Tale of a gay JamaicanThursday, July 22, 2021
BY ROCHELLE CLAYTON
MONTEGO BAY, St James - While the date July 13, 2016 might be regular to others, for 24-year-old Keneil Beckford this date will be stamped on his memory forever, due to the trauma and pain caused by people he trusted.
Beckford, a promising Montegonian, was then in the final year of his undergraduate studies at The University of the West Indies (UWI) Western Jamaica Campus. With graduation inching closer, he felt pressured, like most university students, but for Beckford his pressure was also being felt in his home life.
“At that point in time, I was going through the transitional phase from being a student at UWI to a job-seeker in the market, so it was a high stress time. I still had exams [and projects] to complete, [while trying] to balance that home and school life,” he told the Jamaica Observer West.
Pointing out that he was living with his grandmother during that time, he further noted that it was the day after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, where 48 patrons of a gay club lost their lives.
“So, it made the news, and it was a topic of discussion for a lot of people because it was commonplace for America to have mass shooting. But why the conversation was different is because it was targeted specifically at a queer club,” he said.
Beckford said that the conversations being held in his community surrounding this incident were troubling, he revealed that it was during a conversation in his grandmother's yard that a family member felt the need to “out” him.
“We were out in the yard; it was me, my grandmother, a couple of my younger cousins, my aunt, and my two uncles were also there. And [one of] my uncles brought up the conversation about the shooting. However, it was [then] that my uncle took the initiative to ask me how I felt about the situation, and I expressed my honest opinion,” said Beckford.
“I said that it was a heinous act; it something that should have never happened, especially to people who were just trying to be their authentic selves in a space not bothering anybody.
“So he said to me, 'Of course, you would feel that way because word is spreading around the community that you are gay.' That is exactly what he said to me, he did not use any derogatory terms or slangs, he said it to me exactly like that,” he told the Observer West.
This, he said, left him feeling shocked and powerlessness because “no one else that was present in the conversation seemed shocked, so it seemed to me that it was a conversation that was being had behind my back and it was being discussed heavily.
“I felt powerless in the situation, because it was something that I wanted to do on my own time, in my own way, to the people I wanted to do it with. I never wanted it to be a situation where it was decided and done for me, so that happened and basically the tone was uncomfortable,” said Beckford.
The conversation took a turn, he said, after his uncle directly said to him, “If you are going to be gay then you and I cannot stay in the same house!”
“I remember him saying to me and that was the last I heard of the conversation. Granted, I was not staying with him, I was staying with my grandmother, but they live in my grandmother's house.
“Without argument, without hesitation, I took my things, and I went to my aunt's house,” Beckford told the Observer West.
He shared that, while he did not try to hide his sexuality to his family, he never formally came out and told them he was gay. He always felt comfortable enough to just be, he said.
“My family did not know that I was gay, but you know, that would be a great question for my family because, at the end of the day, I never came out to them, but it was not necessarily me hiding myself. I felt comfortable enough to be myself around them, but I never formally came out and declared my sexuality to anybody,” Beckford said.
After that incident with his uncle, coupled with numerous other traumatic events, which he is still trying to work through, Beckford decided to run for his safety, which led him to flee Jamaica on August 31, 2016, a mere 10 days after his 20th birthday.
“I fled Jamaica. I did not leave willingly because at the end of the day, no matter how homophobic it is, that is my homeland and that is where I was born. I will love my country. I will always have a special place in my heart as a patriotic Jamaican, that will never change because Jamaica, the land, the culture, has not, in any way, done anything to me, it was Jamaicans who held certain views that caused me to leave Jamaica,” he told the Observer West.
Fleeing Jamaica, he said, meant leaving behind everything and everyone that he knew and starting over. The one regret that he has, Beckford shared, was the fact he never got a chance to reconcile with his grandmother before she passed in 2017.
“The one regret that I do have is that my grandmother passed in 2017 and I wasn't able to come to the funeral. She passed in July of 2017. We had tension because I left and how I felt because no one knew that I was leaving. No one knew until I got to the United States that is when everyone found out that I left,” said Beckford.
“As I said, it was a situation where I was fleeing so my grandma never spoke to me and she passed and we never reconciled, so to date, that is one of my biggest regrets that I do have in terms of family dynamics because she had a hand in raising me. So, to have been in a situation where there was disapproval and there was no reconciliation, not even so much as a conversation, in almost a year and then she passed really suddenly. She was literally sick one day, went to the doctor the next day and died the day after,” he shared.
With only US$13 in his pockets coupled with the kindness of a friend, he left to the United States of America with hopes of a better and safer environment.
“So, what happened is that the last of my tuition that I was supposed to pay to UWI to be completely done with the course, I had to use that money to leave because things were happening that were affecting my mental and physical health. I was not in a physically safe space at that point in time, so I just had to leave and after expensing everything that I needed to leave, I was only left with $13 and the kindness of a friend,” Beckford told the Observer West.
Now, as it draws closer to the fifth anniversary of being 'involuntarily outed' by his uncle, who he said he has never spoken to since that day, Beckford wants to use his experience to encourage others to treat members of the LGBTQIA community with respect.
“One thing that I really want to get across and I try to do that with every interaction with people who want to genuinely know more about who identify in the LGBTQIA community is that we are people. There is a certain level of respect and human element that is lost, so you are seen as a sexual act and not a person anymore. I have wanted for the longest time to advocate for people who do not have the chance to leave, [the ones] who do not have that [same] opportunity,” said Beckford.
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