I am no stranger to being the only gay one in the room. More significantly, I am no stranger to being the identifiable gay one in the room. I am a masculine-identified female. Since moving to Canada, I have intentionally avoided predominantly Caribbean immigrant spaces, and more so Jamaican immigrant spaces, maintaining periphery relationships with my Caribbean community. The neighbourhood I live in was chosen for the sheer lack of Caribbean people. I don’t visit clubs in Pickering, or Ajax and the three months I lived in Scarborough were some of my unhappiest. I avoid my people. I even avoid Jamaican food. Subtly has never been a strength of the Caribbean people. We are bold and strong in convictions, and when you are empowered by the status quo of acceptable social behavior, we are discriminatory in our convictions.
Walking through Eglington West in August 2011, I was harassed. The strong Jamaican accent unforgettable in this moment. I went to pick up patties at Randy’s. I wanted to see the pan chicken men I heard so much about. The scene is no different from Half-Way-Tree in Kingston, Jamaica. Men on the corner, hanging out, a visible lack of Canadian accents and faces.
There are a few Eastern Caribbean accents, but this corner is dominated by Jamaicans. Also not absent from this moment, the stares. I can feel them beneath my skin, I can hear the whispers like megaphones in my mind. One man says, “see one a sodomite dem weh just haffi show up fi get visa”. I put my oblivious face on, order my patties and continue my walk through the community. This is Canada, I have rights in Canada.
I continue to walk, ignoring the ‘catcalling’ behind me.
“Yuh know me like my sex rough…come rough mi up nuh”
He continues. I realize in this moment that I am being followed in hopes of responding.
“Mi know yuh hear mi yuh nuh”
“Sodomite gyal yuh know weh my buddy coulda do fi you”
Walk faster I think, walk faster, I do.
“Yuh a run from buddy. A diss it mek fah ole nasty gyal.”
Another male voice says, “guh sober up and stop harass the girl, a nuh yaad diss.”
A group of men laugh, and the sound of my heart beating is now louder than the sounds of the streets. He is gone and I am further away from the Jamaicans; I feel safe. I didn’t think for a moment that I had the right to respond.
If I did respond, would I have defused him or emboldened him?
I don’t know. There are no gifts to receive by replaying and rethinking. I know that moment of street harassment is the least of my encounters with homophobia, but it is no less impactful. It stands equal to my experience with sexual assault, equal to my experience with police harassment, equal to being dismissed by as unworthy by people I have loved.
This is Canada, but safety is not a physical place. Safety is an emotional space. Safety is feeling that even things you cannot control will not hurt you. Safety is having a community. I didn’t leave homophobia in Jamaica because countries aren’t homophobic, cities aren’t homophobic people are. There are days in Kingston, Jamaica that I have felt safer and more protected than I have on days here in Toronto.
I will always have those days, such is the life of living outside the margins, such is the life of not belonging where you were born.
But the goal was never to belong, the goal has always been... to be.