Lyndon K. Gill: Author mines queer Afro-Caribbean heritage


We are truly everywhere.

In the book “Erotic Islands,” author Lyndon K. Gill, maps a long, queer presence in the Caribbean.

Born in Queens, N.Y., with the flavor of the islands at home, Gill found a way to navigate his identities as a queer man, the child of immigrants and a black man in America. Determined to bring some understanding and preserve the history and his love of his heritage, Gill has crafted a book that reveals the queer histories of Carnival, Calypso and HIV/AIDS in the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago.

Inspired by poet and activist Audre Lorde, Gill mined the heroes of his childhood and present day to explore queer Afro-Caribbean heritage. An associate professor in the Department of Africa & African Diaspora Studies, the Department of Anthropology and the Center for Women’s & Gender Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, and with degrees from Stanford, Princeton and Harvard, the man knows his way around a pencil. 

PGN: Describe your childhood.

LG: I grew up with my mom and my grandmother in Jamaica, Queens, in New York. I always say that I grew up with as much of the Caribbean as my mother and grandmother could impart on us. My mother came to the States when she was 9. My grandmother was a professional limbo dancer! So I got a bit of Trinidadian culture growing up. We grew up in a lower- to working-class neighborhood, mostly African American. I went from one black world to another — different registers of blackness. [Laughing] I was an only child until I was 13, then my little brother came along. So I admit I was spoiled. It was a fun existence. My grandmother was very charismatic. There were always people at her house. There were tons of friends. People who I just called Auntie Rose and Uncle so-and-so, people I later learned were actually well known [in the Calypso music world]. Touring around the world, she met a lot of people and introduced me to many of them. I didn’t realize until later the impact it would have on me. It was very informative for me, and a lot of it wound up in the book. Then from my dad’s side of the family, I had access to African-American culture. That was important too, to find out what else blackness could be in the American context. I appreciated moving between the two worlds. It was beautiful, except for lunchtime as a kid. I remember dreading those conversations bringing in fried shark, which is very Trinidadian, or macaroni pie or different curries and hearing, “What is that, shark? YOU’RE EATING A SHARK?’ I remember that clearly as I learned how to navigate between worlds. It was very interesting. I was doing a lot of ethnological work without realizing it. But overall, it was a happy childhood. My mother and grandmother were a lot of fun.

PGN: What kinds of things were you into as a kid?

LG: One of my best experiences was doing a study-abroad trip in my junior year of high school. I went to Barcelona, and it was a fantastic experience. It was super-informative, but it also gave me a chance to explore my sexuality away from the home setting. I fell madly, deeply in love with this boy and it was an amazing experience in a romantic city. But then I got home and was like, OK, I’m a newbie in this, where does a young gaby go? The Lesbian and Gay Center of course! Before that, I didn’t have many extra-curricular activities, though I did do some wrestling, surprise, surprise, without knowing what was up with me. It was mostly to get out of P.E. I was such a nerd, I wanted to work during P.E. and avoid the whole locker-room dynamic, because we all know how fraught that can be. People always think wrestling must be somehow erotic, but it’s mostly getting all sweaty, messing my hair with some guy trying to knock you down. So anyway, I did that thing we do where I went to the center and walked past it about 30 times, checked out the rainbow flag, finally mustered up the courage to go inside. In a moment of nirvana, the person at the front desk of the Youth Enrichment Services (Y.E.S.) program just happened to be a St. Lucien lesbian. It was the most beautiful encounter. It felt like it was divinely ordained. She ran the youth creative writing program and invited me to come, which transformed my life. I liked reading and writing, and it allowed me to come into an identity as a queer youth that wasn’t about trying to sneak into clubs or trying to find another gay person at school. I went to an all boy-high school. So you can imagine the testosterone and madness. It created a forum for me that became my outlet to mature as a writer and as a gay person. It was my first tutorial to start thinking about things I’d later be writing about. I did a little bit of theater too. I know cliché. And I did a little bit of photography and art at school. But most of those things were very heterodynamic, not to mention that it was a predominantly white private school. But the youth club was mostly queer youth of color, and to have that space with another queer Caribbean person was more than I could have dreamed for.

PGN: Where did you tell your mom you were going every afternoon?

LG: I had an hour-long commute from my private school on the Upper West Side to home in Queens. My mother wasn’t a helicopter mom so as long as I got my homework done, she didn’t question me. As long as I didn’t stay out too late. Though it was some pamphlets I got from the center that ended up outing me. I’d picked up some materials and had them in my bag. My mother found them when she was packing for me for some little trip. So the youth center outed me too!

PGN: Was your father strict?

LG: I didn’t grow up with my dad. He lives in El Paso. They met in San Antonio at an Army base when they were both in the military. After they divorced and he married a woman from Texas, where I live now. I feel that it’s part of the reason I’m here. I’ve had a chance to meet my siblings and to build a relationship with him. It’s funny: I’m starting to see who I might be when I get older.

PGN: Well, you’re not doing too shabby right now. Phi Beta Kappa from Stanford University, a Ph.D. from Harvard, Princeton … Are you just trying to make the rest of us look bad?

LG: [Laughs] When you say them all together, it sounds pretty impressive. I was thinking, Who is that? I want to be him when I grow up! I never sought it. I didn’t even plan on being a professor. It just sort of flowed. I think, in part, due to having a queer community that appreciated intellectual engagement from a young age and allowed me to be as gay and as fantastic as I hoped I could be. I also think some of it came from being a nerdy black kid, which is something the schools wanted. I chose Stanford because I didn’t know anyone there and they had palm trees and a lake. Not the best criteria for choosing a school, but it worked for me. They also had a really super queer-affirming environment — not just accepting, but present. I worked at both the black community center and the queer community center. It felt like coming home and coming into myself there. I felt the prettiest and most open and loved there — and then someone told me that I could get paid to read and write as a professor. So off to Harvard grad school I went. Along the way, I started to work on my project on queer Caribbean people and went to Trinidad to find the queer community and all its different facets. It was in part a journey to find myself and it just led me to all these different places.

PGN: And now you have a finished work to talk about.

LG: Yes. The baby has been born. It came out in June and now I’m traveling around the country with my child. It has all sorts of stories in it, from a Carnival masquerade designer, Peter Minshall, to a lesbian Calypso singer Rose, and all sorts of characters.

PGN: Is that the same Rose who came to your house as a kid?

LG: Yes! Auntie Rose was a lesbian and I didn’t know it! And when I came out, she brought me a bundle of LGBT newspapers from around the country, including the PGN! It was the first time I realized there was such a big LGBT community all across the country.

PGN: Nice! I know you lived in Philly. When was that?

LG: I was living in Boston and it was so terribly racist there, and cold, that I wanted to get out. I had a post doc at Princeton and they were lovely, but the town is really white and very expensive. I went to Philly to see the Liberty Bell and fell in love with the city. Between the gay community and the thriving black community, it was fantastic. I could smell the freedom in the air. And then I got a post doc at Penn and I was in heaven. I lived in the Gayborhood. It was a great experience to see queer folks of every hue and age. I became vegan here. It was very influential. Philly always felt like Boston and New York had a love child; the grittiness of New York combined with beauty and love of history of Boston. I loved walking to Giovanni’s Room to pick up my PGN and to know that people like Essex Hemphill [openly gay poet and activist] had been in the same spaces. It made me feel part of the lineage. I remember being upstairs in that little room with the fireplace to hear Samuel Delany do a reading. There were only about six people there, so it was really intimate. I mean, could you dream up a more incredible experience? I had so many moments like that.

PGN: The black community in the U.S. is often painted as more intolerant, mostly because of its ties to religion, but personally I don’t think that’s the case. I know the Caribbean is also painted as very homophobic. What’s your experience?

LG: I feel the same. It’s difficult because you don’t want to ignore the fact that there is homophobic violence, and genderphobic violence, but there’s violence in the global North. The number of black transwomen murdered here in the States is outrageous. Hate crimes are perpetrated here every day, but much like you say, there’s a tendency, in part fostered by racism, to paint black folks as intolerant and homophobic, especially in the Caribbean and even in the South. It fits a narrative of those places and people being uncivil. It reaches back to a racist history, painting people one way. Queer folks are everywhere, and we must affirm that. There’s an imaginative violence when we presume that there are places where queer people cannot be, because there are people there who we erase when we do that. It happens with people’s perceptions of the Caribbean. But Jamaica just had its third gay Pride. Again, not saying problems don’t exist, but there’s a tendency to amp them up when talking about the region. That’s part of what the book is about, showing that we are and have been in these areas. It’s a history that needs to be told to balance the narrative.

PGN: What was the first piece of music you ever bought?

LG: Oh, I just wrote something about this for a class I teach on fashion. It was a cassette tape, Mary J. Blige’s 1992 album “What’s the 411?”

PGN: The feature I get most compliments on is…

LG: My smile. Thanks to my mother, who invested in braces for me and taught me to smile a lot.

PGN: Top three LGBT films?

LG: [After much debate with himself] “Chocolate Babies” by Stephen Winter. I actually have that on VHS. Since I’m in Texas, I’ll say Marlon Riggs, “Tongues Untied.” And oh, this is hard! “Children of God” has a shorter version called “Float,” which I like better than the full length. Suzi, there are so many more I want to add!

PGN: Well, let’s add what you’re going to be doing in Philly!

LG: Yes, on March 23, I’ll be at the African American Museum in Philadelphia. There will be a free reception and program with me and Deborah A. Thomas, Ph.D., the R. Jean Brownlee Professor of Anthropology and the director of the Center for Experimental Ethnography at the University of Pennsylvania. Afterwards, I’ll do a book signing. So people can come by, get a book and get a hug — not necessarily in that order!