I’VE BEEN CHATTING with travel writers, activists and personalities of color about their experiences navigating the media industry and the globe with an intersectional lens, while exploring themes like power, privilege, place, and identity, themes that are rarely touched on in the mainstream travel space. Read previous #Dispatches here.
Bani Amor: Can you talk a little about yourself and your work?
Gabrielle Bellot: Sure. Well, to start with, I am a mixed-race transgender woman from the Commonwealth of Dominica. Almost all of my parents’ families live in Dominica, though my grandmother on my mother’s side is from Curacao, and I myself happened to be born in the United States, in Ohio, before returning to Dominica with my parents as a child. Caribbean families can be quite extensive in their national reach, and mine is no exception. I no longer live in Dominica, however. I came out as a queer transwomen in my late 20s–I am now 28–and have not returned to my home out of my fear of receiving a bad reaction due to the unavoidable visibility of my own queerness–the visibility, the physicality, of being trans.
I am a writer, and a lot of the work I have been doing recently involves trying to make transgender issues in the Caribbean, primarily the Anglophone Caribbean, more visible, though my broader interest is in global literature. Although queerness or a kind of non-conformity to gender or sexual norms is difficult to divorce from Caribbean-ness, given that it is difficult to avoid reading queerness into a lot of Caribbean experience, from Carnival costumes to our literature, it is nonetheless something that has been hidden for a long time. Something you do not usually speak of openly, if you want to avoid questions, glares, or worse. And a lot of the discussions in the Caribbean have focused on gay or bisexual men, so I want to make transgender experience more visible, more viable, more unavoidable.
Bani: Have you met a lot of queer and trans Caribbeans since you’ve left Dominica?
Gabrielle: Yes – primarily online, but also in person here and there. Since I came out and began publishing pieces, particularly since I wrote about transitioning in an essay for Guernica in August this year, I have connected with a number of individuals from various parts of the Caribbean who are queer in some way – and I want to clarify, quickly, that I use ‘queer’ here as a shorthand for ‘LGBTQ’ broadly, so I do not distinguish between ‘LGB’ and ‘trans’ individuals unless otherwise specified. Many people wrote to me over social media when I shared something new I’d written.
Some, like a trans woman from Martinique, would not share their name or information out of a radical fear of anyone finding out about their queerness in their island. Others poured out their souls to me, in a way, coming out to me, a stranger, and often telling me that they had been afraid to come out in the islands they had been born in. Some of them, like a young girl from the Bahamas, had been able to be more open about their queerness temporarily when going abroad but had to hide their identity again once they returned to their home.
And then I’ve met some queer individuals who have either moved from the Caribbean or who have parents from the Caribbean, most of whom have had reservations about either coming out to their family or friends back home or about travelling to the part of our archipelago they come from or have family in. Of course, some queer individuals can find a happy, healthy life in the Caribbean, and it certainly varies from island to island. But there is undeniably a common thread of nervousness about coming out or returning home, and, while I wish that was not the case, I am happy that my writing has helped at least some people feel a little better, from what they’ve told me, about being open about their identities.
Bani: You touch on exile in every story of yours I’ve read, do you feel like your work fits easily alongside most exile narratives (you’ve read) or nah?
Gabrielle: In some ways, yes. Exile, as a concept, has many rooms, many facets and facades and hidden stairways that seem like they might not lead, at first glance, to where they do. In other words, exile is complicated, and needs to be complicated. People often think of exile in geographic or national terms – the individual or group that has been pushed out of a particular nation by some forces. But you can be in exile while living in the nation, the world you’ve lived in for your entire life, if you feel ostracised within it, if the contours of your identity do not fit with some broader, or even legally cemented, definition of what people from said nation are ‘supposed’ to be like.
The exile can live on the margins of a society or in another society altogether or in a society of no societies. A nation, as Benedict Anderson said, can be thought of as an imagined community – imagined, he said, because it is unlikely we will ever meet all of the citizens in a nation, so for patriotism to work we often have to imagine a kind of false sense of closeness existing between people we have never met. And it is easy to feel exiled when you imagine you do not exist in that imagined community. So many narratives of exile, then, involve a sense of being the Other, of the transnational experience of living on the margins.
To be transgender, and certainly to be a transitioning transwoman of colour, is to always come close to a kind of exile. So many of us have to, at least at first, deal with problems from our families or friends due to our coming out, especially if we live in places where being trans is not something that commonly exists in a national imagination. Trans issues are virtually invisible in too much of the Caribbean, so when I came out to my parents, my mother had to navigate uncharted territory; she had never heard of a transgender person before, could not find any direction on the compass of her senses that pointed to someone like me. As a result, I began to feel distance – exile – from her.
At the time I came out, I was already considering never returning home. And it hurt, this additional layer of exile from home, this way that ‘home’ had come to no longer mean something clear if it could no longer reliably mean the home in the mountains I had grown up in. But I had to make a choice. And, for me, it was either to live my life as myself or to buy a passport to the undiscovered country, and I came close to doing the latter, to killing myself. And then there is the struggle of navigating gender when you have not been perceived as a woman but are now not only presenting as one but being perceived by strangers as one.
I learnt how to navigate male harassment on the street, for instance, as well as being talked down to by strangers, and these things have simply become the norm for me – but since most of these people perceive and treat me as if I am a ciswoman, my trans-ness becomes a further layer of distance. Something I fear to reveal. I feel exiled sometimes by my fear that my voice is not the timbre of a ciswoman’s voice, despite my months of voice training on my own. I feel exiled by my fear that I will cause a riot in the women’s restroom one day when some ciswoman finds out, somehow, that I am there, and tells me I do not belong.
I love being me; I am a woman, and I cannot live otherwise, do not want or know how to. But a sense of exile follows me like a shadow.
Bani: Today is TDOR [Trans Day of Remembrance,]; I wonder how it must feel to migrate here as a transwoman of color at the height of all this violence [23 mostly Black transwomen have been killed in the U.S. in 2015, 81 worldwide].
Gabrielle: Yes. It’s a reminder that nowhere is entirely safe for those of us who are trans – particularly those of us who are visible in their trans-ness, unable or unwilling to ‘pass,’ so to speak, as ciswomen. And being queer, broadly, has never been something ‘safe’ to be; safety is always situational, always dependent on a variety of factors. I feel a lot safer and happier in my ability to live openly as a transwoman here in the United States – but I do not, at all, feel safe overall. Tasks that are mundane to many cisgender people sometimes terrify me: going to the grocery store even when I have no food left, making a phone call to a stranger I MUST make. This is because when I am around strangers, I just want, usually, to be seen as any other woman, with no prefix, cis- or trans-, needing to be applied for clarification – but I fear that I may be outed, and being outed can lead to stares, glares, fists, following footsteps, and things that hurt much more.
I often, for instance, get harassed by men when I am by myself, and this harassment, when it leads to you being followed by this man, can be even more frightening when you realise that your outing yourself to him might cause something bad to happen. I once had a taxi driver, who appeared to think I was a ciswoman with a low voice, try to keep me inside his cab before he took me home, telling me he did not want me to leave it and then giving me a card with his number to call. He watched me go into my home, and I remember feeling a sense of terror that he would follow me, that he knew where I lived, this man who had wanted me to stay in his car.
It is often easier to avoid some violence as a transwoman if you ‘pass’ well. You meet less people who wish to hurt you because they ‘read’ you as trans or gender non-conforming at a glance. But passing has its own dangers, too. After all, the men who come up to me to harass or proposition me may react in violence if they find out I am trans because they think I’ve ‘tricked’ them. Because they think of me, suddenly, as a gay male, and here homophobia, misogyny, and transphobia often begin to intersect, forming violence when they do.
So I feel safer here, to be sure. The ability to change my gender marker on my ID in the US has made my life much easier in many situations–buying alcohol, travelling in an airport, being stopped by police, the latter of which is terrifying in of itself already. But violence will follow us as long as anti-queerness and general misogyny do – which is to say that we must always, always be on guard, both as women in general and as transwomen specifically because that prefix, unfortunately, can make a difference in the length of our life’s thread.
Bani: Which stories of exile, if any, did you identify with growing up? And now?
Gabrielle: Growing up in Dominica, I often felt like I had to hide any sign of ‘femininity’ to avoid being called gay, so I identified with narratives of escaping to lonely worlds. I imagined myself on a submarine that travelled the world’s seas like Jules Verne’s Nemo, except I was a girl on a lonely submersible deep below where the blue fades. Sci-fi and fantasy sometimes provided me with a way to imagine myself in another reality, one where I had been born as the woman I knew I was. I still identify with those narratives of distance, so novels like Keri Hulme’s the bone people, which features an asexual woman navigating her own emotional and geographic isolation in New Zealand, resonate with me on some levels. I also understood the feeling of exile in some of Jean Rhys’ novels, some of Earl Lovelace’s books, and in some of Derek Walcott’s poems – a kind of simultaneous racial and national exile, even as these are distinct in each of these writers.
I love being me; I am a woman, and I cannot live otherwise, do not want or know how to. But a sense of exile follows me like a shadow.
In the U. S., I am more likely to be seen as ‘Hispanic,’ broadly, or black, but in Dominica I varied from being ‘white’ to, most commonly, being ‘Shabine’ or a light-skinned mix of ethnicities. Sometimes, this means you feel like you fit in everywhere; other times, it’s like you fit in nowhere. I also enjoyed encountering the exile narratives along both gender and political lines in Nuruddin Farrah’s Maps, the intimate exile in some of Casey Plett’s short stories about trans experience in A Safe Girl to Love, and even just the broader idea of a kind of inexplicable exile in more absurd narratives, like Kobe Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes.
Bani: Do you feel like you have a place or community where you feel belonging? Is it conditional? And have you had folks who know you as mixed and/or trans assume you experience some sort of internal conflict with your identities?
Gabrielle: I feel like I’m forming a second family–people who you go to when you do not know if you can go to the ones bonded by blood. One of my queer friends told me that coming out means finding a new family when your old family becomes distant, or when your original home becomes a place you may not be able to return to as easily as before. And I think this is true for many LGBTQ individuals – even when coming out goes well, incidentally. I’ve found that being amongst queer individuals in a group makes me feel, suddenly, less different and so much safer at times–like I am suddenly around people who I know will probably understand the language of my experience. It’s a great feeling.
I don’t think it’s the norm for my friends now, but some people have said things to me that make me think they see me as uncertain of either my ethnic or gender identities. I was once asked what race I identify as on an application form in graduate school by a higher-up; I got the sense that anything but Caucasian I said would have been acceptable to that person, that I was a blank canvas to them by my light brown skin. And another person asked me, after I came out, what bathroom I planned to use in my department, a question that implied I might still use a male restroom -which I never did or will do after coming out – and that seemed to invalidate my gender identity as a woman. I don’t think she realised how demeaning the question came across. People often assume that to be anything other than a simple binary or simple label is to therefore be in conflict with who you are. And I do have conflict with things, but I am more than my conflicts, more than a common narrative of internal fights.
Bani: Damn, I wanna give that last line a standing ovation. So just like with travel media, the white Western gaze of mainstream “LGBT“ (I put this in quotes because they’re really just gay) media tends to paint majority POC countries as broadly intolerant of queer people with little exception, and are usually selectively ahistorical when it comes to where these biases emerge from and how they’re spread. How do you feel about that shit as someone who’s on a lot of sides of that?
Gabrielle: I think there’s a big danger in just giving out single stories, to use Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s term, of places. And this can so easily become a mask for not simply racist generalisations about places, but also for a return to colonialist narratives about countries and continents and regions. A way to speak for instead of speaking to, a way to suggest the way that the benevolent white American is supposed to spend their money – or not spend it by, say, absurd boycotts of countries.
For instance, there is a common narrative of certain white Americans suggesting that Jamaica, which has long had a bad reputation for anti-queer attitudes, should be boycotted by tourists as a way to punish the country for these attitudes. This also happened after the Times Magazine published a piece on Belize featuring the painful narrative of a gay Belizean activist, Caleb Orozco; some people suggested that Belize be boycotted as a tourist destination. This happened with my Dominica after an incident with a gay cruise in which two gay white men from the cruise were briefly incarcerated in Dominica after apparently having publicly visible sex while the boat was in the harbour. And I saw at least one person suggest the same, unfortunately, after I wrote my op-ed for the New York Times.
These attitudes are mistaken – boycotting does not help improve LGBTQ people living in the places being boycotted or even those of us in the diaspora. And there is an element, of course, of economic privilege in this decision to boycott, as well as–at times–a kind of single-story racism and a lack of nuance. In my Times piece, I had wanted to be able to provide more nuance about the complex realities of being queer in the Caribbean, since it really does vary, but my op-ed could only hold so many words before its official cut-off point. All the same, I was sad to realise that even a single person had decided to take what I said to mean boycotting a place or even entire region, since I did not advocate that.
When the media paints an entire country or region as being antagonistic to LGBTQ individuals, there may well be large elements of truth in that, but there is also a danger of losing the bigger truth, which is that queer individuals may well live there, may well even thrive there at times. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Individual experience differs. But the old colonialist narratives are easier to tell, and it is sad when the media chooses these broad strokes to brush instead of even suggesting that variance may be the truth instead of a single story–when variance, in all of life, in all the spaces between the silent-loud starfire in our universe, is what describes reality best of all.
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