Over a decade ago, Staceyann Chin burst onto the scene with Russell Simmons’ “Def Poetry Jam” on Broadway. Sharing the stage with other prominent poets and hip-hop artists, she garnered a Tony Award for her performance.
Chin, known for candidly revealing her frustrating childhood in Jamaica -- a country known for homophobia -- said she became aware of a growing interest in her experience as a Jamaican lesbian immigrant. In 2010, she released her critically acclaimed memoir, The Other Side Of Paradise.
Chin, 40, a lover of “a good story,” is now working on a new book about motherhood and parenting. When she’s not writing, on stage or traveling the world, she's hosting comrades for tea, wine, “crap TV,” or political talk. In the living room of her Brooklyn apartment, her daughter by her side, Chin chatted with HuffPost about homophobia, Jamaica, motherhood, and more.
What urged you to write your memoir, The Other Side of Paradise?
I read a lot and I didn’t find that there were a lot of books that told the story that sounded like mine. I began speaking out as a lesbian and immigrant when I had just moved to the U.S., in terms of poetry. The more that I spoke out, the more that people began to dig the material. We were trying to figure out how we could publish some parts of the story and it just evolved naturally.
I didn’t see any Jamaican lesbian stories. So I thought it was important so that those coming up behind me would at least have a placeholder. I don’t imagine that it is the story of every lesbian that came out of Jamaica or every lesbian that came out of a brown space, or every girl that was left by her mother, but it became another placeholder.
Were you always very open and vocal?
Yes. I was always very vocal, but open not so much. As a teenager, I had a lot to hide. I was trying to keep the fact that my mother had left me and that I lived in a horrible house from people around me. I didn’t tell everybody at school what was going on, but I was always vocal. If I wanted to share, it was always about sharing it loudly and confidently. I think after I stopped hiding and telling lies about who I was -- which was at about 16 or 17 -- then the floodgate became open.That’s how I got in trouble on campus, telling everyone that I was a lesbian and being attacked. Then I had to move here.
Did you receive any backlash for being very honest about Jamaica?
I’ve had some criticism from people from the Jamaican community here in the U.S., and from the Jamaican community on the island. But largely speaking, I think a lot of the protest has been about the language I use, write in and speak in (how much profanity there is).
When I was on “The Oprah Show” I think there was a lot of backlash about how untrue it was that homophobia is as bad as it is in Jamaica. I think that has to do with the shame that people carry because they don’t want to be seen as backward or non-progressive. I think people wanted to protect the image of Jamaica as this happy wonderful place. I think the contemporary global media construct reminds people that no matter what it is, it will get out. I think people are less concerned with that a decade and a half later.
It’s a weird place that I’m in because it used to be that people were more upset about me, but now there is Diana King, who is a huge Jamaican icon. She just came out as a lesbian, which is astounding on many levels. I don’t think that there is anybody with her star power who is Jamaican that has come out as gay. So now there are two of us. There is JFLAG that has grown so much, that has changed it. A lot of doors were closed for me because I was out and gay. Ten to 12 years ago, when we won the Tony Award, as a Jamaican citizen I didn’t get the kind of celebration that maybe other artists coming out of Jamaica would have had. I think it’s because I’m gay and because my mouth is potty mouth.
Do you feel now that being “out” is beneficial to you, in relation to your career?
I don’t know. In some ways doors have been open, but in a lot of ways doors have closed. There are some people who hire me because I’m gay and there are some people who don’t hire me because I’m gay. I think it’s somewhere in the middle where maybe it doesn’t matter so much anymore because there is a thriving LGBT community in terms of the arts and activism. With regard to Jamaica and accolades, I think being gay has definitely hurt me.
Do you think things have gotten better in terms of homophobia, specifically in Jamaica and in the Caribbean as a whole?
Before, they used to be able to attack people with either silence or compliance from the community. I think now people are beginning to protest it. Straight people are beginning to protest it and definitely gay people are beginning to protest it. There’s a lot more spotlight on it. There are people in the world who are beginning to look at it, people like the Human Rights Campaign and Human Rights Watch. Various groups globally are paying attention to what’s happening, and because of that, things can’t just go. Because of the large global response against homophobia in Jamaica, I think people can’t get away with it as easily.
People are upset about what seems to be the privilege of the gay community in Jamaica -- as in the larger community outside are looking out for them in a way that poor people or maybe women that get raped aren’t. Just the general population who are thinking bullies from the north are coming and telling them what to do. There’s a backlash now. People are angry. Not just because people are gay, but also because they’re angry because of the support that is being garnered for the gay community in Jamaica globally. That ups the resentment more for other people.
The fact that gay people are getting asylum, but you can’t come and say, 'The drug lord in my neighborhood is raping me every day, can I get asylum?' But you can say, 'Oh I want to be with a woman, can I get asylum?' So it’s complicated. The gay community has become more visible in Jamaica. Certain pockets of the gay community are certainly safer. I have friends who can actually live entirely safe lives there.
Being that there’s a lot of intersectionality, for instance, being LGBT and poor, do you think that the light that is being shed on the LGBT community there is actually shedding a light on other issues?
I think in small organizations people are trying to highlight that, but I don’t think that there is enough conversation about the intersectionality between poverty and homophobia and poverty and race. There’s a very small community that really doesn’t identify as black in Jamaica. There’s safety in how they live and how people can be gay in those circles. There isn’t enough conversation about why it is that people tend to be more homophobic, even around religion. A comprehensive conversation about how the global powers have used religion to control the masses. How a part of that control is giving them a black and white lens in which to view everything.
Seems like there are a lot of overlapping issues and it’s not just in Jamaica. It’s everywhere.
Yes. That’s another part of the conversation that is missing, about how it’s everywhere. Anywhere you have a large gathering of poor people, you have people who are deeply trenched in religion. People who don’t have what they need, they reach for religion as a salve they need for these deficits. How it is that those spaces tend to be more violent and homophobic. Violent crimes tend to take place in those communities like that, where there’s a definite need.
If people don’t have food, clothes, shoes, or a home, they’re going to steal. It’s the same thing as what happened during the French Revolution. When people don’t have they begin to start taking from each other. I don’t imagine that Donald Trump is rolling up on Rosie O’Donnell’s apartment, breaking down her door and trying to get her stereo. If he wants a stereo, he can just go buy one as opposed to a young black boy who doesn’t have shoes and there’s no way for him to get them. If he doesn’t get them, he’s not seen as valuable in his community. There has to be more comprehensive conversation around poverty, race, homophobia and religion.
How do you feel we can begin to break down those barriers and start having those conversations?
More conversations. We have to challenge each other to talk. I think the white powerful LGBT community must begin to engage the of-color community in the way that it engaged the white community when gay wealthy white men were at risk with a disease. There was a way that the LGBT activist community took the fight to the living rooms of ordinary white middle-class American families. They started to personalize these stories. They have to humanize all of the parties that should be a part of the conversation.
They have to stop talking about the Jamaican community that is struggling with homophobia as barbaric and backward. They have to talk about poverty. The LGBT approach has to become multi-issue. It has to care about transgender rights, black rights, of-color bodies, rape of women, etc. The black community and the of color communities, those of us who are gay and in those communities have to start bringing straight allies to the table. The conversation becomes very different if it was my mother who is standing in it and saying, 'I’m a black woman. I’m not gay, but my daughter is and we have to start treating her with respect. We have to respect her safety.'
The conversation has to turn from the kind of sex we have to what kind of families we create. We don’t talk about straight people like that.
Or in regards to the transgender community, the conversation shouldn’t always be about bodies, surgery and 'the operation.'
Yes. The transgender community has been reduced to a bunch of people who just want to change their genitalia or their body. It’s always about, oh does he still have his penis or does she still have her vagina. The conversation needs to be around what kind of partnership we like. The kind of sex you have is irrelevant.
You wrote a beautiful open letter to your daughter, before she was born. What do you think she’ll say when she’s finally able to read it?
Just like every other parent, I will find that I didn’t do the job that she would have wanted me to. I am doing the very best that I can. I will remain open to apologizing when it is that I fail. I hope she will forgive me for the things that I have already done to her and for the things that I have not quite done yet. I remain optimistic, but I’m aware that my vision is not her vision.
If I don’t have any kind of preconceived idea about how she will respond. She may very well look at the letters that other people find so moving and say I hate you for putting my business out there online. We’ll deal with that when it comes. I hope she will see the better parts of it and see where my intent was clear, clean and good. If that happens then we’ll do a jig together and it’ll be fine.
How has your non-existent relationship with your mother affected your relationship with your daughter?
Children change so much. Since my daughter was born, my mother has been emailing, calling and doing things where I don’t know who she is. If I leave the country, my phone rings and she’ll say, 'Oh my gosh I was calling you and didn’t know where you were.' Now it’s a different thing to navigate with my mother because she’s no longer non-existent.
Now I have to figure out how to craft this relationship. My own relationship with her has been so troubled. How is that I can facilitate a relationship between her and this kid? One that keeps my kid safe, and two that doesn’t pass on all of the stuff that I feel about my mother because her relationship with her grandmother may be completely different. I’m open and I’m in this new place of learning. Everything that I thought I knew must be questioned now.
Would you like to have more children?
No. I might through partners or if my partner decides to have children, then we’ll have more. I might adopt a kid, but I will never carry another kid. The process was too horrendous for me. Not to mention, I’m 40. Who wants to do that to their body after 40? And I say that giddily. I know that there are many women who do that and I support them, but I don’t want to do that. I’ve done it once. I’m good.
What advice do you have for other lesbians who want to become mothers?
Get informed. There’s so many decisions to make around how to, when to, where to, with whom to. The more information you have, the better equipped you are to make sense of a road that has so many different paths. Have a conversation about more than one doctor about where you are. Have them access your reproductive organs quickly. The more you know early, the better you are at trying to figure out which road to take.
Approach the baby-making conversation pretty much the way you are encouraged to deal with your career. Have a plan because if everything is okay, you decide to get pregnant and it works, everything is great. The problem begins if you have problems and you want to get pregnant. That’s the scenario you want to avoid or if you can’t avoid it, you have all of the cards at hand to be able to make the best decision possible.
What is your writing process like?
I used to get up in the morning and write. Now it’s like every time that there’s a minute that is available, I rush to my computer and I begin. It’s not about seeing if I have inspiration. If I’ve got a moment, I’ve got inspiration.
Do you plan on writing any more books?
Yes, I’m in the process of writing a book about motherhood and parenting. It’s kind of funny like about how I got here. I’ll probably call it Anticipating Zuri.
What’s your favorite piece that you wrote yourself?
I have a poem called 'For My Daughter,' because when I read it, I get excited about the life we have ahead of us and all the challenges we’ll have.
What was your experience like on 'Def Poetry Jam?'
I think it was a good experience. It was difficult for me because a lot of that Broadway stuff is so polished and glossy. I’m not much of a gloss girl. I never wear heels and I almost never wear makeup. I learned a lot about being an artist for a living and it was a good time financially. (Laughs) I wasn’t making Jay-Z money, but I was able to pay rent without thinking about it.
You’re very vocal on social media. Today we see so many celebrities tweet things that they later retract and apologize for. Are there ever any moments when you think maybe I shouldn’t say this?
I’ve been challenged on some of my posts where I’ve gone at it with some people, but I usually really think about things before I put them out there. Chances are they’re positions that I hold. I think the discussion is paramount and even if I’m wrong in my position, having the discussion is important. People always want me to say what my positions are, but I say what my positions are in my work. It’s more about community discussion.
Check out the five videos from the "We Are Jamaicans" video campaign against anti-gay discrimination: