Poet and LGBT activist in literature, Yohan SR Lee (29) grew up with his mother and grandfather in Kingston, Jamaica. Like many in the LGBT community in Jamaica, Yohan faced serious harassment throughout his youth. Despite this, Yohan excelled academically and won a scholarship for a master’s degree in Aarhus (DK) and Hamburg. He poured his experiences of being black and queer into hundreds of poems – now bundled into two books: Poems from the Musing and Out from the Lee. His work describes anything from growing up gay in Jamaica to dating experiences and going clubbing along the Reeperbahn. With Hamburg Pride upon us, we could not think of a better person to talk to about the right to live and love freely.
Yohan, tell us a little about yourself: what’s your background?
I’m from what you would call a lower income area in Kingston, Jamaica. There were lots of issues: crime, teenage pregnancies, unemployment, you name it. I grew up with my mother and my grandfather, with my aunt and cousins close by. Never met my father. I only know his last name, because the law states that children must take on their father’s last name. Otherwise I’d be called Yohan Morgan.
I see … What was your youth like?
I was very active in the church when I was growing up. At a certain point I started to question things: the more educated I became, the more I stepped away from religion. So even though my mother is a devout Christian, I left the church and went my own way. Of course she was sad about it, but we never had a big fight. The greatest test came when I wanted to tell her that I’m gay. Probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever done.
How did that go?
I was in my early 20s. I was watching a film about a boy telling his parents he’s gay, and I felt compelled to tell my mother as well. The moment it came out of my mouth it felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders. I started to cry and so did she. She was crying because she knew what the world could do to gay people, or those who might be.
Had you been harrassed before for that reason?
Oh, yes. It started already when I was little: I sang in a prepubescent voice and was interested in school, both big no-no’s. Boys are supposed to be into football and rough sports. I never did that, so I was ridiculed by children and adults alike, including teachers. It got worse when I went to high school – a good, traditional Catholic all-boys school.
Did you have any support, any friends?
Thankfully, yes. We were a huge comfort to each other but we also had to endure a lot. We were called the Gay Unit. When we were having lunch, people would take stuff out of the garbage bin and throw it at us. Adults usually turned a blind eye to what was going on. It was either “boys will be boys” or “we can’t prove that it happened”.
School can be horrible if you’re bullied. What about outside of school?
Sadly I was taunted also outside of school. Walking on the streets, people would mimic the sounds of guns, saying I should die. It doesn’t matter if you’re a child or not. The older you get, the more likely it is things will get physical. The worst thing that happened to me was walking along a main road in Kingston and this man was on his motorbike, and he spat in my direction. It missed me by an inch.
Oh, gross! Why would he target you?
It’s the outward appearance, a more feminine aesthetic especially. I’m a bit lighter in my step, my hair is a certain style, I don’t wear my pants below my butt with my underwear showing … It’s subtly different things that they find to criticise. If you check the boxes, you’re a prime target.
Why do random people care so much about whether you look masculine enough?
Religion, especially Christianity, informs a lot of behaviour in Jamaica. People use it as a yardstick to treat you as a second-class citizen or even no citizen at all. On top of that, there is a cultural aversion to anything non-heterosexual, including stereotypes about diseases and sexual activities, the assumption that you’re a pedophile … All of these things are bottled up into the cultural psyche. People say that you can’t be Jamaican if you’re gay or you can’t be black if you’re gay.
You must’ve felt so unsafe. How did you deal with it all, could you talk about it?
I never told my mother I was being bullied, because I didn’t want her to worry. Instead I sought comfort in my writing. Poetry came almost naturally to me. Instead of writing a diary, I wrote my poems, that was the way that I dealt with what was going on.
But was writing poetry enough?
No. At some point I couldn’t take it anymore. I needed to leave Jamaica. I was in my twenties and couldn’t express myself openly nor date safely. People in the LGBTQ community were being killed in gruesome ways. It was like this – you go to a party and a month later, you find out that someone you met is now dead. I didn’t want that to be my life. So I started thinking of ways I could leave.
You received a scholarship to do a Master’s in Journalism in Denmark and Hamburg. How was it to leave Jamaica for Europe?
It felt like the beginning of a new life. I didn’t feel like I was living in Jamaica, I was just surviving. When you’d see me walking, you’d think someone was chasing me. I spent money taking cabs. There was a lot of paranoia and stress that came along with living in Jamaica. In Jamaica, I wasn’t accepted as a regular citizen. As much as I love my country and want to see it do well, I also hated living there.
Do you have any Jamaican friends over here?
I haven’t met anyone from Jamaica since I’ve been here, I can’t say I’m sad about it. In Europe it’s actually the black people that have the strongest reactions to me. When I was in Denmark, an African guy came up to me at a bar and asked if I was Jamaican, so I said yes. He said: “No, you’re not. You can’t be Jamaican and gay.” So I told him: “Here I am: I’m gay, Jamaican and if you’re wondering, I’m also black!”
Great comeback! But that was pretty close-minded.
I’ve learned to laugh about it, but if we’re talking about racism, prejudice and topics like that – my experience is that I’ve never been treated worse than by my own people – I mean black people, not just Jamaicans. Yes, I’ve experienced racism and all of these things here, but the worst has been homophobia at the hands of black people.
Hamburg prides itself on being an open-minded, LGBT-friendly and international city: is that your experience?
Hamburg can be proud of the attempts made to make it safe for people of different races, identities, abilities and such. But there’s only so much you can do where laws are concerned.
In what situations has Hamburg not been so open-minded to you?
The nightlife in Hamburg can be tough. There is this common policy to have “quota”: if there are five black people inside, another one can’t enter until one of them comes out. Of course whenever I ask bouncers about it directly, they don’t say anything, because then they admit to discrimination.
But that’s the reality, though?
Yes, only a few weeks ago I got to a bar on the Reeperbahn when I was stopped by a bouncer – he said I needed a woman to enter. This had never been the case before. Why I would suddenly need a woman: to carry my money or hold my drink? The bouncer didn’t answer my questions, so I left to go to another club on Große Freiheit. I’d been there before with my white friend Cassie, who is a bartender along Reeperbahn herself. But this time I was alone, and the bouncer stopped me and asked: “Can I see your residence permit?”
What the hell … Did he ask others?
People were going in left and right, he was only checking me. I figured I’d try something. I told him: I’m Cassie’s friend. That was like showing a passport: “Oh Cassy’s friend, come in!” But when I got inside, I was on the brink of tears. I literally texted about 30 people. I felt so targeted and so rejected, and it all happened in the space of maybe 10 minutes. I quickly felt better when a very kind guy came up to talk to me. I even made a new friend that night. It was a reminder for me that, despite these things happening, it’s not the full picture of Hamburg or Germany, it’s one experience of many. Other than that, it’s been a positive experience being different here.
That’s good to hear, at least.
Yes, I can walk around freely. I feel safer. I can walk around comfortably in my skin. I have learned to embrace my sexual identity and expression. I never found happiness until I left. I was always happy being at home with my mother, listening to music – in my safe space. But I was never truly happy in Jamaica. I found it here, even though it is still a process.
And now you’ve already got your second book published, so you seem to be doing well!
That’s right. The poems from my first book were mostly written in Jamaica. I spent a lot of time picking out the poems I wanted to put in, asking myself: do I take the poems that are kind of vague and appeal to a more general audience, or rather the more personal ones that talk about a specific, LGBT experience. I took a leap of faith and chose the latter option. That’s why the book starts with the poem: “You’re Free To Go” in which I describe that if you don’t accept me for what I have written, you’re free to go.
I see … Very powerful.
Once I did that, I felt that I had a lot more in my head, so I decided to write my second book. This one is my fully embracing being an LGBT black Jamaican person living in Europe. I chronicle everything from dating experiences online to shopping in supermarkets, travelling in airports, taking the bus, clubbing … It’s not only my own experiences but also things that I observe. Taken together, these books are kind of my coming out to the world. You can get them online, so …
Also people in Jamaica can order it.
Many people have bought it already. These copies here on the table are actually for my mother, who I will meet very soon. She will be experiencing a lot, because a lot of things I haven’t said to her she can read here.
Are you scared about possible reactions from Jamaicans reading your poetry?
I have thought about who could read it, and what the possible backlash could be. For instance if the photos that we took in this photoshoot – of me holding the LGBT and Jamaican flags – will one day make their way to a scandalous newspaper somewhere. But I’m okay with it. It is a part of the process of fully accepting myself as Yohan. It’s not easy, I still get nervous about it. But my mother is the only person whose reaction I care about.
I’m sure she’ll be super proud of you.
May I say one more thing about the book? In the back of book 2 is a memorial of some of the LGBT people in Jamaica who have died. This is my way of adding to the push for visibility of experiences of LGBT people of different colours, nationalities, interests … It’s important.
That’s a beautiful tribute. In that spirit: Gay Pride is coming up: are you going?
Oh yes – I’m not sure whether I’ll go to Hamburg or Amsterdam, but as long as I live in Europe, I will go to Pride. It is absolutely necessary to show ourselves until we’re able to see everyone as equal despite our many differences – even within the LGBT community. Pride will always be that moment to say to the world: we’re here, we’re queer, we’re not going anywhere!
Absolutely. Best of luck, Yohan, and thanks for your time!