Thoughts on Theses: Bob Neel
Issue   |   Tue, 02/16/2016 - 23:30

Bob Neel ’16 double majors in religion and political science. His thesis examines the emergence and evolution of anti-LGBT legislation in the Anglo-Caribbean, and it looks at the strategies of grassroots LGBT-rights activism therein the region. His thesis adviser is Professor Javier Corrales from the political science department.

Q: Can you tell us what you are majoring in, and give a brief overview of your thesis?
A: I am a political science and religion double major. My thesis is in the political science department, but makes an argument about religion. I am working on LGBT rights in the English-speaking Caribbean, which consists of 11 countries, including Belize and Jamaica. There’s a disproportionate amount of homophobia in the English-speaking Caribbean, and the puzzle of my thesis is trying to figure out why. I am looking at colonization and religious imperialism within the British empire, with a focus on how those factors constructed the political systems that you see in the English-speaking Caribbean nations today.

Q: What led you to this topic?
A: I had a serendipitous road to my thesis. My original passion was constitutional law. I ended up taking an experimental seminar with Professor Machala called Reading Politics, for which we read the newspaper every day and then picked one story line on which we were going to write one research paper. I decided to follow gay marriage in the United States judicial system, which was developing at a blistering pace. I then went abroad in 2014, and upon coming back, the political science department issued a help wanted ad for a project, the LGBT Timeline. Professor Corrales gave me a job working five to 10 hours researching for the LGBT Timeline, and I was assigned the English-speaking Caribbean nations. The first thing I noticed was a host of homophobic laws, and I asked, why is there such institutionalized homophobia in these places? I did a presentation for the department, and then decided to make my research into a thesis.

Q: Who is your adviser, and how has your relationship with him/her evolved?
A: Professor Corrales is my adviser, and I have been working with him on issues of LGBT rights in Latin America and the Caribbean for over a year now. I also worked with a couple of other professors in political science on these LGBT research projects, and I feel very lucky for having the chance to work with, and do extensive research for, Amherst professors.

Q: What historical periods are you examining?
A: I start with a biblical exegesis, but the narrative that I portray starts in the 1500s, during which time the State of England took over criminalization of sodomy laws from the church. There was a secularization of homophobia at that point. I then look at the narrative that developed during colonization and religious imperialism, focusing on different aspects of history that were important in institutionalizing homophobia in the English-speaking Caribbean.

Q: And what countries are you examining?
A: Well, there are 11 countries I am looking at, including Belize and Guyana, which are the two mainland countries. The other big countries are Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, St. Lucia and a couple collection of independent states and dependent states controlled by the British empire.

Q: Did the fact that homophobic laws were adopted in the constitutions of English-speaking Caribbean countries lead to the widespread homophobia in these places, or has homophobia emerged out of other cultural contexts?
A: It has mostly emerged out of the processes we see in colonization and religious imperialism. There are over 40 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, and 11 of those countries still criminalize same-sex activity, i.e. consensual sex between same sex individuals. All 11 of those countries are in the British Caribbean. The laws in those countries, which extended from the 1500s — when you had the crossover during New World expansion — emerge originally from the bible. During colonization, very strict penal codes were implemented, and those codes have been maintained only in these 11 countries. The codes were issued often in the 17th and 18th century, and their language hasn’t changed for centuries.

Q: Have you had a chance to think about the current culture in these countries? Have you had a chance to go to any of them?
A: I would love to go there at some point, but I haven’t had the chance. The first section of my thesis breaks down the historical aspects of anti-LGBT legislation and traces the politicized, historical narrative, and the second half takes what is going on today. The real puzzle is this: There’s been a gay revolution all across the world in the early 2000s, and yet these countries haven’t been able to participate in that revolution, while their neighbors have. Latin America, and countries such as Argentina, are some of the most progressive places in the world when it comes to LGBT rights.

Q: What form has the activism taken in these English-speaking Caribbean countries, or is it absent?
A: It depends. The New York Times came out with a piece on Caleb Orozco, who is quite literally known as the only openly gay man in the country of Belize. In Jamaica, however, we are starting to see fairly robust activist movements, and there’s an organization called J-Flag, or the Jamaica Forum of Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays, which has done a lot to change the perception of activism and of LGBT communities in these unforgiving environments. There’s a lot of pushback, however, most of which comes from religious leaders who are entrenched in religious doctrines.

Q: How have some of the more successful activists approached LGBT rights?
A: The activists in these countries, and what their movements advocate for, differs very much from what you see in international human rights organizations, which often want to come to these places and propose a Western notion of human rights. For example, The Human Rights campaign — which is pro-gay rights and has done important advocacy for gay marriage in America — has been criticized in these countries. These organizations have ideas of what constitute gay rights that are dissonant with the current cultural and domestic-political spheres in these places. As a result, there’s a double-speak that these local organizations in English-speaking Caribbean must enact, because they go to the larger international campaigns and look for money and support, but they basically have to talk another language to the people they are trying to persuade to be allies in their home countries.

Q: Where does that dissonance come from?
A: There’s a nationalist movement in Anglo-Caribbean nations that pushes back against the West. There’s a narrative of homosexuality being a Western idea that is being imported, which is of course totally wrong. Neither homophobia nor homosexuality are imported into a country, and one of the nuances of my project is that the language of import-export is quite problematic when you are talking about colonization. There’s no indigenous population in the Anglo-Caribbean, but African slaves brought in their own notions of homosexuality and homophobia. The homophobic notions are then co-opted by homophobic laws. What happens now is that you have movements that portray homosexuality as foreign and unwanted, because it conflicts with religion, masculinity and notions of the family.

Q: What is some of the language that the local LGBT campaigns would prefer to use, if not the narratives of human rights?
A: The language differs depending on projects that they are pursuing. J-Flag, for example, is working on health, which is not as flashy as gay marriage or de-criminalization of homosexual sex, but what’s most important for them is working with kids to get them educated about health, and creating HIV/AIDS awareness, and providing queer youth the medical aid and help that they need. These are not the flashy things that big campaigns from the United States and Europe want people to look at, but they are incredibly important in influencing a subtle cultural change that is more accepting towards LGBT individuals.

Q: What are your hopes for your thesis in the next few months?
A: The final thesis is due on April 4, giving me less than two months. I actually turned in a full draft to the department on Jan. 11, and I got back this draft last week. For the next two months, I will be revising and condensing, and adding one relatively large section.

Q: Do you have any advice for future thesis writers?
A: Having a department that makes you turn in a full draft so early was great, although it made winter break absolutely terrible. In the end, I think that writing a comprehensive draft and then receiving comments on that work was really helpful. The hardest thing with writing any thesis is delegating time, and it’s very important to a find a balance between writing the thesis and living your life. Ultimately, it’s essential to let yourself relax, take a break, put the thesis on the edge of your desk and then come back to it, refreshed and renewed. Doing that helped me be the most productive.