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Tuesday, 28 June, 2022

Gender, Sexual Identities and Inclusivity

Social Media Campaign #decidesAB

Should loving someone of the same sex – or identifying as a different gender to the one you were assigned at birth – result in ridicule, harassment and discrimination? Too many young people are still suffering stigma and self-shame due to their sexuality or gender nonconformity. The #BeYou campaign aims to put a spotlight on LGBTQ matters with a series of stories from local people courageous enough to share their personal journeys with the public - in the hope that others will be spared their pain. Because LGBTQ rights are human rights. The #BeYou campaign is co-funded by the European Union and implemented by DECIDES AB in partnership with Women Against Rape and Observer NewsCo.

Campaign

The goal of this campaign is to peel the layers off of the issues of sexual identity and inclusivity looking at the subject from a socio-political viewpoint. Where we are right now, what has caused these mindsets and how we can change the mindset of our youth so we go beyond just tolerance to the point of acceptance and how we can create lasting cultural changes in beliefs and attitudes.

Their Stories

Life as a bi-sexual woman

Sexuality cannot be fit into a box, and like many other sexual orientations on the spectrum, bisexuality has found itself in a grey area with more and more people “testing the waters”. More specifically, the inquisitiveness of most women has caused many to see bi-sexuality as a muddled phase. But to Jess, who has lived as a bisexual woman for over a decade, it is a lifestyle of emotional, romantic and physical attraction to people of both sexes. Now, the question of whether or not someone could know their sexual orientation at an early age has always been a topic of discussion, but according to Jess, by the age of 10 she already knew she was attracted to both sexes.

“At one point when I was much younger, I never liked men but now I do. But I realize that I was bisexual when I was about 10,”

And like many persons it was a light bulb moment where she just "knew" with all certainly The 24-year-old is however not “open” to her family because “I grew up in church and a Christian family,” she said imputing fear of not being accepted. Jess explained that “men go crazy when they find that a girl is bisexual” but it isn't all roses and honey because she is not able to “come out” to her mother because she once stopped speaking to her after seeing a photo of her with a girl. In addition to that, closed minded persons still throw stones like, "you're gonna burn in hell" for being you. But "I think it’s something that people can’t control but they do have some people who turn to the same sex because they’ve been hurt before by the opposite sex," she started. Then, on the bright side, "it is much easier to live in the Caribbean, to live as a lesbian or bisexual woman than men who are gay." You may not be taken seriously but you will be living your truth. So, Jess suggests that anyone questioning their sexuality should "just try it because that’s the only way you’ll know if you like it”. The life of a bisexual woman is a life lived the way she wants to live.

‘All three of them did what they had to do. I am happy they didn’t kill me.’

For Mark*, growing up under the care and guidance of his parents, the people who nurtured, protected and loved him unconditionally, was all he needed. They were not rich but they provided the love and support he and his four siblings needed to thrive. However, at 11 years old, his life would take a shocking turn that would require the very same support and love he had come to know in order to get through and perhaps serve as an ominous foreshadowing of things to come. Head down and in a sombre tone, he recounts his first run-in with sexual trauma at the hands of an older male cousin. “We were looking for some guineps on the tree and after I noticed that he was watching me a funny way,” he recalls. “He grabbed me from back way and pulled me into the bushes and did what he had to do [rape].” The ordeal, still vivid in his mind, not only left Mark with emotional wounds but with physical injuries that he had to report to his mother. Thankfully his family rallied around him and his cousin was punished for what he had done. However, the incident left the preteen with more questions: questions about who he was and who he was attracted to. “It was very confusing and I began going with both genders,” he added, explaining that he continued to “experiment” with his sexuality. He noted, however, that after meeting a young lady he thought he would spend the rest of his life with during his teens, he forgot about engaging with people of the same sex. That relationship ended, however, after the woman in question cheated on him and he began to experiment with his sexuality once again.

Dealing with sexual trauma as an adult

Now 25 years of age, Mark recalls journeying to a relative’s house a village over, a trek that he had made numerous times before, but this time would leave an imprint that still triggers strong emotions to this day. “I was walking to my uncle’s house and there were a lot of bushes. The person came from the bush and I didn’t see the person’s face because they had on a mask and the person did what they had to do,” he explained, leading to more confusion. While he reported the matter to his parents, little could be done at the time, with the perpetrator unidentifiable due to the mask he wore.

The sweetness of victory was about to turn sour

Four years later, Mark would suffer another assault that left him fearing for his life and terribly shaken. “I went to play netball, because I was playing for a male netball team. I had decided to leave home my car because I was tired of driving,” he recalled. With a chuckle, he remembered playing the game, the last of the championship and his team emerging the winners. Now drenched in champagne after the post-game celebrations, he awaited his ride outside the sports complex, which was taking some time as it got later. “My mom kept calling because she is a person like that. If one of us is not in the house she is not going to sleep,” he added. He recalled that as he waited three guys passed in a vehicle and asked if he needed a ride and he replied that he was waiting on someone already. Mark had to repeat himself multiple times since the vehicle returned again and again with the occupants offering to give him a lift repeatedly. “I saw one of the guy’s face and I realised, wait… I know that guy,” he said. The person in question was one of his high school classmates. “It was getting late and my mom was worried so I took the ride,” he explained. As they made their way, his internal alarms started to blare when he realised that they were not actually going in the direction of his home. While he protested, he was met with shocking resistance. “I told them I am not going this way, I am going straight and one of them told me ‘Just hush yah mout’,” he recounted.

‘I was happy they didn’t kill me’

At this point he was now facing a gun as the men took him to a remote location. “All three of them did what they had to do,” he said shaking his head, almost still in disbelief at another trauma endured. “I was just happy that they didn’t kill me.” The words his classmate uttered after the ordeal still echo in his head today, “He barefaced said that he didn’t get it while we were in school so now he get it….” Mark never reported this incident, not even to his parents who had shown their love and support to him all his life. He explained that he was overwhelmed with emotions and fearful that his parents would do something to the individuals that they would ultimately regret. “I kept asking myself, why did these things happen to me… what did I do?” he added.

Learning to cope and advice to parents

Today, he says that the emotional scars still remain even though he tries his hardest to cope with what has happened to him. “I try not to worry about it. When I think about it, I normally cry. I don’t know why I am not crying now,” he said, pausing in reflection on the emotional and troubling experiences. He now lives as a gay man and has come out to his mother, father and four siblings, all of whom he says still love and accept him. Mark is hoping that more parents develop the types of relationships with their children that allow them to feel comfortable enough to report instances of sexual abuse. He takes his admonition one step further as he asks parents to love their children unconditionally despite their sexual orientation. “It’s your child, you’ve carried him or her for nine months, just be there for them,” he said.

*Name has been changed

If you are affected by the issues raised in this article, contact action group WAR for support by emailing [email protected] or calling +1 268 721-5553.

‘They used to call me a little girl – or ‘it’’

Arthur* is 30 years old now but he says he knew he was not like the other boys from the age of three. “I didn’t hate playing with toys, like trucks and so on, but I also liked dolls … I don’t think I ever wanted to be a girl, I was just not a tough boy growing up and I didn’t try to be anything other than,” he says. Growing up in a traditional Caribbean household, playing with dolls was a cause for contention in his family but, after continued verbal scolding, they eventually left him alone. He says strangely, at the age of four, he felt no attraction towards girls and felt that “something was definitely different” about him. He was teased throughout primary school and was bullied in his formative years at the Antigua Grammar School – an all-boys school. “It reached a point where they actually called me ‘it’. It was quite mean to be honest – they said they can’t tell if I was a girl or a guy because I looked androgynous,” he recalls. Ironically, Arthur says, there was touching because “guys do those things apparently”. Though he doubts that they will admit it now, he says some of the guys who would tease him would secretly try to “do things” with him. It was not until age 15 that Arthur says he finally mustered up the courage to admit to his male best friend that he was gay. To his surprise, his friend, whose parents were pastors, was accepting of who he was. “I think I told him in fifth form, the very last year of school, and they [school mates] would have seen certain things, certain actions and behaviours throughout the four years, so he wasn’t surprised. “His mom and I got kind of close and eventually I did tell her. She seemed sort of accepting – I didn’t get a whole lecture on ‘God thinks it’s wrong’ surprisingly,” he shares. Although not as close as they used to be, Arthur says they are still friends. In fact, he says if it was not for the secondary school he went to, he may not have made a lot of male friends – something he is thankful for.

‘They’d hope that you’d grow out of it’

It was at age 17 when Arthur told his family that he was gay. He told his younger sister first. She seemed accepting of him. On the other hand, he has never admitted this to his brothers but he says they know. “My family, they know of me but sometimes I feel like they don’t truly accept me, they just tolerate me,” he says. His aunt, he continues, as if to say she already knew, told him that she realised he was different from a young age. “My aunt is more accepting and socially aware of the things you should say – like what’s acceptable and what’s not,” he explains. But his brothers, he says, tend to make homophobic jokes when they are around his mother. He says his mother knows of his sexuality but refuses to acknowledge or talk about it. Although he doesn’t like it, Arthur doesn’t say anything to avoid creating an argument. At school, he and his friends formed a safe space where they would share their challenges and questions, but some topics, he says, had to be whispered just in case. While others around him may have been seemingly accepting of his sexual orientation, it was in college when Arthur himself started embracing the person he continues to identify as 13 years later. He would be less depressed because he had come to terms with it, and acknowledged that he was not weird nor was he the only one who felt the way he did. He tells me, “American media helped; social media helped. It was during the early stages when it helped … and I was always excited when I met someone in Antigua who was like me. “I have a very small circle, very supportive; I talk to them about any and everything.”

‘I have made some good friends but …’

However, even inside the LGBTQ community, there are confidence struggles like any other group of people. Arthur relays his experiences with people whom he refers to as “bitter” and “selfish people”. “They’re angry, they’re jealous … I’ve had people not like me because of how I looked. Two persons actually said to me, I cannot be your friend because you’re my competition,” he explains. His biggest surprise though, is rejection from people of his generation and younger who continue to perpetuate negativity and stigma towards the LGBTQ community in Antigua and Barbuda. “It surprises me when it’s someone younger or my age because I just thought we were more open-minded as opposed to our parents and grandparents but that’s not always the case,” he says. For now, Arthur avoids crowds because he says he doesn’t know how people will react to him in public. “Going out makes me anxious,” he remarks, telling me that he often enters a room guarded and cautious. The discrimination he felt applying for jobs likely contributed to his reserved character, as he shares being turned down numerous times – and not because he wasn’t qualified for the job.

‘Depression is so prevalent; a lot of young people are depressed’

Arthur hopes to one day become a psychologist for people who identify as non-heterosexual. “There are some who are genuinely depressed and they’ve said to me that they actually don’t know where to go, who to turn to,” he says. He too sought the services of a psychologist when he was not in a good place mentally and had to hold back a lot of information because he felt that he would be judged for his lifestyle. “I think she tried to remain unbiased and to remove personal biases but that wasn’t always the case, so I said, I’m not sharing this, it’s just not happening. So, I know a lot would not probably be comfortable speaking with a straight older person,” he explains. Arthur says the community, like himself, also fear that in such a small society, information divulged in confidentiality would get revealed to others. “You don’t have to say much for people to realise, oh, I think they’re talking about John,” he adds.

‘Gay rights are not separate from human rights’

Among the changes Arthur wants to see is the removal of the buggery law which criminalises sexual intercourse between two men or two women in Antigua and Barbuda. Arthur makes the case that it’s not being enforced in the twin island state nor is it a law in the United Kingdom anymore. He also wants law enforcement officers to be trained on how to properly deal with the LGBTQ community when they report cases of violence and abuse. “They do not take matters of LGBT seriously at all. I’ve had friends being ridiculed when they give reports of sexual assault or otherwise,” he says. “Are you sure that’s what happened and you didn’t just agree to it” – those are some of the remarks made when he says he or his friends file a report. Outside of that, he advocates for fair treatment in the workplace and for people to recognise that gay rights are not separate from the rights that other people enjoy. “I think legislation or policies need to be put in place with regards to workplace discrimination. I’m speaking from personal experience; that really affected me. I’m sure it’s affecting other people. “We have to survive; we deserve the same opportunities,” he insists.

*Name has been changed

‘It’s easy to hate what you don’t understand’

Daniel was nine when he became aware he felt different to the other kids at school. “At primary school I just wanted to play cricket and climb trees, but I forced myself to hang out with the girls,” he says, smiling at what now seems absurd. “They’d all be talking about their favourite singers, playing hopscotch and jumping rope. I thought the way I felt meant there was something wrong with me.” Growing up in a Christian home in Guyana, Daniel – who was born female – struggled with confusion over his gender identity for several years. “As I got older, hormones came into play and I started to feel attracted to girls. Still, I had boyfriends just to hide it,” he explains. It was one of those boyfriends to whom Daniel first revealed how he really felt; he was supportive and the pair remain close friends. With a ready grin and a laidback charisma, Daniel, now 28, has an ease about him that may not have been as evident before he began to embrace his true self some years ago. Dressed in a polo shirt, jeans and sneakers, neither does he balk at disclosing some of the more sensitive details of his journey to becoming a transman.

‘Why should I hide who I am to fit in? I was living a lie’

The term ‘transgender’ refers to a person whose sex assigned by a doctor at birth, usually on account of their external genitalia, does not match their gender identity, ie, their psychological sense of their gender. Contrary to popular belief, one does not have to change their physical appearance or attributes to qualify for the definition. “At first I used to go as a lesbian, but that identity didn’t sit well with me as it didn’t align with how I felt internally,” Daniel explains. Meeting more people from the LGBTQ community helped him realise he was far from alone. But that still didn’t counteract how he was received by the wider world. “Externally I looked like a female but internally I felt more male. I didn’t acknowledge my female counterparts that were assigned to me,” he says, indicating his chest. “Every opportunity I got I’d strap them down. “Even though I was dressing as a male, it didn’t feel enough. I was going through a lot of self-stigma; some days I didn’t have the energy to get up.” In early 2020, shortly after arriving in Antigua where he has relatives, Daniel began hormone replacement therapy which involves having testosterone injections every three weeks. “Taking hormones made me feel more accepting of myself. It was like finally releasing that little boy inside me,” he says. Finding the right doctor to help start the journey was a feat all of its own; several said they lacked the experience to be able to assist. Finally, a local female GP agreed – but not before a string of blood tests and a deluge of questions to ensure Daniel had the emotional capacity to cope with the changes ahead. “She seemed to have a lot of knowledge about it,” Daniel says. “She had helped transwomen before but never a transman.” The effects of the testosterone were fairly fast. “Within two weeks, my skin started to feel really hot, like a hot flash – that was the worst bit. Then my voice started to crack, I grew more body hair, and started to get hungry a lot. “Now when I go to the barber, I tell him not to touch my facial hair,” he laughs. He does plan to eventually have surgery too but says he’s not going to rush it, preferring instead to enjoy the process.

‘My mum refers to me as her son’

Daniel was initially in Antigua on vacation but when the March 2020 lockdown came into effect, he found himself unable to leave. Over the last year he has made a life here and is keen to help give greater visibility to the somewhat muted local LGBTQ community. “A lot of people in Antigua are not familiar with transmen. I have not met any while I have been here, and I have only met three transwomen,” he says. “The community exists; you just don’t really see them. “The hardest part of it all is being away from home. I am really close to my grandmother and not having someone close to me to help me through the process is tough; many days I would find myself crying,” he imparts. Daniel says his parents accept him for who he is and he keeps in regular contact with his mother via frequent video calls. “Since I transitioned, the love is still there,” he says. “In fact my mum and me are even closer than we were before; she calls me her son.” Colleagues at Daniel’s workplace where he’s employed as a data entry clerk have also witnessed his physical metamorphosis. “When I first joined, they’d ask me if I was a tomboy – I said yes to begin with,” he recalls. “I gradually started to disclose who I was and tell them, as my facial hair started showing, that I was a transman. “I started to think, why should I hide who I am to fit in? I was living a lie.”

‘The hardest step is being true to you’

Perhaps unsurprisingly, questions followed. “Some asked if I was hermaphrodite or intersex – I have had to give definitions on a lot of terms. “I also had to explain the difference between a transman and a lesbian; I told them lesbians don’t feel male internally. Transgender people often go through self-shame and dysphoria,” he says, referring to the psychological distress that results from an incongruence between one’s sex assigned at birth and one’s gender identity. Undoubtedly, Daniel’s genial personality has set him in good stead. “At work I’m always smiling and laughing. People can’t hate you when they get to know you as you are, rather than as a gender,” he says. “Several of my coworkers asked me how I wanted to be addressed; 75 percent are happy to call me ‘Mr’ or ‘sir’ and acknowledge me how I present myself. “When people refer to me as ‘she,’ I just don’t answer.” He continues, “It shouldn’t matter to anyone else how I live my life; it’s easy for people to hate what they don’t have knowledge about.” Hailing from the country which once had the dubious distinction of the world’s highest suicide rate, Daniel is acutely aware of the need to ensure good mental health. With a BA in social science, he plans to eventually become a social worker to help more young people struggling with life’s travails. Asked what advice he has for others battling issues of identity, he’s circumspect before responding. “I would tell them you don’t have to force yourself to come out of the closet. There’s no rush to come out. Get to know you first; that’s the most important thing,” he says. “Everyone is different - research and experimenting are good. “The hardest step is being true to you. I first had to come out to myself before I did socially. I used to care more about how others saw me. “If you have self-love, nothing anyone else can possibly tell you can hurt.”

‘If I was doing something wrong, I’d have gone to hell already’

Much of the criticism levelled at the LGBTQ community purports to be on religious grounds, a notion Daniel scoffs at. “Everyone has to answer for themselves. How do they know how God created me? I tell them he created me in His own image. “Some people say having kids before marriage is a sin. I’d say judging people is also a sin. “I do go to church and I believe if I was doing something wrong I’d have gone to hell already,” he adds. Speaking frankly to Observer as part of the #BeYou campaign, Daniel shunned the offer of using a pseudonym. “Speaking out is a way for those in the LGBTQ community to know there are people out there like them in Antigua – and to let society know that no matter how much you disrespect or discriminate against us, we are here to stay,” he says. “All we want is to be accepted and loved for who we are. I am 100 percent happier, more confident and bold in my own skin now than ever. “I love me – and that’s something nobody can take away from me.” If you are affected by the issues raised in this article, contact action group WAR for support by emailing [email protected] or calling +1 268 721-5553.

‘It took me a long time to accept who I was’

“You know that expression – black people can’t be gay?” Quinn Simon is saying. “And if they were, they were either the stud lesbian or the flamboyant gay guy on TV; there wasn’t that normal gay person who you’d walk past on the street and not know they were gay.” Things might have progressed in recent years, “but there’s still a lot of catching up to do”, she adds. It’s a Tuesday afternoon, we’re squeezed into the only private room at Observer’s offices and things have kicked off with a fairly bog-standard question when dealing with sensitive subject matter: are we speaking on or off the record here? Antigua and Barbuda – like many of its regional neighbours – is not always an easy place to be open about one’s sexuality after all. And that’s why precisely why Quinn is eager for a candid, no-holds-barred discussion in the hope of helping normalise LGBTQ relationships in Caribbean society. With her sunny nature and self-assured persona, one would be forgiven for thinking Quinn – sometimes known as Sam – had never wrestled with issues of identity. But that hasn’t always been the case she reveals, recalling the “isolation” she felt as a child. “I felt very alone at times, like I was the weird one; back then I didn’t see people like me,” she imparts.

‘Growing up, I felt like a disappointment’

Now 24, she smiles as she refers to the “alphabet people”, referring to the often dizzyingly long initialisms assigned to the non-heterosexual and non-cisgender community. For her own part she identifies as demipansexual, the term used to describe those capable of feeling sexually attracted to anyone regardless of gender, provided there is a deep emotional connection. “Romantic and emotional attraction comes first for me,” she explains. “I am also gender non-conforming but I do present as feminine, mainly because of stigma – I don’t want to be labelled as that ‘stud-chick’. “I have a professional image to upkeep. I’m a youth parliamentarian, so I try to keep a more approachable image.” As young as seven, Quinn remembers asking teachers why girls had to wear a dress instead of shorts. Later, an all-girls environment – Antigua Girls’ High School – made talking about such things easier, she says. Quinn is in fact engaged to a “lovely young woman” she met at school. A silver engagement ring hangs on a chain around her neck. While Quinn has a hormone imbalance, she says it has no bearing on her sexuality. “I come from a family of women who, by nature, have a lot of testosterone – and they’re all happily married,” she grins.

‘Who you are is something to be proud of - and you deserve love’

From the age of 14 to 17, she took an oestrogen enhancer to help regulate it. “But, as much as I liked feeling, looking and behaving a bit more normally, after a while I stopped because I wanted to be my true self,” she says. “I have always loved carpentry and building things and was often called on in school to help out with ‘guys’ stuff’ like moving heavy things. “I think that helped me start to express myself more. I realised I could be a feminine girl who showed masculine traits. “It took a long time to accept who I was.” Quinn has been open with friends about her sexuality since she was 13. Families, as many LGBTQ people will testify, can often be trickier. “I am the black sheep of the family; I have two traditionally perfect youngers sisters,” she says. “It made it hard growing up; I was more or less a disappointment.” Quinn grew up without her father – again, she says that played no part in her sexual preferences as some social commentators have historically alleged – but is close to her mother and siblings. “I grew up surrounded by strong independent women; that’s why I’m so outspoken,” she laughs. “At the same time, it made it more difficult to be open with them as they’re also very traditional. My mother would say, ‘you won’t get married if your roti isn’t round’. “They’re very Christian too; my mother says she loves me but doesn’t want to see me in hell. She once told me to go to a preacher and get myself dealt with. “It does a lot of psychological damage.” Quinn says she has never come out per se to her parents, because she’s not sure what the precise reaction would be. “But I know they love me and accept a lot of wild things about me - they are not oblivious. “My dad once told me he knew I was going through a lot and loved me no matter what,” she says, tearing up at the memory. “It means a lot; you still want your parents’ approval.”

‘A lot of people are afraid to be allies because the stigma can be transferred’

Legal same-sex marriage may be some way off in Antigua and Barbuda. Quinn and her fiancée plan to eventually marry in Canada. One major reason Quinn has become more open about her sexual preferences is to help her partner feel more comfortable with being ‘out’. “She was afraid of holding hands but we have both now reached a place where we’re tired of hiding. I know too many people in the closet about their sexuality, their gender identity, or just their views because of stigma. “A lot of people are even afraid to be allies because the stigma can be transferred,” she says. One thing she’s grateful is for growing up in the age of the internet, “so I could see there were other people like me”. “Now we are seeing them more, but seven to 10 years ago that wasn’t the case. And it’s even worse in the black community; some people still think black people can’t be gay.” These days, Quinn says she’s more confident and happy than she’s ever been; switching her name from Samantha or Sam is in tribute to the shedding of her former, troubled self. She takes a breath, considering her answer carefully, when asked what message she has for others struggling to deal with questions over identity and sexual preferences. “You are not wrong, you are not broken and you are not selfish,” she says firmly. “Who you are is something to be proud of - and you deserve love. “You will meet people who will hurt you with malicious intent and you’ll want to give up and run away and hate people, but you have to reach a point where you remember not everyone is evil. There are still good people in the world.” She adds earnestly, “Someone, one day, will love you as you are - with all your scars and broken bits and make you feel accepted. “It’s not always going to be night; it is going to get better.”