Tessanne, the measure of a true artiste

Check out my latest article published in the Jamaica Gleaner (see link below):




Coming out again and again as femme

Living out loud as a lesbian has been a challenge since the day I decided to come out. First I had to come out to myself then to others, a step that still feels like a never ending journey given my gender presentation as a femme. For years my femme persona has somewhat acted as an invisible shield against the antagonism that comes with my sexual orientation. My presence was never seen as a threat to anyone until I openned my mouth or was with other women, those I have dated who identified as butch or tomboy. I remember the first time I started dating. I was a college volunteer at a youth center where elder women would come from a nearby senior citizens center and assist with after school services. One evening I sat in a small circle of these older women who welcomed me into the group without reservations. The conversation was a whirlwind of topics, scooping me up in the middle of it all. They discussed current events, politics, the plight of school children nowadays, and the unfortunate disaster of the world trade center that had happened just a month before. Then they got into discussing the days when young men were gentlemen who courted young women. Suddenly one of them turned to me and asked if I was seeing someone. I nodded, careful not to spill the gender of the person. “Oh how nice!” they exclaimed, their eyes lighting up as though my budding romance had suddenly ignited bulbs inside them.

After the session, my girlfriend at the time was waiting outside the building. She was an athlete, so she had on a baggy sweatpants and her hoodie that had our university’s name written in bold letters across her chest. She had finished basketball practice and seemed to have been waiting in front of the youth center for a while. I was exiting the building with a few of the women I was in the circle with when I saw her. The women were still talking when their words turned to a hushed whisper. “Is that a boy or a girl? You just don't know who is what nowadays...” They were shaking their haeds and looking at the person standing by the car, who I realized was my girlfriend. She was leaning with hands buried deep inside the pockets of her baggy sweat pants, chest hidden beneath the large sweatshirt, and hair braided in a neat set of cornrows. When she saw me, she waved. This sent a hush among the women who watched closely to see how I, the nice young woman they just sat with, could have any affiliation to the person—“a young man? A young woman?”—waving. I parted ways with the women without answering their questions, walking slowly toward my girlfriend. She met me halfway and gave me a peck on the lips like any other couple would do when they are glad to see their other half. As our car drove off, I looked behind me to see the women still staring,their faces darkening like the dusk outside.

Incidents like these never prevented me from coming out to others, whether directly or indirectly. I say incidents plural because they happen all the time. Even now when I'm married to my wife and have to let people know that the ring on my finger was given to me by a woman, not a man. I figured that by coming out femme I became instrumental in showing people that anyone can be gay or lesbian; that we do not have “a look” or “a uniform”—something that has been used in the past and even now to stereotype same-gender loving people. For femmes, the preconceived notions have always been that we’re one heterosexual encounter away from “straightening out”. These comments are often made by men and to some extent, whispered among straight women. “Who faulted you?” Women would ask, curious as to why a high femme like them would rather another woman than a man. Meanwhile, their male counterparts bristle with their wishful thinking commonly referred to as the “savior mentality”—a common phenomenon among some men who seem to have the inability to acknowledge that not every woman would want them and thus see every lesbian as a potential conquest to salvage their manhood.

In fact, the veils of darkness that descend on the faces of those who were enlightened by my sexual orientation often lift when I see them again. The second encounters, in my experience, are often filled with muted questions visible in the eyes and body language. Eventually they become audible, starting off with pauses and fillers that eventually lead to the inevitable question, which gets blurted too loudly: “So…are you really…?” The last word often gets stuck, or rather left for me to say, which I never succumb to doing. “What?” I would ask, daring them to finish their sentence. I liken these moments to a game of soccer. The word they fear saying out loud becomes the ball. They dance around it, exerting themselves as they try to kick it inside the goal post. And when they eventually do, it’s a moment of reprieve rather than victory. For my confirmation seems to ease the pressure that was built up inside them; and in that same moment, blight everything they were led to believe about lesbians and what we look like. “Yes, I am a lesbian.” I would look them in the eyes when I say this to make sure that this fact is sealed within their pupils and hopefully tucked away in a part of their brain.

Unfortunately this does not happen. I am often faced with coming out again and again to the same people until they get it; until their awe turn into shock or disbelief, to denial, to anger, to bargaining, to guilt, to depression, to acceptance and hope—hope that I would repent my sins, change, or maybe swing their way—whatever the case may be, people tend to go through these stages of grief. For in truth, they are grieving the loss of their ignorance, their assumptions, all of which were like a comfort blanket to help them cope with the fact that not everyone is like them and not everyone will fall inside the box they designed to put them in with their own labels.

Therefore, I imagine that every time I come out that an angel gets her wings, figuratively and metaphorically speaking. For every confirmation, a bell jingles and a rainbow arches across the sky, letting the person who is too afraid to come out because they may not fit the sterotypes of gays and lesbians fed to them by the media or their immediate environment, know that they are not alone.

Nicole Dennis-Benn



It's interesting how Dwayne Jones, the transgendered teen who was murdered this summer in Jamaica, was simply referred to as a "cross dresser" in Jamaican news papers. Nothing about his life or legacy was ever mentioned as though this didn't matter. Nothing about him being transgendered, the correct term, and what that really means. For in Jamaica, the term "transgender" does not exist. There, it is subsumed with being gay; the ridicules and assaults more brutal given the lack of understanding of why a boy would feel the need to dress as a girl. Little do they know as a culture that such need to dress that way is analogous to survival; for only then does a person who feel trapped in the wrong gender, gets to express their true selves.

Huff Post did an article that delved deeper into the issue and who Dwayne Jones (I really wished they had used her "girl" name)really was...A beautiful girl who liked roses.




Who is a gentrifier?

Photo by K. Nicole Mills

Walking down any street in Brooklyn I see streets and avenues as they are and not what they used to be. There are native Brooklynites that tell me what certain neighborhoods used to be like before I moved here, and I would listen in awe. “People never went to Fort Greene unless they want to get shot,” my hairdresser, a native of Brooklyn, recounted to me one day. And as he twisted my dreadlocks he chuckled, “Not until the white people moved in and changed everything.” He said this while shaking his head as though images worse than yellow tapes and chalk outlines on the sidewalk had flashed across his eyes. Of course, because of my blackness, I was cast as a long standing member of “the community”, welcomed into conversations about gentrification without much thought about my background.

So who is a gentrifier? The people others label with that word that sound like it could be used to describe giant spiders from out of space with antennas that search for their next target—a word so ugly you might as well fear it, detest it, before knowing what it really means—are white people. More specifically, yuppies—another word for the young, ambitious whites; assumed liberal children of the prejudiced baby-boomer generation before them—a generation that would never dare live next to black people without worrying about the value of their homes, the state of their schools, the wholesomeness of their communities...wait a second...doesn’t this still exist?

But in Brooklyn, the type of segregation that now exists is a cold one; one that gets tucked under the neat, embroidered folds of aloofness. An aloofness that reminds me of those halls of high school where the privileged, stuck-up kids sat at one table, and though there might have been empty seats, a poor, nerdy kid would never dare sit there because of the assault of stares and snobbery that would be worse than a punch in the belly, a hose in the face, or a yell to “Stay the hell away”.

In Brooklyn, the “cool kids”---hipsters, as they'd rather be called--- move on the block from their homogenous worlds and already determine that they need a “Haven”. They build bars and cafes and pet shops and organic stores and boutiques and restaurants where they congregate. Though these businesses are also beneficial to the black and brown people who, like them, have gone to college and have similar passions, to other people of color, these places are deterrents. Their businesses are plopped into underserved communities with unapologetic invisible signs that read “Whites Only”. And of course, one may ask, “But why does there need to be a haven for those who choose to live in ethnic neighborhoods with rich cultures?” One answer: CHEAP RENT.

But I have since realized that race isn’t the main element that qualifies one as a gentrifier. Many black and brown "elites" move to these communities in Brooklyn, Harlem and the Bronx. Like the yuppies, buppies— another word for black and brown college grads with professional degrees and accomplishments— congregate, flocking to the lounges where we argue politics over German beer or South African wine, wine bars with tapas that remind us of our study abroad in Spain, cafes where we can get ample wifi and our favorite lattes. Like the yuppies, we would rather buy organic fruits and vegetables and poultry. We ride our bikes all over town instead of taking the city bus; we do yoga and wear vintage, proudly owning terminologies like “Quirky” to piss off the other blacks who used to say we weren’t “black enough”; we eat at restaurants with foods that must be pronounced with accents; and we hail cabs with the false assumption that they’d stop for us and not swerve to pick up the white person who lives in the same neighborhood with similar salaries to ours, and similar degrees.

The crushing reality of having the ability to exist in both worlds is what makes it hard for a buppy to be called a gentrifier. For we look like the community that is being gentrified; yet we have similar education and opportunities as the whites who have also moved into the neighborhood. Though our heart bleeds for the people being priced out of the community— people who we greet each day with pleasant smiles and friendly conversations, people who look at us with beams of admiration and curiosity in their eyes, people who greet us and treat us as individuals and not prospective threats; we enjoy the perks of having things like a farmer’s market, deliveries like Fresh Direct that finally come to the neighborhood, and businesses that provide services we’ve become accustomed to and cater to tastes we’ve acquired.

Though landlords would never increase rent when a buppy moves in, and yuppies would never be able to tell the difference between a bow-tie wearing buppy, and a homeless black dude; the race and class differences have rendered us outsiders regardless of where we turn for our “Haven”. So what do we do? Many buppies start businesses for their adopted community. And those same black businesses fail. Why? Because like the whites that can never tell the difference between the bow-tie wearing brother, and a homeless black dude, black business owners assume that blacks have the same needs and tastes; and hence, don’t have the clout needed to challenge them to do better. For example, there was once a local café in my Bedstuy neighborhood that sold stale croissants and overpriced bitter coffee, perhaps assuming people wouldn’t know the difference; and perhaps assuming because they’re “black owned”, then all the dejected buppies who were scrutinized in the yuppy cafés they frequented, may be so grateful for their “own” that they drink the bitter overpriced coffee and eat the stale croissants anyway.

In the summer of 2013 when George Zimmerman became a free man for killing Trayvon Martin, a black teenager, many educated blacks in America realized that we aren’t living in a post-racial society. Yes, we are afforded the opportunities that our ancestors fought so hard for, but still, our faces are black masks in which some (not all) whites cannot differentiate. Even if we’re dressed in our Sunday’s best. Whether we are dressed in hoodies or suits with bow-ties, it doesn’t make a difference. Hence, in this racial society that we live in, the gentrification conversation at large would never be about class differences among people; but about race— whites versus blacks. For to whites and blacks alike, the black middle class doesn’t exist.




Once upon a time America was that place I looked to for freedom. I remembered summers coming here as a little girl, candy coated tongue, stone-wash jeans, starry eyes, and my hand linked with my father who pointed to the statue of liberty. I fell in love. My relationship with America began with television. My entire household watched the Huxtables in deep revere of the life America promised. Black people living comfortably without a class divide keeping them oppressed. I enrolled in SAT classes in Kingston and studied the American way of life from books I devoured in the library. I watched MTV religiously and practiced American accents with my siblings. By then, I had long given up on succeeding in Jamaica, leaving that to my more privileged peers with parents in high places. In 1999 I left Jamaica for America to go to college; the excitement as palpable as the candy that coated my tongue that day I stared up at the Statue of Liberty. I was stocked with images of MTV’s Real World, Road Rules and Felicity, thinking my life would be that simple, delectably chaotic with cool, quirky, smart roommates of all races, and if I was lucky, an adorably gay boss like Javier, Felicity’s boss at Dean & Deluca.

I wrapped myself in another identity different from the one I left behind in Jamaica. America afforded me the freedom to explore. To be whoever I pleased. I did well in school and became a social butterfly, something I never did back home where I was more of a caterpillar. And in my second year, I delved into a relationship with a woman, another thing I could never have done so freely back home. I straddled two worlds, one where I was this exotic Jamaican girl my professors and white college friends enjoyed and endearingly referred to as “different from the other blacks” and the other where I was the humbled child of diffident, provincial parents. America, it seemed, had embraced me with open arms, and I eagerly hugged back, falling deeply into a haze of delusions. For in my running away from what I knew in Jamaica, and that hurt of feeling like a bastard child due to social class, I felt I found the perfect escape.

However, something happened in graduate school. I woke up one day with a weight on my shoulder. I was beginning to become more aware of race relations in America that had never been an issue for me as an immigrant. Maybe it was because I was living in middle America, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Maybe because I was alone and by then, the newness of America had worn off. Or maybe because it was 2005 when Hurricane Katrina happened, and President Bush displayed nonchalance in getting help for the poor blacks who ended up losing their lives and homes and livelihood. Maybe it was watching the television a week later when Kanye West declared what I felt in my heart: “George Bush doesn’t like Black people.” And then fast forward to the unfair killing of Sean Bell and Oscar Grant; and now, 2013, when Trayvon Martin’s killer was set free.

The blinds came undone and my eyes opened to an ugly, harsh reality of race in this country. To whites, I was black. Not until I open my mouth. In appearance I am a “A regular black”. The kind of black that had never meant anything to them though they shared the same country. The type of black that is not exotic enough to usher into their universities or job corps. The type of black that is put into public schools with no funding. The type of black whose sons are seen as menaces, savages, labeled criminals since the day they were born. A regular black. An American Black. The bottom Black on this totem pole of blacks though it was their black that paved the roads we walk on as immigrants.

And so it was. I began to see what African Americans go through. I fell out of love. I was ready to move back home. But just three weeks in Jamaica and I was ready to flee again. I couldn’t do it. I was engaged in a tug and war, a tumultuous relationship with America. For really, I was still deeply in love though I denied it. It was the country in which I found my freedom, lost my virginity, found love, found my voice, found myself. I didn’t have to tip-toe around certain things like my sexuality. Could I really be with a woman and be happy in Jamaica if I moved back? Could I really discuss such affairs of the heart openly with friends and family without being told to shush, my voice is too loud and what happens if “they” hear me speaking like that? Could I still be a feminist in a place where men wield their power and women adapt, shrugging off misogyny like bothersome yet harmless flies? Could I feel comfortable in a society where I look at the economic and class divide without being reminded of why I left in the first place? Could I have gotten married to the love of my life (who happens to be an American Black woman)?

So I crawled back into the arms of America and buried my head in her red, white and blue bosom. Because although she has blood on her hands, I was soothed by that false concept of this American Dream drilled into me in the beginning. It was her potential that I fell in love with. All the woulda's and coulda's shown to me on tv and in the summers when I visited as a girl. Of course I could choose a place in Europe; but for an immigrant, the thought of uprooting your life again to build from scratch in another country is too much for one lifetime. So I stayed. I stayed and hoped for the best...to not sit in limbo. Til now...


(Listening to Jimmy Cliff's "Sitting in Limbo")


The night the verdict was read I was in Harlem.

Zimmerman, the murder of a young boy, was a free man. I read the CNN message over and over again. I remembered the heat and the dark blanket of night that spread over the streets of Harlem and inside me. Little black boys and girls played carefree on sidewalks, oblivious to what was going on. The smell of barbeque ribs and fried chicken nullified the thick sense of grief that descended on the faces of the elders. It was easy to sense the terror in their grim silences. As unbelievable as it was, life went on. Dark faces smoothed over with smiles too tight—masks that fit just right for the sake of our children that still needed to be comforted, to be protected. To be cradled as tightly as possible since one day, it could be them.

But in that moment the verdict was read, there was little we could do but carry on. For had we been frozen in the emotions we truly felt, we would’ve been unable to get through the night with a sense of false dignity. We would've picked up anything we could possibly get our hands on and thrown it; smash it to demonstrate our angst; burn it with the fire that raged inside us. But that one night numbness truly claimed us. People looked out windows of their brownstones to find companions in their grief. Their televisions blared in the background, radios turned up. We mutely searched each other’s faces and shook our heads. For in Harlem, a city that has known struggle and pain and deferred dreams; a city where our greats have walked, marched, paved ways by any means necessary for our generation to carry the torch, we were numb. Had we shouted to the starless sky those questions many people thought in their minds, we would’ve been rained upon by that deep sense of frustration, that knowledge of our worthlessness in this country. For how could a man get away with murder for killing a boy? Had the races been different, the man would’ve been imprisoned, led away in handcuffs. But because Trayvon Martin was black, his perpetrator became a saint. A victim.

That night in Harlem we found that as a people, as black people, our lives aren’t as valued. The message was loud and clear. So loud it was that we heard it all the way from that courthouse in Florida. It took Trayvon Martin to die for the rest of us to realize that we do not live in a post-racial society. And so as Harlem stirred peacefully beneath the dark blanket—the years of struggle stretched behind her like her wide streets paved with blackness—I listened for her pulse, that low hum of knowing, a deep conviction inside the buzzing…




Beautiful short film.  Beautiful cast!! Wonderful video/film, featuring Gabriel Union, Afre Woodard, Goapele, and Adepero Oduye! We all need friends like these who can get us up and out of our funk. It will have you hooked. Oh, and the fashion is insane!!!!! ♥