(Un)Settling the Politics of Identity and Sexuality Among Indo-Trinidadian Same-Sex Loving Women
Krystal Nandini Ghisyawan
“I identify as bisexual,” said Jaya. “I think growing up I always had a fairly healthy appreciation for women.” She continued to explain that her Hindu, Indo-Trinidadian mother was “straight” but that she talked about women “as beautiful and lovely, interesting and complicated and she always invited conversation about not just that, but all areas related to sexuality.” Jaya described this as an “unconventional but helpful approach to sexuality,” which she contrasted with her father:
He is Hindu, Indo-Trinidadian, and everything that goes with that. He is a good hardworking guy, from farming stock. My grandparents were farmers.
He believes in working hard, taking care of your family and doing what’s right. And from his perspective, any sexual act that is not between a male- identified man and a female-identified woman is not right. (Jaya, interview,
10 May 2013)
Jaya’s comparison of her parents points to the tension between real and assumed Indo-Caribbean attitudes toward sexuality. Her father’s
K.N. Ghisyawan (H)
Department of Latino and Caribbean Studies, Rutgers University, Piscataway, NJ, USA
© The Author(s) 2016
G.J. Hosein, L. Outar (eds.), Indo-Caribbean Feminist Thought, New Caribbean Studies, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-55937-1_10
“conservative” and “traditional” ideas of sexuality are also assumed to be that of Indo-Caribbean culture (Regis 2011). Implicated in these assumptions is the conflation of racial identity with sociocultural factors (Raghunandan 2012), where “Indian” is seen as a racial group, yet is essentialized as being “Hindu,” where “Hindu” means patriarchal, classist, and sexist. This misattribution gives the persistent impression of Indo-Caribbean spaces as misogynistic and homophobic (Gopinath 2005). “Hyphenated identities,” such as “Indo-Trinidadian” used by Jaya to describe her father, allow for nuanced understandings of ethnicity yet still have limitations (Raghunandan 2012). Occurring in diasporic locations, hyphenated identities connect ethnic identity to location, suggesting constant negotiation and association with both India and Trinidad as cultural and national spaces. Kavyta Raghunandan (2012) argues that hyphenated identities privilege a homogenized “Indian” ethnicity over “Trinidadian” location, resulting in the erasure of other axes of identity, such as religion, multiple ancestry, gender, and sexual diversity. Brinda Mehta (2009) noted this tendency to homogenize the diaspora, saying “Indo-Caribbean women cannot be reduced to a unified Indian experience”; they have “multivalent subjectivities,” based on class, religion, geography, national and political backgrounds (Mehta 2004, 4).
Sexuality is another factor distinguishing social experience, but as noted by Rosamond King (2015), female same-sex desire is “near-invisible” as a behavior and as an identity, in society and in scholarship, meaning that it is actively hidden or cast as nonexistent even when contradictory evidence exists. King suggested emphasis on other aspects of identity made same- sex desire less visible, and Indo-Caribbean women’s desires even more so. Allusions and suggestions of queer subtexts among Indo-Caribbean peoples have been made, such as among Indo-Caribbean women’s performance in matikhor (Pragg 2012) or Indian men in indentureship contexts (Lokaisingh-Meighoo 2000). Lauren Pragg (2012) uses matikhor as an allegory within Indo-Caribbean feminism to assess the queer potentialities “rooted in the erotic emancipation, sacred elements, and communal connections of the matikor space, as well as the non-normative embodiments, behaviors, and imaginings it can create for Indo-Caribbean women” (Pragg 2012, 3). Sean Lokaisingh-Meighoo believed the homosocial conditions of indentureship and jahaji bhai (ship brother) created deep bonds, possibly of a “queer quality” (Lokaisingh-Meighoo 2000, 89). Both Pragg and Lokaisingh-Meighoo point to the absence of queer analysis of Indo-Caribbean culture and practices, including fluid gender and sexual identifications and expressions. While offering crucial insight into Indo-Caribbean women’s cultural and social experiences, the edited collections Matikor (1999) and Bindi (2011) interrogated their negotiations of gender and ethnicity within patriarchal Indo-Caribbean culture, a culture wherein female sexuality is subjugated to male control and layered with burdens of respectability and family honor. What does it mean to be same-sex loving in that context? In this chapter, I extend the discussions begun in Matikor and Bindi to consider the interrelations of sexual and ethnic identifications and negotiations. Using the stories of Jaya and seven other bisexual women, I interrogate same-sex loving Indo-Trinidadian and mixed-race women’s nuanced understandings, enactments, and resistances of/to “Indianness” as they locate their same-sex and opposite-sex desires in relation to societal expectations for them as Indo-Trinidadian or partly Indo-Trinidadian women.
This research emerges from my doctoral thesis where I interviewed forty same-sex loving women. The eight women in this chapter (referred to by pseudonyms) all expressed desire toward men and women and described fluid sexual behavior even though they may identify in different ways. Jaya, Vani, Ariel, and Salisha have Indo-Trinidadian parentage (Jaya and Vani are Hindu, while Ariel and Salisha are Presbyterian), and Nikita, Alexi, Neena, and Amaara are mixed, each having one Indo-Trinidadian parent (Alexi’s father is of Chinese descent, while the other women each have an Afro-Trinidadian parent). These four women were exposed to multiple religions while growing up. Only Alexi and Ariel considered themselves to have grown up in middle-class homes; everyone else considered themselves to be from working-class backgrounds, and all eight had some amount of post-secondary education. Alexi and Ariel were also the youngest among my sample, both being age twenty at the time of their respective interviews. Neena was the eldest (in her mid-thirties).
Sexuality is not identity alone, but a combination of identity, desire, behavior, and subjectivity. Women with similar sexual histories can construct very different interpretations of those histories, arriving at different sexual identities (Wilkerson 1997; Hemmings 2002), including “bisexual,” “lesbian,” “queer,” “pansexual,” and “fluid” or altogether rejecting the notion of “sexual identity.” To be “bisexual” usually means to experience attraction to two sexes, male and female, and to engage in sexual contact with both those sexes, but it is also inclusive of self-identification as bisexual regardless of one’s sexual history, or enactment of fantasies and desires (Goofi 2008). While Alexi identifies as queer, and both Vani and
Nikita identify as lesbian, they all describe negotiating their attraction to men and women in coming to accept whichever identity they chose, hence their inclusion in a discussion of “bisexual” politics.