BY KLIEON JOHN — In Jamaica, men are subject to a damning pressure to constantly present themselves as virile, woman-hungry alpha males. Popular songs by both male and female DJs never fail to challenge masculinity, often asserting that a man’s worth is judged by his sexual prowess. The rampant institutionalized homophobia in Jamaica and indeed the wider Caribbean is no secret, but what many don’t realize is that homophobia and its related discourse affects heterosexual males just as much as homosexuals.
Constant pressure to assert your manhood and conform to prescribed sexuality is often reflected in the most ridiculous ways. Men find it uncomfortable to sit beside each other on public buses, as if the choice of a seat next to a perfect stranger somehow suggests a sexual attraction.
Often, if a group of men decide to go out, there is an implied expectation to invite some females in order to satisfy some prerequisite balance of gender, so as to avoid suspicions of homosexuality. I can personally attest to a number of scenarios like these, including many operators of public transport who refuse to drive unless there is an acceptable number of females on board.
Jamaican men are under these ludicrous pressures and expectations to constantly assert their sexuality, even in totally irrelevant situations. Men are walking around terrified of each other and desperately avoiding the possibility of being labeled gay by some inflated reasoning or another. It makes them insecure, biddable and therefore weak.
One of these harmful ideologies has recently surfaced, surprisingly in an article published by famed literary scholar and commentator on gender-related issues, Professor Carolyn Cooper. Now, let me state at this point that I am a former student of Cooper, and still one of her biggest fans. I continue to have an enormous deal of respect for her, and admittedly wanted very much to find some reason to agree with her when I saw the headline, “KC Old Boys Desire Male Sex”. But after reading the article several times and carefully processing the situation, I have to say ‘mi luv yuh Coops but mi cyan join da line wid yuh’.
In her article, she scathingly and cleverly – as is her way – asserts that the Kingston College Old Boys have indicated a desire for male sex in their refusal to allow women to join this year’s annual dinner. She goes on to suggest that this is unsurprising, considering they spent a crucial part of their sexual development mostly in the company of other boys. She claims that “It must be quite difficult for these old boys to adjust and learn to enjoy the company of women – their natural inferiors.”
Even more concerning is her contention that ‘Some of these old boys may eventually get married to women. But it now seems as if they don’t really enjoy associating with the female sex. It’s just not to their taste.” All this because of a dinner? Effectively what Cooper is suggesting is that the men of an all-male school are closeted homosexuals because they have an annual dinner for all men. It doesn’t take a scholar to see the fault in this reasoning. What does having dinner with a large group of people have to do with your sexual attraction?
If we are to follow this reasoning, she must think that Jamaican football team The Reggae Boys, all desire male sex since they are a boys-only team. Perhaps the ladies of American talk show The View, desire female sex because they have no male hosts. And Cooper, herself may desire female sex as well, since she spent her own crucial stage of sexual development in the company of other girls at St. Hugh’s High School for Girls, the sister school to Kingston College.
She must know that this one act of perceived exclusion (she only references this one act) does not logically constitute a sexual preference. She has to be aware that growing up around all boys doesn’t mean you won’t learn to enjoy the company of women as she suggests in the article. Throughout the piece, Cooper goes into detail about the complications and difficulties of male sexual arousal when not attracted to a female counterpart, being more interested instead with members of their own sex. I trust she is aware that her implication that the KC Old Boys prefer to be with men because they exclude women on this one night of the year is an embarrassingly hasty conclusion.
Now, I understand that Cooper is being satirical in her claims and is seemingly writing to embarrass the KC Old Boy’s Association for what she possibly feels is a misogynistic slight against women. She, as an intelligent and highly accomplished scholar, cannot really believe what she is claiming.
I have to call her out on what I see as a (perhaps unintentional) perpetuation of a harmful rhetoric that contributes to the insecurity that drives Jamaican men to adopt their damaging rites of machismo. There’s a much bigger picture here than a satirical article.
My mother often told me as a child that “joke to the butcher is death to the cow” and as a member of the Caribbean literati, she is expected to understand the effect that this sort of speech has on less organized minds.
One of the most incensing lines is “All the same, several old boys don’t approve of that backward move to exclude women from the annual dinner. These are the real big men who have definitely grown up.”
This whole notion that ‘real big men’ are the ones who take their female counterparts to a dinner while the others who prefer to spend the evening with their old schoolmates are “just little boys dressed up in adult clothing” smacks of the same ignorant pressures placed on men daily to parade women around as trophies to their masculinity. It’s because of similar ideas that somehow, if you don’t have a huge member you’re not a man; if you don’t have several different baby-mothers you’re not a man; if you don’t play sports and act like a hooligan you’re gay, or “soft”; if you’re not aggressive and want to fight every time breeze blows you fall short of the proverbial pull-up bar set by society.
Additionally – and I’m probably going to suffer some backlash for this one – Cooper is indirectly asserting that if, as a man you do happen to be a homosexual, you deserve to be chastised and made fun of in newspaper columns. I wonder if she is also channelling those bus drivers and taxi men who refuse to drive with only men due to fear that their vehicles will be magically transformed into a mobile gay bar. Perhaps if those drivers take off without the requisite trophy woman they too aren’t real men.
In this instance, Cooper has become like popular cartoonist, Clovis, the resident bigot of rival newspaper, The Observer, who ironically happens to be one of her sworn enemies in the media. In fact, the similarity between the two is stark, since they are both using strong satirical imagery to make subtle points that perpetuate harmful stereotypes. Clovis himself is known for his portrayal of homosexual males as bleached faced, cross-dressing deviant humanoids and often sensationalizes issues relating to gay rights.
The effect of Clovis’ unfair depictions of gay men is that many Jamaicans walk away with the totally incorrect perception that gay men are all aggressive, flamboyant, deviant, and effeminate, and are therefore people to be feared, hated and eradicated.
Similarly, Cooper’s playful implication that men choosing a singular occasion to associate only with other men is an indication of same-sex desires is sensational, and continues the school yard discourse that men must consistently display their females as a public assurance of their sexuality and a declaration of their sexual prowess.
Furthermore, one has to question Cooper’s motive for writing such a piece. As she herself makes a point of saying, her high school alma mater, St. Hugh’s (KC’s sister school), is having their annual dinner, to which men are invited. Great job. Also, women were for the first time invited to KC’s annual dinner in 2012 and 2013, and they have now chosen to revert to their boy’s only tradition.
Perhaps Cooper has taken the rejection from her brothers personally and is choosing to now embarrass them the best way she knows. It may explain why she chose not her personal blog but her column in the region’s most popular and respected newspaper to publish an article that has no logical merit whatsoever; a surprising diversion from her usual contributions. This curious misplacement has to be examined. My speculation is that she chose to use her most powerful means of public attention to hit the KC Boys where they’d feel it the most.
Now, Carolyn may have used her power irresponsibly. However, one has to consider that whether intentionally or not, and in a strange twist, she may have actually done something remarkably useful. Professor Cooper, in publishing such a controversial satire, has unearthed the underlying threads of masculine pressure and pushed the debate on male identity and sexuality to the front of the public agenda. She has now invited people to write 2,000 word articles challenging our beliefs on masculinity and pointing out the negative effects of our typical and unexamined discourses.
This latent public service may or may not be enough to redeem Cooper’s folly, but her actions have illustrated the importance of examining the effect of our rhetoric when discussing masculinity in Caribbean society. It has never been more crucial to be mindful of the power of our words and recognize that even playful satire can add to a harmful Zeitgeist that perpetuates toxic views on gender identity and translates ultimately to our behaviour.
Members of Caribbean intelligentsia like Professor Cooper are charged with upholding the ever-shrinking reasoned discourse in the region and will be called on to demonstrate a greater sensitivity to this condition than the average person.
And Carolyn, I still love you to bits.
Views expressed above are not necessarily those of the Antillean Media Group.