Growing up gay in the Caribbean, I was in constant survival mode

On an island where everything from pop music to the church demonises your sexuality, you police your every move

It is a strange thing growing up in an island called “Little England”. You inherit the legal system, the educational system and even the old English mannerisms and words. But you also inherit something far more sinister; a cornucopia of archaic laws and prejudices.

Imagine being a young child of six who realises that he likes boys. Now imagine this while living in a place where who you are, what you want to do and who you may choose to love is not only illegal, it’s seen as immoral. Imagine the impact that can have on a child. The absolute burden of knowing that you have to hide who you really are for the rest of your life.

I love my country. Its beaches and its 365 days a year sun; I love the food, the humour and the easiness of the island. But there is a dark underbelly of intolerance, of religious zealousness and of rampant hypocrisy which if you are not strong enough will slowly kill you from the inside out.

I remember everything that was ever said that hurt me. Especially the words said by those I loved and who loved me. My father once shouting at my mother and saying: “It is because of you and your mother [my grandmother] that he is like that.” My mother years later telling me that “she will never accept this” when I finally officially came out to her. And even my wonderful grandmother once saying that she hopes I “find more happiness than my uncle”. My uncle, her son, is also gay.

School was even worse. Any slight movement of the head or hand could give you away so you had to watch and plan everything carefully. A few days ago I watched a video of Wentworth Miller, the gay actor, who said that every day growing up was like being in “survival mode”. It is as if he lived my life. All of us growing up gay in the Caribbean are in survival mode.

We defended ourselves against the religious leaders and followers who praise the lord by demonising that which they don’t understand. Or as is common place in this island of masks – that which they are but don’t want to see.

We defended ourselves against the music. The music of Jamaica which called for gay people to be murdered and burned alive. Imagine being a gay closeted teenager and going to your first party and hearing the words “shot the batty boy” blaring from the speakers. What do you do? You bop your head, cock your hand into the sign of a gun and point it at the guy who is even gayer than you. Point it and humiliate the ones who dared to let their masks fall.

Growing up in this predominantly black society as a gay boy you try to take your inspirations where you can. But who? Mr Humphries from Are You Being Served? Perhaps Steven Carrington from Dynasty? Maybe Will and Jack from Will & Grace? But where were the gay men who looked like me? Who had my story? Who could understand that the life of a black gay boy in the Caribbean had its own narrative and its own tragedy?

I made it through school by never daring to dream of a life beyond quick fumbles in the back of a car or an existence of lies and excuses. I had partners but we all suffered from the sickness of invisibility and the scourge of self loathing. How could we possibly be good for each other when we were so harsh on ourselves?

My coming out was a night of high drama in my house. My father hugged me, told me I was his son and he would always love me. My mother seemed more concerned about what others would think. In the Caribbean we live our lives through the eyes of others – to be gay was bad but to be the parent of a gay son or daughter was worse. You had failed. Your gene pool was infected. Your son or daughter was a disappointment. You get veiled sympathy and offers of beating the gay out of him. You get invitations overflowing to church. You get a shoulder to cry on and a willing ear to transmit it to all who would listen.

But today 25 years later I am seeing a change. Social media has helped young gay men and women in the Caribbean to know they are not alone. Amazing advocacy groups are increasingly popping up in Barbados, Jamaica and Guyana who are demanding that gay men and women have a voice and a right to be treated equally. The pond of role models is slowly deepening. We see ministers and diplomatic representatives, media spokespeople and doctors, artists and teachers increasingly being less guarded about who they are. We see people finding love.

I have seen boys and girls I have grown up with – part of the survival mode clan – living happily with their partners. I am getting an increasing number of invitations to weddings. Weddings! Growing up we never even allowed ourselves to think such a thing was possible.

But two things are consistent. One, to find this love and survival the vast majority of these brilliant, creative, passionate souls have left the Caribbean. And two, although social media has connected those of us who thought we were unconnected, it has also given a voice to the cowardly and the ignorant. Read the comments section to any article on the topic of homosexuality in the Caribbean at your own risk.

But these people are not on the right side of history. The younger generation is increasingly more accepting and able to think for themselves. My hope is that this free thinking will lead them on a path – not to the dreaded tolerance – but to acceptance of equality.

As for me, I just celebrated my 12th anniversary with my partner. My parents are my best friends having embraced my truth and embraced my partner. I silently work to push for equality at every stage I can. I am no longer in survival mode – well not 100%. Like my home country I still have a way to go. But I’m on the right route.

Source – The Guardian