Diaspora Dynamics, where we focus on keeping you abreast of the activities, achievements, and contributions of Vincentians all around the world. For this edition, we are pleased to feature Sean Macleish from Upper Sion Hill.The windy city of Chicago, Illinois, USA, is where Sean now calls home. He has created a comfortable existence as a Cytotechnologist.
“As a young man growing up in SVG, I was being told I was too feminine. To me, this points to misogyny because it was said in a negative manner, as an insult to women. At the time, I didn’t understand what I was channeling, or the vibe I was giving off.
I was only aware of the reactions and responses I provoked from others. At that age, I couldn’t see myself, so my sense of identity was based on what was reflected back at me.”
Tanty man. Shirley. Chi Chi Man. Bullerman. Batty Man. Aunty Pim Pim. Queer. We are all far too familiar with these terms as products of our homogenous, conservative Christian culture. As a society, we applied them liberally to boys and men who appeared too “effeminate,” or to those who challenged our perceptions of what we believe constitutes manhood.
Boys who liked to play with girls. Boys who were creative and sensitive. Boys who cried. Boys who just seem to “have too much sugar in de pan.” Those kinds of boys.
Sean Macleish is far more familiar than most of us with those terms. Those words were attached to him from the time he could remember himself interacting socially, beyond the boundaries of what he describes as the loving and accepting family life his parents fostered at home.
Sean, an African mixed with both Asian and European, was raised at Upper Sion Hill with his parents, older brother and younger sister. Sean appears mixed and says he only ever thought of himself as black.
“Well, both of my parents are black. So that makes me black. I am a black man in America.”
The windy city of Chicago, Illinois, USA, is where Sean now calls home. He has created a comfortable existence as a Cytotechnologist. His job is to examine cell samples under a microscope for evidence of cancer. This career appeals to him as he was always drawn to biology and the sciences.
Not content with just the physical, Sean returned to school to obtain an MPA in 2001 as his goal is to work in public advocacy to help marginalized groups. His empathy stems from the depth of his own awareness of their alienation.
“My passion is fighting against injustice and unfairness of any kind. I advocate for a common humanity. I am keenly aware of my position in marginalized groups, both in Vincy and here in the USA.”
To this end, Sean has volunteered some of his time helping members of such groups.
He briefly served as a sexual assault victims advocate at a local hospital. Although he was only called upon once as the first contact for a victim, Sean says the experience challenged him to face his own gender biases. This self-reflection evolved over weeks of intensive training in preparation to speak to women in their most vulnerable moment, right after an assault.
Sean was active in the movement to legalize civil unions, the precursor to achieving marriage equality in Illinois, as a volunteer at ACLU. Through their partnership with Equality Illinois, he worked to raise awareness on marriage equality through education.
Sean is unique in that he is an openly gay Vincentian. He speaks frankly about his difficult experiences growing up in the closed society that was St. Vincent in the 1980s while coming to terms with this truth.
Sean struggled with his identity as a teen. Although he didn’t yet identify as a gay male, he grappled with the inner conflict of his own homophobia as shaped by the surrounding society, standing in juxtaposition to his own slowly emerging sense of self. All this while coming to terms with how he was being defined by those around him.
“I knew I was different. I didn’t ‘fit in’ as a young Vincentian male. I was teased about being “too feminine,” whatever that means. As a result, I became very introverted. Most of my friends were female because women are just more accepting and understanding.”
The loss of his mother, the woman who was closest to him, to metastatic breast cancer in 1996, proved to be his greatest moment of truth. He was at her side at her time of death.
“My mom was the person I was always closest too. She was my best friend. She knew me so well, both inside and out. Grief is devastating, yet beautiful. I was stripped bare and brought down to nothing where I was finally forced to confront myself, to recognize and accept who I am.”
Shortly after, he came out to his family and friends.
Homophobia is a regional phenomenon that isn’t unique to SVG. An attitude celebrated and popularized by songs like Buju Banton’s Boom Bye Bye, a startlingly searing, yet brutally honest expression of prevailing Caribbean homophobia and the blatant intolerance for homosexuals.
Sean admits to homophobic tendencies, and to engaging in such behaviors himself. He recalls once wiping off the toilet seat in fear of “catching something” after a visiting family friend, who was reputed to be gay, used the bathroom at his home. He was just a young child at the time. This experience has suggested to him that homophobia is rooted in fear.
“Homophobia is a social construct used to make certain people feel better about themselves. People who sit high on pedestals usually carry a secret share in it.”
Currently, the British colonial laws against “buggering” are still on the books in St. Vincent, a crime punishable by up to ten years in jail.
By law, Vincentians are prohibited from engaging in homosexual sexual expressions.
According to the US Department of State’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2011,
[c]onsensual same-sex conduct is illegal under indecency statutes, and some same-sex sexual activity between men is also illegal under anal intercourse laws. Indecency statutes carry a maximum penalty of five years, and anal intercourse acts carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison, although these laws were rarely enforced. (US 24 May 2012, 11).
Also, there are no laws on the books prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. These conditions create a hostile environment that offers no recourse for homosexuals and people whose behaviors fall outside of traditional gender roles.
Sean is using social media as a platform to bring attention to the pervasive discrimination and homophobia in the Caribbean.
His efforts are geared towards fostering a more tolerant and inclusive environment. He also educates by sharing information on other issues relevant to the LGBT community in St. Vincent and the region.
“All of the surrounding nations in the region, including: St. Lucia, Grenada, Barbados, and Jamaica, have LGBT public advocacy organizations. St. Vincent lags far behind in the region as the only island where no such resources exist to support us.
I often wonder, what is so different about the homophobia in St. Vincent that makes it such a difficult issue for us to deal with?”
While he loves St. Vincent, he doesn’t envision himself returning home permanently. Instead, Sean feeds his passion for travel by observing other cultures in faraway lands. He credits his travels with teaching him much more than what he learned in all his years at school.
With the exception of Australia, he has visited every single continent on the globe. His vacations include visits to Southeast Asia, South America, Africa, Europe and Antarctica. Especially memorable are Antarctica and India.
“I went to Antarctica in their summer when the temperatures were in the 30s (Fahrenheit). It was so infinite and unique. I felt like I was on a different planet. It was just so beautiful and untouched.
India is another favorite destination of mine, I’ve been there multiple times. The thing about India is you either love it or you hate it, you’re not going to be neutral.”
Sean laughingly recounts an experience which he says encapsulates India perfectly. “So am on this cruise along the Ganges river, or Ganga as the residents call it. We are looking at the banks and enjoying the views, then we happened upon a local just defecating out in the open on the bank. His backside was turned towards us. That is India. A place of contrasting extremes.
Some places are total madness. Everything is magnified. The good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly. Some people go there and only see overwhelming poverty. When I go, I see light.”
Sean is looking forward to a future career dedicated to helping others. His affinity for advocacy is directly tied to his personal life philosophy which says: “Just as they are, so am I.”
It is this empathy which drives him to stand up for those who are discriminated against simply because they lie outside the mainstream, as he once did. While the difficult circumstances in SVG may have shaped him, from Sean shines Hairouna’s gem.
Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines: Situation and treatment of homosexuals, including legislation and societal attitudes; availability of state protection and support services (2010-February 2013), 11 March 2013, VCT104335.E, available at http://www.refworld.org/docid/5188f6074.html [accessed 17 December 2016]