Coming out to my Jamaican grandmother
09 Mar 2016
So, I’ve been openly gay for many years, and I happily come out to strangers and try to drop it into our first conversation. From my point of view, I haven’t got time to waste on homophobic people.
But, underlying my casual pride, there has always been a sense of dread and guilt that I haven’t come out to my family properly, especially my Jamaican grandmother. While, for many, the notion of declaring their sexuality is unnecessary, I know deep-down that if my girlfriend (of over a year) were a man, it would have easily slipped into conversation by now.
Myself, and many of my LGBT+ friends, have taken the route of Facebook to bypass any awkwardness in telling our families. Relatives on my father’s side, who are French and English, discovered I was gay on Facebook. Sadly, my grandmother doesn’t use social media.
My nana, Islyn Wilks, moved to London in 1957, leaving behind her seven older siblings in St. Andrews, Jamaica, and pursued a career in the textile industry that lasted until her late 60s. At 89, Nana Wilks is known for her contagious laugh, a love of gardening and a gift for cooking plantain. She is always a delight to see.
However, I can still recall the moment in my early teens when the idea of ever openly coming out to my nan was thrown in the closet. I was reading a Jamaican local newspaper on her dining room table, and came across a particular “Agony Aunt” section that rests in my memory to this day. It recounted a young woman asking for advice regarding a kiss with her female best friend. The agony aunt response was adamant that the young woman’s friend needed to be reported and that she must “repent her sins”.
At this early stage of coming to terms with my sexuality, the article led me to fear that my nan, having grown up in Jamaica, might be a product of these colonial-influenced ideologies. Even though my nan has never been overtly “traditional”, the article terrified me, and was later reinforced by my growing understanding of Jamaica’s long history of homophobia. Men can face up to ten years in jail if found “guilty” of being gay.
Additionally, considering my mother’s strong concerns over my safety as an openly gay woman, I felt that my grandmother, having already had two heart attacks in her early eighties, did not need the additional shock.
But as the years have gone by, my reasons for wanting to come out to her slowly started to outweigh the trepidation I felt. Mainly because she was getting older and I knew I would feel guilty if she passed away without knowing. Nevertheless, when the day came, I found myself really surprised at my nervousness. After pacing my room and rehearsing my “out” lines, I had to write down what I wanted to say, or else I knew I wouldn’t be able to get the words out.
I called Nana Wilks’ house phone. Gardening, the weather and her new neighbours popped into the conversation and as my palms became increasingly sweaty, the scrawled written words in front of me seemed of little support. I eventually spluttered out, “I’m gay”, in a weird half-choked way. Initially it seemed to cut the conversation off, but then Nana Wilks simply said, “Oh, what’s her name? Invite her round!”.
I was surprised but relieved, and found myself asking a couple of times whether she was definitely OK. Her reply was filled with surprise as she assured me that she did not care and loved me more for being open with her.