America the Free, America the Queer

By Jovan, Montclair State University

Saturday morning is very often that special time of the week. For some reason, I tend to wake up quite early and watch the sunrise. Sometimes, I walk across campus, find a place from where I can see New York, and watch as the mighty red sun rises above this astonishing city. And whenever that happens, I stand in an awe; speechless, breathless, enchanted. In those moments, time stops, and I seem to become one with the space around me, and the whole universe. It is truly something that has to be seen and felt and lived to be fully understood.

Now, why is all of this important, you might ask? Well, the simple answer would be… umm, there is really no simple answer. I feel that it is important to mention these moments in time, because they are very limited, and very precious. And very soon, I will not be seeing the sunrise over New York, not for a very long time. So I decided to mention them, and make sure that they remain forever sealed and engraved in this story; for me to remember, and to spark your imagination. There should be at least a little something to make you wander off and daydream, before I continue with my story. So, take a few more moments and think of a sunrise, and of a majestic city emerging with the sun. Think of happiness, serenity, and love. Let those feelings rush through your blood. And smile. Once you’re ready to continue, make yourself comfortable – my story begins.

I have procrastinated long enough. But, I can’t help it – so very often I do that, it has become an ugly habit. I’m trying to correct that, though, so don’t worry. It really is the beginning.

To formally get everything rolling, I’ll briefly introduce myself, and go on from there. My name is Jovan, and I am a Global UGRAD student. My home is in Montenegro, and I am currently studying at Montclair State University, in New Jersey. I am one of six UGRAD students from Montenegro on a full-year scholarship. This should cover the basics, for now.

It has been almost eight months since I arrived in the U.S., and I have just under a month left before my departure. You wouldn’t believe how time flies, especially when you’re having fun, in the U.S. Nothing, and I mean nothing, could have ever prepared me for everything I have experienced in this country. Sure, my pre-departure orientation covered the basics, but that didn’t even scratch the surface. Damn, it didn’t even approach the surface. Whatever you hear about America, it is much more than that. It is far better, and far worse than you can imagine. And I love it! All of it. If someone wants to judge me for this, go for it. I would have judged myself, if I said this before coming here.

I am going to skip all the “usual” reasons – New York (with all of its wonders), North Atlantic coast, the food, the entertainment, the convenience, Target, Amazon, lovely people, educational system, opportunities, excitement, all the different dating apps (I managed to end up with over 20 of them), and so many more great things, for which I would need a LOT more space. These ones I wrote because they were on the top of my mind. Of course, one must not forget the other side of the coin – poverty, pollution, greed, GOP & Trump, social inequality, NRA & their guns, corruption, conservative Christians and similar fundamentalists, and on, and on, and on. With all of this, America is still a darn good place to be; especially if you’re on a full scholarship, and you have nothing to worry about – which is the case with me.

Having all of the above covered, I will focus on a deeper, more personal reason, why I do truly love this country and deem it as a home away from home. It comes from one simple word – freedom. But not the ordinary, everyday freedom (you know, the one to carry a gun, drive a big car); but a freedom to be yourself. It might sound silly to many of you, reading this, but few will understand far better. You see, I am not quite like the other boys, or girls, for that matter – I am a bit Queer. And in this, a very important characteristic of mine, lies my deep and strong connection with America.

In order to understand why this is the case, yet again, I have to give you some background information. This time, it is about where and how I was raised. Montenegro, like most of the Slavic countries, is not very big on liberalism and human rights. We’re definitely not Syria or Afghanistan, for example, but we’re surely not Norway, Sweden, or the U.S. We’re a place where you can be whoever you want, as long as you keep it “in your own four walls”. If you dare and take pride in your identity, of any kind, the society will force you to conform and fit back into a matchbox they want. Not a very nice way to live, wouldn’t you agree. But, naturally, there is more. As a very religious country, we also have a grumpy bearded guy in a dress (no, I’m not talking about God), condemning all differences on a national TV, at least once a week. If women seek better legal protection – they should go back to pumping out kids. If national minorities raise their voices – they must be sent back to their countries. And, of course, if gays or lesbians want to have a peaceful pride – to hell with them, stone them, kill them, curse them, and so on. Not a very nice place to live. And there is even more – no police protection, no legal protection or recognition, no freedom of expression, no hope that things will change. I can live, and I do live, with everything I mentioned above – but the lack of hope is suffocating me, making me gasp for air and cry at night. Making my life a horror.

I hope I gave you a pretty good idea of how I spent the past 20 years of my life, and how much I had to struggle, just to survive, and remain sane. But, regardless of everything, I did manage to survive, and fight for my place in that world. A very small place, yes, but one that is somewhat peaceful and safe. And just when I thought that I will stay in that place for a very long time, my life took an unexpected turn and I ended up in America. America! Can you believe it? I could not, for a long time. Is this really happening, am I really going to see the free realms of the Queers? It was not a dream, but reality; a real reality.

For the first time in my entire life, I was able to be the same person on the inside and on the outside; I was able to rise like a phoenix, and to finally be alive. I was me, and it felt wonderful. Never before have I felt so empowered, so strong, so happy, and so peaceful. No more hiding in the closet, no more lies, no more darkness, no more tears. NO MORE. I would wake up happy, and be happy when I closed my eyes.

Oh America, how you have changed me, how you have loved me and cared for me. Oh America, how grateful I am!

Again, I do not expect many of you who are reading this to understand, but do try. I believe that we are all a little Queer, in our own special way. My Queer is not as same as yours, but I think you can relate a bit. Whether you come from Asia, Africa, Europe, the Americas, or anywhere else in the world, you are special, and you do not fit into every given mold. Maybe your Queerness is your race, or religion, or ethnicity, or the language that you speak. Maybe it is, more traditionally, your sexuality, your gender identity, or just the color of your hair. Any of those things can be translated into a similar story, and I do hope and believe that here, in America, you were able to feel more free, more beautiful, and way stronger than ever before. I know I did, and still do, and will until I leave.

What comes to my mind very often these days is – what’s next? Once I leave America, what will happen, how will I live my life, will I be able to be so very brave back home, will I survive… I do not know the answer to any of these questions, nor will I before I go back; but I know this – I will be damned if I ever give up. Now that I know what happiness is, I will never give up on it. Nor should you. Never. It really is true that change cannot happen unless you inspire it, and that is what I intend to do!

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