Women & Gender Studies researcher helps tell a different side of the queer Caribbean story

June 23, 2020 by Michael McKinnon - A&S News

To celebrate Pride Month, we are recognizing the achievements and experiences of the A&S LGBTQ2S+ community and — as allies and community members alike — we are working to build on a more welcoming, inclusive and representative community. 

Nikoli Attai came to the Women & Gender Studies Institute in the Faculty of Arts & Science from Trinidad and Tobago in hopes of giving queer Caribbean people a stronger voice.

“I am invested in doing the necessary decolonial and anti-imperial work to emphasize that queer people in the Caribbean are indeed actively negotiating, resisting and disrupting homophobia, transphobia and discrimination,” says Attai, who earned his PhD in women & gender studies in 2019 and is now a Provost’s postdoctoral fellow at the institute.

His research is aimed at changing the one-sided narrative of violence, death, disease and the need to flee the Caribbean that circulates in cities like Toronto. In other words, people don’t only need to seek asylum in Canada to actualize the fullness of their queerness, he says.

“What about the queer people who cannot, or choose not to, leave the Caribbean? How do they negotiate, disrupt and resist dominant homophobia, transphobia and discrimination? To this end, I am exploring several moments that help us understand these questions and give a voice to the long histories of queerness in the region,” he explains.

These traditions include gay carnival tourism in Trinidad and Tobago, the establishment of virtual trans community spaces, drag queen pageants, the co-opting of bars, rum shops and urban night spaces in Georgetown, Guyana, and the use of abandoned hotels in Barbados for sexual pleasure.

U of T was the right place to carry out this work.

“The Women & Gender Studies Institute at U of T felt like the right fit for me because of the amazing Black faculty who provided me with rigorous training, guidance and mentorship,” he says. “My faculty mentors were also from the Caribbean and helped me refine my ideas about queer Caribbean experiences and the ways ongoing histories of colonial and imperial control continue to elide the creative ways queer people envision new ways of being in the region.”

Attai is working on his first book manuscript titled Queer Liberation? Interrogating Human Rights Activism and Community-making in the Queer Caribbean and co-editing an anthology of essays titled Free Up Yuhself: Transgressive Bodies and Contestations in the Carnivalesque. He is also curating an archive of Trinidad and Tobago’s queer history, as part of a larger project that traces legacies of queer community making and resistance in the Caribbean.