by Afi Browne
For the past 10 months I have been working with Springtide Resources, an agency committed to ending violence against women and everyone who faces oppression, such as queer and trans people, people with disabilities, Deaf people, immigrants and refugees. Along with four other youth and our project coordinator we have been creating curriculum around our own experiences of oppression and using that curriculum to encourage youth to create positive messages to counteract the racist, xenophobic, fatphobic, homo and transphobic , classist and ableist messages we receive in our lives. This is the MyMSG Project.
Teenage years are rarely easy. For me, they were intense. Apart from dealing with terrible acne and trying to keep on top of my grades and extra curriculars, I was harbouring a secret. I was—I am—queer. Let me give some more context. I was born and raised in Trinidad and come from a strict Pentecostal family - my parents are pastors, their parents were/are pastors. Being a homo is considered an abomination. I was petrified of going to hell and scared of telling my parents lest they exorcise me…again (yes you heard me, I had a pre-emptive exorcism when I was a child to rid me of the family’s gay curse) - so I told no one for a while. I did not have many friends when I was 14 and having all these feelings. I certainly did not feel safe coming out at my all-girls Christian school where there were many assemblies that were dramatically pro abstinence and highlighting of “the danger of the homosexual lifestyle.”
I was doing a good job of hiding my queerness until I met GIRLS! There was this girl at school, captain of the volleyball team, all around bad ass who introduced me to cutting class and helped me strategize around my parent’s strict rules, getting me to pool halls, bars and discos. With one smile she had undone me, I was silly putty around her. She always wanted me to brush her hair while she rested in my lap during lunch and our “free” periods. I of course was delighted! We would take naps together lying in each others’ arms. I loved her so much.
Things were going all right ‘till the rumours started. My crush quickly publicly distanced herself from any homo suspicion by limiting our naps and announcing that she had a boyfriend, who was older and drove a fast car. I was crushed. But if that wasn’t hard enough, my classmates started avoiding me. Some even called me faggot for the rest of my high school career. I sank into a deep depression and also developed an eating disorder as I thought I was fat and ugly. My parents were concerned but only offered me prayer. What is my reason for living I wondered? Why would God be so sadistic to make me this way just to then send me to hell?
Certain things got me through these hard times. I confided in a true friend and was relieved to discover that she was completely cool with it and even knew people in Trinidad who are gay. It is so comforting to have someone in your life that accepts you for who you are. I reached out to my gay aunt in Toronto (yes I have a gay aunt!) and she shared a lot of love and advice and told me about my gay uncle (no wonder my family thinks we have a gay curse … more like blessing!). My uncle is unfortunately no longer with us, but I have heard that he was totally fierce – my queero (queer hero)! My aunt told me of all the adversity she went through - coming out to my family and being disowned by them, facing discrimination at work, etc. But she also told me that this too will pass, that I am beautiful and capable. She said to always have a plan: work my ass off to get my education and be financially independent just in case I were to be outed and disowned, like she was. My aunt mentored and loved me from afar; she lived here in Toronto and I was still in Trinidad, longing to be in a place where I could be openly queer.
There is a saying back home “advantage never done” that means that there are, sadly, always people that will oppress others. This saying really rang true for me a few years ago. I had migrated to my dream city of Toronto, Canada had been out for a while and was loving “The Village.” One night I went to a bar on Church Street. The drag queen on stage, upon seeing me and my friends, who were all people of colour, made a face and after the number was finished she said over the mic, “Which boat did you guys just get off of?” I was so hurt and appalled. Here I thought I had found a community that would fully accept me, a queer black woman of size.
There was another incident that sticks out my mind, again in The Village, I was going home after the Trans March last year and was wearing a lace top with nothing underneath. I thought I would have been safe to wear what I wanted to a community celebration such as this. A guy stopped me and said “Oh my God! You are so brave for wearing that top!” “Ummm, thanks?!” I replied, not sure if this was a compliment. “Yea, you are so brave, cause ya know, you don’t have the ideal body type” he said, slurring his words, he was possibly intoxicated.
Why would anyone who has ever been put down do the same thing to another person? Possibly to feel better about themselves, to make a joke? *Sigh*I am tired of jokes that make fun of queer and trans people, people of size, people with disabilities, people from other countries, people of different religions and especially jokes that incite violence against women. I am talking about you Daniel Tosh. Don’t know what I’m talking about? Check it out here. I’m too disgusted to talk about it. Wonder why kids are so mean? They learn it from adults.
I hope to live in a world where our differences are celebrated, not punished. It is one thing to comfort a bullied youth by making the future dated promise of “It gets better,” which, don’t get me wrong, is awesome. But what can we do right now for ourselves, for our friends, for our community? One thing we can do is leverage our privilege to be allies to people who face oppression. For example, don’t laugh at jokes that are racist or that put others down based on their identity. I guess this is why I love the My MSG project. It encourages youth to listen and empathise with the oppression their peers face and speak out against the injustices and hurt they feel. We received so many positive messages from the youth we spoke to at high schools and community groups across Toronto. I wish there was a project like this when I was in high school, it would have helped me to feel a little less alone.
For more information about the project, read here.
To support the project by buying a beautiful art-calendar, click here.
If you have any questions or would like to book a free workshop in your classroom or youth group this Winter/Spring, email Ainsley Brittain at email@example.com
Follow the positive messages submitted by Toronto youth here.
For more information on Springtide Resources, click here.
Afi Browne is a Trini born and raised performer who loves to dabble in everything. They are engaged in community organizing and anti-violence work with the art collective R3 and with Springtide Resources. They love supporting other artists and realize this by organizing arts and crafts skill shares and coaching the budding performers of the Rainbow Gleeques Club.