Social media campaign chronicles trials and triumphs of coming out

Members of the local lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community have taken to sharing their coming out stories via social media, in an effort to raise awareness of the challenges they face with societal acceptance.

#ExpressYourself, an online campaign, was started by the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD) in observance of International Family Equality Day (IFED) and International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT).

SASOD Director Joel Simpson speaking at a reception at the Umana Yana hosted jointly by the Delegation of the European Union and SASOD to observe International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT) on Monday. (SASOD/ Neketa Forde photo)

With this year’s IDAHOT theme being “Love makes a family,” Ernestine Leonard, SASOD’s Human Rights Coordinator, explained yesterday that the intention of the campaign is to highlight the challenges that LGBT persons face in not only coming out to the public, but to their families as well.

As a result, SASOD posed the challenge to community members to post a short video relating their personal stories and explaining how the revelation impacted their lives and their relationships with their families.

Initially slated to run from May 7th, when IFED is celebrated, to May 17th, when IDAHOT is observed, the campaign, which saw videos being shared via SASOD’s YouTube channel, has been extended to accommodate the stream of stories that have been pouring in.

Leonard said the response to the campaign has been overwhelming, as more individuals take the leap to send in their videos, the more others are being inspired to come forward as well. Consequently, persons who have not even yet come out to their family members have expressed the desire to use the platform to do so.

Not afraid anymore

Many of the stories, regardless of how they began, progressed and ended the same way. The storyteller, whether under pressure from confrontation, or in a moment of complete self-acceptance, “came out” to their families and friends, leading to first, strife, but then finally, conciliation.

Leon Abrams

In her video, Shaniece Bamfield, who identifies as a lesbian, only revealed her sexual orientation to her family after circumstances forced her into admittance. Bamfield said she at first denied it but chose later to confront her family, when she told them that that was who she was and she was “not afraid of it anymore.”

Bamfield said that it was not until a year after that family members began tolerating her and accepting her lifestyle.

“…they did not like the fact that this is the lifestyle that I chose— well according to them I chose the lifestyle but I didn’t, this is just how I am—and they actually decided to forget the fact that we had our differences when I first came out and we all are one big happy family now, where we’re now talking a lot more than we used to. The family members who shunned me before and didn’t want me around them, they would talk to me now via Facebook or they would come and visit me and so on, but at first…they were all a little distant and they used to treat me like if I’m an outcast but now everybody they’re okay with who I am and it’s not a problem anymore,” she said.

“For the persons who might be in the closet, yeah, it’s very difficult at first, because you’re gonna always wonder, what are they gonna think about me and how would they view me after finding out this about me. But just so you know, it’s not necessarily what people think of you, it’s how you view yourself as an individual to others, because your sexuality is only one part of you and there’s a lot more to you than just your sexuality,” she added.

Shaniece Bamfield

Surinamese Juan Pigot took part in the campaign while on a visit to Guyana. Pigot related that he came out in 1997, while living in the Netherlands, as the environment there was more accepting.

While Pigot received support and acceptance from his brothers and friends, he said he did not receive same from his parents, which he had not expected as he considered them to be liberal people. He speculated that public opinion and his parents’ religious views may have had an impact.

His parents would eventually come around, however, and Pigot advised that a time comes when roles are reversed and children have to take on the responsibility of educating their parents.

“You know, our parents did their job educating us to a certain level, but we come to a phase where they also have to learn. It’s something that they did not experience and that’s also how I explained it to myself; that you cannot expect from your parents to…say hallelujah in the beginning if we are struggling for 18 years or longer to come out of the closet. So it takes time. We also need to give them the space when you see that they are looking for answers…and I think that’s mutual respect.”

Juan Pigot

Writer Akola Thompson took the unconventional route of coming out in a rather public forum—a blog post.

In her video, she explained that her friends seemed unfazed by the news and so must have suspected all along, and while most of her family was accepting, it was her mother that showed the most resistance.

“I am her only child and she is a very conservative woman so I can understand where everything came from. We’re very close but then we did not speak for close to a month and it was very hard. But then slowly she began to come around and it’s reached the point where right now she would just come up and ask me whether I have a girlfriend or if I’m seeing anybody and I always find it so funny because she’s come such a long way from where she was to where she is now and I’m really proud of her for that,” Thompson stated.

“To anyone who is in the LGBT community and they feel like they want to come out, I want to tell you that while it is good that you can come out because then you have more community support and then you have the freedom to be more yourself then, but then I don’t want you to feel like you need to be forced to come out because then as I said, it’s not really anybody’s business what your sexual preferences are,” she advised.

Are you gay?

Akola Thompson

At 13 years old and while attending a family reunion, Leon Abrams, quite dramatically, broke the news of his sexuality to family members over loud speaker.

Abrams, in his video, related that he was expecting negative repercussions, including in the worst case scenario, becoming estranged from the family, and so was quite surprised when he was greeted instead with expressions of love from his family members.

Abrams said that for a while he “carried” himself as transgender, but has since resorted to wearing male attire to attend work, while he would sometimes attend parties in female attire. He said that this is what he found worked best for him.

After taking up his post at the organization, SASOD’s Social Change Coordinator, Jairo Rodrigues, was confronted by his mother about his sexuality.

“One day I was in my room and my mother walked through and she was talking about SASOD and what I’m doing there and we had a conversation on it and she asked the question, “Jairo, are you gay?”

“And I laughed, I laughed to myself because I’m like, are we going to have this conversation now? Are you ready for this conversation? …So, I had the conversation and all through the conversation I was laughing and I was smiling and I was talking to my mother and she too, you know…I find that I had to educate her. And just like my aunt had to educate me and my aunt tried to educate my family, that was now my task,” he related in his video.

Jairo Rodrigues

Rodrigues revealed that he had had the support of his aunt, Zenita Nicholson, who acted as his confidante and counseled him on gender and sexuality. Nicholson had acted as a member of SASOD’s board prior to her death.

“So, I am not only here to represent for the equality and justice for work towards eradicating homophobias in society, but, I am also here to educate, and the perfect opportunity was to start with my family. So my coming out story was actually educating my family about sexuality and gender; that is how I came out,” Rodrigues said.

Another campaign participant, who wished to not be named, offered that anyone considering coming out of the closet should be certain before doing so, but said they should know it is not a road they have to take, as long as they stay true to themselves.

“My advice to people who aren’t out and are thinking about coming out to their family or friends, I wouldn’t say that you have to. What I can say is that you need to be sure. Analyze who is to be trusted, who could deal with it, it’s your family. You know them a lot more than anybody else, so you should know what they could take and what they can’t take…what I go with every day is that if you’re my family and you claim to love me, then you will accept me and if you can’t accept me then you’re not my family; you should love me despite,” he said.

Evolving attitudes

Acknowledging that members of the LGBT community are now a lot more open with sharing their lifestyles, SASOD’s Managing Director Joel Simpson yesterday noted that while there is still extreme violence and homophobia in our society, the local environment toward members of the LGBT community has evolved over the years, which he believes can be attributed to the public education efforts made by supporters of the LGBT group.

He cited a study commissioned by SASOD in 2013 and conducted by the Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES), which showed that 53% of Guyanese are tolerant of homosexuality.

“People are saying that in their experiences and interactions with people in the communities and in clubs and institutions, in places that they go, people are far more respecting of gender and sexual diversity. And I think it stems from the public education—while it’s not an overnight process—and it’s taken years to get here where people who are not day-to-day activists per se feel comfortable submitting videos to share their coming out story and inspire others,” Simpson stated.

Simpson noted that LGBT persons are faced with many challenges that may make them wary of coming out, including the threat of not being accepted by family members, and discrimination in their respective religious institutions and in the workplace.

He recalled an event years ago where a transwoman who worked as a cook, was forced to hire someone else to sell the food she made as she knew persons would not buy from her.

“…What happened to her is that when she had an issue with the person who would go out and sell the food and so on, that person started to spread the word in Kitty market that it’s a “antiman” who cook the food.

That damaged her business; she had to close down and migrate. That was the end of her business and her livelihood,” he recounted.

“So what I’m saying is that there are real consequences and people’s fears aren’t misguided.

The society still does not treat LGBT people equally as how they treat heterosexual people. Until we get to a point where there’s no difference in treatment socially, politically, legally, economically, by all stakeholders—government, judiciary, magistrates, you know—Dylon Bess barring trans women from his court—faith leaders and so on. Until we get to a stage where people are treated equally in all aspects of their lives, people will have a legitimate fear about coming out,” he added.

Referendum ‘backward, cowardly’

Meanwhile, on Monday, the Minister of Legal Affairs Basil Williams, during a reception at the Umana Yana hosted jointly by the Delegation of the European Union and SASOD, reiterated the government’s intention to have a referendum on whether homosexual acts should remain criminal offences, to which Simpson later expressed outrage. “A referendum on any human rights issue is the antithesis of human rights. Human rights exist to protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority. The Attorney General cannot, on one hand, say that human rights are universal, no one should suffer discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, but on the other hand, say we’re putting the same laws which discriminate against this minority group to a popular vote for the bigoted majority to decide whether to keep our communities criminalized or not. Those positions are polar opposites,” Simpson said to media operatives.

Stating that the call for a referendum is a “backward” and “cowardly political move,” Simpson opined that such a call does not fall in line with the APNU+AFC coalition’s commitment in its 2015 elections manifesto to put measures in place to ensure vulnerable groups, including those marginalized because of sexual orientation, are not discriminated against.

“This call for a referendum does not fulfil that commitment. My rights, the human rights of the communities we represent and serve, are not going to be determined by a popular vote.

We reject this call for a referendum, outright. SASOD and our local and international partners will do everything in our power to oppose this call for a referendum on whether our privacy and other rights should continue to be violated by these insidious, discriminatory laws,” he said.

According to a press release issued by SASOD, Williams’ announcement of the referendum came alongside comments calling for tolerance from Guyanese, and a note that the government’s stance remains that no one should be discriminated against based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.

Additionally, the release said that Social Cohesion Minister Dr George Norton had related that the government is giving focus to the re-examination of laws that foster discrimination of LGBT persons.

Thompson, who is a SASOD Women’s Arm Guyana (SWAG) member, and who delivered the feature address at the event, challenged the government’s position as regards LGBT rights, while noting that promises for the advancement of human rights agenda often go unfulfilled.

“What we end up with here is a culture in which any deviation from normalcy is punished. …Often, we get a bit of hope that our identity will someday not be attacked when we hear the words of the leaders we elected to represent us tell us that they will respect our right to exist.

Instead, what we get are threats of a referendum that is set up to further marginalize us, and commendable but still empty, unfulfilled promises to recognize our rights,” she said.

European Union Ambassador Jernej Videtic, stated the EU’s intention to partner with organizations locally to advance the human rights of all, and called on the government of Guyana to repeal the laws criminalizing same-sex intimacy and cross-dressing.

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