what does it mean to be queer?
"Well, queer in the Oxford Dictionary stands for 'odd', and I like that."
All images by Jozef Wright
This article was originally published by i-D Netherlands
I was raised by parents that were heavily involved in the Christian community – my dad was the head pastor of multiple churches. They taught me to always be an example to others. Therefore when I realised I was queer, I didn’t really want to explore that side of myself. I held on to the life I had, trying my hardest not to be seen as anything other than the perfect boy. The perfect straight boy.
I was born in Jamaica and spend the first part of my childhood on the island. When I was nine, me and my family moved to California. In 2014, after my eighteenth birthday, I decided to move to the Netherlands to study there – and I have never left. It wasn’t until I moved, that I really opened myself up to the side I was struggling not to embrace for so long. It was a new place, with new people, people that didn’t know me or wouldn’t have any expectations of me other than to just be myself.
What inspired me to start this project was the fact that I wasn’t able to relate to very many queer people’s experiences. Another source of inspiration came from looking at our current political climate, the growing divide between the right and the left. For me the realisation hit that anyone who was raised conservatively, yet was part of the queer community, had a foot in both of these worlds, and could have a unique perspective in comparison to those strictly to the right and strictly to the left. Therefore I wanted to search for other people like myself, raised either very conservatively or religiously, exploring the identities they created for themselves based on these two alternate worlds, as well as the alternative sides they themselves would also produce in order to be part of these two worlds.
I ended up documenting the conservative sides of queer people’s lives that might be considered more socially acceptable, and comparing it to the more liberal side. The focus was always on how the subjects would ultimately want to present themselves to the world – their true identity. I started by asking queer friends of mine about their upbringing, and if I felt that their experience was similar to mine then I asked for permission to document them.
Working on this project taught me to look at other people and find an aspect of myself in them. Also that I wasn’t alone in my struggle to become myself in a world that was split in two.
Queerness to me is freedom. Queerness is difference. Queerness is power. Queerness is royalty. Queerness is weird. Queerness is glamour. Queerness is creativity and culture. Queerness is harassment, violence, hate, ignorance, but queerness is also strength, force, mobility and fire. Queerness is unstoppable and never erasable.
For me, growing up was great, until the children in school started pointing out my differences to me and telling me who I was before I knew it myself. That was the first time I started to realize that I was “weird” and was made to know clearly that I was not like the other boys. Growing up, I wanted to experiment more with my gender expression, in terms of clothing and the toys I was playing with. But this wasn’t allowed. I was told that I was not allowed to wear girl’s clothes because they were for girls, and boys don’t do that. But I didn’t understand because I didn’t want to be like the regular boys, I was having fun dressing up and being the queen I always have been.
I was punished for this. This carried on for some time, which lead me to become a very depressed child and teenager, having suppressed all these feelings, emotions and experiences in my body for years and years. That ate up my insides, and it's something I still deal with today. I came out when I was 17, and for my own sanity, mental health and existence, I had to let all my suppressed emotions flood into me, and I had to relive the experiences I had when I was younger, and get to know the feelings I was feeling towards all the boys around me. As soon as I did that, I started to get to know the younger me that was hiding inside of me so deep down, and I invited them into my space, allowed them to show me who I really was. And from then on, I never turned back, I told myself that I was beautiful, strong, worthy and incredible and not normal (and that is fine) and I am a star. And I just started to literally bloom because I was experiencing things for the first time with the real me alive. And it has been the most beautiful thing to ever witness.
Queerness to me means not being suppressed by the ideas of your parents and an old fashioned upbringing. But instead, an effort to understand each other – a constant push and pull effect.
For me being queer means being every version of myself that it is possible to be. Labelling myself label-less. It’s complicated and yet so easy. It also helped me develop the good quality of seeing the best in people even when they’re ‘different’ in society’s eyes. While that’s their normal. Being queer is my normal.
I was born and raised in Italy till the age of 16, when I then realised that my home country wasn’t the right fit for me. I couldn’t really point out to why I was feeling that way. I just felt that something was misplaced. So the closeted, gloriously girly 16 year-old me, moved to America. Long story short, it was a shit show of an experience. Away from family and friends, I finally had the chance to experience who the real me was and what I needed.
Back in Italy, I finally found the courage to tell my dad I was gay. I thought coming out would give me the peace I was so looking for but I am transgender – something I realised years later, simply because I was never educated on what it was. Now I have been in transition and taking testosterone for five months.
In a way, to be queer is to be free, to be true to yourself. Getting out of that social norm of constricted expressionism, maintaining certain looks and constructs to satisfy societal needs. Personally, I expressed my uniqueness through my clothing, especially when I was still closeted, as that was the only way for me to kind of show my true sexuality – through fashion. This steering away from those expectations of what I should look like is a form of rebellion against the whole idea of societal standards.
When I finally decided to come out, not only was a huge weight lifted off my shoulder, as I’m sure it was for everyone else who’s been in my situation, but actual freedom came along with it. See, what I initially thought was “myself” throughout all those years of dressing differently and experimenting with looks, was just a test run until I reach the finish line which was my true self. Only after accepting who I am, and having people accept me, did I finally find my true self.
Well, queer in the Oxford Dictionary means "odd", and I like that. I think I am a little odd. And so are you. It took me some time to accept who I am, and that I am not what my family had wished for me to be. My confusion started I would say rather early. I remember when I was 17 and I had my first kiss with a girl, I woke up the next morning and had this overwhelming feeling of nausea and disgust, I was shivering like crazy. What was this girl doing to me?! Her love was a spell and it broke all the tight knots inside of me.
Since I was brought up in a rather conventional household (being especially traditional when it came to matters of love and relationships) I was under the impression that what I was doing was wrong and against the laws of nature. But my curiosity was stronger, and as I started engaging myself more in the queer community, I learned how open, diverse and accepting it is. To me, being queer is to be free. It is being whoever the fuck you want to be. Today I woke up like this and some other days I wake up... like that!
Being photographed by Jozef made me think about so many things, also because he showed me pictures of the other LGBT people that he photographed. It made me realise even more how we are all carrying our own stories with us. As a kid I used to go to church every Sunday, and made myself the promise that I would go until I turned 18. This was out of respect to my parents, and especially to my dad. Some days I’d feel hypocritical. Sitting there, in church, while on the inside I knew I was gay. But today I know that I can be proud of the decisions I have made and where I am right now. The first lesson was to always be me. There will always be people with an opinion about you, negative and positive. From people who are close to you and people you don’t even know. It’s your task to keep your head up and remember who you are. Know what you stand for.
Queerness is something I started to understand and identify with at an older age, although being pan-sexual is a part of me that has always been there I believe. This understanding had nothing to do with my sexuality but was more reflected on the stages of my own self-identification and pride. Queerness to me is the space to take distance from certain tropes and to have a community that accepts me. Although I recognise that my sexuality is not something that will be openly discussed in my family, because of the social and cultural limitations, I know that I will always be heard by the people who I surround myself with.
Queerness for me means the freedom to be who you are, no matter what! I remember that people started to wonder and ask about my sexuality even before I thought about it myself. It was always difficult for me to answer because I never thought that the world would have so many possibilities, especially because I grew up in a religious way. Today, I definitely know that there are options, and I don’t limit myself by choosing only one of them. This gave me an opportunity to learn more about people and myself. I don’t really believe in labels and I don’t put one on myself, but if I had to choose that’s definitely what it would be.
I was raised religious. I went to church every Sunday until I was about 11. When I realised I was queer, at first I thought there was something wrong with me. I came out, and with the exception of a few friends, the people surrounding me did not make me feel like that was ok. So I decided to look for a new place where I would feel at home. Now I know that "home" is a feeling you can create for yourself.
Photography: Jozef Wright
Words: Jozef Wright, as told to Lianne Kersten
This article originally appeared on i-D US.