Sunday, 27 June 2010

Me and Samuel Beckett and homophobia in the Caribbean

Some people are willfully hateful bigots, and some people are bigots because they haven't thought long enough or hard enough or well enough about things to be otherwise. They are comfortable in their bigotry; it is warm and familiar, keeps their friends around, and maintains their own privilege. That distinction may not be important if the results are always the same. But every once in a while, that distinction means that people from the latter group, because they are in some measure open and reasonable, are willing to have their minds changed by another party or situation.

I just met someone who I think falls into the latter group. I've been travelling for work quite often, and he happens to work in a hotel I sometimes stay at when I'm travelling in the region. He came to my room to help with something, and we got to talking. I won't share the entire conversation, but it was about homophobia, LGBT rights, and was initiated by the following exchange:

Employee, as he is about to leave: What's your name, though?
Me: Mar. And yours?
Employee: Samuel. Think Samuel Beckett.* You can remember it that way.
Me: (laughs) Is that what they call you though? Because that would be pretty cool.
Samuel: No. They call me Hitler.
Me: Oh no. That's no good. Why on earth do they do that?
Samuel: Because my last name is [something associated with Hitler*]. I hate it. It's awful. And sometimes the joke doesn't stop friends make a lot of Hitler jokes.
Me: Ugh. Yeah. Hitler jokes are rarely funny. Plus, working in a hotel, I guess you have to be pretty careful what you say around people. People are coming from all over the world.
Samuel: Yea. It happened already. We had some Jewish people staying here and the guys were joking around. They didn't like it. (Freezes) Are you Jewish?
Me: No. Not Jewish. But yunno you can tell people to stop calling you Hitler. I don't think that's an unreasonable request.
Samuel (looking troubled): Yeah. I really hate it. You know they say he was gay.
Me: (Blinks) Well...maybe bisexual? I don't know. He had relationships with women though.
Samuel: Yes but they said he slept with men. (Looks increasingly worried) Do you know anything about that?
(In the blink of an eye I've become an expert on Hitler's sexual history.)
Me: couldn't say for sure. But um...he also murdered millions of people...
Samuel: Yeah I know in [country name here], we take gayness very seriously.

At this point I'm suddenly aware that I'm alone in my hotel room with a man who considers gayness far worse than murder, but we press on, talking about homophobia in the Caribbean (apparently Barbados is seen as the champion of LGBT rights in the region, a notion that while laughable to those of us who know the environment, makes me proud, even as it makes Samuel eye me suspiciously as if he is aware of my implied agenda); what it means to discriminate; why it's necessary to have anti-discrimination legislation; and why Caribbean men feel threatened by gayness. 'Gayness' is Samuel's word.

At some point when I ask him pointedly: "So are you saying the thing that worries you about being called Hitler is not the fact that he killed over 10 million entire human beings but that a couple people speculate that he was gay?" he says soberly:

"Well, here in [country name] we have people who are in jail for murder or whatever. And they go in, come out, and people don't really check after a while. But gay..."

I must have interrupted that sentence. I don't recall. Because of course it's not just the thorough and embedded homophobia operating here that is disturbing, but the fact that at the same time, Samuel seems not to understand or acknowledge the importance of the Holocaust. And I'm not talking all of the context of it, the eugenics, the politics, the war: I'm afraid the teaching of that part of history is pretty lacking in the Caribbean, and for that reason, a lot of young people don't appreciate its importance until much later. I'm talking about the fact that Samuel acknowledges the fact that Hitler killed millions of people. Whatever the circumstances, killing millions of men, women and children is a really horrible thing, right? Worse, arguably, than killing one man. And far worse than killing no one at all, i.e being gay. The thing is, I can't even be sure we're operating on that assumption. Because if Samuel thinks a murderer in the jail downtown is meh maybe not as bad as the gay guy on the bus, then who knows? Maybe he also thinks a murderer is a murderer, and after the first 20, it's all the same.

We carried on talking after this, and Samuel began to listen and nod and think a bit. And he started to make some sense after a time, to make some important associations and parallels with other parts of civil rights activism. I like Samuel. He is really a likable guy, open, interested, interesting, not hateful. And I think sometimes we have to realize that what we're working against is an attitude, a culture, not necessarily (although sometimes) the people who inhabit them. In the context of the Caribbean, where anti-gay sentiment is vastly more common and embedded than the opposite sentiment, as compared with other nations in the North where LGBT activism and legislation are far more advanced, engagement of people every day on their thoughts and beliefs, the music they write, the things they tell their children, and why, is where the movement needs to take hold.

*Names have been changed. The name used here was that of a famous person with the same last name. And somehow when I decided to use the name Samuel as a pseudonym, Beckett was the first name that sprung to mind as a famous person I could use. You can tell I'm not a fan of Samuel L. Jackson, right?


  1. You know, we spend a lot of time thinking, reading and talking about issues. It is a privileged life of reflection. Many people do not have that history or experience. And so doing exactly what you did is important, sowing a seed of thought, a seed of doubt about the value of expressed values, the seed of doubt about intolerance, a seed of reasonableness, a seed of a more profound respect for all.

  2. Unfortunately, you'd probably find sentiments similar to Samuel's here in the States as well.

  3. Well, considering that Hitler sent gay men to the camps, where they had one of the highest death rates and were used for horrible medical experimentation, I think it is pretty safe to say that Hitler hated gay people. Lesbians were sent to the camps to, but their being marked as 'social deviants' rather than having their own designation (yes, gay men had a pink triangle symbol put on them in concentration camps). Hundreds of thousands of gay people were arrested and murdered by the nazis. And then, afterwards, the German and French governments used evidence gathered by the Nazis to jail gay men, some of whom had been in the camps. To get out of a concentration camp and go, not home, not to a DP camp, but to a prison, that is how the allies treated gay people. And Alan Turing, the man who broke the Nazi's code, contributing to major victories, and who is considered the father of modern computers killed himself after being convicted of sodomy and chemically castrated in punishment.

    So yes, the implication that we can be smeared by association with a man who brutally murdered us is offensive.

  4. why aren't you a fan of Samuel L. Jackson's?


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