How My Family Changed

My family’s relationship with my queerness has always been complicated. I never expected it change.

When I was 14, I got into a giant argument with some extended family about what qualified as gay behavior. It led to this huge fight between me and them, and then another between me and my mother when she failed to see things the way I do. I always knew my mom was homophobic, but it was in a ‘by default’ kind of way. I knew she wanted me to end up with a man, married with children (like a woman is “supposed” to be), and all the works. It wasn’t until this argument that I realized just how homophobic she was. She informed me that if I ever came out as gay to her, she would kick me out of the house and I would no longer be considered her child.

It was the most terrifying thing I had ever heard my mom say regarding me, but I didn’t really expect anything else. My family is Jamaican. Being gay is illegal there. They literally stone people to death in the streets for it, and if not, it’s punishable by jail time.

Don’t ask me why, but I used to look up news stories about how queer people went to visit family and were found murdered before they could make their way back to America. At the time, I perceived my mother’s attitude to things like this as “well, that’s awful, but…” as though that kind of violence towards gay people was justifiable. One of the videos was of my stepfather, a very stereotypical heterosexual Jamaican man. He had brought a guy friend home and showed us all a video of them harassing a queer man on the streets of Brooklyn. I remember them laughing like they weren’t terrorizing this poor guy for just existing. It led to a very heated debate between everyone in the household as to whether that behavior was okay or not. My mother acted as a mediator, but I felt like I knew which side she was on. My stepdad’s friend loudly and proudly said that they used to beat kids up for being gay. He wrote it off as “just a thing we did. If a man’s gay, he deserves to get his ass beat. You don’t act like that.” Of course, it led to the whole bible argument (as though they’re religious), and I ultimately lost because talking back to anyone older than me was rude and I was a poor ‘brainwashed American child.”

When this happened, I was still experimenting with my sexuality. I knew I wasn’t straight, but I didn’t know just how gay I was, and was kind of hoping it would pass. I wasn’t anywhere near ready to come out, but after these series of events, I decided that I wouldn’t tell anyone in my family about it. I would carry my gayness to the grave.

I was not expecting to be supported in the slightest. But, when I was 16, something miraculous happened. My mom and I tearfully sat down in our living room and she said to me, “tell me the truth, Anika…” At this time, I wholeheartedly believed she was going to send me to Jamaica to ‘straighten me out’ or whatever, and that was scary, but I couldn’t lie to her anymore. She doesn’t know this, but I had a plan. If she ever found out, I was going to grab the bag that I had packed and find a queer shelter with a friend and hope they never found me. I don’t remember exactly what I planned to do after this. When I came out though, she just nodded and told me that she always knew and that she loved me anyways. I cried and was thankful, but for a little while, I totally did not believe her. I was ready for that seemingly innocent “we’re going to Jamaica now,” call and it kept me on my toes for a while.

Looking back, I understand my paranoia. I understand why I was scared, but I can’t help but feel a little silly. There’s a little voice in the back of my head every time they show me acceptance and validation. It’s goes “they’re your family, of course they love you.” I don’t know what has mentally happened in the years between then and now exactly, but I like to imagine that they all came together, my mom, step-dad, and aunts, and said,  “Okay, we have a gay one. Here’s a packet of what we need to know.” It makes me laugh because that’s probably actually what they did. They probably called each other and talked about me and then decided this wasn’t worth losing me over.

The only people who outright talk to me about being gay are my parents. I suppose there is still a bit shame that compels everyone to keep their mouths shut about it as though I don’t gallivant throughout my days like the big ol’ lesbian I am. Looking at all the changes they’ve made, I can’t be mad at them for that.

Their love for me comes through in very subtle forms. It’s when people give me nasty looks about my pride flag, and my aunt jumps to my defense. Or when I got my haircut in a very masculine way, and my other auntie laughs and jokingly goes “you butch now?” Or when my step-dad lovingly pesters me about bringing my girlfriend home to meet everyone. Or when they call because they need help understanding something queer. Most importantly, it’s when my mom helps me buy clothes for pride, or when she gets me a cup with a rainbow on it because “it’s pride month, I haven’t forgotten.” Or when she lets me stick my gay pins all over her work bag and doesn’t take them off. The list goes on, but my point is, I am extremely proud of my family for straying from the way they were raised to show me support. They chose loving me over the problematic ways they were raised, and I am so, so grateful.

Coming out is a big deal, but I massively overlooked how much of a change it is for the people around me. I thought that people should just change, should just love their children unconditionally because that’s what made sense in my head. I didn’t realized how lucky I am to have actually had that happen for me. It must have been hard for them, maybe just as hard as it was for me to come out.

I realized this when sitting around the dinner table on Christmas. Everyone was complimenting my new haircut. I realized it again when my mom got everyone these really cool specially made glasses for New Years and my mine had a rainbow on it. She said something she always says when she gave it to me, “I think about you.” Those words were easy to brush aside all these years, but suddenly they held all this meaning and love that I just didn’t notice before. Then I realized all at once that 2018 is over and I am still here. I’m 20 years old and I’m not dead. I didn’t run away. I have an amazing haircut. My whole family knows I’m gay, and for the most part, it’s okay. 

Happy New Year everyone!

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14 comments

  1. How very fortunate you are, Anika. Your family members love you so much that they’ve been willing to grow right by your side and change their culturally supported attitudes. You didn’t have to leave home. They didn’t abandon you. So many queer kids are forced to confront expulsion from their families/homes. Social service organizations, like The Attic Youth Center in Phila. and the Ali Forney Center in N.Y.C. try their best to offer anchors to these young people.

    In the era during which I came of age coming out was out of the question. The fear of being exiled from my family was so tremendous. An unfortunate truth with which I live is my mother’s keeping my writing a state secret. So great was the shame she felt regarding my sexuality, that she never mentioned my published books to anyone, not even to her closest and most trusted friends.

    Rejoice in the light of your family’s love for you! HAPPY 2019!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This was such a wonderful piece. Thank you for sharing your story, Anika.
    It is good that your family came around and support you.

    Like

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