Editor’s Note: The name has been changed to protect the identity of the student.
As the municipality of Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago soaked in the festivities of Carnival Tuesday, he was oblivious and distant to the grandeur surrounding him — like he had something weighing on his mind.
He did. It was the day Tom*, then 20, was planning on telling his parents he’s gay. It was the first time he would be telling anybody.
“I never told anybody because my parents were the first people I wanted to tell,” he says as he runs his hand through his perfectly kept blonde hair.
It was in the middle of the night when Tom and his family returned home after the celebrations. He took a deep breath and asked his parents to come out on the porch.
“I sat my mom down and said ‘Look, I’m gay.’ She took it really well and started crying.”
“She said she kind of always knew and was glad I had decided to come out,” he says laughing. “Then my dad came out on the porch and I told him too. We just sat and talked for a really long time.”
Tom’s decision to tell his family about his sexual identity came three months after his grandfather died of lung cancer.
“It had been kind of pressing on my mind and I feel he [my grandfather] had some regrets at the end. It was haunting me for a bit and I decided no more lies,” he said.
But Tom was prepared to face however his family would react to the news of him being gay. He had a back-up plan to get away.
“In the back of my mind, I knew they’d be fine but I had anxiety attacks. I saved up some money and I was ready to find a boat and go somewhere to get away just in case,” he laughs.
“I only had a $1,000 Trinidad and Tobago dollars — which is nothing.”
It’s been two years since Tom, a fourth-year international student majoring in fine arts at York University, came out. He credits the city’s multiculturalism and tolerance in helping him come to terms with his sexual identity.
“There’s so many world views and there’s so many walks of life. I’ve been opening myself to Toronto at large and meeting as many people as I can,” Tom said.
Experiencing the myriad of opportunities in the city has helped him realize who he is.
Coming from conservative culture that frowns upon homosexuality, Tom found it hard to initially adjust to the freedom and inclusion Toronto had to offer.
“There was a big culture clash. It was like a slap in the face because what’s the norm in our culture is definitely not the norm here,” he said.
Unlike Toronto, where homosexuality was decriminalized in 1969, the penalty for being homosexual in Trinidad is 25 years imprisonment.
“Toronto most of all taught me to be yourself and have no qualms about being yourself because there’s going to be nobody like you,” as compared to Trinidad where he says there’s “a lot of conformity and there’s a subtle pressure to behave certain ways, like certain music and behave a certain way at parties.”
He is one of many LGBTQ international students who come to terms with their identity in Toronto.
Adam Morrison, Program Coordinator at the Sexual and Gender Diversity Office at the University of Toronto, deals with students like Tom who initially find it difficult to adjust in Toronto.
“We often hear something like ‘I would have never spoken like this in my home country’ because people…are in a situation where their families don’t know,” he said.
More often than not, Morrison says students just want to be in a place where they can open up and chat
“For the first time they’re in a space, where they can sit down and say ‘I’m lesbian and I haven’t told anyone that before,’” Morrison said.
It took Tom time to come around but he says he started opening up to the city after he publicly came out.
“It took me three years to actually begin to love Toronto after hating it and looking to leave at every opportunity,” he said.
“I hated Toronto and I hated Canadians — I hated everything. It was so different from everything at home and change to me before I came out was the worst because it meant everything turns upside down.”
Coming out made it easier for him to embrace change — and Toronto.
“After I came out, change became the normal. I suddenly opened up to how amazing the city is, like Nuit Blanche, which is one of the many things I love about this city.”
Although, he says he’s had a “sweet coming out story,” but the two years since haven’t been without trials for Tom.
When he first came out, his aunt sent regular emails condemning his sexuality.
“She started launching emails at me about how I’m going to hell and what I have to do to repent,” he says rolling his eyes.
“That was really tough.”
Since he’s come out, he’s also learned who his true friends are.
“People that I thought were open and okay with it…would say really hurtful things out of the blue.”
He recalls an incident where he was physically attacked in Trinidad for being gay.
“I was walking down with a guy I was going out with and we were going to an election rally. We would get the F-word hurled at us. Cups and bottles and a glass would explode by the floor and we would just keep walking a bit faster,” he said.
Citing the subtle tension in Trinidad between the gay and straight population, Tom says he wasn’t treated well by boys he dated who were secretly gay.
“I was going out with guys who were very much in the closet. They had no idea who they were so they would try to keep you secret,” he said.
“They’d see you in public and treat you like shit to maintain their image. There’s very much that dichotomy in Trinidad between gays that are out and gays that are not out.”
But Toronto has treated him well.
“I’ve really learnt what it means to be gay in Toronto. It’s really a great city to be gay in.”
While there are no statistics on the number of LGBTQ international students in Toronto, the group is thriving.
Post-secondary institutions say it is hard to keep a track of statistics in general on the number of LGBTQ students.
“We don’t ask folks to identify themselves,” Morrison said.
But Morrison says he’s worked with students from all around the world.
“My experience is not that one is a more dominant number or the other. It’s a pretty good mix.”
With a diverse group of LGBTQ international students, their experiences and problems are unique too — not everyone has accepting parents like Tom’s.
“There are different extents to which I hear students saying that faith plays a role in a struggle they might be having,” Morrison said.
“Sometimes, we [have] students who say ‘No, I have to keep going to the church or mosque…even though, it’s difficult for me to be there because I can’t be out in that community.”
It is easy for international students to get overwhelmed in Toronto’s predominantly gay culture says Suhail AbualSameed, the Newcomer Community Engagement Coordinator at Support Our Youth (SOY), an organization that helps improve the lives of LGBTQ youth.
In 2007, AbualSameed himself publicly came out to an audience packed with Muslim scholars at a conference on Islam and HIV/Aids.
His advice for students is to try not to get lost in and overpowered by what he calls Toronto’s “dominant, visible and mainstream queer culture.”
“Understand and appreciate that [you] bring something very valuable with you from your culture even if your culture is predominantly is homophobic,” he said.
For Tom, Toronto has helped accentuate his Caribbean side in his art work as he uses loud and bright colours making his work stand out from that of his peers. He graduates from university in 2012 and has plans to help LGBTQ youth in Trinidad and Tobago through social activism.
He also wants to dabble into costume design. But first, he plans on getting his permanent residency in Toronto.
“I feel most free when I’m here but I’m most comfortable when I’m home,” he said.
“I don’t know if I’ll spend the rest of my life in Trinidad but I want to spend most of my life in Trinidad.
It’s hard to say I’m never going back even if it means never being able to marry somebody but it’s still home.”