By Robyn Ochs
At the Creating Change Conference in January 2017, I had the pleasure of meeting Mark Clifford and Chris Leslie from PRIDE in Action, a Jamaican queer-focused non-governmental organization that serves students and other youth through SPECTRUM, the LGBTQIA+ resource center on the Mona campus of The University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica. I expressed interest in featuring someone from Jamaica in a future issue of BWQ. Mark promised to recommend someone to me.
More than two years later, the following poems and essays appeared in BWQ’s inbox, along with a lovely message from Mark. He wrote: “We enjoy the publication when it comes out and we’ve printed and made the last couple years’ editions available in our library. For the last edition, Chris and I (both cis gay men) selected our favorite entries and posted copies on the wall of the lounge room as our selected picks. We’ll probably do the same again for the new issue, as it gets folks reading! Thanks again for sharing it with us!”
I am delighted to feature, as part of our Around the World series, writing from members of SPECTRUM. For safety issues, we are sharing photos from the Center rather than photos of the authors.
I used to feel like I was cheating the LGBTQ+ community by being bisexual. You tend to hear a lot of, “It’s just a phase,” “You’re just being greedy,” “You’re not really queer—you’re just experimenting,” etc. I felt like an outcast; I didn’t even belong where I was supposed to be able to belong. It took a very good friend of mine to help me come to grips with the fact that being bisexual wasn’t this horrible cheat that allowed me to live in both worlds without committing to either, but it was a part of who I am, and I should accept that. With her help, I was able to be more confident in myself and my sexuality. Music played a huge part in me not wanting to accept my bisexuality. There are a lot of verbal attacks aimed at homosexuals in Jamaican music and because of this, I tried to suppress the part of me that was attracted to the same sex. My thinking was that if I could be “straight,” then why not just do that and ignore my homosexuality? Thus, that became my life. I was walking around trying my best not to look too hard at someone I found attractive just because they happened to have the same genitals as I do. This was very hard for me.
Growing up bisexual in Jamaica is a challenge. There are constant attacks on queers of all shapes and sizes. I never wanted to be a target of these attacks, so I tried my best to stick to dating the opposite sex. That was safest, and I do find both males and females attractive, so no one was getting hurt, right? That’s what I thought, but I was hurting myself. I was denying an entire part of my being. It was crushing my soul and I didn’t even realize it. A friend of mine had to sit me down and force me to face it. That was, up until that point, the hardest conversation I had ever been a part of. She made me realize that denying an entire half of our species even though I was obviously drawn to them was not only stupid, but dishonest and ultimately driven by fear. I may not have wanted to hear that, but I certainly needed to. She ultimately helped me to come out to my best friend, who surprisingly took it a lot better than I expected. I then became more comfortable in my skin and stopped hiding my true self. It was this choice that led me to meet the person that would introduce me to SPECTRUM, a resource center for queer people like me.
SPECTRUM is the first safe space I’ve ever been in. Except for roughly five of my friends, no one knows I’m bisexual, so it is hard for me to be around a large group of my friends because I can never really be myself with them. All that discomfort fades away the moment I step through SPECTRUM’s doors. The people there are so amazingly queer, I feel like I am enveloped in safety as soon as I arrive, and I can finally be the me that I truly am, safe from judgment and prejudice. I am very grateful for that space to just be me. I long for a day where I can tell all my friends and family without fear, but until then, the family I have gained at SPECTRUM keeps me going.
To be SEEN
It often feels as though I carry the weight of stares around my neck. I feel propped up, pampered, and posed to be craved and gawked at for being so fabulously “other.” I am light-skinned, bald, and pretentiously artistic. Oh, and I am bisexual, the perfect mix of lesbian erotica and hetero normative comfort to send men cuckoo for cocoa puffs. While I was very grateful for the (mostly) well-intentioned acclamation, over time it has proven bittersweet.
The journey to accepting my bisexuality has been turbulent, to say the least. At first, being seen as “exotic” was intoxicating. I nonchalantly brought up my sexuality often as I had quite the liberal social group. As my sexual life became more “enriched,” I attracted many spectators. I enjoyed being seen. I enjoyed being accepted. It all felt so very good. Even those opposed to homosexuality found me intriguing. Because I had not “completely crossed over,” my opinions and expressions were somehow more agreeable than those of my lesbian and gay peers. Earlier on in my journey, I had presumed that I was welcomed because of growing liberalism in our previously ultra-conservative Jamaican society—which wasn’t entirely wrong. Admittedly, Jamaican society has evolved greatly since Buju Banton released his infamously homophobic song “Boom Bye Bye” in 1993. But experience and careful observation proved that my bisexuality was nothing more than a fetish for the hetero-male seeking to feed his inner freak. I had become a showpiece for “queerdom,” palatable enough for straight folk. The more my indigence of genuine love showed, the more my “rainbow coat” began to itch.
As my one-dimensional outlook took on flesh and bones, I shed pompous appearances, humbled my tongue, and stayed close to the ground. I took to the internet and searched desperately for others who, like me, wanted love but actually found it. My spiritual life began to flourish, and my identity expanded beyond my gender, sex, and sexual expression. I stumbled into SPECTRUM at the University of the West Indies, an LGBTQIA+ resource center organized by PRIDE in Action—which was honestly God-sent. Being around LGBTQIA+ peers helped me realize that our differences in expressions of gender, sex, and sexuality were not our only noteworthy features. In fact, it was those who used their sexuality as agents of love that received my attention, admiration, and trust.
Then it hit me: society had put so much weight on the fact that I am not hetero-normative that my fight to be accepted often became a fight for my sexuality to be accepted. While helping others to understand and respect sexual expressions different from their own is indeed important, the bigger picture is for me to help my community respect and love people like me for who we are as whole, multidimensional human beings. Furthermore, my pride is no longer grounded in my ‘exoticism’ but in my ability to LOVE, without remorse, men and women. I do want to be seen. I do want to be accepted, not only for my sexuality but for the entirety of who I am.
The want to be understood
like paint dried on canvas
Incongruent to frame
on 10-foot wall in a gallery,
question sign in mind,
wanderers wonder why? What? Art?
I am a painter
vomiting my emotions 2 years prior on canvas,
with soul, with all,
with message in eyes
with eyes on canvas
dreaming to be seen
And to be understood
But wanderers pass by at the discomfort of confusion,
draw righteousness over eyes,
plug ignorance into ears and walk right by.
That is true pain.
To want and not be given
That is true pain.
To be under spotlight before an audience wearing shades
ready to immortalize me for what I am not.