It was hell growing up in Jamaica – gay man
ELTON MCDUFFUS recalls being bullied since he was seven years old, not because he verbally expressed that he was sexually attracted to the same sex as he was, but because of how he spoke and acted.
His effeminate traits while growing up, based on the way he dressed and demeanour, being polished, neat and fashionable, and the way he spoke formal unlike the Creole-speaking children in the communities he grew up in, made him become a direct victim of bullying.
McDuffus, now 32 years of age, recalls being called “every gay name a male in Jamaica can be referred with, such as ‘sissy’, ‘fish’, while living in the country.
“I was treated differently by some family members. Others were very protective of me. I always teased and picked on, because I was more effeminate growing up, so the assumption is that I was gay, so they teased and picked on me and I felt excluded from my family, so I started isolating from an earlier age since I was seven,” McDuffus told The Gleaner.
He added: “This continued into my school life where the bullying started when I was about seven, until I was about 17.”
McDuffus said persons at Red Hills All Age School would bully him because he was effeminate. After moving to Portland at age 11, the bullying continued at Norwich Primary School and the Titchfield High School until 2009 when he graduated.
“For all my years at Titchfield High, that’s where it was very bad. I had to stay away from school literally because I didn’t feel safe going to school at one point. I was attacked in school and bullied like constantly,” he said.
McDuffus also pointed out that being teased and bullied by his own relatives made him feel like the “black sheep” in his family.
Unlike what many effeminate boys in Jamaica would say, McDuffus told The Gleaner that bullying did not affect his self-esteem.
“It didn’t affect my self-esteem actually. It made me more confident and made me more resilient, because the only way to deal with such things is to be a better person. I would be untouchable if I was educated and in a position where I can afford certain luxury so I don’t have to deal with them,” he said.
Thankfully, McDuffus got some relief from bullying when he started attending university in Jamaica. This, he believes, was based on their protection policies and laws.
After being bullied for over 20 years, McDuffus got used to the harassment in Jamaica and focused his mind on leaving the tropical paradise. He sought refuge in foreign country in 2018 and is happy the bullying phase of his life is behind him.
“I am comfortable in my skin now where I’m a proud gay man. I live in a country where I am protected, so I feel empowered more to not only to speak up but to report such harassment,” he told The Gleaner.
He added: “I always had to defend myself and always be looking over my shoulders.”
Hundreds of Jamaican children are now suffering silently as how McDuffus did, and Jamaica has no national programme which focuses primarily on the bullying and abuse of children who identify as LGBTQ+. The Child Protection and Family Services (CPFSA) has done studies and implemented campaigns, such as #BanTheBullying to help with addressing the issue on a national level.
A study was done on peer bullying in schools in 2015 by the government agency, which highlighted that 70 per cent of bullying is happening on our playgrounds in our school environment.
The study also found that just over 60 to 65 per cent of students have been bullied at some point in their lives.
A poll of more than 1,000 teachers found that nearly a quarter (23 per cent) of those in secondary and 12 per cent of primary teachers thought that bullying was such a severe issue where they worked that they would not be prepared to risk their own children’s well-being.
More than a fifth of all teachers (22 per cent) said that bullying in their school was on the increase.
Persons like McDuffus have been interviewed and added to statistics reported in the Audit of Mental Health and Psychological Support Services and Needs for LGBTQ+ Persons in Jamaica, published in February, and authored by Kai A.D .Morgan and Tiffany L. Palmer.
According to an explanation in the study, “Participants identified abuse as a common experience of the LGBTQ+ community in Jamaica, whether from partners, family members or members of the communities in which they live. Most LGBTQ+ participants were not from home environments in which their identities were accepted or tolerated, and so they described family and community rejection, being victim to bullying in their schools and residential communities and being ‘ostracised’ and forced to leave their family homes. They also described frequent negative criticism and derogatory ‘names’ and comments in private and public spheres of their lives. Mental health practitioners also noted that the LGBTQ+ community is often not offered protection by law enforcement, which exacerbates their safety concerns.”
Also outlined in the study under the subheading of bullying, one participant and member of the LGBTQ+ community said, “So, it was hard, and that I always did struggle with depression since high school because I’ve always been who I am and I know who I am, and so, I was bullied for that.”
Based on these studies and current cases of bullying across the island, Glenroy Murray, interim executive director, Equality for All Foundation Jamaica, is very concerned about students being bullied for their perceived sexual orientation or gender identity, as bullying and homophobia affect the mental health and distress of Jamaican children.
LEVELS OF BULLYING
Speaking at The Gleaner Editors’ Forum held last Wednesday, he said, “We know that a lot of LGBTQ persons, for example, the majority, would have experienced high levels of bullying while they were in high school, so we have that information. This would have been persons who have since left high school.”
He added: “As an organisation, we generally do not do work around children, largely because we recognise that children are figuring out themselves, and when we ascribe labels to them at a very early age, it interrupts their own processes of self-discovery. What we do is work with people who provide services to children ... to ensure that they are not introducing trauma at an early age while a child is figuring out who they are and how they identity.”
He said many parents, family members and relatives living in Jamaica want to help children who are being bullied.
“Recently, somebody reached out to me on social media because they had seen that a member of their family, who’s young, is a minor, was being teased by other family members and she just asked for tips about how can they make a comfortable space for that child to be able to speak freely, and I gave some advice,” he said.
He added: “Because what we don’t want on the other side of things is to force children into boxes as they’re in that journey of self-discovery.”
In addition to this, other persons lobbying for the LGBTQ+ community want to see more being done for children who are being bullied for their perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.