This article was first published in ENBY Magazine

The Queer Cousin

Like a lot of the Black and Jamaican people I know, I grew up surrounded by family. My cousins lived down the street from me, I learned to cook by watching the women work, we gathered every summer and every holiday. My cousins were my first and best friends. I love family and I love love but I always felt a little left out — a little different, a little disconnected — but I never imagined anything would ever come between me and my family.

Coming into the acceptance of my queerness was a process for sure — slow like honey at first, then moving faster than a waterfall. I had not known many queer adults — my mom’s best friend, my Uncle Al is gay and I had an angel of a lesbian social science teacher in high school — but to my knowledge, none existed within my family. So there were no queer elders to guide me. I had to figure everything out on my own. It doesn’t have to be that way though, it shouldn’t be that way.

Coming out is tricky and anxiety-inducing no matter how many years of practice I have under my belt. Coming out centres heterosexuality. Coming out — particularly to cishet people — is exhausting, and frankly doesn’t free me from any of the anxiety or difficulty of existing in a world that denies queer people’s agency and power.

Of the generation of cousins I was born into I am the first and only girl. My parents didn’t much care about my sex, they were simply happy to have a healthy child — plus, they had my brother less than two years later, so in their eyes they had received “one of each.” But to my extended family, my assigned gender was miraculous, a dream come true.

When I visited my Auntie Marcia for the first time in years, she was shocked to see I had cut all my hair off. So shocked and hurt that she cried, begging and questioning me, “Why would you do such a thing? How could you? How could you do that when you’re a girl?” I could explain that this was the most beautiful I’d ever felt. I could explain that it’s just hair. I could explain that hair is not gender. I could explain that I am not my hair. I could even try to explain that I’m not a girl — but what good would come of that?

That’s the pressing question for me, it seems. Is there a use in explaining myself to anyone?

All the elders and old heads in my family emigrated from Jamaica from the 70s to the 90s. The island of Jamaica has the largest number of churches per capita in the entire world, with over 1600 churches on an island of almost 3 million. None of my family is anything but Christian — the old school way, none of this new progressive stuff. Who I am is in direct conflict with their religious beliefs and many have had the audacity to tell me as much. If I’m oil and I know they’re water, what would be the point in trying to mix the two?

I don’t know that I believe in coming out for coming out’s sake. Auntie Debbie cooks great chicken but does she need to know who I let into my bed? Does she need to understand the complexity that is my relationship to embodiment and gender? Would her knowing improve our relationship?

More than that I want to know if telling my family my truth would be productive in any way. Would it open their minds? Would they go on to work to educate themselves? Would they still cling to the assigned gender of a new born baby? Would they go on to teach the children better, more inclusive values? Would we go on to celebrate coming out just like we celebrate birthdays?

In many instances I have wanted to abandon this ship called my biological family — too tired, too hurt, and too pessimistic to stick around and educate anybody. Every time I think of going completely ghost I ask myself if that would do us any good either.

Queer and trans people shouldn’t have to consider whether or not our families’ love is conditional — nobody should. I shouldn’t have to spend holidays sad and alone in order to protect myself from other people’s invasive and cruel remarks. I shouldn’t have to isolate myself while my family gets to be ignorant and blissful together.

If family really means nobody gets left behind then they should all be doing the work to make sure I can come around. They should correct Auntie Debbie when she says gay people are disgusting. They should correct Uncle Mo when he says gays are destroying the Black family. They should teach baby Summer of possibilities beyond boy or girl.

Coming out puts the onus on queer and trans people to educate cishet people about our oppression. While I hate that fact, I can’t help but consider the possibility that in this case the onus is on me. Most cishet people cling to their power and privilege, and so will never go out of their way to educate their peers on issues impacting LGBTQ+ lives, because they’re not facing those issues themselves. Many cishet people could never begin to wrap their heads around queer identities and experiences, so maybe I don’t want them speaking on behalf of the LGBTQ+ community in the first place.

I don’t feel the need to come out to my every aunt and uncle. I refuse to welcome the drama and conflict into my life. Frankly, a lot of my family couldn’t begin to fathom non-binary identities. They struggle to see the divinity inherent in (my) queerness. However, I feel a sense of duty to the youngers — to all my baby cousins — those who are Earthbound and those who have yet to arrive.

I can’t begin to consider who and how I would be had there been a queer older cousin for me to look up to — someone to provide advice, someone to lean on, someone who had begun some of the difficult work of challenging homo and transphobia within our family. I hate to quote Gandhi but maybe I really do need to be the change I want to see. And there are quite a few changes I would like to see.

Statistically I can not be the only queer person in my family. I am used to thinking of myself as the one and only queer cousin, but it’s lonely and it’s not realistic. I want a queer cousin for myself. Just because I don’t see them, doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Just because they may not be out, doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Do I not have a duty to my queer cousins? Does my visibility not bestow me with some responsibility? They don’t owe me a coming out but I might owe them the improvement of our family relationships.

Trauma, pain and loneliness cannot be the only things for us queer cousins to inherent. We deserve to receive the love and affirmation the rest of the world denies us, from our families and maybe it starts with me.

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Jam Bridgett

Jam Bridgett

writer and visual artist around Tkaronto. exploring themes of love, revolution, community and queerness + sharing unpublished writing of mine. (they/them)