by Matthew Chin
This essay examines the relationship between Chinese racialization and queer formation in post-independence Jamaica. Alongside its international reputation for black empowerment and homophobic exceptionalism in the late twentieth century, Jamaica also becomes home to the anglophone Caribbean’s first gay activist organization, the Gay Freedom Movement (GFM), led by Chinese-Jamaican General Secretary Larry Chang. Focusing on Chang’s life and work, this essay analyzes the relationship between Chinese-ness and local and international iterations of Jamaican gay activism. Drawing on archival research and oral history interviews, I argue that Chinese-ness was key to Chang’s politics of crossing in which he wrote as different characters in GFM’s newsletter to represent and recruit across the lines of race, class, gender, and nation in support of a broad-based gay social movement. This strategic mobilization of Chinese-ness in the service of erotic autonomy queers the racial logic that positions Chinese diasporans as “middleman minorities” in their multiracial host societies.
There are people who look one way and think another, feel another. We can be very dangerous to ourselves, to others. (Cliff 1987, 152)
In 1981 Larry Chang, founder of the anglophone Caribbean’s first gay activist organization, the Gay Freedom Movement (GFM), wrote the following in the organization’s newsletter the Jamaica Gaily News (JGN):
My presence at the 3rd Annual Conference of the IGA [International Gay Association] is of historical significance on many levels. I am honored to be the first Jamaican, the first West Indian and probably, the first Oriental to attend an IGA conference. This was made possible by the Scottish Homosexual Rights Group (SHRG), our twin organization, who not only encouraged us to attend, but also met all my foreign exchange needs. Their donation also enabled me to purchase books for our library. For all this, we sincerely thank SHRG. (“Report on the 3rd Annual IGA Conference,” JGN 73: 2)1
As noted in this excerpt, Jamaica’s presence at the IGA conference was facilitated by SHRG, who contacted GFM seeking to enter a “pairing association” and offered to financially support its participation at the proceedings in Italy.2
SHRG and GFM’s “pairing association” was not uncommon as the late twentieth century witnessed the emergence of gay activists groups around the world and the building of relationships between them (Bloom 1986; Drucker 1996). Yet Chang’s participation at the IGA meeting is significant for three reasons. First, GFM’s involvement in international gay liberation efforts complicates readings of Jamaica in terms of homophobic exceptionalism that emerged after the group’s demise in 1984 (Chin 1997). Second, GFM’s contribution to IGA’s activities tells a different story about Jamaica’s involvement in global politics at the time than is typically narrated about Prime Minister Michael Manley’s leadership in the Non-Aligned Movement (Manley 1970). Finally, that a Chinese subject becomes representative of Jamaican gay activism deserves critical scrutiny amid the rise of Black Power across the Americas and the increasing legitimization of Black claims of citizenship in Jamaica (Palmer 1989; Bogues 2009; Austin 2007).
In this essay I focus on Chang’s position as “Oriental” to consider the raced, classed, and gendered politics of transnational gay activism in late twentieth-century Jamaica.3 I examine how Chang’s gay activism facilitates an analysis of the ways Chinese-ness plays into cross-race, cross-class, and cross-gender relations both on the island and overseas. Though a major player in GFM’s efforts, Chang was unable to fully rely on his own labour and resources to build a movement and sought to construct relationships across Jamaica’s racialized hierarchies to ensure GFM’s success. As suggested by Chang’s report above, these exchanges also extended beyond Jamaica’s shores through connections with organizations such as SHRG.
My analysis of GFM and Chang builds on Kanika Batra’s (2010) earlier essay on JGN materials housed at the ArQuives in Toronto, Canada. For this project, my research involved archival work and oral history interviews. I assembled GFM materials from across Jamaica, North America, and Europe in digital, personal, and “brick-and-mortar” archives. I reviewed these materials in person at the ArQuives in Toronto, and the Schomburg Center for Research on Black Culture in New York. I also electronically accessed GFM documents from the Digital Library of the Caribbean and the IHLIA LGBT Heritage in Amsterdam. Finally, after speaking with Chang, he graciously allowed me to review his personal archive in Kingston, Jamaica. Across these different sites, I pieced together all 81 issues of JGN, as well as letters, flyers, notes, and various other GFM materials amassed over the course of the group’s existence between 1977 and 1984. I also conducted oral history interviews with seven women and thirteen men (including Chang) with different relationships to GFM: some were members, others simply attended GFM events, while others knew of GFM but chose not to participate. In these interviews I elicited narratives about their personal histories, their involvement (if any) in GFM, and their impressions of the group’s work.
Drawing on these sources, I examine Chang’s activism by analyzing the representational strategies he used in writing for JGN in relation to GFM’s activist efforts. To represent and recruit across different positions within Jamaica’s racialized hierarchies, Chang wrote in JGN as the fictional characters Tony Long and Mampala Morgan. Writing in “standard” English, Long was figured as a normatively masculine, middle-class gay man who was intended to engage international interlocutors and Jamaica’s White and Brown middle and upper classes. In contrast, Mampala Morgan wrote exclusively in Jamaican patois and was constructed to be a gender-ambiguous, lower-class Black subject intended to encourage the participation of the island’s Black masses. Through these characterizations, Chang makes use the way that language (re)produces social hierarchies within Jamaica and its various extensions.
I argue that Chang’s fabrication of Long and Morgan constitutes a form of textual crossing in which he reaches across the lines of race, class, and gender to construct as broad a gay social movement as possible. In its dominant formulations, the concept of crossing in relationship to race and sexuality highlights racial hybridity and the importance of attending to mixed-race subjectivities and social forms (Reddock 1999; Young 1995; Goffe 2019). In contrast, my use of crossing draws from M. Jacqui Alexander's pedagogies of crossing that “instruct us in the urgent task of configuring new ways of being and knowing and to plot the different metaphysics that are needed to move away from living in alterity premised in difference to living intersubjectively premised in relationality and solidarity” (Alexander 2005, 22). Situating Chang’s work as a politics of crossing highlights how same-gender desire operates as the basis on which to draw together different forms of difference, not through processes of syncretism but through a logic that contingently holds these differences in productive tension. That Chang’s efforts take on written form is significant, not only because the taboo nature of homosexuality at the time made it difficult to undertake more embodied forms of social and political engagement, but also because the written word allowed for transgressions of race, class, and gender in ways that would be considerably more difficult to enact in person.
Though Alexander’s pedagogies are drawn from the forced Atlantic crossing of African peoples, she maintains that they are not “property to be selectively owned by Africa’s descendants alone. Such ownership can only rely on use-value to determine the structure of relationships” (Alexander 2005, 32). That GFM’s politics of crossing is performed by a Chinese subject is significant given the dominance of the positioning of the Chinese as “middle-men minorities” in anglophone Caribbean societies. Lisa Lowe (2015) argues that the very imagining of the Chinese in the West Indies in the nineteenth century takes place through their construction as a buffer between the White plantocracy and formerly enslaved Black populations. This “intermediary” racialization meant that Chinese subjects navigated complex dynamics of conflict and solidarity among those positioned at either ends of anglophone Caribbean racialized hierarchies (Shaw 1985; Lee-Loy 2010; Look Lai 2010).
In this essay, I examine the relationship between these racial navigations and gay activism. Chang’s leadership of GFM highlights how Chinese-ness operates as a flexible intermediary position in the service of erotic autonomy. His politics of crossing queers the racial logics that position Chinese diasporans as “middleman minorities”.4 These minorities are often characterized not only by their racial alterity and migrant status, but also by their intermediate position within the economic structures of their multiracial host societies (Bonacich 1973). Yet, contrary to middleman minority studies of transnational citizenship, Chang does not mobilize Chinese flexibility to accumulate capital (Ong 1999; Nyíri 2007). As Michelle Cliff suggests in the opening epigraph of this essay, this disavowal (to “look one way, and think another, feel another”) is a source of danger to the social order. Chang’s gay activism reconfigures the relations among race, diaspora, and neocolonial capital that middlemen minorities are expected to enact. His textual crossings of race, class, and gender draw together differently positioned subjects in support of sexual freedom by redistributing resources from wealthy to poor and working-class gays.
Larry Chang and GFM
Laurence Anthony Chang was born in 1949 in the Jamaican parish of St. Ann. As huashang (merchants) from the Hakka ethnic group, Chang’s parents migrated to Jamaica from Guangdong province in Southern China in the 1920s. As was the trend of many Chinese immigrants at the time, Chang’s father opened what was to become the leading grocery store in the town as one of only three Chinese families in the area. Chang recalls, “socially we didn’t fit anywhere, we weren’t of the ruling class, we weren’t part of the peasantry … This was before the Chinese were fully assimilated … we stuck out like sore thumbs.”5 Growing up, Chang defied expectations of both Chinese and masculine enculturation. While called “sissy” for refusing to engage in sports and rough-housing, Chang also resisted speaking Chinese and eating Chinese food. As the youngest son with three older sisters whose father died in his childhood, Chang was given leeway in his racial and gender formation. As a result, he chose to read or make art at home and elected to eat with the family’s Black servants, learning from them Jamaica’s dialect, folk songs, and traditional stories.
After graduating from high school, Chang left Jamaica to attend the California College of Arts and Crafts in Berkeley, California in 1967. As a young man from a rural town who had never previously left Jamaica, the experience was transformative. While he received a BFA in environmental design, his education extended far beyond the classroom as he came to be politicized by feminist, Black power, and gay liberation movements sweeping across the US. In his final year, he began answering gay personal ads in the underground publication the Berkeley Barb. He also began having his first dating and sexual experiences with men.
Upon graduation, Chang’s parents advised him against returning to Jamaica, given what they saw as troubling political changes on the island. When Michael Manley was elected to the office of Jamaica’s Prime Minister in 1972, he began to transform the country along democratic socialist lines (Stephens and Stephens 1986). His campaign slogan “Black man time now” rhetorically situated Manley in support of reclaiming African heritage as earlier initiated by Ras Tafari and Black power movements.6 These developments struck fear in the hearts of middle and upper-class Jamaicans, who began to leave the island in droves. Largely situated in the middle to upper regions of Jamaica’s class strata, the Chinese followed this trend of migration, with many moving to the United States and Canada. While the Chinese population in Jamaica numbered 11,710 in 1970, this figure fell to 5,320 in 1982 (Statistical Institute of Jamaica 1983, 1971). Chang heeded his parent’s advice and after sending out multiple job applications, finally landed employment as a designer in Phoenix, Arizona.
With the expiration of his work visa, Chang was compelled to return to Jamaica in 1973 and found employment as an architectural designer in the island’s capital city, Kingston. While homophobic violence was very much present on the island at this time, Jamaica was also home to a vibrant though underground gay scene in which Chang quickly took part. By coordinating a community meeting to address the frequent fights among patrons of the gay club The Closet that threatened the establishment’s continued existence, Chang started what was to become the Gay Freedom Movement (GFM) in 1977. Very quickly, GFM grew to be a community initiative seeking to provide structures of support and community building for gay men and women on the island while also tackling the homophobic conditions of Jamaican society. Though GFM undertook a wide range of activities, such as a sexual health clinic, a speaker’s bureau, a youth programme, a prisoner support initiative, and the publication of a newsletter Jamaica Gaily News, this “organization” was essentially a do-it-yourself, grassroots initiative comprised of a floating network of a dozen or so committed individuals.7
Chang came to be known as the “face” of GFM both on the island and overseas. Yet he was uncomfortable with his visibility and thought that it was important “to have someone else be the public face of GFM who looked like the majority of Jamaicans … I thought that the public face of GFM needed to be a Black face in order for GFM to have any kind of traction or credibility” (Caribbean International Resource Network 2012). Yet Chang appeared to be the only one who voiced this opinion, as others did not consider his ethno-racial identification to be contentious. Contrary to Patsy Yuen’s reception as Miss Jamaica 1973, Chang did not encounter opposition to representing Jamaican gay activism. Given the dominant racialization of Jamaica as Black, Yuen found herself zealously denying her Chinese ancestry in her claim to Jamaican-ness (Barnes 1994). In contrast to the high-stakes nature of a national beauty pageant, same-gender desire was unable to generate enough widespread interest for Chang’s ethno-racial background to become a concern. In this period of high nationalism that rhetorically emphasized Blackness and the presumption of heterosexual relations, Jamaicans who occupied different racialized and erotic subject positions found it difficult to understand themselves on their own terms.
GFM first entered the Jamaican public sphere in 1978 when the Daily Gleaner, Jamaica’s most widely circulated newspaper, published a letter to the editor that Chang wrote on behalf of GFM in which he signed his real name to the correspondence.8 This was a historic event as it was the first time not only that a “gay” organization gained national publicity, but also that a Jamaican willingly identified himself as part of it. During GFM’s existence, Chang’s home became a veritable community centre in which gay women and men from all over the city visited seeking support, friendship, and opportunities for sex. He was often the first point of contact for overseas visitors as well as gays in other parts of the island who sought to visit Kingston, and he operated as a central node in a community network, linking newcomers to connections for housing and employment. As GFM’s General Secretary responsible for the organization’s correspondence, Chang’s name also became synonymous with GFM within the orbit of the group’s international network cultivated through travel, JGN’s offshore circulation, and communication with gay Jamaicans living in the diaspora.
Chang’s Voicings of JGN: Mampala Morgan and Tony Long
The JGN newsletter was one of GFM’s earliest initiatives, as it reported on the group’s first meeting in 1977. Over the course of its existence, GFM produced 81 issues, in its heyday putting out 250 copies every two weeks. GFM members would type the 8–12-page issue on a typewriter and painstakingly copy it using a mimeograph machine. Though GFM members initially only distributed JGN by hand, they also soon began to mail the newsletter – in discrete and confidential packaging – across the island and beyond its shores. From the very beginning, JGN had an international audience and included subscription information for American, Canadian, and European in addition to Jamaican subscribers. Offshore gay publications such as the Body Politic in Toronto and SHRG’s Gay Scotland also reprinted JGN articles in their newsletters.
As JGN’s editor, Chang struggled to secure newsletter content from other writers. To represent and recruit the widest range of gay Jamaicans as possible, Chang rarely signed his real name to his JGN articles. Instead, he wrote as two fictional characters: Mampala Morgan and Tony Long.9 Though it was common for gay women and men to write under a pseudonym at this time, Chang’s use of these characters was not so much about concealing his identity from JGN readers as it was a deliberate outreach strategy oriented around the politics of representation. By writing as Morgan and Long, Chang enacted a form of textual crossing in which he attempted to write from different raced, classed, and gendered positions. The need to undertake this labour suggests that far from being a universal category in late twentieth-century Jamaica, “gay” took shape through different relations of race, class, and gender.
Mampala Morgan penned JGN’s gossip column Suss-Uration. Morgan’s relationship to gender is ambiguous, as they state, “who say me is a woman? Me is neither man nor woman.”10 Mampala is a term for “womanish man” and in creating this character Chang states Morgan “would have been effeminate, would use female pronouns” and that he wanted to “let people know that it’s not a stigma to be effeminate … and if someone wanted to think whether this was a man or a woman, that is the whole mystery of the persona … this kind of uncertain gender.”11 That these articles were always written in Jamaican patois simultaneously situated the author and the intended audience of Suss-Uration. Patois identified Morgan as a Black working-class subject while signalling that their readers, if not Black and working class themselves, would be sympathetic to such forms of communication.
Though patois (then known as “dialect”) had long been a feature of anglophone Caribbean cultural life since at least the late nineteenth century, the 1950s witnessed an increasing popularity attributed to writers and performers who worked in dialect, such as Louise Bennet and Claude McKay in Jamaica, Wordsworth McAndrew in Guyana, and Paul Keens Douglas in Trinidad. In Jamaica, this period marked a transition in the orientation of state interests toward dialect; from a stance of denigration out of fear that it would cause other countries to see the island as “ignorant” and toward a partial embrace of dialect as a positive index of cultural distinction in the throes of nationalist sentiment (Edmondson 2009). It was in major part through the successful popularizing efforts of these earlier creative workers that patois became available for Chang to use in the 1970s. Indeed, Morgan’s columns bear a striking resemblance to Louise Bennet’s dialect poetry-social commentary based on her observations and experiences in Kingston’s streets (Cooper 1995). In one of her contributions to GFM, Morgan writes:
It really has been a long time, hope all you girls in Gaydom are having a fine time. Nuff girls have come out since yuh last hear from mi, hope yuh rope een one, awrite. Things have been happening, some ending on a bad note … My sister, being a real queen loves dudes tall, dark, hansome and rough. This night in particular, she’s having a regular night keep at York Pharmacy, decided to cruise a man by writing him a note inviting him home. The man became irate and hit her on the head with a bottle. My sister, bleeding profusely, had to be escorted out by an elderly couple who managed to calm down the man. Please darlings!! Be careful, don’t ruin the face. Mi hear sey dat the artist and the teacher from crossroads bruk up. But me know dem being together from 73 … Jetsetter Tish is back minus husband, looking fabulous, heard she passed customs with seven pieces of Luis Vuitton luggage.12
Both the form and content of Morgan’s writing situated Suss-Uration as a local column. Audiences had to be able to read campy Jamaican patois as well as have some knowledge of local gay social circles to understand Suss-Uration.13 By calling attention to the new “girls” on the scene, romantic break ups, and assault, Morgan gossips about dating, social life, and safety in Kingston’s gay community. Given that Chang was one of the few individuals who consented to have their real names in JGN, the use of pseudonyms meant that one had to be “in the know” to determine, for example, the identities of “the artist and the teacher from Crossroads” or “Jetsetter Tish”. One’s surreptitious presence in the column would also mean that one would already have to be known to Chang. Suss-Uration thus operated as intra-community text and commentary.
Not everyone appreciated Morgan’s gossip. St. Clare’s letter to JGN criticized Morgan’s “semi-literate” entry as “a dreadful let down on what the previous issues were trying to build, creating a new awareness, general upliftment and non-bitchiness.”14 By highlighting “bitchiness” and the use of patois (which he reads as semi-literacy) as elements of his critique, St. Clare mobilizes a politics of respectability that censures working-class expressions of Black femininity. Though dialect had gained greater acceptance in the post-independence period, middle and upper-class Jamaicans considered it only acceptable to use for informal or comic purposes and superficial entertainment; serious matters required “proper” English. St. Clare’s letter thus mobilized language as a tool of social differentiation and hierarchization. It highlights how GFM operated as a site of contestation as well as one of community and points to the ways that Chang was compelled to grapple with multiple interests.
Recognizing the need to engage with subjects like St. Clare, Chang constructed the character of Tony Long. With Long, Chang “wanted to represent a definitely gay male perspective without any kind of effeminacy, while being very objective and sober … what name is more common, more typically male than Tony? And I chose long because it also has a suggestion of the size of a penis.”15 Unlike Suss-Uration, Long’s entries were matter-of-fact treatments of topics legible to readers unfamiliar with Kingston’s gay scene and always written in “standard” English. Long’s articles were written for audiences larger than Morgan’s readership. An excerpt from one of Long’s JGN articles reads:
Pat M. Kuras, writing in the Boston paper Gay Community News, recently had this to say: “I have encountered a certain school of thought among lesbians and gay men in which they assume that a single person will overthrow our oppression … they await a queer savior to free us from our turmoil” … Yes, my friends, this does apply just as much to us. I am only sorry that I never said this myself. We are often quick to jump and criticize the GFM for not doing enough while we are content to cruise, party and generally enjoy ourselves. When will we realize that we are all, each and every one of us, a part of the GFM? To demand more of GFM is to demand more of ourselves.16
Unlike Morgan’s call for community members to be safe and look out for one another, here Long issues a strident call for Jamaicans to be more involved in GFM, a common theme in his JGN articles. In contrast to Morgan’s gossip, Long’s contributions included a series of articles on being gay, opinion pieces on the relationship between homosexuality and topics such as religion and monogamy, and updates on GFM activities. Finally, while both Morgan and Long highlighted the transnational nature of Jamaican gay life, Morgan was more likely engage Jamaican diasporans, while Long attended to relationships between Jamaicans and foreign individuals and organizations.
Chang’s enactment of Long and Morgan maps onto the different ways that he attempted to engage with those variously positioned across race and class hierarchies both on the island and overseas. Language is key to this political endeavour. His code switching between patois and “proper” English enables what Gordon Rohlehr (1985) refers to as the oscillation between geographical and situational opposites that is integral to Caribbean social and psychic experience. Chang’s textual crossings of race, class, and gender support a transnational politics of redistribution. While Long reached well-to-do Jamaicans and GFM’s international interlocutors with factual information and pleas for support, Morgan sought to create playful spaces of sociality and care in the idiom of working-class vernaculars. Chang channelled the resources garnered through Long’s persona to support the wellbeing of Morgan’s intended audiences. His efforts thus entail an interrelationship between forms of textual and activist crossings. While Long and Morgan existed as separate on the pages of JGN, in GFM’s work these characters were intimately related.
Having attended a US college as a young man from the country and returned to Jamaica to live an urban existence between White and Black, between upper and working class, Chang was well positioned to navigate these complex crossings. The transnational scope of his attempts to construct expanded forms of gay community in Jamaica contradicts attempts to position the Chinese in dichotomous terms during the height of Black Power movements in the anglophone Caribbean. Nettleford thus writes, “the choice left to the Chinese Jamaican has been between white rich and black poor: he can hardly be blamed for not choosing the latter” (1970, 183). Rodney is more severe in his estimation of the Chinese in the West Indies as an exploiter class that, “have either to relinquish or be deprived of that function before they can be reintegrated into a West Indian society where the black man walks with dignity” (1969, 29). Contrary to these assessments, Chang’s canny leadership of GFM indicates that intermediary raced and classed positions do not necessarily have to be characterized by a relation of “either/or” but may be one of “both/and”. The intermediary position is a privileged one to strategically engage both sides whereby the relationship with each is neither entirely one of alliance or antagonism but a complicated mix of both. The exigencies of gay activism in late twentieth-century Jamaica meant that Chang’s engagement with poor and working-class Black Jamaicans did not preclude and perhaps required simultaneously working with White and Brown upper-class Jamaicans as well as international interlocutors.
Yet, from the very beginning, Chang was forced to reckon with preconceived notions about GFM. The letters he received suggested that Jamaicans assumed that the organized was composed of wealthy men. In April 1980 he received a letter from a Kingston resident who preferred “to remain anonymous as I am not really wealthy or independent as most of your members apparently are”.17 Chang’s response to the letter reveals the classed nature of GFM’s membership. He states:
You are very much mistaken if you think that most of our members are wealthy or independent. The bulk of our members are students, unemployed youth, and working-class people. Those gays who are independent and wealthy and could contribute greatly to the movement, prefer not to get involved. I myself am self-employed but have not had any work for months.18
Earlier issues of JGN also note the divide that Chang mentions between gays who wanted to overtly bring about change in Jamaican society and those who preferred to maintain the status quo. For instance, the author of a letter submitted to JGN who referred to themselves as “Of you but by no means with you” wrote: “If the homosexual is to get any pleasure or any happiness or any real love in his life, he is more likely to get it by not drawing untoward attention to himself as such. It is possible to form unintrusive guilds and fraternities of their like peers without flamboyance and exhibitionism.”19
While Chang is correct in noting that better-off gays preferred to keep to themselves and not associate with GFM, the support of a handful of wealthy Jamaicans was crucial to GFM’s success. While some better-off individuals made one-time financial donations, the most significant support took the form of in-kind contributions. The owner of the gay club Maddam’s allowed GFM to use his premises during off-hours for community meetings, and an established real estate broker would inform GFM of properties that were empty that could be “borrowed” for gatherings that supported gay community social life. Given the fear of scandal and blackmail, upper-class engagement with GFM occurred indirectly and in ways that individual supporters could not be publicly connected to the group.
Chang’s overtures in JGN facilitated backing not only from individuals on the island but also GFM’s offshore interlocutors. As noted earlier, SHRG provided financial support for GFM to attend the IGA conference in Italy in 1981. This was the largest showing of international solidarity that GFM experienced, as overseas support for its efforts was more likely to take the form of one-time monetary donations. Diasporic Jamaicans also contributed to GFM from afar. For instance, a Jamaican doctor living in Toronto known as “Gaetan” in JGN came to Kingston in the summer of 1979 to volunteer in GFM’s grassroots sexual health clinic, helping to address the outbreak of syphilis in the city’s gay community.20
By channelling offshore and Jamaican upper-class resources into initiatives like the sexual health clinic, GFM sought to engage the island’s poor and working-class gays. The weekend clinic was set up at a gay-owned business and staffed by volunteer gay medical personnel with equipment “borrowed” from other health institutions. The initiative sought to address the problem of sexually transmitted infections like gonorrhea and syphilis among gay men in Jamaica. Instead of turning to the black market and receiving improper treatment, gay men who could not afford the cost of going to a private facility that could ensure discretion could go to GFM’s makeshift clinic that operated on a nominal ($5) or sliding scale fee.
GFM also directed its donations to its prisoner outreach programme that came about after the group received letters from incarcerated Jamaicans seeking support. In this fellowship and charity-based initiative, GFM members visited Jamaicans incarcerated at the General Penitentiary, the St. Catherine District Prison, and the Fort Augusta prison facilities to provide much needed company, reading material, and toiletries. At the height of the programme, these visits took place every week. C.W., a 24-year-old father of two who was charged with robbery and illegal possession of a firearm, was serving a 10-year sentence when he wrote to Chang in 1980. He let Chang know that even though there were other gay men in his unit, he wanted some help meeting someone special. “Right [now], I am badly in need of friends, so please try and see what you can do … I am quite [sure] I am not alone inside here but I don’t too dig these guys … I know everything and everyone who [is] inside here and we talk a lot but nothing more than that.” He continued that he “need[s] a lot of thing[s] because I am not a rich man”, requesting of Chang “a tin of Vaseline, a bottle of Johnson baby oil, a tube of Amby skin cream and a body mist. I am very much in need of them.”21 Over time, these visits and exchange of letters and resources established a form of community among GFM members within and outside of Jamaica’s prisons.22
On the limits of crossing
GFM faced challenges in reaching across Jamaica’s race and class hierarchies as well as beyond the island’s shores to construct as broad a gay social movement as possible. Attending to these challenges illustrates the ways that “gay” operates as much as a site of conflict as it does the foundation for erotic encounters, socialization, and political mobilization. In the final section of this essay I examine two sets of conflicts occasioned by Chang’s crossings. The first relates to the gendered ground on which his crossings take place, and the second relates to the inherent challenges of crossing as a method of political transformation.
Chang indicated that while he was comfortable writing as Mampala Morgan to valorize gender ambiguity and (male) femininity, he also shared that, “at the time, I didn’t feel that it was appropriate for me to speak as a woman or for women.”23 This decision highlights the male position from which Chang enacted GFM’s politics of crossing and indexes the way that gender operated as a stumbling block in GFM’s activism. Jamaican women writing to GFM often assumed the male character of the organization. In March 1980 Chang received a letter from P.B. in the Jamaican parish of Mandeville who wondered “whether or not there should be some form of movement also, for the interested ladies”.24 In his response, Chang wrote:
we would like to inform you that gay women are very much a part of our movement. In fact, one of our directors is female … we admit that there are not as many women as we would like to see in the movement … Those few that are involved, however, are very active and contribute a great deal. Whether there should be a separate movement for gay women is entirely up to them to decide, although we would regret a split. What we would like very much to see is a strong women’s liberation movement both gay and straight.25
While women actively participated in GFM – such as F.C., GFM’s Treasurer, and Donna Smith, regular JGN columnist – men were over-represented in GFM despite ongoing efforts to solicit greater women’s involvement. This was largely due to the gendered nature of Jamaican society, as gay women and men had different experiences on the island, particularly with respect to violence. Women’s disruptions of patriarchy, whether engaging in activism to end domestic violence or turning down unwanted sexual advances in public, were met with the derogatory epithet “sodomite” (term for a woman who has sex with other women) (Richardson 1997; Smith 1987). Indeed, another Jamaican term used to refer to same-gender desiring women was “manroyal”, a word that pejoratively indexed the way that women acted like men in behaviour and/or dress. Silvera (1992) notes that while these women did not occupy as large a space in Jamaica’s public imaginaries as men, they were nonetheless subject to violations such as gang rape by men who acted upon their perceived gender transgressions or the suspicion of same-gender intimacy. On the other hand, the pages of JGN reveal that men’s experiences largely took place more overtly public of physical violence such as assault, stabbing, and stoning.26 The differences in gay women and men’s experience with violence in Jamaica may help to account for the different kinds of activism they undertook. While GFM was unabashed in its focus on gay activism, Sistren, the working-class women’s collective formed in the same year as GFM, chose not to address gay themes in its critique of heteropatriarchal forms of violence, even though several of its members shared intimacies with other women (Batra 2011).
GFM’s difficulty in mobilizing women impedes a more fulsome understanding of the relationship between gender, Chinese racialization, and sexuality. L.H., who was born in 1946 in the Jamaican parish of Trelawny to an Afro-Chinese father and a Brown mother, stated that though she took pleasure in intimacies with other women, she did not become involved in GFM. While she socialized with GFM members and supported its work in principle, she was simply not moved to become an active participant.27 Her position was much different from that of Chinese Jamaican female artist A.W., who participated in GFM’s 1980 Pride exhibition, where she showed her acrylic paintings that “dealt with issues such as femaleness and coming out.”28 The fact that so few women were involved in GFM and that the already small percentage of Chinese in Jamaica dwindled even further in the 1970s and 1980s, makes it difficult to fully map out the different ways in which Chinese women engaged with this organization.
Yet even if Chang’s crossings were able to address the gender disparities in GFM’s work, the new relations they produced were not without its own challenges. For instance, while Chang appreciated SHRG’s sponsorship of GFM’s participation at the 1981 IGA meeting discussed at the beginning of this essay, he also found the gathering to be deeply problematic. In reporting on the proceedings, Chang wrote:
In real terms our participation at this conference amounts to little more than tokenism. The benefits to us from my experience and from the contacts I have made will be immeasurable and far reaching indeed. But until more women and non-white people are included, IGA and by extension, the international gay liberation movement will continue to be dominated by the concerns of gay white males.29
Thus, even though Chang was willing to engage with offshore interlocutors and accept their support, this did not stop him from critiquing either the way in which such international organizations were structured or how GFM was incorporated into their work.
On the island, GFM’s attempts to bring together Jamaicans from different class backgrounds resulted not only in initiatives such as the sexual health clinic and the prisoner support programme, but also instances of violence and intra-community conflict. While underground gay clubs were one of the few places where Jamaicans of all classes could socialize, they were also sites of contestation. When mostly poor and working-class patrons were expelled from gay bars either for fighting, attempting to steal from the till, or seeking to evade paying the cover charge, they would often retaliate by stoning the premises or loudly screaming homophobic epithets to draw as much unwanted public attention to these venues as possible.30
Poor Jamaicans also resorted to blackmailing better-off gays. On leaving one of Kingston’s several gay clubs in 1979, H.G., the new coordinator of GFM’s prison programme, was trailed home by a would-be blackmailer who barged his way into H.G.’s home demanding money on the threat of revealing his sexual inclinations. The stigmatized place of homosexuality in Jamaican society made it particularly effective as a source of blackmail. As one JGN columnist notes, “A man or woman’s future can be jeopardized by rumours about their homosexuality. Promotional prospects soon fly away, and in some cases, people will be dismissed because they are thought to be gay”.31 While H.G. was able to route “the culprit by inflicting several blows with a stout baton”, it was far more common that more financially privileged Jamaicans were forced to part with their resources.32
Given the intense levels of economic hardship in Jamaica at this time, such cross-class conflict is not altogether surprising. Toward the end of the 1970s, the island experienced an economic recession occasioned by its agreement with the International Monetary Fund which drastically reduced Jamaica’s standards of living by a quarter and resulted in a national unemployment rate of almost 30 percent in 1980 (Bernal 1984). These macro-economic assaults were not evenly felt throughout the island because despite the significant economic advancements of Black Jamaicans at the time, “race remains correlated with class since the overwhelming majority of the ethnic minorities own property or are located in the upper reaches of the class and status hierarchies” (Stone 1980, 22). Women and youth were particularly hard hit by Jamaica’s economic decline, with their levels of unemployment standing at roughly double that of the national average (Bolles 1983). Such trends were noted within JGN, which regularly featured community members advertising for jobs wanted and columnists commented on the prevalence of gay youth seeking “sugar daddies.”33
These economic disparities among Jamaicans operated as a prime source of exploitation by those positioned in the upper echelons of the island society. While Ocean Boulevard, Half-Way Tree Plaza, and the upper parts of Constant Spring Road were known as sites in Kingston where Jamaican men could “cruise” each other for sex, the class differences between these men operated as a potential site of sexual exploitation.34 At these cruising spots, upper and middle-class men could pick up younger lower-class boys for one-time or short-term liaisons that often involved not only sex but also the provision of lodging, clothing, money, and/or employment. Continued access to these resources depended on the maintenance of sexual interest; as Ginger noted in his letter to JGN’s editor in 1977, “people are offered jobs by people in well to do positions based on sexuality and when sex goes, the job goes.”35
Finally, though men of means operated gay bars and clubs in ways that supported gay socialization and community building, they were also frequently criticized for commercial greed via extortionary entry fees and drink prices.36 Given that these venues were important not only for Kingston-based gays but also those from rural parts of the island who would travel far distances to come to the city with the express purpose of experiencing the “gay scene”, such profiteering had consequences for the social lives of gays across Jamaica. It is likely that gay club owners, when faced with the challenges of dealing with theft and burglary from staff and patrons, while also having less recourse to the protections of state authorities than more reputable businesses, thought to recoup as much profit as possible while operating under such difficult circumstances.37
These conflicts point to the limits of crossing as a sustainable strategy of political transformation. As M. Jacqui Alexander notes, “crossings are never taken all at once and never undertaken once and for all” (2007, 155). Chang’s characterizations of Long and Morgan, enacted through the textual transgressions of race, class, and gender, were effective in engaging with international interlocutors and Jamaicans across the island’s race and class hierarchies. His intermediary position in Jamaica’s raced and classed ranks and his North Atlantic experiences of political awakening uniquely positioned Chang to undertake this politics of crossing to galvanize support for GFM’s cause of erotic autonomy. Yet the clashes produced through his efforts suggest that while a politics of crossing may draw together differently positioned subjects, it is not able to fully address the multiple forms of asymmetry among them. Chinese-ness had long functioned as a flexible site of political mobilization given its intermediary positioning within Caribbean racialized economies. Across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Chinese subjects in the region were conscripted into diverse political agendas and constructed as either model citizens (in the making) or outsider scapegoats for various socio-economic problems (Hu-DeHart 2013; Look Lai 2010). Indeed, barely a decade before GFM took root, Jamaica witnessed its most recent anti-Chinese riot in 1965 sparked by racialized class tensions in the newly independent nation (Yelvington 1991). Yet the political recognition afforded to Chinese-ness in the Caribbean did not extend to anything like “homosexuality” despite the long-standing presence of same-gender desiring communities in the region and its diaspora (King 2011; Khan 2016; Shield 2014). Thus, while Chang’s formation as a Chinese Jamaican subject with North Atlantic political leanings positioned him to reach interlocutors across the island’s class and race strata and beyond its shores, the emergent nature of gay activism in Jamaica at this time challenged GFM’s ability to address the divides separating the diverse subjects it sought to assemble.
I would like to convey my enormous gratitude to Larry Chang for his generosity of spirit in sharing his experiences of the Gay Freedom Movement over multiple conversations and for trusting me with access to his personal archive. Thank you also to those who so kindly shared their thoughts and reflections on their lives with me. Finally, thank you to the two reviewers whose feedback helped to greatly refine and strengthen this essay.
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author(s).
2 “SHRG & GFM to Twin?” JGN 71 (1980): 1. JGN Collection. The ArQuives.
3 I use the term “gay” and later “homosexual/homosexuality” to index the language used to describe same-gender desire in Jamaica during the period of study.
4 I use the term “queer” to describe a relation that carries the potential to disrupt normative operations of power (Lauretis 1991).
5 Author interview with Chang, June 12, 2017.
6 See also Rachel Mordecai’s (2014) analysis of the relationship between raced and gendered representations of Michael Manley and configurations of Jamaican citizenship.
7 Larry Chang, “Gays in Jamaica,” 1981. GFM Archive. Digital Library of the Caribbean. https://www.ufdc.ufl.edu/AA00001485/00001.
8 Laurence Chang, Letter to the Editor, Daily Gleaner, 28 January 1978, p. 6. Gleaner Collection. Jamaica National Library (JNL), Kingston, Jamaica.
9 Chang also penned several newsletter entries under the character Elsie (a play on his initials LC). However, Elsie was a minor and irregular contributor to JGN and Chang noted that he never fully fleshed out this character.
10 Mampala Morgan, “Suss-Uration,” JGN 75 (1981): 5. JGN Collection. The ArQuives.
11 Author interview with Chang, June 26, 2017.
12 Mampala Morgan, “Suss-Uration,” JGN 76 (1982): 8. JGN Collection. The ArQuives.
13 Chang’s characterization of Morgan precedes the work of his contemporary, Easton Lee, who shared gossip through his patois poetry (Prater 2014).
14 St. Clare, “Letter to the Editor,” JGN 6 (1977): 12. Chang personal archive.
15 Author interview with Chang, June 26, 2017.
16 Tony Long, “Ignorance or Apathy?” JGN 27 (1978): 6. JGN Collection. The ArQuives.
17 Letter from “An Admirer” received 17 April, 1980. Jamaica Gay Freedom Movement (GFM) Records. Sc MG 902. Box 1, Folder 5. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York.
18 Letter from Larry Chang to “An Admirer” 12 June 1980. Jamaica GFM Records. Sc MG 902. Box 1, Folder 5. Schomburg Center.
19 “Letter to the Editor” JGN 6 (1977): 9. Chang personal archives.
20 “Gaetan Goes,” JGN 42 (1979): 2. JGN Collection. The ArQuives.
21 Letter from C.W. to Larry Chang, 29 April 1980. Jamaica Gay Freedom Movement Records. Sc MG 902. Box 1, Folder 5. Schomburg Center.
22 “Letter to the Gay Queens,” JGN 24 (1978): 7. JGN Collection. The ArQuives.
23 Author interview with Chang, March 4, 2019.
24 Letter from Ms. P.B received 28 March 1980. Jamaica GFM Records. Sc MG 902. Box 1, Folder 5. Schomburg Center.
25 Letter from Larry Chang to Ms. P.B., 2 April 1980. Jamaica GFM Records. Sc MG 902. Box 1, Folder 5. Schomburg Center.
26 See “Ursola Attacked,” JGN 56 (1980): 7; “Gays Attacked,” JGN 67 (1980): 1; “Homophobic Attack,” JGN 36 (1979): 1. JGN Collection. The ArQuives.
27 Author interview with L.H. on July 31, 2017.
28 “Art & Poetry Mark Gay Pride Week,” JGN 65 (1980): 1. JGN Collection. The ArQuives.
29 “Report on the 3rd Annual IGA Conference,” JGN 73 (1981): 2. JGN Collection. The ArQuives.
30 “Fumes Hit Maddams,” JGN 51 (1979): 1. JGN Collection. The ArQuives.
31 E. Dantes, “Gaypercussions,” JGN 69 (1980): 3. JGN Collection. The ArQuives
32 “Blackmail Attempt,” JGN 45 (1979): 1. JGN Collection. The ArQuives
33 “Bits and Pieces,” JGN 66 (1980): 5; “Jobs,” JGN 53 (1979): 7; “Dance Tutor,” JGN 52 (1979): 11; “A Series on Sexuality,” JGN 41 (1979): 6; Mampala Morgan, “Suss-Uration,” JGN 79 (1984): 5. JGN Collection. The ArQuives.
34 Form Letter 3. Jamaica Gay Freedom Movement Records. Sc MG 902. Box 1, Folder 2. Schomburg Center.
35 Ginger, “First Time around Jericho,” JGN 8 (1977): 8. JGN Collection. The ArQuives.
36 M’Lady, “Girl Talk,” JGN 79 (1984): 3. JGN Collection. The ArQuives.
37 “KSAC Committee Resolution Says – Stamp out Homosexual Activities in the Society,” Star, January 28, 1982, p. 6. Star Collection. NLJ.
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