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Saddique Elliott Headshot

Leaving Hell

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"Who am I?" This is a question that the past me could never answer. For anyone living in homophobic hell, aka Jamaica, it is hard to physically, verbally or mentally express, "I am gay."

Jamaicans, blatantly and for no apparent reason, or because of their "Christian values," shun homosexuality. Even the pseudo-Christians, those who grew up steeped in Christian culture but are not practicing Christians and may not even believe in God, still cling to their opposition to gays. In Jamaica, at least in my experience, boys are taught that we should be attracted to girls, play with toy soldiers, play marbles, fly kites, make boxtrucks (toy trucks made out of juice boxes), be tough and never cry. This is reiterated through family pressure, directly and subliminally, through messages like "crying is a gyal ting" or, more derogatively, "sissy bwoi ting dat." From a very early age we Jamaican men are conditioned to believe that that is what a man should be and act like.

As I was growing up in Jamaica, I heard all those statements, almost every day, from my parents, family friends and schoolmates. I often wonder whether there was some purpose to it, not on the part of the agressors, but perhaps on the part of some cosmic or divine design, preparing me for experiences to come. In retrospect, I realize that the more they called me names and pushed their homophobic ideology on me, the more it stirred something in my soul and made me rebel against that ideology.

Growing up gay in Jamaica was extremely suffocating. I had life, but I could not breathe. The right to life is enshrined in the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but what good is having life if you're not able to live it accordingly? I went to two of the best schools in Jamaica, which groomed me and taught me life lessons that I use to this day, but I remember being reluctant to speak in class because I knew that others would judge me based on how I spoke and my sometimes flamboyant gestures, among other things (all of which were unconscious).

Maybe I was paranoid. Maybe I was traumatized, because I'd been called "sissy," "gyal-boy," "battyboy" and "battyman" (a derogative word for "gay") all my life. But even at the age of 12, I somehow realized that that was no way to live. I remember watching American television channels and seeing progressive ideologies being expressed through movies, reality television and other media. I was determined to find a way out of Jamaica and get to the United States. Indeed, I remember thinking, "As long as I have breath in my body, I will never return to Jamaica."

Coming to the U.S. was the best decision of my life. I had always dreamed about living here, so I did not mind the fact that I was homeless and jobless, with little to no money coming in. I did not mind that I went to bed hungry countless nights, because the physical hunger that I experienced was eclipsed by the happiness that I felt. The U.S. is the "land of the free," and indeed, for the first time in my life, I felt free. For the first time I could say, "I am gay!" Not that everybody has to know, but being able to tell people that I am gay without feeling threatened or fearful that I'll have to pay for it with my life is very comforting.

Living in the U.S. has been a blessing. I have met people from all walks of life and untold struggles who have taught me a lot and helped me get into contact with numerous agencies that help LGBT youth and homeless youth by providing an array of services, including educational support, food, kinship via shared interest groups, shelter and clothes. They have made my transition to the U.S. much easier. In addition, they have helped me be proud of who and what I am and accept that it is normal to be gay. In fact, being in the U.S. and going to the aforementioned agencies has built my self-esteem and confidence and has helped me see that there is life and hope for me here. Moreover, the various people I have met have been like a family to me.

But my real family is in Jamaica, ignorant of the fact that I am gay. In Jamaica I always had my "rocks" -- my grandmother (R.I.P.), my mother and my aunt -- providing a physical support system. Now I am living by myself in New York, spending most nights alone, battling my thoughts and anxieties. Working through my present struggles with no familial support is difficult. I imagine that every immigrant to the U.S. comes here thinking that life is going to be easy, holding on to the promise of the American dream and the belief that they will have money and a job right away. But I quickly found that there were many things that were afforded to everyone else but not to me, including certain benefits and services. It has not been easy, but the difficulty has been mitigated by the various agencies and organizations that have lent a helping hand in the form of necessity-based and other services. And although I may have little to eat, I would have it no other way. Some things are just more important.

I look at it like this: My family in Jamaica was rarely there for me emotionally, so living here alone is not that difficult. I always felt that my family did not know the real me, and that they fell in love with someone I was forced to be through societal pressure. I always thought, "I am most alone in a room full of people." Being able to live my life as a free gay man was my ultimate goal. I had to leave that homophobic hell by any means necessary, as long as I had breath to do so, in order to live my life and not one that was forced upon me. Freedom and happiness -- that is all we want, right? All my life I dreamed of getting out of homophobic Jamaica, living in New York City and being able to live my life as a gay man. That's all I wanted; is that too much to ask? I find it surreal that that is exactly what I am doing now. Never mind my occasional hunger, my lack of income, my inability to buy most necessities, because I am fulfilled by being able to be who I am, and that suffices!