On the heels of National HIV/AIDS Day for the Aging, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to share some actionable advice from gay people and advocates. Life for lesbians, bisexuals, gays, transgender and queer (LBGTQ) people in the Caribbean is still difficult. For some Caribbean nations, “living in your truth” can be a life-threatening decision. Inasmuch, the realities for LBGTQ persons who desire to embrace self-acceptance and authenticity can easily be overshadowed by feelings of shame, rejection and abuse.
The generation of the 1960s and 1970s did so much [for LGBTQ and civil rights]. The 1980s and 1990s provided historical precedents in American social justice for LGBTQ people as they lead the fight against HIV/AIDS. The 2000s brought marriage equality onto the national stage and that fight resulted in my being able to legally marry my spouse and raise our children as a family, like any other. Gay Liberation means so many things to different people, but for me it meant being heard and solution-driven. However, as my gray hair sets in and having added a few pounds, the roar of my fire settles. I thought my fighting days were behind me.
Today, the rights of gays may have become mainstream conversation; however, it’s apparent that our aging LGBTQ people need to add Kindle wood to the fire, and rather than lay up in our rocking chairs, we need to act up for social justice and equality for all in the Virgin Islands. The elders of [the] LGBTQ community in the Virgin Islands have a responsibility to provide a “Good Trouble” playbook; with examples like Marsha P. Johnson. Ms. Johnson was a trans-woman who at the Stonewall in New York through an act of civil disobedience and defiance launched a global fight for Gay Liberation and Human Rights in 1969. At some point, righteous indignation must rise in all of us living in these Virgin Islands, to unify ourselves and harness our great power to create effective change. We all must engage, raise our fists and fight systemic racism and implicit bias towards being black, gay, and gray.
As a father, it is unthinkable for me that as a community we need to educate our black and brown sons and daughters in how to stay alive in our own nation, the United States of America. Why should I have to educate my son to not wear a “fleece hoodie” as a tactic to his staying alive? Why should I have to educate my daughter that her coarse thick hair is her crown? When will all’awe address the angst, anger and indifference of accepting our authentic selves? Why is it that LGBTQ people being who they are make others believe that they require acceptance or affirmation? Respect is what is required.
Rejection of any kind creates wounds that create divide within ourselves and community. “Tis like this; when meh favorite Auntie mek she signature pot a Kallallo buh somehow deh salt geh weh from she. Now deh whole thing jus salt mehson.” All salt does when placed in an open wound just intensifies the pain.
Aging LGBTQ persons may find it a struggle to find their place in the Virgin Islands and even savor their well-earned golden years. As they witness so much social injustice at home and abroad, the LGBTQ community cannot stop pushing back on the establishment.
Oftentimes, elders in the gay community may feel that sometimes like generations Y and Z still are not woke to the national realities. I disagree. This generation is woke. However, they need active engagement provided by conscientious and altruistic leadership from within the gay community. Because it is true that black lives matter. However, so do gay, transgender, Crucian, Thomian, St. Johnian, immigrants from Santo Domingo and eastern Caribbean lives matter here in the Virgin Islands. Equality has to be for “All-a’ we.”
The fact is that the struggle for social Justice and equality for all is real and not foreign to Virgin Islanders. Our history is ablaze with power depictions of women and men like Queen Mary, Heegaard, Budhoe, King, Rouse and Berry who stood for the unrestrained and unadulterated rights of Virgin Islanders. Unfortunately, for Blacks and minorities, the wounds of segregation, prejudices and violence against humanity are deeply in our DNA. These unsettling facts are eternally aligned to implicit biases, violence and disparities towards a specific demographic. For many of us, the noose around the souls of black folk still reverberates decade to decade. Thus, for many Virgin Islanders who are black, gay and gray, the residual taste of slavery, social injustice and inhuman treatment towards LGBTQ people is still a foul resonating fragrance in our nostrils.
For this reason, so many of our gay elders in our communities are invisible. Many live in exile, away from their beloved Virgin Islands. Choosing to remain distant, despondent and disconnected from their Virgin Island roots because of the prejudice and biases they have experienced in their own homeland. We need them to come home and come out of the shadows. We need them to help with community engagement to improve empathy and understanding regarding issues of equality. We need them to teach us the way and not allow our elders to get “lost in the sauce.” We need them in every area of our civil society because the realities are that economic, social, physical and mental health disparities are highest among LGBTQ older adults, and the complexities of race, age, sexual orientation and gender identity are especially challenging for black LGBTQ people.
Inasmuch, attitudes and national agendas shape American politics and have a direct impact on us in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Historically, advocates are the catalyst to help shape public policy. Currently, as the Trump administration reels in on the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, which in its most recent version includes deep cuts to Medicaid, will make our predicament even worse.
According to Dr. Karen Fredriksen-Goldsen, lead researcher on the Aging With Pride: National Health, Aging and Sexuality/Gender Study, African Americans reported the highest levels of lifetime LGBTQ-related discrimination, and both African-Americans and Hispanics reported lower levels of household income, education, affirmation of their identities and social support compared to non-Hispanic white LGBTQ older adults.
I believe that it is imperative that local grassroots organizations and community leaders across the Virgin Islands collaborate on these and many other pertinent issues. Collaboration leads to the exchange of ideas that impact education, community development and opportunities for cultural empathy, diversity and inclusion. As a community, we have to understand and accept that our implicit biases encroach on the divine rights of others to exist and be respected. The real fight to win is the stop fight among ourselves and abandon the crab in the barrel survival tactics and philosophy, that was taught to us by slave owners. We cannot continue to extinguish our own race with our words, thoughts and deeds. We, Virgin Islanders, are the solution for the Virgin Islands we aspire and desire to see. We are the bridge builders to close the divide, one community at a time. One thing is certain the LBGTQ community and its agenda for Social Justice and Equality is not going to disappear. History has told the story that there is power among LGBTQ when unified.
Learn the Terminology
First, understand the difference between two words that are often used interchangeably: sex and gender. Sex refers to the designation of a person at birth as either “male” or “female” based on biological and physiological characteristics.
Gender refers to the socially-constructed characteristics, roles and norms of women and men.
Transgender means you experience and express gender that does not match the one you were assigned at birth.
Gender non-conforming is an identity under the transgender umbrella that means a person identifies as neither a man nor a woman. Some people use the terms gender non-binary, gender-queer, gender-fluid, gender-less or a-gender to mean similar or different things.
Cisgender means your gender identity aligns with the one you were assigned at birth.
Gender dysphoria refers to a persistent distress with one’s physical sex characteristics or assigned sex. Gender dysphoria is experienced by many, but not all, transgender people.
These are just some, but definitely not all, concepts and terms related to transgender experiences. The ways people identify are innumerable, and not all transgender people define certain terms the same.
Use the Correct Name and Pronouns
People who are newly familiar with transgender people may have a steeper learning curve than others when it comes to terminology and pronouns. But using a person’s chosen name and correct pronouns is crucial to supporting them. If you’re unsure of which pronouns someone is using (he/him, she/her, they/them, sometimes others), just respectfully ask.
People need to be able to be their true selves; being fearful and stressed affects our quality of life and your physical and mental health.
To that end, having culturally-sensitive gay eldership is imperative that will assist with mentoring young persons and families for increase engagement.
In closing, I do not have the answers, but I do believe that in the multitude of counsel there is wisdom. I may not be able to “mek a pot a kallalo wut a cent, edda;” but together our differences can be made strong and bring about change in our community.
Rodney W. Santiago Kidd of St. Croix