Subversive Sexualities: Revolutionizing Gendered Identities
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Subversive Sexualities
Revolutionizing Gendered Identities

To remember is to live.

Ruth Behar, Bridges to Cuba

Revolution Through the Body

Although Caribbean women of all racial backgrounds have been redefining traditionally gendered roles over the past several decades, sexuality presents the last frontier to pervasive, deep-reaching change. Indeed, in the Caribbean context, academic investigations of lesbian lives remain a startlingly incoherent area of exploration despite advances in other areas of women’s and feminist studies in the region generally. It is this very present absence which has compelled me in this essay. I suspect that the overwhelming silence around women’s sexuality and, specifically, the taboos that remain in place in the Caribbean context around lesbianism reveal the degree to which both women and men are mired in antiquated notions of gender identity. These notions are themselves tethered to national agendas that are no longer, if they ever were, revolutionary or liberatory in scope.

What I will seek to explore in this essay are the ways in which women’s advocacy for sexual freedom in all realms (from increased freedom within marriage to the right to choose to have sexual relations outside of marriage, to parity with men in the workplace and other social avenues of communal life, to lesbianism) force a re-evaluation of social and national agendas that could serve to reformulate national identities. In particular, I am interested in the ways in which restrictions against homosexuality, especially the discursive erasure and denial of lesbian existence, suggest that sexuality may be a crucial avenue for social and political transformation. In this, I am expressly not concerned with duplicating gender or sexuality binaries or trying to situate [End Page 51] lesbianism within heterosexed notions of the national body politic or Caribbean patriarchal power structures, as is already the status quo. What I am concerned with is investigating how Caribbean women authors who envision themselves and their characters as members of pluralistic and multiracial societies have sought to represent such multiplicity through sexuality and in defiance of patriarchal power structures. In some cases, the authors demonstrate that a simple inversion of the tropes of power does not suffice to achieve liberatory social change.

My focus on the Dominican Republic and Cuba in this essay results from the combined evidence of progressive social science research on gay identity in Cuba and the similarity of themes in the work of contemporary Dominican American, Cuban American, and Cuban writers such as Loida Maritza Pérez (DR/US), Marilyn Bobes (Cuba) and Achy Obejas (Cuba/US). All three writers present unusual tales addressing women’s sexuality and possible avenues for gender and power subversion. More specifically, their work suggests that the most liminal of individuals within Dominican and Cuban society—“queer women”—may shed light on the inner workings of power relationships in each society, as their liminality is clearly meant to be disempowering (my findings here hold true for Haitian society as well).1 In what way would the destigmatization of nonheterosexual identities affect the body politic, family, and social formations? In what way would the acknowledgment of women’s sexuality, whether heterosexual, lesbian, or bisexual, alter the possibilities for progress within each of these nations? My initial gambit posits that the increased visibility of women in sectors that acknowledge their sexuality will significantly alter modes of survival and create greater options for self (and community) actualization. I am also suggesting that women’s empowerment through their sexuality can (as much as it sheds light on) disrupt male and patriarchal modes of nation-building and hegemony that are, in themselves, premised on the male eros. Such investigations might suggest new definitions for gender dynamics, power relations, and individual identities as well.

As has been true for women in other Caribbean nations, most explicitly in Haiti, gay female identities are often covert. As Ruth Behar explains in Cubana, few gay Cuban women “would feel safe claiming that identity unambiguously and publicly.” Though American readers may find this to be the ultimate denial of freedom, I agree with Behar when she asserts “the true liberty is when any woman writer can tell the story of a lesbian without having to...