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This young gay woman has gone from being homeless to a hero for LGBTI rights

This young gay woman has gone from being homeless to a hero for LGBTI rights

Donnya Piggott is just 24, but has already made a huge difference to the lives of LGBTI people in Barbados.

She is constantly under the threat that her mother is going to make her homeless again, but she still has the fight and strength to carry on and help others achieve equality. It is desperately needed, as Barbados still has a law banning gay sex and homosexuality is largely considered taboo.

For International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT), the theme is ‘youth’.

And while Piggott may be young, her work with the Barbados Gays, Lesbians and All-Sexuals Against Discrimination (B-GLAD) has not gone unrecognized. Queen Elizabeth II will personally give her an award in June for her activism work.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What is your perspective on advocacy?

I find many reputable and larger organizations tend to focus a lot on politics. If you’re going to be focusing on the laws, it still needs to be important for the people on the ground, for the people who are still facing terrible situations. It’s about balance. If you’re going to do a lot of political advocacy, that advocacy has to still help the people on the ground. For a young boy that wants to commit suicide, it just doesn’t work. Even larger countries who can be very advanced or progressive on LGBT laws and LGBT rights, people are still being left behind.

What kind of work are you doing in Barbados?

We do a lot of public advocacy, a lot of public discussions and screenings. We work along the community and we try to provide that balance. We’re trying to juggle it. One one hand we want to push political leaders on laws but at the same time we want to educate parents, educate teachers, educate the regular person on the ground: this is how your behaviour is affecting other people. We’re trying to balance that kind of advocacy.

Do you face a lot of homophobia? 

Certainly, it happens a lot of at home with my family. My social circle is surrounded by people like me and people who have progressive ideologies and because of that, I’m protected by them. But when I go home, and if my mother sees a press release, she’ll probably throw something back in my face.

A lot of people tell me that my sexuality is wrong, or people send me quotes from the Bible and tell me I’m going to hell. It’s difficult.

How do you get on with your family?

My father is very indifferent, but we’ve always had a great relationship. My mother is the complete opposite, I don’t have a great relationship with her at all. She says she’s disgusted by me. Sometimes she might show glimpses that she might be proud but a week later she says something very homophobic to me. It’s really difficult with my mother.

Is it a religious or a cultural thing?

It’s a cultural thing and it’s about her own embarrassment. She says she wishes she could leave the island. She says she’s so ashamed of me. So that’s very painful. I try to stay out of her way.

Is that what made you get involved in activism?

I had personal issues of my own. I wanted to join an LGBT organization. When you’re isolated, you need to feel comfortable. I started B-GLAD at university, and then I found other people who were interested. I was going through a rough time, I was homeless….I don’t like to talk about it that much. I tend to hide, it’s such a small island.

If you don’t mind talking about it, what was it like being homeless?

That was one of the hardest times of my life.

I still have a fear of banging on doors. It was when my mom had kicked me out and I was living in my car. There was one time in the middle of the night the police showed up and banged on the glass. I was sleeping in the car with my girlfriend at the time. We had parked remotely, hidden by some trees. They just woke me up, I was so scared. They called us nasty.

When I was given some help, I went to an apartment through an institution. At 4am, I remember once, the landlord just banged on the door and told me I had to leave because the institution was apparently not reputable. He just kept screaming and banging, telling me I had to leave.

I still have this fear of banging, even if someone’s just knocking on my hotel room door, it still shakes me up. It’s something that will stay with me.

I live with my mother now and she always threatens to put me out or she’s telling me to leave. I don’t think she knows the impact on me at all.

Let’s talk about something happier. What was it like to be receiving the Queen’s Young Leaders award?

That was amazing, it was really something amazing. It was celebrated amongst the community, I was really proud of that moment. It really sends a message in Barbados, even though the government didn’t acknowledge it at all!

What does IDAHOT mean for you?

It’s definitely the single most important day for the movement. It’s a day when we get to do a collective day of advocacy across the world. It brings a huge sense of awareness in just one day. It’s about being unified on this one day and making it happen.

What would you say to a young person that wants to make a difference for LGBTI people?

If you’re going to be a volunteer, that’s brilliant, and there are so many things that you can do to contribute to the movement. But to be a public advocate, think about it and think about what you want. I think yes, a lot of us are martyrs. We put ourselves out there, and when I put myself out there as an advocate, they call me a lesbian.

When my parents knew, it was a whole other form of coming out I had to do because then everyone knew. Barbados is small, and when I see people I used to hang out with and they ask what I do, they often end the conversation there. It’s something you have to be committed to.

What is the best way of changing hearts and minds?

You often meet people who are not willing to hear what you say. They poison their lives because they’re not in the same place that you are. I think it’s important that as advocates that we understand where people are at and we don’t get kind of flustered when people don’t get us right away. It’s ok because advocacy is a process.

You get mad when someone says something homophobic, but you have to understand they don’t see homophobia like we do. They don’t see the things that we see like we do. Advocates have to realise people are in different places, and we need to reach them where they’re at and not get so upset. We need to educate people, but we still need to be patient with people.