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The Weight of a Liberian Bear

One of the first things that comes up in conversation on dates is, “Oh, Monrovia? What’s it like there?”

I tell them it’s hot, it’s humid, it’s bursting with shades of green. The people are proud, the beaches are calming, the pineapple is sweeter. On paper, it sounds like the perfect place to live for someone like me, especially after 45 placed his toupee on America. But after coming into my identity as a plus size queer man, it hit me: If I moved back to my home country, I’d most likely be the only openly bisexual bear in Liberia. With a history of fatphobia and same sex relations being a first degree misdemeanor in the country, it would be much harder for me to live in my truth in the motherland than in America, where I face systemic racism. It’s a give and take I’ve been forced to live with ever since I came out three years ago.

I grew up all around the D.C. Maryland and Virginia tri state area, or DMV for short. Spelling tests in Elkridge, Cookouts at the Liberian Embassy on 16th street and sermons in Alexandria made up the bulk of my early childhood. I didn’t really start to question my identity until halfway through middle school, which also happened to be around the same time my family packed up and moved to Monrovia, Liberia’s capital. I was experiencing a country I’d never been to before while at the same time my body was doing things I’d never seen or felt it do. I remember crossing paths with a group of dark skinned women in Mamba Point who all had their hair cut very short, while they whispered among themselves trying to figure out if I was a girl or a boy. See I had always had my hair cut short, but I was also a very chubby child.

The average Liberian boy spends his days on his feet. From selling slippers up and down the market area, to playing soccer with his friends during recess and after school, to just walking from place to place in the hot sun and the humid air. I was a pretty active kid, but I also spent a lot of my time in front of the TV in our basement, running upstairs to grab more snacks when Codename: Kids Next Door went to commercial.

I started visibly gaining weight around age 10, and even though my father put me in several different athletic programs, I was never able to slim down completely. I was eating the same sized plates of rice and okra sauce my dad was scraping clean at age 40. So in retrospect, it made sense that when I ran into those women on the street, they saw a full figured black child with short hair and had questions. I was told I had a “series body” by the locals, a term used to describe American mannerisms based on The World Series competition. Even though I grew up in a Liberian household, I was made aware of my foreignness very quickly.

Nudity among children was not an issue in Liberia. I remember my first locker room experience in the states in 6th grade, me and a few other kids being hesitant to even take my shirt off in front of my classmates. At a slumber party in Monrovia, after my friends and I rolled around in the dirt for hours, everyone just stripped naked one by one and waited their turn to use the shower. While I had always had a fondness for girls, a small voice in the back of my mind had me asking myself, What if I liked boys?

I’d heard the term “bisexual” in passing but I had no idea how it even worked. Some days I was attracted to girls and I just knew that I was straight. Then there were other days where a guy I saw at school made me freeze up and I dreaded the thought of being gay. But I wouldn’t have dared shared my feelings with my father. We come from a line of respected politicians who helped shape Liberia since our ancestors moved back to West Africa after being freed from servitude. Liberia may be a “free” country, but the majority of its citizens are influenced by European Christianity. My thoughts of being attracted to men would have been silenced and stomped out, so they remained thoughts in my head, never spoken or written down.

My sex drive really kicked up when I moved back to the states for high school. I was 15. I was masturbating almost every day. Everywhere I looked, I saw someone I pictured myself being with…not all of them being women. I was open about my feelings towards girls I had crushes on, but I kept the butterflies for the guys to myself. Needless to say, being a lineman on my school’s football team was interesting.

I was doing searches for very specific types of porn videos. I never watched gay porn in high school, but I did focus on videos where the man was fat and preferably black. Most of the sex scenes I watched in TV and film showed a beautiful woman being pleasured by a Ken Doll, and I always felt inadequate.

The first time I saw myself represented sexually in mainstream culture was in the 2009 biopic Notorious. Jamal Woolard and Naturi Naughton played The Notorious B.I.G. and Lil’ Kim respectively, sharing a brief but steamy sex scene. Actually seeing someone my size being desired sexually gave me hope for the future.

Fast forward to a few months after college. With the help of my friends I’d made at VCU, I was able to step into my identity as a bisexual bear. I had been intimate with men, sharing each others bodies as well as our coming out stories. Both my parents lived in Liberia now, my father having stayed there since my teenage years and my mother having recently moved back a few months before my graduation. I wanted to tell her I was bi when she came back to watch me walk across the stage. I remember talking to her on the phone a week before her plane arrived in my partner’s bed. I had the chance to say it to her face. I just wasn’t ready.

I ended up coming out to my parents separatelyvia text and email. My mother didn’t fully understand it, but she understood that I needed her support. My father and I still have not spoken about it.

Sometimes I would think about my paternal lineage and compare it to my personal journey. I’m a fourth, so from the moment I was born I was expected to grow up to be a successful Liberian man like my fathers before me. At 26, I am broke, working a minimum wage job, and not only do I like women and men, I prefer men. My mother continues to suggest to me to move to Liberia to make a living. I have great writing and graphic design skills, skills that the country could use to help shape itself after civil war and the recent Ebola crisis continues to impede its success. I’ve done graphics for Liberian non-profit organizations before, doing business in Liberia could really help boost my career.

But I fear I’d still be lonely.

I’ve been intimate with Liberian women before, but the few times I was my weight has been brought into question. To give a little context, Liberia suffers from corruption to this day. The country has a history of politicians hoarding resources from the working and lower class. Gyude Bryant, Chairman of the Transitional Government of Liberia from 2003 to 2006 was charged and later acquitted with embezzlement of over 1 million US dollars from the state oil refinery. Bryant was a large man, the general public associating his weight to him “eating government money.” Add to the fact that many Liberians see Americans as lazy, and you have a toxic culture of fatphobia that has yet to be genuinely addressed.

I still worry about if I were to try to date a Liberian woman if they would truly find me physically attractive. I know all women aren’t like that, but I’ve only felt truly accepted by men. I also worry that if I move to Liberia I would be cutting off part of myself in the process. I prefer bigger men to women. It took me a long time to love my body and realize that there are people in this world that will love me for it, so why would I go to a country that culturally rejects something so integral to my identity? To find a woman I don’t love with my whole heart to create an image for myself just to please my family members because they couldn’t just accept me as I was?

Sodomy is a first degree misdemeanor in Liberia, and warrants a year in prison. I’m not strong enough to fight a system on my own. I’ve seen what radical activism does to people. I just want to live happily. I want to find a balance between my work, my leisure, and my service to others. I wanna find a way to connect with queer Liberians all over the world. But at the end of the day I have to find peace within myself. I will always love being a Liberian. But until my country can truly love me, I choose to live wherever my mind and body will be safe. I do plan to visit, though. I can’t stay away from those soothing beaches and that sweet pineapple forever. I also miss my sister, and I want her and my brother to cosplay as Shuri and T’Challa. I’ll be M’Baku, of course.

My cousin and her wife live in Maryland with their little baby boy, whose first name they chose to be gender-neutral should he decide to transition when he gets older.

I have hope for the future.

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