In praise of bad john lil girls

Guest post by Sherlina Nageer of Red Thread, Guyana.

She might not grow up to be tall; her mother is barely 5 feet, after all. But, size aside, dis was one bad john lil girl. She fooled me at first, walking quietly by her mother’s side and sitting sedately through the first couple of presentations. But when her mother rose to tell the story about her son Shaquille who was murdered by the police last year- shot in the side and back as he lay on the ground pleading for his life, the final bullet to the center of his forehead, the day before his 18th birthday- baby girl got up too. She twirled in the aisle, ran back and forth exploring, then finally, for who knows what reason, decided my seat was to be shared with her and plopped herself down in my chair.

I had my phone in hand, checking the time. We started late, as usual, waiting for people to get off work and show up (at 5pm, the official start time, there had been more speakers than audience. Ten minutes later though, to my happy surprise, we had a full house). It was a packed program- we were trying to do a lot- illustrate the different manifestations of violence in our society, motivate people to take action, build solidarity and community.

We remembered Dwayne Jones, crossdressing/transgender Jamaican teen murdered simply for expressing himself and Delon Melville- found dead in a field in Mocha, with two broken legs and savage knife wounds- killed, we suspect, because others suspected him of being gay (newspaper reports cite his effeminate behavior). Sadly, in Guyana, as well as across much of the Caribbean, violence and abuse against gays is still the norm- accepted, promoted, and rarely condemned. Popular songs still rail against ‘batty men’ and advocate raping women who deny sex to men; homophobic and transphobic governments retain repressive antiquated laws criminalizing cross dressing and physical displays of affection between men; public officials (including religious leaders) continuously condemn homosexuality even while drug abuse, corruption, poverty, unemployment, and a host of other problems plague the nation. Those who defy heteronormative gender roles and identities are regularly ostracized, mocked, threatened, sometimes beaten, correctively raped, sometimes burnt with acid, fired from jobs they’re excelling at, or denied work and access to goods and services such as safe housing, respectful healthcare, justice from law enforcement authorities, etc.

But in Guyana, as well as around the Caribbean, homophobia and transphobia aren’t our only problems. Violence against women and children are at epidemic levels, police brutality rampant, animal abuse so commonplace that it doesn’t even warrant comment or condemnation, and let’s not even mention the challenges that people with disabilities face or structural issues such as low wages, uninspired teachers, the outrageous VAT tax, electricity tariff, etc that keep people poor and downpressed. From the way we buse one another at the slightest provocation, real or imagined, the fact that we think it’s funny to joke about chopping up and buggering, the indifference we show when we see/hear someone (child, animal, woman, man) being abused, to the fear we have against speaking out and standing up for our own as well as others human rights- our society is in a bad way indeed. The problem is huge, sometimes seemingly overwhelming. But this evening, by the program we’d put together, we hoped to show that it was everybody’s problem really, and so we each of us, individually and collectively, had a role to play in solving it.

Onesha didn’t have time with any of that though. After figuring out that my phone was stupidly and inexplicably lacking in games, she moved onto the camera. There was no getting it back once I let it out of my hand. She took pictures of the people sitting behind us, of the speakers in front, of her mother, of Pri with the bigger camera, of the floor, the ceiling, her hands, feet. “Look, mommy, look!” she squealed excitedly as I tried in vain to shush her. The program went on- there was so much to share. Nevermind that it was going on three hours since we’d gathered, that dinnertime was long past, that we hadn’t any snacks for people, that the venue staff were falling asleep at their desks waiting for us to finish so they could lock up and go home- the gyaff continued. As each person rose to make their commitment and describe the action they were going to take against violence, Onesha continued to command my attention. She took the pen that I had been taking notes with and started drawing on the back of the “We Are The World” lyrics sheet that the community policing representative had brought for us to sing along to. From pen, she moved on to marker and I had to give her my book to put under the paper, so the color wouldn’t seep into the cushion cover. To get more comfortable, she took off her shoes and stretched her legs out across my lap.

Later, when the gyaff finally moved outside, after we had lifted Tiffany and her wheelchair down the steps, as her mother talked police injustice with A- whose younger brother’s body had just been fished out of a drain, his suspected assailants freed on the day of his closed casket funeral- Onesha stayed pasted by my side. I could go nowhere until she was ready to leave. She climbed fearlessly on A’s motorbike, posed, and demanded that I take her picture. She pointed at the moon, climbed to the top of the (now-locked) gate of the venue so she could get closer to it, and demanded I hand her the camera so she could take a picture. When A and her mom finished talking- mutually soothed and energized after sharing their sorrows with a kindred spirit- Onesha demanded and got a ride around the block on the bike. Finally, clutching the paper and markers that she had been gifted with, we left. She held onto my hand to cross the street, but as soon as we crossed, let go and raced down the pavement, shrieking at imaginary alligators in the drains.

At first, as she’d flitted around inside, I’d had the urge to tell her to sit still, be quiet, a good little girl. When she climbed on the motorcycle and gate- “Be careful” and “No, you can’t do that!” came to the fore. When she scooted down the pave ignoring my yells to stop and I had to run to catch up with her, “Dis bad john, hard ears lil gyal” almost came out my mouth. But when she stopped and raced back at me, jumping into my arms shouting “Alligator!” all I could do was laugh out loud at her silliness and hug her tight. This is exactly what the world needs more off- more Oneshas, more bad john lil gyals! I hope she never stops demanding what she wants, never stops believing that she deserves it all, never stops looking at the moon or skipping down the sidewalk, and never stops finding safety and love in the arms of others.

There are too many sad, broken, fearful people in the world today. Too many who see nothing wrong in doing ugly, horrific things to others because they themselves have been hurt and damaged in crucial ways. Too many who see imaginary alligators in drains instead of the moon and stars in the sky. Too many who don’t love themselves, who have forgotten that they were born beautiful and powerful, who are afraid to speak up and demand more/better for themselves and others. This is what we must fight against, this more than anything else is what needs fixing. Thank you, Onesha, for that reminder. Everybody else- let’s help raise more bad john lil girls!

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