The Marlon James conundrum

Perceptions of masculinity and anti-gay prejudice in Jamaica

Dr Keon West
Goldsmiths, University of London
Dr Kate Houlden
Anglia Ruskin University

The Research Idea

Jamaica is widely viewed as virulently homophobic. Section 76 of the Jamaican Offences Against the Person Act makes consensual gay (male) sex illegal (Jamaica Ministry of Justice, 1969); a 2004 Human Rights Watch report stated that ‘Violent acts against men who have sex with men are commonplace’ (2004: 2); and LGBTQ activists in the public domain are frequently attacked or killed (J-FLAG, 2013).

Culturally-specific notions of masculinity appear central to these trends. Errol Miller’s controversial 1998 book Men at Risk caught the zeitgeist with its assertion of the marginalisation of Caribbean men. Whether attributed to the legacies of slavery and colonialism or recent gains in gender equality, such (perceived) male fragility feeds into the region’s entrenched homophobia. It is therefore necessary to consider the sexual prohibitions of Jamaican culture in light of the island’s proscriptive masculine norms.

Against this backdrop, the creative writer and Jamaican, Marlon James presents a conundrum. Recently awarded the Man Booker prize, his global success makes him a national asset, with Jamaica’s main newspaper, the Gleaner reporting widely (and favourably) on his success. However, as an openly gay man, James is at odds with mainstream views of acceptable male behaviour.

This research will investigate whether and how a successful, gay, Jamaican such as James can challenge existing models of masculinity and reduce anti-gay prejudice. Its thesis is that exposure to alternative models of gendered behaviour (as represented by both James and his fiction), will reduce anti-gay prejudice through a shift in the cultural understanding of masculinity.


Many scholars have suggested that the sexual prohibitions of Jamaican culture must be examined in light of notions of masculinity (Hippolyte, 2004; Pinnock, 2007; Salih, 2007; Saunders, 2003; West, 2010). This is similar to, though stronger than, findings from other societies, indicating that anti-gay sentiment stems from narrow perceptions of male gender norms (Davies, 2004; Falomir-Pichastor & Mugny, 2009; Parrott, 2009) or are part of the performance of masculinity (Kimmel, 2004).

However, quantitative evidence on the subject is scant, although the little available empirical research does support these hypotheses. Despite anecdotal suggestions that the blame for Jamaican anti-gay prejudice belongs to the religious community, recent quantitative research found that male gender was the strongest and most reliable predictor of anti-gay sentiment, trumping age, income, education, and religion (West & Cowell, 2015).

In the literary domain, Caribbean fictional output is often viewed as having greater sexual openness than popular culture (Donnell, 2006), with questions being asked as to how this might effect real-world change. The recent British Academy project ‘Breaking Sexual Silences’, for example, successfully used fictional writings to challenge gendered and sexual norms. However, no quantitative data as yet exists to support such work.

Thus, the gaps in current knowledge include:

  1. Culture-specific measures of masculinity
  2. Evidence that these culturally-specific measures are better predictors of anti-gay prejudice than current measures.
  3. Evidence that individuals who successfully challenge this model of masculinity can reduce anti-gay prejudice in the process.
  4. Any consideration of the effectiveness of engagement with literary forms

The Focus

Thus far, real-world efforts to reduce anti-gay prejudice in Jamaica have focused on protest, cross-group interactions between gay and straight Jamaicans, legal challenges, challenges to religion, and restrictions on the performances of Jamaica’s virulently anti-gay dancehall music. While some (though not all) of these strategies are supported by empirical research (e.g., cross-group interactions: West & Hewstone, 2012; West, Husnu, & Lipps, 2014), quantitative evidence suggests that perceptions of masculinity are central to Jamaican anti-gay prejudice. Thus, the omission of masculinity-based strategies is difficult to justify. This research proposes and explicitly tests a masculinity-based approach for combating anti-gay prejudice in Jamaica and similar cultural contexts.

In the literary terrain, the ‘Breaking Sexual Silences’ project (run by the University of Reading and UWI, Barbados) did much to open up discussions of sexual difference, with O’Callaghan attesting to ‘the level of participation and public interest’ attached to public readings by Caribbean writers, which were followed by interdisciplinary workshops between LGBTQ activists, social workers, lawyers, artists and students (O’Callaghan, 2012, 233). In combining such literary work with quantitative and qualitative analysis of how notions of masculinity feed into expressions of homophobia, this project expands such claims, providing evidence of those cultural shifts made possible by artistic and cultural engagement. Easily transferable to other contexts and supported by rigorous empirical research, we aim to provide a working methodology for enacting real-world social change.

Theoretical Novelty

This research will increase knowledge of masculinity and anti-gay prejudice, as well as the relationship between them, providing methodology that allows culturally-specific perceptions of masculinity to be explored in several societies with greater precision. Furthermore, though prior research (e.g., West & Cowell, 2015) reveals a relationship between perceptions of masculinity and anti-gay prejudice, this research will be the first to demonstrate the causal direction of this relationship, showing that attitudes toward gay men can be improved indirectly via changes in perceptions of masculinity.

Dr Houlden’s work investigates similar questions within the literary terrain (forthcoming 2016). It is widely contended within Caribbean literary studies that, since the 1990s, greater gendered and sexual openness can be found within the region’s literature than popular cultural forms such as dancehall or calypso. Pioneering alliances between literary and activist fields have worked to encourage a climate of change and openness. However, no empirical evidence exists to support the effectiveness of these alliances. This research will be the first to combine quantitative measures with questions about masculinity, homophobia and the power of literature to support social change.
In conducting interdisciplinary research, weaknesses within both fields can also be addressed. Empirical psychological research can ignore participants’ own construction of their experiences in the pursuit of easily quantifiable data (Dixon et al., 2005). Conversely, literary analyses acknowledge the individual’s construction of experiences, but lack the predictive power of quantitative analyses. This innovative research will harness insights from both fields: an all too rare collaboration.


Study 1: Jamaican Masculinity. The Male Role Norms Inventories (MRNI and revised MRNI-R), are among the most successful measures of perceived masculinity (Levant, et al., 2010; Thompson & Pleck, 1986). However, some items seem distinctly American (e.g., “Men should not be interested in talk shows like Oprah.”). 100 Jamaican men will rate all 79 items indicating whether each relates to masculinity and suggesting alternative items. Only highly-rated items will be retained. Factor analyses (Dr West) will verify scale reliability and identify relevant subscales.

Study 2: Jamaican Masculinity and Anti-Gay Prejudice. 100 Jamaican men will complete (i) the masculinity measure developed in Study 1 (ii) the original MRNI and MNRI-R, and (iii) measures of attitudes toward gay men (Herek, 1988; West & Hewstone, 2012). Regression analyses (Dr West) will determine whether the new measure of masculinity (from Study 1) is a better predictor of Jamaican anti-gay prejudice than the non-culturally specific MNRI and MNRI-R.

Study 3: Marlon James. Dr Houlden will conduct literary study sessions with 4 groups of 15 Jamaican participants. Two groups will read/discuss the novel The Harder They Come, a traditional representation of Jamaican masculinity. Two groups will address the work of Marlon James. Guided questions on Jamaican identity, success and masculinity will allow qualitative analysis of respondents’ answers, in line with Radway’s (1991) work on reader response theory. All participants will also complete the new (quantitative) measure of masculinity and measures of attitudes toward gay men; independent samples t-tests (Dr West) will investigate subsequent differences between groups.

Work Plan

This award will enable the applicants – Dr West and Dr Houlden – to visit to Jamaica in June 2016 to conduct cross-disciplinary research on masculinity, exposure to literature and anti-gay prejudice in Jamaica. Ethical approval for all 3 Studies has already been granted from the Goldsmiths Psychology Research Ethics Committee and all materials for Study 1 have already been designed.

All 3 studies will have to be run in the space of 9 days – a challenging schedule. We will be assisted in participant recruitment by a colleague and former co-author: Dr Noel Cowell of the Sociology Department at the University of the West Indies, Kingston Jamaica. Dr Cowell has also arranged for us to be able to use the institution’s rooms and equipment free of charge and will assist in advertising the studies in advance.

All participants will be paid for their time (JA $500 for Study 1 and 2 and JA $ 1000 for Study 3: approximately £3 and £6 respectively). These are significant sums of money in Jamaica and are likely to attract large numbers of participants very quickly. Study 1 will be completed in 3 days. Once its new measure of masculinity has been developed, Studies 2 and 3 can be conducted simultaneously by Dr West and Dr Houlden respectively; each taking 3 days. This leaves a safety margin of a further 3 days in case of unforeseen adjustments. Two journal articles will be written and submitted immediately following this period of research.


On return to the UK, the three quantitative studies will be submitted to a social-psychological journal (e.g. Sex Roles or Journal of Experimental Social Psychology) with Dr West as first author. The qualitative outputs from the literature session run by Dr Houlden will be submitted as a second, reflective paper to a literature journal (e.g., Callaloo or Small Axe) with Dr Houlden as first author. Both submissions will be completed by December 2016.

During the field trip, relationships will be further developed with staff at the University of the West Indies, in both literature and sociology departments. In particular, there will be opportunities for postgraduate students to support both the quantitative studies and the running of the literature study groups. As the institution runs across a number of islands, there will then be scope for further roll out of the project at different locations should it prove successful. Dependent on findings, this research will also be shared with local activist groups in order to facilitate conversations about its wider applicability.

In the longer term, discussions will need to be held as to the efficacy of the pilot project and whether its methodology can be applied more widely. With this in mind, funding applications will be made in late 2016/early 2017 for a symposium inviting submissions relating to similarly interdisciplinary projects. A roundtable/workshop model will be applied so as to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the respective projects and to garner feedback from scholars engaged in similarly interdisciplinary work.