“ Boom bye bye inna batty bwoy head, Rude bwoy no promote no nasty man, Dem haffi dead ”
- Buju Banton
Jamaica is the land of my birth and formative upbringing and I was schooled in Kingston during the time when Dancehall music really began to shape popular culture and national identity. I learned fairly quickly that there was a 100 meter bolt from boyhood to manhood and the rite of passage required that I become a certified, bonafide “gyalist”. Jamaicans and connoisseurs of Dancehall will know what I mean by gyalist but for those unfamiliar with the term, it embodied a man who was renown for his sexual prowess and the number of women he was able to simultaneously breed.
High school was the playground that boys ostensibly discovered what it meant to actually become men with the older boys and the modern dancehall artists as the “wise teachers” we looked up to for instruction. The distilled wisdom of the lockerrooms as gleaned from the aforementioned teachers was that my masculinity hinged upon seeing and presenting myself as sexually objectified with women as my obligatory subjects. I remember the black books that boys carried around itemizing who they were able to send dirty instant messages to and solicit sexual encounters. I remember the broken mirrors dangling from the laced shoes of curious boys wanting to get a sneak preview of what awaited them beneath the hip-riding skirts of girls much of whom obliged them. I remember the loud lunchroom chorus of male bragging about who was no longer a virgin and how many girls they had given “buddy” to.
As a naive Christian boy, I was staunchly yet piously resistant to such slackness as I felt pressured to preserve the purity required of me as a Church Elder’s kid. My refusal to conform such expectations was met with toxic ridicule and chastisement but an even more specific charge was made concerning my sexuality. My lack of interest in having sex with every vagina in sight meant something must be wrong with my male wiring. I noticed that the popular boys would avoid me, often pulling pranks like skinning my bag inside out and then started calling me a “battyman”. I’d hope no one needs further clarification on what one of those was but for clarification, those were what homosexuals were affectionately described in Jamaican parlance.
Once you were called it once it caught on like wildfire in the arsenal of schoolyard epithets. The rumors you might be a “funny man”, a “chi chi man”, a “fag” was a free all-you-can punch buffet ticket for all and sundry on the playground. No one cared to confirm with you what your views on the matter of your sexuality were as they hurled their complimentary serving of abuse. Girls would, in turn, avoid you as no woman who was with a presumed “funnyman” had any prospect of dating the prized high school gyalist. I was a pretty timid, nerdy, non-confrontational kid with a disproportionately big head and chubby disposition so I just didn’t fit in with male macho types. I buried myself in my school work, and rooted my identity in my academic performance, singing in the school choir and pleasing Jesus the best way I knew how. But I hated being called gay because that wasn’t how I felt about my own identity. In a desperate sense to engage my desire for women without the guilt of fornicating, I turned to my regular fix of straight porn. The sensational arousal that I got from seeing a man and woman copulate gave me confident relief that my sexuality was in fact “normal” and intact despite the schoolyard rhetoric that bellowed like the cacophony of a damaged record on repeat in my head.
I chillingly recall accounts of male classmates bragging about beating up a gay student because he looked at him in a “funny” way as if a glance was tantamount to sexual harassment. I started to hate the very idea of same-sex attraction and this fueled by the anti-gay indoctrination of dancehall culture and religious fundamentalism I felt the need to ante up hypermasculinity to overcompensate. I began to become more overtly flirtatious with girls who ironically rarely acknowledged let alone reciprocated my advances. I remember when I once genuinely confessed my undying love to a female classmate to which she heart crushingly replied “I don’t know if I can take you seriously”
At 16 I left Jamaica behind after successfully completing high school and very much still a sexually frustrated virgin. I had one serious girlfriend up until this point but after my parent’s fairly abrupt decision to emigrate to England I was forced to mutter a reluctant goodbye to what seemed like my only chance of a successful initiation into manhood and braced myself for a new, uncertain life in England.
Adjusting to the UK was more than a culture shock, it was more like cultural evisceration of my rooted Jamaican sensibilities. No stone left unturned, no cultural assumptions unquestioned. The reinforced ideas of sexuality and masculinity of my cultural milieu were viciously interrogated and I found myself uncomfortable with much of what I saw around me.
Men seemed much more relaxed about societal gender stereotypes that I was convinced were universal and to be followed by true men to the letter. Most of my friends were either single and content or happily monogamous. I was also quite disturbed at the idea that homosexuality was practiced here openly. I shamefully now recount the first gay classmate I met within the first few weeks of starting college. He was one of the only whites that were open and friendly toward me which I found peculiar. His manner was particularly effeminate which already had me suspicious. I started to feel viscerally uncomfortable as if my masculinity was threatened by his mere presence. I remembered the largely unfounded defensive fear that many of my straight male friends had in Jamaica towards gay men. He remained appropriate and helpfully pointed me in the direction of the school library I had spent the last 15 minutes unable to find.
My time in college was a mixed assortment. There were the typical everyday racial and xenophobic microaggressions that provided the daily reminder that British Citizenship was not the same as English nationality. There was also the rude awakening that adolescent masculinity was not neatly homogeneous and what ideas I had about the rites of passage into manhood were not universal nor pre-requisite. Having lived in the UK for more time than I lived in Jamaica I have to say that my broadened perspective has helped me reconsider and review my past indoctrinations. The conditioned religious and cultural disdain I had for homosexuals didn’t serve me in my quest to be a decent human being and were certainly inconsequential to becoming the man I have evolved into. Needless to say, as a man in my thirties, having experienced good and bad sex, I am grateful to have discovered that my ability to perform in this department or play the field has nothing to do with the kind of manhood I want to champion.
Having had several conversations with people from the non-heterosexual community I have built bridges between our shared humanity, I’ve shared some of this story with them and taken steps to demonstrate a commitment to counter this homoantagonism that’s rife in the Caribbean by writing this open letter and educating my own children to being more loving towards all humans regardless of their sexual orientation or gender presentation.
My closing remarks are to encourage my readers to…
- Counter the narrative in our popular culture(s) that boys need to be hypersexual and anti-gay to be masculine.
- Teach them that compassion and respect for human dignity are about the most “masculine” things one can cultivate and doesn’t make you soft or effeminate.
- Making our bodies out to be purely sexual objects is self-destructive in innumerable physical and psychological ways.
- Toxic forms of masculinity are especially harmful to both men and the women that take the heaviest brunt of its impact.
- Go out of your way to connect with the humanity of LGBTQ people and you will be surprised they are no different from you in so many surprising and fulfilling ways.