Intersectionality: How I Learnt What Boxes I Ticked
Author: Jasper, 22, bi, he/him
O śil akharel mi godaqe te del andre k-o mo vogi. Okote maladoevav so kamav
The cold wind invites me to reflect to watch my soul here I find everything I am looking for
Nicolás Jiménez González
To me, identity is a myriad of things. It's my name, my looks; from my hair to my tattoos, it's my gender, my sexuality, my job, my values, my ethnicity. All of it is hard fought, earned piece by piece, scrap by scrap. I worked for my identity, fought tooth and nail for it and it is one of my most prized possessions.
Like many things about me, my identity as a young Romanichal was closeted. Firstly, by my own family. We were settled Roma. On the mantelpiece of my grandmother's house sat a wooden set, gilded wheels long since settled, manes frozen in motion: her father's vardo lovingly recreated in miniature from its wooden remains. I used to wish to play with it but was always reprimanded for doing so. But otherwise none of the adults ever spoke of its existence, never acknowledged the familiarity we all felt when our gaze fell upon it. Only later did I learn it was not ignored- only grieved for.
The second acknowledgement of our identity came as a teenager visiting my grandmother in hospital. As my family huddled around the bed, our worldview narrowed to the single point of the leading matriarch. It was a world view that rapidly cracked open when the elderly woman in the bed next to my Nan smiled and spoke. “Gadje Gadjensa, Rom Romensa” she nodded approvingly at my family, all of us dark haired, dark eyed, with strong Romani heritage looks. My mother hurriedly closed the curtains around our family as the rest of the elderly ward looked on in suspicion. None of us spoke on what the woman had said. She disappeared a day later, leaving the hospital, though none of us ever saw relatives or loved ones visiting her. Later we heard my Nan rushing to tell the woman on her other side that she did not know what the woman had said to her or what language it was. The shame I felt as I walked through the ward daily sat heavily on my tongue.
Less then a month after I turned 18, in 2017, I was kicked out of my home. My mother made the decision that me being a member of the LGBTQI+ community wasn’t something she could stomach to bear, and she ensured I knew that I was not welcome. Multiple times threats against my life were made, her silhouette would stand imposingly in my doorway for hours on end, staring at my form in bed, and in one evening I found myself with a knife to my throat. It is a moment I remember all too well; in shaken moments of the night, I still feel a phantom blade on my throat. Partly unwillingly, I made the decision to pack my bags and belongings. I stayed on a friends sofa, £7.87 in my bank account, for 2 weeks before university began. None of my family ever contacted me again- a fact I both grieved and felt grateful for.
As a homeless student I learned I had no identity, no home to fall back on, no family to return to. My identity became a chimera, a subterfuge of language, dialects and looks. My queer Romany identity invited pride, yet vulnerability, but my trauma forced silence and solitude. The more I drew away from lines of questioning regarding home and family -my memories trailing me with every passing holiday- the more I found myself becoming entangled in my lost Romany identity, language and culture without any clarity.
One day, whilst I was browsing in Waterstones a book seemingly leapt from the shelves to catch my eye- The Stopping Places by Damian Le Bas. His journey where he followed the vardo of his forefathers, and later, that of others, as a restless quest for authenticity spoke to me . His own identity mirrored mine in some ways; having both Roma and non-Roma blood, being a non “true-bred” Romany in some eyes. He shared a disquiet that he was a fraud for having “mixed blood”, an unease that I certainly felt and had done ever since learning of my family history. He also feared that his identity had been compromised by a kushti upbringing and so embarked on a journey to reconnect with a part of himself. His words spoke to me, his desperation to feel and know the texture of a lost way of life to find authenticity resonated deep in me. As I travelled along with him on his journey, through each page of his book, I learned and retraced familiar steps, although they weren’t of my own. And when I finished his book, I did not stop reading. I filled my shelves with Roma literature, reached out to social media to organisations just like Traveller Pride, and began involving myself in activist efforts and support networks. As 2022 follows I hope to further listen to and learn Romany dialects, although as Romany is not recognised as an official tongue this poses a difficulty. But I wish to speak with half my soul, my being, and so I continue my search and learning. As I did with my sexual and gender identity, I want to embroil myself in this culture, to learn and be proud of my identity. As said by Sandra Jayat, an Italian Romni and artist, “If you do not know where you go, never forget where you came from.”, and as I continue to grow and learn I will always remember my roots, my story. However, this has not come without further battles of its own.
In the internet age, being Roma can be a minefield. Unfortunately, whilst we have always faced persecution for our identity, the internet has allowed tendrils of hate to extend far beyond its previous reach. It can sometimes feel overwhelming to see hateful articles posted by ignorant media corporations being an echo chamber for those who see anything different to them as lesser. There is a high level of digital exclusion in our communities as well, which may partly account for the large volume of uneducated resources- without the voices of those minorities it is often difficult to broadcast the truth and raise awareness. It is, unfortunately, a fine line that myself and other young Roma must walk at this current time; to dodge and avoid sources that paint us in an unfavourable light, whilst also staunchly defending and highlighting our struggles and journeys to make others aware. However, this double-pronged weapon serves to our advantage as well- the digital ecosystem allows us to freely find and communicate information at negligible cost, allowing us to form transnational networks of intra-ethnic Roma solidarity. I think it is important to acknowledge the hate seen online, but only in a way that allows us to call for justice, to demand retribution for the wrongs instilled on us by those who view themselves as superior. I would urge all and any Roma to preserve their mental health and energy by taking the steps necessary for them when it comes to hateful content online. It is easy to be burnt out by the sheer volume of voices all speaking on our identity without respect or our input. This is a plight shared by our trans-siblings in the LGBTQI+ community, as Liam Konemann found when he began collating The Appendix- a simple record of ongoing transphobia in the UK. In his book of the same name he details how his examination of the wider hostile climate that trans people face today, before shifting focus to celebrate trans joy. It was a riveting read and one that I encourage all people to read. This simple novella revealed that despite so many differences minorities often share a common struggle of oppression at worst and disregard at best. Moreso, that revelation held an important lesson for me: I am not one thing or another, I am all parts of a whole. My identity is a kaleidoscope of presentations, thoughts, feelings and emotions that cannot be categorised in one section or another. I am not just Romanichal, as I am not just queer. I am both and so much more.
So now, when those pesky information forms are filled in, my pen no longer halts, hovers and hesitates over boxes. Instead I proudly tick "Queer" and "White British Traveller". When I am met with the questions “katar avilan?” and “Rom san?” I confidently answer. My identity is mine, I have earnt it and I deserve to be proud of it.
Glossary of terms
Vardo- wagon, living wagon, van or caravan, typically a traditional horse-drawn wagon used by British Romanichal Travellers as their home
Gadje Gadjensa, Rom Romensa- a way of saying Gadje (non-traveller) with Gadje, Rom (traveller) with Rom. Typically a phrase to imply that Travellers do not allow outsiders into their lives
Kushti- good or nice
katar avilan?- Where do you come from?
Rom san?- You are Roma?