I grew up being told that as a Black West Indian woman, Carnival was completely and utterly for me. That my ancestors fought long and hard for my ability to be myself as a Black woman. And carnival was how we celebrated that. Nothing held more truth than this for me for most of my life. Most definitely throughout my entire childhood and teen years and well into my 20’s. There was never a point that I doubted this, at least not until the truth of who I was shifted to openly include my queerness.
I was able to ignore it for so long because, being a cis-femme means I am able to hide in plain sight. I wasn’t outed and my sexuality never was and never has been questioned by a stranger or on-looker. Now, as a 27 year old who is loudly and openly Queer, I find myself at yet another crossroads. Where does my Caribbeanness end, and my Queerness begin? And, is there even an option for the two to overlap when it comes to carnival culture?
“We are true masqueraders, carnival is we nature,” These lyrics from Kes’s 2014 song “True Masquerader” couldn’t resonate more for me . As a Trinidadian with Kayak roots, I grew up in carnival culture. I still have the costumes my grandmother made me from my days in Kiddie carnival. I was chipping down Toronto streets with other four and five year olds. I wasn’t even born yet for my first Carnival, my mom at 9 months jumping and waving (in moderation of course) alongside my father as they watched the Caribana parade. While there were times that I took a misguided break from the road, Carnival has always been in my heart.
A lot has changed though since I was five or even in the last two years when it comes to my experiences playing mas and attending Carnival. The biggest change, other than my age, is me now being an openly Queer woman. In my teens, when I was still in the closet and dating men, I didn’t think about what it meant to do Carnival any other way than how I had been for most of my life. There was no moment where I stopped to think about what it would mean to whine on a girl that I was seeing. Whining on another woman, even now, doesn’t bring any stress to me and there was no overthinking it. I grew up seeing women dancing on other women, something that’s completely normalized in Caribbean culture and not once was I ever outed for doing so. When I went to Trinidad and Tobago for their carnivals in 2018 it didn’t cross my mind to worry me because my Queer life and my Caribbean life were two very separate things. I was resolved with the idea that the two worlds couldn’t and wouldn’t meet. It’s not that I didn’t know it happened, that Queer Caribbean folks lived openly in both identities. I just hadn’t come out to my super Christian family though; I was taught from a young age that it just wasn’t accepted by the larger community. I didn’t grow up in Trinidad, so I didn’t know how I was suppose to navigate that country and the culture as a Queer woman. Summer 2018 brought changes though, and for the first time, I found myself trying to make space for my Queerness within my West Indian identity. And while in some ways it has become absolutely liberating, in others I can feel myself suffocating.
July 2018 is when I came out to my family, and more specifically, my grandparents. I had been testing the waters with my grandmother in particular, asking her what she would do if I was a lesbian. My favourite response I got was, “Well, they eat and shit like the rest of us so why would I stop loving you?” I wish I could say that I came out and turned my family around to see just how amazing us gays can be. The truth is, I had cousins who had already put in the ground work, and made it possible for me to live in my truth and keep my family. I will forever be eternally grateful to them. Nonetheless, I didn’t feel like I needed to hide anymore. Which meant when Caribana came along that August I wanted to be able to be as gay and as Trini as I possibly could. I wanted to attend all the gay Caribana events and for the first time in my life, and bring my two worlds together. The issue was that I wanted to experience that same melding of the two worlds on the road. And I haven’t quite figured out how to do that yet. A conversation with my roommate one night made me think even more. About not just my experiences as a Queer woman playing mas but about other Queer folks and their access to mas culture in a way that feels real and true for them.
Being West Indian means everything to me. It’s the strongest part of my identity. Anyone who knows me, knows that I’ve always said I knew I was Trini before I knew I was anything else. That means that when I date, I want to share this part of me with the person I’m calling my partner. It means more than just cooking them roti, blasting old school reggae and calypso on weekends to clean and introducing them to my super large and loud family. It means bringing them back home, and hopefully, them playing mas with me and experiencing carnival the way I get to in the places that feel the most like home.
I’m someone who tends to date more masculine presenting women. As I got excited thinking about the prospect of playing mas with someone I love, I realized I didn’t exactly know how that would work. The first thing that popped into my head was the dancing aspect of it. Like I said before, women whining on women has never been an issue, but that’s always been because the two women are femme presenting. I’ve never seen a masc woman back home dancing on a femme. Even when I went to Jamaica last year and found a stud that I thought was cute, it was made very clear that me dancing on her wasn’t an option and not something that was done in public, ever. Now I don’t mind whining on a man, it’s one of those things I have come to sit with: it’s Carnival, there are men. Men will whine on you, and nine out of ten times it’s just a whine and so why fret? But the idea that I couldn’t whine on my partner during Jouvert ,Tuesday Mas or even in a fete made me extremely sad because I know that intimacy would already be something that would be limited to the home we would be staying in.
It then hit me that I hadn’t factored in one of the most important parts of carnival culture: the costumes. In particular, I’m thinking about Pretty Mas or Tuesday Mas as others call it. For most North American Caribbean festivals, Carnival consists of one day which means Pretty Mas is the whole experience. Costumes, no matter the country, come in two options: Men’s and Women’s. There’s no cross over and no in between provided by any mas bands creating the costumes. For Monday Mas, your options are t-shirts or a bodysuit and so masc women or non-binary folks may have a few more options. Jamaican Carnival also offers a t-shirt option during their Pretty Mas, though it has more to do with offering an option that covers more of your body than providing the Queer community with an alternative to the more gender specific costumes. Most of the masc presenting women I know are forced to wear femme costumes, despite never dressing that way in their everyday lives. And while some are fine with presenting as feminine for a day, putting on a bikini bejewelled with a matching head piece, most only do it so they can have access to a part of their culture that otherwise would be closed off to them. Of course, there are event options where costumes are not required, but why must they miss out on the opportunity to participate in something that was made for them?
Carnival is more than just a fun street festival to dress up for, it’s a celebration of freedom from slavery, an honouring of ancestors and an opportunity for Black people to be truly and authentically themselves. To do all of the things the larger society says we can’t and shouldn’t be able to do. So how is it fair that so many Queer Caribbean folks are forced to either remove themselves completely, or to dress or behave in ways that are untrue to who they are? There are ways Queer Caribbean folks are finding to navigate these spaces. Yuma, a popular mas band in Trinidad, is known for being a band that is welcoming for Gay men. And in Toronto, some masc presenting folks have been able to purchase mens costumes while opting to purchase their own matching sports bra. Trans binary folks who are able to “pass”, costumes are in a sense available. However the reality is the safety of them playing mas in costume isn’t guaranteed, thus making their options also limited.
Historically, cross-dressing has a place in carnival culture – in fact, it can be found in almost every country that has carnival, in many ways, it has always been part of Caribbean culture. It has also historically been a part of Caribbean culture as a whole, I recommend reading ‘The Cross-Dressed Caribbean: Writing, Politics, Sexualities’, which explores this through essays and first hand stories from Queer Caribbean folks* . While not a part of the Caribbean, but with the largest Black population outside of Africa, Brazil is known for its carnival ‘crossdressers.” The U.S Virgin islands has a mas that involves men wearing women’s costumes. Grenada and Carriacou men often dress in women’s clothing while playing Jab Jab. The difference is that none of these are seen as “Queer,” and no one participating in it would be outed or have their sexuality questioned. Women can also dress more masculine during jab and may even dance on women while doing so, but still this would be seen as a straight woman simply playing a role for Carnival. It does present an opportunity for Queer folks to hide in plain sight but it’s the hiding part that’s the issue. It wasn’t until Kayak mas, in Carriacou, this year that I really took in how invisible Queerness was. I spotted, maybe two masc presenting women. Both opted to stay close to friends versus venturing off into the crowd to dance. As a femme, I recognize that we are ever present, but hardly noticed because of our ability to blend in. I felt like the lonely Queer girl in a sea of cis-straight people.
I know it’s not easy and not always safe to be openly Queer in the Caribbean. I’m under no disillusion, while I know many are doing the work to move us into a better place, I dont expect to just throw a Queer Mas band into the mix and everything will be okay. Many Caribbean countries still have buggery (anti-gay) laws in place that make being yourself on any regular day extremely difficult.
So, where does that leave me and my potential future partner when it comes to the world of masquerading and carnival? I don’t know, but I have hope. I believe in the work already being done by Queer Caribbean folks. I want to believe that, when the day comes for me to bring her to either Trinidad or Carriacou, I can message a mas band and ask them to make a costume for her that fits her truth, whatever that may be. I hope that I’ll be able to wuk up my waist with her behind me and slow dance when they play Big People music. I know we as a community may be a while away from Queer PDA and I’ve accepted that. I’m hoping that for myself and other Queer masqueraders, that carnival, a time of expression, truth and freedom, that we will all be able to be free in whatever costume and in which ever way feels best for us.
Edited by: Brie Berry, Ashleigh-Rae Thomas and Zoë David-Delves