Deserting LGBTQ+ Virgin Islanders

A VI community group changed its name for Pride, and lost 400 members.

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Photo by Francesco Ungaro on Pexels

(Trigger warning: This post contains screenshots of homophobic language and describes homophobic behavior.)

Homophobia in the Caribbean is nothing new, and the U.S. Virgin Islands certainly has its share. When the U.S. Supreme Court was still considering whether to legalize same-sex marriage in all states and territories in 2014, Virgin Islanders marched down the streets of St. Thomas in opposition.

A small contingent of counter-protesters, many of them friends of mine, gathered in front of the courthouse on the route. The Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2015.

It’s been five years since that march, and most island residents have shifted focus to more pressing issues. Between a failing water and power authority, crippling corruption, and of course recovery from hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, worrying about people’s sexual orientation has understandably taken a backseat.

Until St. Thomas’ first Pride celebration was announced, reigniting arguments in Virgin Islands social circles online and off.

In one corner of the internet, a Facebook group called The Voice of the VI (VOTVI) temporarily changed its name to The Voice of the LGBTQ+ VI. An unexpected backlash and exodus quickly followed. In just two days, the over 13k membership of the group had a net loss of 370, with many citing the name change as their reason for leaving.

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VOTVI screenshot

A quick history: VOTVI was created in response to another VI community group with questionable application of its group rules. Namely, the administrators tended to delete posts and ban members who called out racist undertones, pointed out gentrification, and identified colonizing mentalities. These members, of course, tended to be local Virgin Islanders, as opposed to the former and prospective tourists and transplants who otherwise frequented the page.

The effect was that the voices of black islanders and their allies were scrubbed out of the other group. The racial difference between who stayed and who was banned was painfully obvious.

Thus, being “uncensored” is a core value of VOTVI. The admins do not delete posts or comments, or block members, no matter what gets posted. It’s certainly led to arguments, and people have left the group before, but never in the numbers the group is seeing now.

Wanting to unpack the reaction, I reached out to some of the group’s administrators and most active members to get their perspective. Seven Virgin Islanders were happy to share their voices.

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Admins and members included in the interview

In two days, VOTVI lost 370 members.

Kai Pyro: Wow. That’s much more than I thought would dip.

Sammy Ki: I thought it would be much more.

Dan Lewin: I feel like this dip in membership will refocus us.

Maive Jackson: Eventually, but first we have to ride out the storm.

For Dan, watching “the homophobic garbage fire that led to the name change” was much worse than watching members leave the group. When Gay Pride VI excitedly announced that St. Thomas would be celebrating the island’s first ever Pride, posts and comments like this filled the VOTVI page:

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Jamal Akeem Potter: I believe that is what causes so much of the dissent; the “othering” of queer people. I mean, the term for a gay man here is literally “anti-man”.

St. Croix celebrated Pride for the first time last year, but resistance still exists. The big island’s 2018 Pride Parade was protested by a small but vocal group. St. Thomas Pride isn’t even including a parade, due to safety concerns and a resistance in the U.S. Virgin Islands to accept the LGBTQ+ community, but other planned events sparked debate among group members regardless. This prompted a move of solidarity through the name change.

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VOTVI screenshot

How surprised were each of you?

Sammy: Not really surprised that there was backlash.

Jamal: I wasn’t really surprised.

Maive: Same. I expected it. Though I was surprised by some of the sources. [Some of them] have been so vocal in the past about protecting other minority groups.

Dan: I was surprised by certain individuals I saw dissenting. People I thought stood on our side of the barricades. People who often were the first to jump up and be very outspoken when we talked about racism, colonialism, gentrification, but wouldn’t stand with other marginalized people. For me you stand with all or it just doesn’t make sense.

Kathy Naylor Barenbrugge: I was a little surprised at a couple people we lost. Some who always seemed to act all zen and have stood up for the oppressed, but apparently supporting the LGBTQI community was the line in the sand.

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Admin screenshot provided by Jamal

What are some specific things that have been difficult to deal with this week?

Maive: Mostly, realizing that so many of the people who we’ve spent years fighting for are so willing to oppress others.

Jamal: Not like we didn’t know these attitudes were here.

Jack Reid: I’m super disappointed in us as a people. Not just for the bigotry, but for the lazy and uncreative ways of justifying it. I’m disappointed by how much trying to talk to folks has colored my perceptions in these last few days, too. I love my people but damn we can do better.

Sammy: The group name changed 7 times in the past for various reasons and no one ever batted an eye. Now they are concerned about not acknowledging Black History Month and hoping we honor Emancipation Day.

Sammy’s not exaggerating; the group name often does temporarily change based on group activity and in-jokes. What’s interesting is the common theme of past name changes, and what makes this one unique:

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VOTVI history screenshot

The history of name changes reflects the group’s formation as a response to the silencing of people who call out racism. These name changes typically happen when white supremacists are posting in the group. The posters don’t get banned or have anything deleted, so passionate conversations sometimes dominate the feed, and changing the group name is a way of poking fun at and acknowledging that. Sometimes during these times, members leave. But never so many.

Part of the problem this time might be the association of queerness with “whiteness” or “the states”.

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VOTVI screenshot

Jamal: There are plenty of times I’ve seen claims that queerness is something imported from white people. To many, the idea of queerness is antithetical to the idea of blackness.

Kathy: I find it interesting that the people who say that the gay agenda is “imported from white people” use Christianity to back their bigotry, which was imported from white people. I don’t know if they see the irony.

Jamal: I think a large part of them see the gentrification that has happened (especially in St. John) and they do [equate] queerness with a loss of native culture. It’s the supposed “agenda”. There are many who believe that we will “take over”, and they can’t have that now can they?

This equating creates more misunderstanding, forming an “us vs. them” mentality that ignores the fact that LGBTQ+ Virgin Islanders exist, and erasing LGBTQ+ people of color:

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VOTVI screenshot

Virgin Islands Senator Janelle K. Sarauw responded to the above post, pointing out that as an openly gay black policy maker, she doesn’t get to pick and choose. She represents all people.

If only that, and her existence as a gay woman of color, were simple for others to understand.

Prompted by the backlash to St. Thomas Pride, Senator Sarauw made a statement expressing frustration with misrepresentations of LGBTQ+ people and how they affect her work. Even as an accomplished leader, she continues to deal with very real pushback from her own community for no reason other than her sexual orientation.

But, of course, she may just be seen as pushing “the gay agenda”.

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VOTVI screenshot

Why are they so scared of the supposed “agenda,” do you think? What is the outcome they fear?

Jack: That gay men will be free to treat them the way they treat women without the consistent culture of suppression and implied threats of violence. We can’t put this all on gentrification: VI and the Caribbean as a whole are unapologetically homophobic for the most part.

Shannon: And misogynistic, as you’ve pointed out. Much of the gay bashing feminizes men.

Kathy: I always hate how calling someone a woman is an insult. It’s like a bigotry two for one special. Give shit to gay men and women all in one.

Did any of you take breaks from social media during this time?

Maive: I’m about to. My quota for stupidity is overflowing.

Sammy: I am about to.

Jamal: I may need to. As a queer man of color, this shit hurts.

Dan (responding to Jamal): That’s the whole point — an injury to one of us is an injury to all of us. I’m not queer or of color but that doesn’t make the fight any less important to me.

Maive: I don’t think that we can move forward as a people by being like our oppressors. Modern women’s rights were achieved at the expense of black women. And we feel the effects of that today. It is immoral and unethical to turn around and pay that forward to the LGBTQ+ community. Especially since “they” are us. I don’t understand how we can justify hatred for people who look just like us for who they love. We did all that fighting for freedom only to become the oppressors?

Rainbow street art triggers outcry

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VOTVI screenshot

After the initial interview, rainbow colors were chalked onto a portion of sidewalk in front of the Legislature building on St. Thomas. Complaints erupted again in VOTVI, with many voicing the opinion that this vandalism associates the LGBTQ+ community with criminal activity. The chalk was washed off by early afternoon.

Thoughts on the rainbow chatter today?

Kai: Well I’ll entertain this convo when they take all the black lives matter and Pan-Africanist down [off the mural] on the way to Pricesmart.

Dan: I was just thinking about the group’s outrage when someone complained about Black Lives Matter being painted on that mural.

Jamal: One person basically cried racism.

Dan: “All lives matter” people came out.

It’s not hard to imagine that in VOTVI, the “all lives matter” refrain didn’t last long.

Why care about something that happened on Facebook?

While social media isn’t real life, what happened in VOTVI this week offers insight to what real life can be like for LGBTQ+ people living in the Virgin Islands, Caribbean, and any place where homophobia persists.

This phenomenon is far from limited to islands: people anywhere can choose to hold on to their hate and fear so tightly, they’ll abandon friends and family before being associated with the LGBTQ+ community. It’s heartbreaking, and it happens all the time. Offline, this attitude is the reason why 1 in 4 youth who identify as being lesbian or gay are homeless.

Homophobia is toxic anywhere, but its prevalence in the VI has pushed many LGBTQ+ people away. There are plenty of reasons why people move out of America’s Paradise; being queer shouldn’t be one of them.

The good news is that there are many Virgin Islanders, including territory representatives, who belong to and/or support the LGBTQ+ community. St. Thomas’ first-ever Pride is still being celebrated, a historical moment and demonstration that progress is being made. Here’s to a safe, fun VI Pride that helps break down some barriers.

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Flyer from Gay Pride VI

Published by Shannon Burton

Sex educator and writer by day, poet and flash fiction author by night, I occasionally manage to get out of the house to enjoy New Orleans as it's meant to be.

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