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.
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.
‘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.”