I think I was about fourteen years old when I discovered I was gay. The signs were always there: playing my Dad’s Chaka Khan records, having an unshakeable obsession with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, opting to slay my cousins with Sonya Blade rather than Scorpion at Mortal Kombat. Every member of the LGBTQ+ community has their own memory of the time they realised they didn’t fit the hetero, cisgender mould expected of us. After the initial realisation, there are important decisions we make, consciously or not on how we express ourselves and interact with the people around us. Those fortunate enough to live in a tolerant environment can be as free and open as they choose. For those not so fortunate however, their circumstances all but makes those decisions for them.
The moment I realised I was different was the moment I knew I needed to change. I stopped listening to Madonna, I never told my parents about the bullying I received at school, I learned not to cry or show any emotions I thought would expose me. I used cynicism to hide my hurt from the world, I turned to religion both as a means of salvation and to explain away my lack of agency with the opposite sex. Little did I know, that my actions would lead to me spending the next fourteen years deep in the closet.
I am a second generation black Afro-Caribbean British man. I grew up with the West Indies cricket team, stew chicken with rice and peas, summers following the carnival circuit with my parents- and of course, the violently homophobic attitudes we inherited from the Islands. I remember the assenting nods from our church congregation as the pastor regularly reminded us that being gay was both unholy and unnatural, the stories circulating of the latest ‘batty man’ to fall victim to lynch mobs in Jamaica. I witnessed adults gleefully sing the chorus of T.O.K’s ‘Chi Chi Man’ calling for gays to be put to death by fire and listened intently as family members proudly voiced their hatred of people like me.
My experiences are just the tip of the iceberg for queer people of colour. Despite the trauma I endured, I’m privileged to be born in a country where I can be who I am without fear of prosecution. I never had to worry about being raped as a form of conversion or forced into a marriage I don’t consent to. Still, in the face of all that it’s perhaps unsurprising that a mere 1.1% of black and 1.2% of asian people identify as LGBT in the UK compared to 2.1% of our white counterparts. For me, coming out hardly seemed worth the humiliation, ostracism and eternal damnation that was sure to befall me should my secret become public. I remember watching the ‘It Gets Better’ adverts on TV with raised eyebrows. How could these white, wealthy celebrities with no understanding of my life convince me that everything would come up roses if I came out? The only black British queer person I knew of, both in my community and popular culture was Justin Fashanu, and his fate was one I was keen to avoid.
So instead of accepting myself, I spent my formative years living the strange irony of internalising the negative messages about my sexuality while repressing them at the same time. I spent so many years with cripplingly low confidence and self-esteem that I thought it was an unchangeable part of my personality. The closet protected me from feelings I wasn’t ready to deal with and conversations I didn’t want to have, but it was also a source of great loneliness and self-imposed isolation. My fear and shame ran so deep that I hid all romantic interests from all but the most trusted friends and pushed my toxic behaviour onto my partners. There were thoughts, feelings, memories, ideas, arguments, concerns- a whole side of my life that I kept entirely to myself, irrespective of the consequences for the people I cared about or indeed my own mental health.
It will be a year in September when I finally made the decision to stop living in denial. After previous failed relationships, I decided not to let my sexuality be the reason I couldn’t pursue successful ones in the future. I stopped trying to quell the rumours swirling around about me and prioritised my happiness over the opinion of strangers. Since then, it’s been a painstaking process of unlearning everything I thought I knew about being a gay man. There was much emphasis on coming out to other people, that no-one ever informed me of the vital step of loving and accepting myself for who I am first. Now I’ve started living in the open, I no longer let fear and shame rule my decision making and have built a support network I can rely on. There are still some tough conversations to come, but for the first time in my life I’m excited rather than afraid.