Photo by: Tieu Bao
Flight of the ruler: a transwoman in exile.
by Gabrielle Bellot
few months before I came out as a transgender woman, I found myself for perhaps the last time on the island of my childhood, the island I would soon feel unable to return to safely. My mother and I were driving down a winding mountain road in our Pathfinder, edging along a precipice flecked with mango trees and clusters of green bamboos that shuddered like bones, to watch a performance of our great Dominican playwright Alwin Bully’s The Ruler. A close adaptation of a Vincentian novel by G. C. H. Thomas, Ruler in Hiroona, Bully’s play was first performed in 1976 by the People’s Action Theatre, four years after the book’s publication. Now, decades later, it was being staged again, this time in Dominica’s Arawak House of Culture, as part of the annual Nature Island Literary Festival. The play, I knew, would chronicle the rise and fall of a corrupt politician, the leader of the mythical island, Hiroona. Yet what was on my mind that night were other politics, a very different rise and fall: my own. My head began to throb. The girl I had suppressed for over twenty years wanted out. I wondered for a moment if I could make it through the play without losing my mind.
The dark street outside the theater was humming with voices, bodies dim floating shapes under the orange of the streetlights and the indigo of the approaching night. A cock strutted down the uneven sidewalk, glancing at me before disappearing into the gutter behind a car’s wheel. There was excitement in the air, many of the attendees doubtless curious to see if the play would satirize our prime minister, a ruler embroiled in controversy. Through the chatter of the crowd, I chanted to myself like a witch: You are not an abomination, you can live on and Shut up, fool, you know you cannot be a woman here. On an island that, like so many other former British colonies, had inherited a legacy by which male homosexual activity is criminalized and transgenderism often swept under the rug of “biblical abomination,” I felt a sense of deep divide. Was it worth it to live as my true self even if it meant losing familial support, the privilege of leaving and returning to my home easily?
I knew, as the crowd rose to acknowledge the entrance of the president and his guards, that standing atop a mountain and shouting into the wind, I am transgender, I am a woman, I am not an abomination, I want to be accepted here, as I am, would be a cry that would fall on so many deaf ears. A cry that, when the wind carried it from village to village and house to home, would be answered with ridicule and abandonment at best and with fists and cutlasses and broken glass at worst.
Just months earlier, in Jamaica, a group of men fatally beat, stabbed, and ran over sixteen-year-old Dwayne Jones after discovering Jones, the beautiful girl they had been dancing with, was not a cisgender woman. Dominica has a better record than Jamaica on LGBTQIA violence, but only a fool would think it was much safer. In 2012, the minister of education announced a fortunately short-lived plan to create a task force against “deviance and homosexuality” in schools. In 2013, our prime minister said he would not repeal the buggery law that criminalized same-sex activity, and the next year said he would “never allow for the state to recognize same-sex marriage” as long as his government is in office.
I knew, as the theater’s lights dimmed, that I would look down from that mountain upon which I wished to shout, deep into the open arms of the fern-dappled drop, and jump off. To acknowledge who and what you are is to take a leap into the winds—and to hope you will not fall.
* * *