Could it be that Jamaica’s virulent homophobia is driving its gay teenagers to the top of academic rankings? The correlation between disenfranchisement and how driven one is academically is not immediately apparent; in fact, for people from indigent backgrounds, it is likely that on average, they will perform more poorly academically. This matrix does not seem to apply to effeminate gay men in Jamaica however, and I’ll explain why I believe so.
I was one of the top students in my high school. All of my close friends were doing exceptionally well, and among the five that are male, three are gay. Coincidence? Perhaps. In the grade below mine, the top student for four consecutive years (until he was forced to leave the school amidst rumours that he was gay and had had gay sex on campus) was very effeminate. I am desperately trying to reconnect with this young man today. I can’t speak to him identifying as gay, but he was definitely as effeminate as the rest of us who now identify as such.
I won a scholarship at the end of high school and was one of three men selected to study abroad. Of the three of us, two are gay. I have some friends who know both of us who used to joke that they only know gay Jamaican guys- the irony kills me. I know at least ten Jamaican men studying in America, half of them are gay.
I don’t know many people at UWI, but the few I know tell me that a significant proportion of the men there are gay. I have met a few myself, and they tell me about the large network of gay men of which they are a part. This never surprises me because I have had my theories for a while now. Now, there is a point beyond which this has to be recognized as more than coincidence.
If this is true, that gay men perform much better than straight ones on average, why is this so?
In Jamaica, it is not cool to be studious if you have a penis. You are called a sissy, gyal and a batiman- which are among the worst names you can call a Jamaican man. It shouldn’t be surprising then that the only boys who brave the onslaught of ridicule are the ones that are actually effeminate and are questioning their sexuality. Creating masculine men is a serious objective of Jamaican culture, and so those of us that exhibit feminine tendencies are reprimanded at every opportunity from a very young age. I lost count of how many times I was asked, “yaa gyal?” (“are you a girl?”) as a child. I was very close to my sister and would try on her dresses, and walk in her shoes. I would have gotten away with thinking this was normal, except for when my father came home and screamed at me to get out of my sister’s clothing. I never received dolls, but I would play with my sister’s, and we would design and make clothing for them. I knew I was different, because everyone told me I was so. I used to follow my brothers to the football field in the evening but I never had interest in playing. They would forcefully suggest that I join a team because supposedly, having a penis qualifies you to play football, and I would always embarrass myself. Then came the name-calling! When I went to school the teasing escalated tenfold.
Children want nothing more than to be accepted by their peers and it hurts when they cannot get the acceptance they seek. Now this is what I understand in retrospect: doing well academically is one of the surest ways to gain some respect in school. It is not always from peers, but adults are drawn to the star performers and they are very encouraging. How nice it was to be patted on the back and to hear, “good job”, or have your test score announced to the entire class.
In high school, people teased me relentlessly. One day, while participating in a science quiz in St. Catherine, someone who didn’t even know me called me a ‘he-she’ after I quipped that she was disrespectful when she said something vile about a friend of mine. For the entire day, her friends teased me. One of them later asked to see my fingernails. I asked why, and she said, “oh I was told you wear nail polish.” I showed her that I didn’t, and she remarked how strikingly clean they were for a guy. Aren’t they supposed to be clean, I asked back? One day, I was walking with a friend of mine, when a group of primary school students visiting my school shouted at me, “si di girly wan de!” (“Look, the effeminate one!”)- I had been on TVJ the night before.
It seems that only people who didn’t conform to gender stereotypes as children would have the opportunity to make the realization that they can gain some modicum of respect among their peers if they do well in school. More masculine males with homosexual proclivities never had to claw for respect, and so there was no extra motivation to do well academically. Beyond conforming to gender norms, by being good at sports, or dancing, there aren’t many ways to raise one’s social capital.
I am not suggesting that all effeminate boys make great students, because this is clearly not so. It is unmistakable though, that there are a disproportionate number of gay men doing well academically in Jamaica. Scientific studies suggest that gay men make up between 4 and 10 % of any given population, but I can promise you, in faith, that of all Jamaican men with stellar academic records, a greater proportion are gay than such statistics would suggest.
I want to do a survey of all the Jamaica men studying in America. I have a feeling my hypothesis holds true here too. Gay Jamaican men have a life-preserving imperative to leave the island, and getting a scholarship to study abroad is one of the less demanding ways to do so. Those who can’t find a way out before university seek out grad programs or jobs abroad after they complete their first degrees.
Isn’t it interesting? Jamaican popular culture is very homophobic. It hates gay people, and it wishes to eradicate them for the plague that it believes they are. Yet its very stance against gender non-conformity has pushed many gay men to the top of academic performance tables, and therefore in positions of power- maybe not politically, but otherwise. This is Jamaica’s big secret. Many of the sons of its soil whose achievements it celebrates are in fact same-gender loving. Who is going to tap Bruce’s shoulder and share this information? Little does he know, he might do well with some gay men in his cabinet. But then again, Gordon House is not known to attract the brightest minds.