Saturday, 18 January 2014

An Interview with Political Activist Dadland Maye on Atheism and the LGBT Community in the Caribbean

by Jonathan Bellot

Jamaican Activist Dadland Maye
The following is an interview between me, Jonathan Bellot, a writer and critic from the Commonwealth of Dominica, and writer and political activist Dadland Maye. Maye's story interested me as soon as I learnt of it. He had been born and raised in Jamaica, but he had been forced to flee from the island to the United States in 2001, due to persecution for being gay. After living for years as an undocumented immigrant in the U. S., Maye received political asylum in 2008. Maye has become an active figure in both the LGBT and atheism communities in the Caribbean and in the Jamaican diaspora. 

Maye's story was not unique--a similar fate awaited Larry Chang, who was also forced to leave Jamaica for threats on his personal safety--and yet the reality of the horrors of such forced flight remain a topic we talk about far too little, as well as the reason that people like Maye and Chang have left--and were lucky enough to leave. Moreover, the media often outside of Jamaica, as well as some of the other islands, often paints a picture only of the victims of homophobia; we must also look at those who are both victims and success stories, fighting against the victimhood of people like themselves in the future. 

A great deal of the homophobia in our islands comes from the twin legacies of British and religious colonisation, and the slow-growing atheist movement in the Caribbean is one of the more dynamic and exciting ways to fight against such persecution. There is much to do, much to make.

"Create dangerously," the Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat tells the immigrant writer, as well as the artist in general. I decided to ask Dadland some questions about these two communities, the nonbelievers and the LGBT, as these communities constitute some of the most contentious topics in the Caribbean today. This is what he told me.

JONATHAN BELLOT: Why is atheism important to you and your work?

DADLAND MAYE: Nurtured in a tradition that schooled me to believe I was “born in sin and shapen in iniquity,” and that my life goal should be to discover the spiritual lifestyle that would enable my emergence into spaces of light needed to enter a heavenly life, atheism was my deliverance. Atheism was my refashioning, rebirth, and remolding. Atheism was the set of ideologies without deceptive, defeatist, and destructive, spiritual borderlines that had long restrained my mental adventures. The freedom of the mind to look beyond, and even ignore, the very thing/s it was told constructed it, is a freedom that makes me sometimes feel tingles in my shoulders, in my head, and my toes. Freedom gives me physical stamina, and inspires me to consider my life and my work as missionaries for freedom.

JB: Given the religiosity that seems such a part of the cultural fabric of Jamaica and many other Anglophone islands in the Caribbean, what do you think is the likelihood that we will see a prominent figure in the region--a politician, for instance--declare him- or herself an atheist in the near future?

DM: That I am from the Caribbean and I can call myself an atheist and even write about atheist subjects at DadlandShutUp and post these non-traditional viewpoints in social media spaces where my Christian friends spend time, and yet I have faced only little resistance, is a message the Caribbean is changing. If I am to consider a writer or singer or leading scientist beneath the umbrella of  “prominent,” then it’s easy for me to imagine that in today’s Caribbean, some prominent persons might be able to declare they are atheist and still maintain successful career platforms, but they will no doubt encounter much resistance and sabotage. However I cannot speculate how long it will be before political figures are able to dare the powerful religious tradition of lobbies, government legislators, community peoples who will easily become more offended by political atheist presences than the presences of crime and violence. In fact, looking at the U.S., which atheist politician can become president today? Like most geographies, Caribbean political figures cannot always court truth and then win elections.

JB: What does the landscape of atheism in Jamaica look like to you? Are there many people who you think are doubters or unbelievers but who profess religiosity to protect themselves? For instance, there are Rastafarians like Mutabaruka who doubt the existence of God, and Vybz Kartel was recorded not too long ago as saying he trusts more in scientists than priests, but the image people have of both groups--Rastafarians and dancehall artists--tends to be tied up in assumptions of some kind of religiosity, even with some dancehall songs' predilections towards violence.

DM: I do not have the language to address Rastafarianism or Vybz Cartel or Mutabaruka in regards to atheism, because my thoughts aren’t currently excited to speak along those lines. I believe it is important to speak when one has, not only the knowledge to speak, but importantly, one has to also have the mood to speak about a subject. For that reason, I will only address your question about the atheist landscape in Jamaica.

A landscape, such as Jamaica’s, remains in recovery mode from the violence of slavery. Although Jamaica reflects diverse ethnic groups such as the Chinese, Indians, Syrians, Jews, and Blacks, a dominant ideology that fuels the pace of the recovery has to do with reimagining the Africanist self. The Jamaican selves, as they currently exist, seek a departure from colonist whiteness and imperialist Americanisms. In the process, Jamaican selves hope to locate a type of authentic nationalism. Not that this nationalism rejects cultural or racial hybridity, but rather it must be authentic enough to be called Jamaica, just as Jamaican English is Jamaica’s—not dominated, overpopulated, or polluted with the foreign.

The intersection of the desires of the Africanist and the local selves are often times culturally productive. Yet we cannot ignore the fact that these desires spiral cultural clashes that play out in zones of ignorance and progressive sabotage. A case in point is Jamaica’s activist retention of sodomy laws that criminalize and imprison LGBT persons. The irony is that Jamaican Christian warriors argue for the retention of the laws on the basis that they will not surrender to human rights pressures from foreign countries such as America, England, Canada that seek the overturning of these hate laws. Christian disciples reject the foreign, thinking they are persevering a historical Africanist tradition that is supposedly devoid of homosexuality—really a rejection of a supposed “white queerness.” The truth, however, is that the sodomy laws are legislative hate-gifts given to Jamaica by its colonial master, England. That places like England want to take it back, it is certainly interesting observing how aggressively Jamaica holds on to this gift of hate.

In the same way, the clash of desires is evidenced in the rejection of atheism. While more spaces of cultural recovery from histories of violent spiritualism are opening up in the Developed World, recovery in Jamaica will continue to face sabotage for a long while. Christian constituencies will continue to cling to an inherited tradition of spirituality that remains hostile to atheist declarations. It explains why many contributors of the most prominent media outlets are declared ministers and Christians, but not atheists. Like all ideologies, atheism needs consistent exploration and interrogation; and like all persons who embrace an ideology, atheists need nurturing from other atheists in order to feel they are not alone. Given the current hostile landscape in Jamaica towards atheist, it should be expected that there are many atheists, some of whom will declare themselves, but most will remain in the shadows, fearing condemnation from families and friends.

In the United States, the landscape is equally hostile, but there are many atheist organizations asserting their rights, freedoms, and challenging inequitable legislations. These activist atheist presences have nurtured atheists like me to occupy an out-of-the-closet platform, where, if I were still in Jamaica, I might have remained quiet. And without the consistent nurturing of self-acceptance and knowledge expansion by persons with a similar belief, I might have regressed into the enslaving borderlines of religion.

JB: Do you think the anti-gay attitudes so prevalent--or, at least, so strongly voiced--in Jamaica and to varying degrees in other islands are slowly being overturned, and, why or why not? What still needs to be done?

DM: The Caribbean region has no choice but to put-up with our queer backside. They can talk and talk so fast until they speak tongues; they can vomit until they bleed from the nose; and they can drag Jesus off the cross and put him before our eyes—wi naw change wi dutty ways! wi nah guh nowheh!

Before the 80s, they knew we were here and silent. While our names had made gossips in big verandah chairs, our silence secured us from their violence because our silence told them what they wanted to hear: we “arent’t like that”; we “naw mess up inna dem deh somt’ing deh.” But into and beyond the 80’s when AIDS entered silently, screams came and broke silence. Mothers had to scream because discovery frightened them—how could their sons have been so filthy nasty? Gay friends had to scream because another of the gay-family had gone too soon—how much sooner was their own time? Screams had to be answered—for what was this thing among the Jamaican people that was eating up gay men in America, and men and women in Africa? Who caused it? Where were these cursed men hiding? What did they look like, act like, speak like, dress like? Was “their kind” putting “us” at risk?

Those conversations are still occurring in Jamaica. Conversations will continue with the mediation of the conflict of desires that seek to preserve the Africanist and local self. We cannot ignore that the conversation continues to be influenced by gay persons in the United States, many of whom fled the Caribbean out of fear. So while places like Jamaica would like to have the conversations without the intrusion of the Americanist lenses, it will be particularly difficult since the bold speakers are mainly the ones who have fled to landscapes from where they can speak without retribution.

What is important is that no matter who is leading or influencing the plurality of conversations, talks are occurring. Given the widespread popularity of talks, Caribbean peoples, who now have minutely and hourly connections to distant geographies through the social media Facebook and Twitter age, are forced to hear and participate in these sites of talk. There is no guarantee, that any particular imperialist, nativist, or Africanist ideology can dominate particular sites.

This voluntary or involuntary participation into talking zones forces Caribbean persons to move beyond the shock emotions encountered from hearing the traditional stereotypes deployed by of the word “gay.” Automatically, they are mentally situated in closer proximity to the reality of the diversity of gay presences. To cope, some will and have become less hostile while others will continue preaching homophobia as God’s will. Inevitably, however, most will grow weary or at peace with themselves and change in order to accept change.

JB: Given how uncritically many people accept the truths of a particular religion in our archipelago, how should we push atheism forward? Is a militant, in-your-face approach preferable to a quieter, more conversational approach?

I haven’t seriously considered how atheists should push forward because I’ve been more concerned about how I should continue courting and testifying about my glorious deliverance from Christianity. Perhaps, providing mediums for testimonies would help as a form of activism. Yet as you know, atheists have different viewpoints about how to live and what agendas to pursue. We all don’t agree on activist strategies and I don’t think it’s healthy for us all to agree on whether our approach should be militant, subtle, compromising, etc.

But it would be nice for spaces to develop in which persons can agree that an organization will deploy a certain activist strategy that is bold and unapologetically atheist. I will support such a movement as long as it doesn’t shy away from the “atheist” label. I had grown tired of hiding as a gay man; I will not hide as an activist atheist within any organization whose actions raise questions as to whether it is toning down freedom-rhetoric to pacify religious constituencies and constitutions.

DM: Will we ever see the rise of a Caribbean New Atheist figure--a Caribbean Christopher Hitchens, a Saint Lucian Sam Harris, a Trinidadian Richard Dawkins? We have had doubters in the past, from Hubert Harrison to CLR James and V. S. Naipaul, after all.

Yes, you will.