interventionists who urge bombing Iran to burn the veils off women? Where is FEMEN, that coven of bare-breasted opponents of all repressive dress codes? Why aren’t they dancing on the streets of Georgetown in solidarity with their forcibly clothed sisters? Could it be that the mammary-loving male Svengali who decides their deeds and schedules dislikes the tropical climate?

The truth is, most of our Western activists object only to dress codes that target women like them: their middle-class sisters who dream, at least in the Western imagination, of a liberation contiguous with their own. They don’t know about the other codes that hem in and constrain the poor, the different, the transgender, the sex worker and the street-bound. And if they knew, they wouldn’t care. Consider British writer Suzanne Moore’s complaint last winter about the “Brazilian transsexual” who represents all the bodily norms she and her friends resent and resist. Never mind that Brazilian trans* people get murdered right and left. What matters is, they look like women we don’t like.

There’s still a deep narcissism in our conception of rights. It’s just that self-love is now disguised by being globalized, subsumed in and then projected on a planetary scale. In this economy of imagined neighborhoods, sympathy is easy, because you find your likeness in far-off places: countries you can’t and wouldn’t visit but that are, exactly in consequence of their opacity, no terra incognita but a reassuring mirror. And outside this circuit of similarities, there are the unfamiliar and unimaginable. Don’t worry: they can make no claims.

Valdecir, trans* woman murdered in Brazil, February 2011

Valdecir, trans* woman murdered in Brazil, February 2011

Here is the press release on the Chief Justice’s decision, from the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD), Guyana Trans United (GTU), Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition (CVC), Caribbean Forum for Liberation and Acceptance of Genders and Sexualities (CariFLAGS) and the Faculty of Law University of the West Indies Rights Advocacy Project (U-RAP)

Constitutional Court rules that Cross-Dressing is not a Crime if Not for “Improper Purpose” – Rights Groups Plan Appeal on Dubious Decision

Georgetown, Guyana

On Friday afternoon, September 6, 2013, the Honourable Chief Justice (Ag.), Mr. Ian Chang delivered his judgment in Quincy McEwan, Seon Clarke, Joseph Fraser, Seyon Persaud and the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD)   vs. Attorney General of Guyana. Section 153(1)(xlvii) of the Summary Jurisdiction (Offences) provision makes a criminal offence of a man wearing female attire, and a woman wearing male attire, publicly, for any improper purpose. The Chief Justice said that cross-dressing in a public place is an offence only if it is done for an improper purpose.

The Chief Justice also found that the police violated the human rights of the four litigants in the case during their crackdown in February 2009 when they arrested them under section 153(1)(xlvii) of the Summary Jurisdiction (Offences) Act and he awarded each of the four arrested compensation of $40,000 (GYD) for breach of their rights to be informed as soon as reasonably practicable as to the reason(s) for their arrests under Article 139 (3) of the Guyana Constitution.


Fur counts as attire, apparently: Cartoon from Stabroek News, March 2009

Chief Justice Chang also decided that section 153 (1) (xlvii) of the Summary Jurisdiction (Offences) Act, is immune from the constitutional challenge brought by the four transgender litigants and their supporting organisations. As an 1893 law, pre-dating Guyana’s independence, the Chief Justice said “legislative rather than curial action is necessary to invalidate the provision.” The litigants are preparing to appeal this and other aspects of Friday’s court decision.

Colin Robinson, manager of the CariFLAGS secretariat based in Trinidad, praised the court’s finding that “It is not criminally offensive for a person to wear the attire of the opposite sex as a matter of preference or to give expression to or to reflect his or her sexual orientation.” The court also found that the law applies only to “attire” and not other gendered accoutrements such as head wigs, ear rings or even shoes. “The learned Chief Justice, however, has confused sexual orientation with gender identity,” Robinson commented.

Reacting to the judgment, the first-named applicant, Quincy McEwan, better known as Gulliver, who is also the Director of Guyana Trans United (GTU), noted that, “The Chief Justice was relatively clear that once you are expressing your gender identity, it’s not criminal for a man to wear female attire. But the law really stifles us, because what could be an improper purpose? The trans community is very worried, and still fearful of arrests, in light of this decision.” The court did not clarify what improper purposes gave rise to the arrests in this case.

Tell me about your purpose: Chief Justice Ian Chang

Tell me about your purpose: Chief Justice Ian Chang

The Chief Justice was not convinced the cross-dressing law amounted to ‘discrimination’ on the basis of gender, which would have been in violation of the Guyana Constitution. The court also ruled that the prohibition in the 1893 law is against persons of both genders for the same conduct and, as such, does not amount to discrimination based on gender. Se-shauna Wheatle is Jamaican and Lecturer in Law at Exeter College at the University of Oxford and a researcher in the fields of comparative human rights law and comparative constitutional law. Wheatle, who is the author of the 2013 report “Adjudication in Homicide Cases involving Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Persons in the Commonwealth Caribbean,” said that “The constitutional moment presented by this case demanded more detailed assessment of the issue of discrimination against transgender persons.” She observed that “The reasoning of the learned judge omitted any discussion of the prescription of gender roles to individuals according to their sex and the consequent requirement that individuals dress according to those prescribed gender roles. There was no discussion of the way in which the challenged section reflected such prescription of gender roles or the impact of this dynamic on persons who are transgender.”

The court also ruled that SASOD had no locus standi (standing) in the matter since the individual applicants brought the claim in their own names as the persons who were personally aggrieved. The Guyana Constitution was the first in the English-speaking Caribbean to give “an association acting on behalf of its members” the right to bring a claim before the Constitutional Court that there has been a breach of the guaranteed fundamental rights. The standing of SASOD is one of the issues which the litigants expect to argue before the Court of Appeal.

Similar sentiments were echoed by Zenita Nicholson, Secretary of SASOD’s board of trustees. “I feel the court lost a golden opportunity to give life to the Guyana constitution by vitiating this 1893 law against cross-dressing and establishing that all Guyanese are entitled to fundamental rights and freedoms, including our transgender citizens, who unfortunately will continue to be vulnerable to human rights abuses, with this dubious decision. We must appeal it,” she said.

Instructing counsel Gino Persaud

Instructing counsel Gino Persaud

Dr. Arif Bulkan who argued the case on behalf of the litigants is a lecturer in constitutional law and human rights law at the Faculty of Law, UWI, St. Augustine and a coordinator of the Faculty of Law UWI Rights Advocacy Project (U-RAP), which has managed the litigation. Dr. Bulkan said that“This case raises issues of great public and constitutional importance relating to the scope of the restrictive savings law clauses in the Constitution that limit challenges to repressive colonial laws and the new provisions in the Guyana Constitution dealing with equality and non-discrimination. The region is closely watching this case.” He added that the legal team for the litigants, which includes Mr. Gino Persaud as instructing counsel, looks forward to arguing these important human rights concerns before the Court of Appeal. He said “In the content of our laws and details of our conduct, we must give meaning to the strong commitment in the Constitution to eliminate ‘any and every form of discrimination’ in Guyana.”

The case of McEwan, Clarke, Fraser, Persaud and SASOD v. Attorney General was initiated four years ago following the February 2009 conviction and fine of seven individuals for violating section 153 (1) (xlvii) of the Summary Jurisdiction (Offences) Act. The 1893 law makes it a criminal offence for men to wear female attire and for women to wear male attire “in any public way or public place, for any improper purpose.” Other activities criminalised in section 153(1) are: grooming an animal in a public place; placing goods in a public way in town; beating a mat in a public way; flying a kite in the city; loitering around a shop and hauling timber in a public way. Unrepresented and unaware of their rights, the defendants were detained in police custody over the weekend, and then hustled through the legal system and fined $7,500 (GYD) each.

Arif Bulkan

Arif Bulkan, University of the West Indies

U-RAP co-founder, attorney-at-law and public law lecturer at the University of the West Indies (UWI), St. Augustine, Dr. Arif Bulkan explained that this colonial law was part of repressive penal regimes instituted in the second half of the nineteenth century throughout the Caribbean to severely constrain the lives and actions of recent freed Africans and the newly arrived indentured servants. Bulkan notes that “Despite the discriminatory aspects of these colonial laws, and their low regard for the majority colonial populations, vagrancy laws like section 153(1) have been kept in effect long after independence.” He adds that “The law is plainly at odds with the Guyana Constitution which states that it is committed to ‘eliminating every form of discrimination.’”

 Tenth anniversary video produced by Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD), Guyana

Cruise control: Gay pirates in the Caribbean, the economics of it all, and Tony Blair

Two men in a boat: A tale of a fateful trip

An Atlantis Cruises ship packed with 2,000 partying gay men pulled into port in the Caribbean nation of Dominica Wednesday morning.  Later it left, minus two of them. They were in the jail at Roseau, waiting to be arraigned on Thursday morning.

Apparently a taxi driver glimpsed something untoward.  He later said, “I did not know that it was a gay boat, but when I reach [the dock] I realized it was. We were struggling to get some business but when I gazed to the ship I saw two men engaged in sexual activities on the balcony of the ship. It raised our anger here.” Police Chief Cyril Carrette told the local press,

“We got a report that there was an unlawful act going on aboard the cruise ship which was in port. Police were dispatched and the persons were taken to the police headquarters where charges have been laid against them. The act of buggery was committed and there are witnesses saw this thing happening live.”

Carette: I cover the waterfront

Dominica, like the rest of Britain’s onetime Caribbean colonies, inherited English legislation against “buggery.”  As revised in 1998, its law punishes the crime (defined as “sexual intercourse per anum by a male person with a male person or by a male person with a female person”) with up to 10 years in prison.  Carrette says police reduced the charge to indecent exposure because the process of proving buggery “is a much longer one so we want justice to be swift to have these people leave our shore.”

Now, this little scandal (not so little, of course, for the two guys, who have legal fees, a ruined vacation, and eventual airfare home to deal with) has actually been a long time brewing.  Dominica News Online (DNO) reported way back in early January that the queers were coming:

 A gay website is offering to one of its lucky clients what is described as a  “lavish and exciting vacation “ to the Caribbean, with Dominica as one of the destinations. According to the site, the world’s largest gay male massage directory, the  “All-Gay Caribbean Cruise”will include $1,000 airfare credit on American Airlines and will include destinations such as Grenada, Barbados, Dominica and St. Barths.

Cub reporter needs a tender hand

A journalist’s life is hard, and despite the benefits of a balmy tropical climate on the one hand, and the disincentives of a repressive law on the other, you get kinks in the neck from all that Googling that demand relief. Hence in winter the budding Jimmy Olsen‘s fancy turns to gay massage; and this whole mess is the result. Let the cruise lines pay for journalists in their destination countries to receive wholesome heterosexual backrubs weekly, tipping covered, and perhaps such brouhahas can be averted in the future.

There was plenty of indignation to spare when the boat came in; while “busloads of only male passengers have been seen taking brief tours around the capital,” a “reinforced police presence” protected the dock. “The ship evoked mixed reaction from observers who noted that ‘only men’ were disembarking  … One hair braider told DNO that she was ‘mentally disturbed, first time I am seeing that in my life.’” (I assume she meant the sex, not the homosociality.) But not everybody was outraged.

Another taxi driver who also witnessed the act said he was not in any way disturbed; in fact he seized the opportunity to solicit tours while others were engrossed in it. “The people it disturbed were the ones who stood looking at it. People stood there looking at it, if you don’t want to see it then don’t look.”

He said he will not support calls for the government to prevent them from coming to the island as there are “many gay people right here in Dominica why should I have a problem with a gay boat?”

“All I want is to make my money I don’t worry with those people. We know they are gay and we know that they are doing it, we know those things are happening in Dominica so I don’t see how this should be a problem.”

That’s progressive capitalism in action.

More seriously: the roots of this mess reach back even further. Periodic uproars over gay cruises have become a minor feature of Caribbean politics, and an impeding factor in domestic activists’ struggles to scrap the colonial buggery provisions — impeding as far as they reinforce the notion that the homosexuals, rather than the laws, come from outside.

The cruise crises date at least as far back as 1998, when Cayman Islands authorities refused permission for a ship carrying 900 gay men to dock. The Tourism Minister said that “Careful research and prior experience has led us to conclude that we cannot count on this group to uphold the standards of appropriate behaviour expected of visitors to the Cayman Islands, so we regrettably cannot offer our hospitality.” The Caymans, of course, are an actual British colony (or British Overseas Territory); fourteen such political droppings of the white man’s burden still dot the seas, a state of affairs, when one remembers Britain’s history of exploitation, as odorous as turds left by Colonel Blimp. The islands have only severely limited self-government, and this show of morality was also in some measure a defiant exercise of pseudo-sovereignty. Since most of those on board the spurned vessel were Americans, the U.S.’s richest gay rights group, the Human Rights Campaign, got in the act. They called on the High Post-Colonizer, Tony Blair, to intervene.

Blair was notoriously metrosexual, until awed a few years later into imitating the strutting, sweating, crotch-padded masculinity of George W. Bush. Thinking him a sensitive and kindred spirit, and unprepared for his future evolution into a missile-sporting Marlboro Man, UK gays had balloted for him in large numbers. Now Blair’s newly-elected government was stung to anger: how dare a mere dependency offend a domestic constituency so vital to his votes! He demanded the territories get rid of their British sodomy laws. Eventually he made this a condition of restoring British citizenship to their populations (Margaret Thatcher had stripped the colonies of those rights as an anti-immigration measure in 1981).

(L) Blair as they thought he was; (R) Blair as he wanted to be

I can’t think of anything more idiotic he could have done under the circumstances. His high-handed posing proved as catastrophic in the Caribbean as David Cameron‘s similar threat last year to tie aid to LGBT rights was across Africa. It set in stone the regressive terms for talking about gay people across the region that have persisted in politics till today.  Nobody from then on would think of the sodomy laws as colonial impositions; instead, it was their possible repeal that would reek of submission to the colonizer.  The Caymans’ Community Affairs Minister said the islands had a “mandate from god” to keep the legislation. The rage extended beyond the actual colonies to countries jealous of their independence. In the Bahamas, a few months later, protesters greeted a gay cruise with jeers and threats, furious that their government had permitted it to land. And Blair’s actions also cemented the idea that homosexuality was a contagious vice of visitors, an incursion of corruption.  “This foreign issue has sensitized us to the urgent need to attack the problem,” one protester in the Bahamas said. “The foreign homosexual problem can only add to ours.” Sex had become both a mark of nationality and a register of sovereignty.

The way it used to be

You know: there’s something rotten in Britain. The United Kingdom in the last twenty years has become abode and asylum for a particular brand of lunatic activism, both among its citizen-activists and, more ominously, its politicians. Nowhere else is personal messianism applauded so much or given such rampant rein, with such utter indifference to its disastrous consequences on those it claims to speak for and save. In the LGBT sphere, eidolons like Peter Tatchell or Gay Middle East hold court over small cliques of uncritically devoted fans; but in the larger world of Little Britain as a whole you have the Nick Cohens and the Johann Haris and countless more, all persuaded that in a world warped by barbarous clitoris-slicing Africans, menaced by mad Arabs bent on a caliphate in Clapham, it’s the duty of white British men to save civilization and, heroically pathetic as the Little Match Girl, keep the faint flame of humane values alive. Teju Cole has written brilliantly about the White Savior Industrial Complex, which he treats as headquartered in the moralist, manifestly destined precincts of God’s City on the Hill, the Great Republic: “I deeply respect American sentimentality,” he says, “the way one respects a wounded hippo. You must keep an eye on it, for you know it is deadly.” But in America hippohood is an explicit and historic part of the national ideology, out there for critique. In Britain these days it’s simply taken for granted as a basic term of morality and action, insidious and silent. In America, you could argue with credibility that G.W. Bush’s sense of Christian mission was evil in itself. In the UK, even many lefties treated Tony Blair’s messianic tendencies as a mitigating factor, a virtue inhibiting or excusing some other, numinous vice. In the US the hippos are open targets.  In the UK, the hippos are us.

what Tony Blair doesn't understand

Yes, I blame Blair. Dean Acheson said famously, back in the American Century, that “Great Britain had lost an empire, and failed to find a role.”  After years of prime ministers floundering to fill the gap, Tony figured out the way. The UK would corner the market on moral leadership. It would rescue a world it couldn’t rule. America would provide the guns, Colonel Blimp the Bibles. At the previous century’s turn, Hillaire Belloc had caught the essence of colonialism in a devastating couplet:

Whatever happens, we have got
The Maxim Gun, and they have not.

Substitute “morality” for the Maxim Gun, and you pretty much have Blair’s version of a postcolonial world. And it still scans.

The division of labor was imperfect — there are plenty of Bibles in the US, and in Iraq, the UK ended up providing considerable ammunition too. But, much more avidly and articulately than Bush, Blair limned an utterly insincere picture of the Baghdad war as a rational, humanist crusade, Erasmus against the Saracens.

As with every other endeavor he crowned with his peculiar brand of charming unsuccess, Blair’s vision was unctuously persuasive even as, by every practical measure, it failed. His renewal of national purpose has seeped into the collective consciousness despite all the misery it brought in train. It informs — or infects — the activism of amateurs as much as it doomed the targets Blair bombed. Britannia used to rule the waves; now it saves the ruled. Whether they like it or not.

But I digress.

As years passed, the lines hardened on both sides in the cruise ship conflicts. Foreigners seemed more and more convinced the real problem with Caribbean sodomy laws was that they affected foreigners, not just nationals. Anybody could wind up in the primitive clink, for God’s sake!

“We’ve continued to put pressure on these islands because we’ve received reports of gay travelers feeling harassed in certain places,” said Augustin Merlo, executive director of the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

And, of course, the notion grew that the islands were wilfully rejecting tourist money — which in turn could provide an additional threat to pressure them. After all, Third World countries come cheap. “We’re professionals with money to spend,” a passenger on the ship barred from the Caymans said. “If they don’t want our money, Jamaica and Belize are just itching for it.” (Were they? Really?)

Yesterday carried a blip about the Dominica arrests, and if you look at the comments field, you see these coupled sentiments of entitlement on full display (along with, I hasten to add, more nuanced reactions). One angry American writes:

The morons in Dominica can’t even feed themselves or control violence on their cesspool island, and they’re worrying about a boy liking another boy or a girl liking another girl? LOL. You’d think they’d spend their scant resources on something more productive. Homosexuals around the world need to start taking WHATEVER actions are necessary to secure their human rights. …  And shame on Celebrity Cruises and Atlantis for giving support to such a disgusting, backward society like Dominica or letting Dominican authorities on board the ship. And by the way, if those gay Americans are sent to jail, the judge, jailers, and politicians (and their families) that send them there … should be attacked and people all over the world should attack Dominica citizens in their countries. Start with embassy personnel.

Open war!  Well, you know, Ronald Reagan invaded Grenada for less. You have to be struck, though, by how such a racist rant exactly parallels the reasons for not tolerating homosexuals heard throughout the Caribbean. They fit together like Yin and Yang, hand and glove, penis and — whatever you prefer. The argument about “scant resources,” other priorities, for instance? Here’s a letter from one reasonable homophobe to a Jamaican newspaper:

When one considers the deep and entrenched problems of poverty, dispossession, joblessness, the abominable atrocities against children, the plight of the elderly, among other day-to-day abuses, the revocation of Jamaica’s Buggery Law could by no means be considered to be high on the list of priorities.

And the bit about physically attacking those disgusting furriners who cause us so much trouble? Here’s an editorial from Belize:

And you know why the homosexuals feel that victory is within their wicked grasp if they fight hard enough? It is because of powerful people like the British Prime Minister, David Cameron. That man is sick. He deserves to be flogged.

It’s not just that the two sides deserve one another. The two discourses are one another. They made each other, in each other’s image. The neocolonial insistence and the anti-colonial resistance keep reproducing each other reflexively, plagiarizing one another’s fears and mirroring one another’s language, as if in a fantasy by Fanon or a farce by Genet. It’s a perfect deadlock, North and South caught and copulating in a wrestler’s hold; and without a way to break out of it, to split up the wrangling incest of these opposed but mutually reinforcing views, nothing new will be said, and nothing will change. As  usual, moreover, it’s the actual LGBT people in the Caribbean who are caught in the infinitesimal space in the middle, stifled in the process, like a kitten in the marriage bed.

I certainly haven’t got a way out. One thing that has to happen, though, is to think through not just the myths and fears but the material realities of what gay tourism means in the Caribbean. And that, as always, means looking at the economics.

Gaycation: Sunsets and sodomy

The gay tourism industry is always touting how much money it has. The latest figure I saw, from “leading global LGBT marketing specialist Out Now Consulting,” is that the “global market potential of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender market is set to reach almost USD$165 billion in total spending on leisure travel in 2012.” (That’s three iterations of market in a sentence: they’re obsessed.) I don’t know whether “potential” means the queers can spend this much — for instance, by going without food —  or they will. Still, it’s a lot of moolah, and you’re supposed to imagine it flouring down like manna on those sunny little islands full of poor people who don’t eat food either.  How nice!

Naturally, it’s not that way. And the cruise segment of the travel industry is particularly egregious in not showering wealth on the touristees.  In fact, compared to other forms of tourism, cruises — gay or straight — bring very little benefit to the shores where they land. Most obviously, the travellers sleep on ship; so local hotels are cut out of the deal. Beyond that, though, cruise lines have increasingly worked to focus the tourists’ spending on board, rather than diffusing it outward. Stays in any one port are short. The beautiful locales shrivel to so much background. One academic paper observes,

Although the cruise industry initially touted exotic ports of call as a principal thrust of its tourism experience, increasingly marketing campaigns focus on the on-board amenities … “with the cruise ship itself providing the holiday experience rather than any destinations to be visited” (Ubersax, 1996). This shift from floating hotels to floating resorts increases the incentives for the industry to maximize the time (and money) cruisers spend on board and minimize their time in port. As such, cruise ship companies are in direct competition with local communities for the expenditures of cruise tourists.

Chances to tour off-ship in ports of call are tightly limited; usually the cruise lines contract with specific businesses onshore, and get back up to 40% of the take in return. So there’s not much random spending on the locals. The same study estimates that in Costa Rica, “cruise tourists spend just under $100 each during their stay.” Ross Klein, author of the insightful Cruise Ship Squeeze: The New Pirates of the Seven Seas, found that spending by cruise passengers in port communities halved from 1994 to 2002.

Aboard this tiny ship: The telltale liner in Dominica

Most gay cruise companies don’t own their own ships; they charter from other companies. (The Atlantis Cruises trip to Dominica was actually on a Celebrity Cruises liner, creating some confusion in the country about who was in charge.) This is cheaper in the long run but creates a short-term need to recoup the rent, so they’re even more likely to squeeze customers into reducing the amount they spend onshore.

Governments try to get back some money for their countries from cruise ships’ berthing, principally by charging port fees — usually a sum assessed per passenger. Partly it’s supposed to compensate for lost hotel revenues, partly for the expenses of docking. It’s a minimal amount, but cruise lines resist it bitterly. According to Klein,  “Carnival Cruise Lines began a boycott of Grenada in November 1999 over a $1.50 per passenger charge [think about that: $1.50] the island is required to collect under a World Bank-sponsored loan for a region-wide garbage reception capability. .. Ironically, Carnival pays the fee in other ports. Grenada apparently is a reminder to others thinking of raising port charges.”

You can grasp, then, why states tend to see cruise ships as probably the least profitable, least desirable kind of tourism imaginable. And gay cruise ships … well, there you go.

Cruise ships embody, of course, a huge accumulation of privilege. When they pull into port, towering in white solitude over the neighborhoods, they look powerful as crenellated  castles. Theres lots of money in those heights. It may not seem so much to an American wallet; checking the Atlantis website, I found a weeklong cruise — 3000 gay men over Halloween — priced from $600 to $2300 ($200 in port fees  not included). The average income in Dominica, though, is $6700 a year. The cruise runs from 10% to 40% of an annual local salary. And, as we’ve shown, almost none of that goes into the country’s economy. The openings for resentment are clear.

What, though, are travelers buying for that money?  Freedom — including the freedom from normal law. Cruises thrive implicitly on the romance of extraterritoriality, the thrill of being beyond anybody’s domain. International waters seem a legendary place where, as the song says, anything goes. (To press the point, in Cole Porter’s musical, the song is sung on … a cruise ship.)  The anything-goes-ness extends, as it happens, to throwing people overboard.  There is a remarkably high incidence of people disappearing from cruise ships; the Guardian has counted 171 vanishings in the last decade. Sometimes it’s just an accident –a passenger went overboard from an Atlantis ship just last month.  Sometimes there are suspicions of foul play. In either case, unencumbered with legal obligations, the ship sails on.

It’s remarkable how cruises bring the expectation of immunity. In a listserve discussion of the Dominica case last night, someone expressed surprise that a ship in port is subject at all to local law. (Think of the commentator above raging at Atlantis Cruises for “letting Dominican authorities on board the ship.”)  In fact, when ships enter territorial waters — usually stretching 12 nautical miles from shore — national law clamps down. You wouldn’t guess that from the brochures, though.

Cruising indoors vs. cruising Atlantis: Which would you choose?

This libertarian idyll is especially appealing to gays, I think. Atlantis Cruises makes a point of shilling it on its website: “The Only Rule is There Are No Rules…. [I]n general we adhere to a simple philosophy: No one should tell you what to do on your vacation.” Post-Dominica, that looks like a recipe for a hefty lawsuit. Here, though, is where my sympathy for the two arrested guys kicks in. The dream of being both safely obscured from unfriendly judgement, and exposed to the airy world, is a very visceral gay one.  Dennis Altman wrote in the early Eighties that gay men tended to gather in dark bars with windows blacked from outside view, in order to watch porn videos that showed men having sex in forests and fields. The fantasy of openness needed the fact of seclusion. Gay cruises furnish both. The dynamics of the closet that feed this paradox are transnational enough that I bet most Caribbean gays too would pay for the same safe-but-sunny setup, if they could afford the fees. Who can blame the two men for believing what the cruise line told them?

There’s some dispute now online about whether the ship broadcast a warning that, entering Dominica’s waters, a buggery law was now in force. Some say they did.  A commenter on Queerty, though, claims that when his ship “stopped in St Lucia last year, I did not hear any warning about the fact that being gay in St Lucia was illegal from anyone at Atlantis or the cruise operator.” If the loudspeakers did say something, I suspect it was like the lists of side-effects that US prescription-drug commercials are required to include: a voiceover says sotto voce that the medicine may make your eyeballs explode, while images show kids cavorting with ponies in a flowery field. You’ve paid the cruise line for the illusion of uninterrupted freedom. Why should they spoil that by shouting out the fine print?

As of this morning, a Dominica court slapped the two men with fines of $888 US apiece, then set them free.

“Free”: the multiple meanings of that are, ultimately, the key message. The magistrate called them “rogues and vagabonds”; it’s a weighted phrase, also from ancient British law. It means masterless men, vagrants, people whose freedom has got out of hand and displaced and unhoused them. (It’s sometimes used for actors.)  While enjoying their freedom, that’s how they looked in Dominican eyes. The guys had already paid for a week’s sunlit liberty; it turned out to be a little more expensive. And it ran up against a different definition of freedom, national and political — one that, literally, made them pay.

Caught in the middle, between these clashing versions of freedom that nonetheless feed on and harden one another, are the LGBT people of Dominica and the rest of the ex-British Caribbean. They’re not yet free, while the buggery laws persist. And neither Blairesque interventions, nor the cruise-ship onslaught, nor all the international controversy over this casual arrest do anything to make them so.