In The Spotlight: Nathan Nagir thinks “it’s time” to talk

On the patio of a South Lamar coffee shop, 27 year-old musician Nathan Nagir came to an important realization. After an hour of speaking candidly about his experiences as a gay person growing up in Trinidad and Tobago, Nathan set down his iced tea, furrowed his brow, and said, “I honestly can’t remember the first person I came out to.”

It wasn’t his childhood teachers, who outed Nathan to his parents (at age 16), or his sister, whose friends openly called him a fag. And it certainly wasn’t his father, who told Nathan that homosexuality is wrong, lectured him on the importance of following cultural expectations, and flogged him for alleged homosexual behavior. After years of hiding his sexuality from his family and community, Nathan, now a proud member of PFLAG Austin, doesn’t remember ever saying the words I am gay.

Many people would understand his silence. It wasn’t until April 2018 that buggary was decriminalized in Trinidad and Tobago. “I’ve been called [a fag] for most of my life,” Nathan said. Another derogatory name he heard in his native country is batty bwoy, made famous by Jamaican rapper Buju Banton. Picking up his phone, Nathan searched for the lyrics of Banton’s most blatantly homophobic song, “Boom Bye Bye”:

Boom bye bye
Inna batty bwoy head
Rude bwoy no promote the nasty man
Dem haffi dead.

Recently released from a U.S. prison for cocaine trafficking, Banton was scheduled to play in Trinidad shortly after our meeting. “I’m sure he’s going to perform this [song] because it’s a huge hit, even right now,” Nathan said, shaking his head.

Despite the conservative, homophobic culture into which he was born, Nathan knew around age six or seven that he was gay. “It was just something,” he said, trying to explain the feeling. He also knew that he would have to hide this part of himself. As head prefect of his all-boys, Islamic school, Nathan was expected to uphold the values of his school and serve as a model for his classmates.

“It was really tough in school around form 4, which is equivalent to 8th or 9th grade,” he said. “A couple of boys were exploring, and two of my friends were exploring with themselves.” As head prefect, it was Nathan who was called into the principal’s office to explain the hickeys that were blossoming on his friend’s neck. He knew he had to hide that, too. “I try never in my life to lie,” he said, “but I had to lie about this. I had to say, I don’t know. I don’t know about this.”

A year later, Nathan was made to sit outside the office, while the principal, his parents, and several teachers discussed why he—such “an exceptional kid”—would hang out with the gay kids after school. When he was finally told to join the meeting, “questions started coming up,” he said. “Was I involved in anything? Do I like guys? [The principal] suggested counseling because this was not natural.”

Nathan denied it all, to everyone in the meeting and again to his parents at home, but the exact words were a blur. “I would like to think I said no because it was the safest place to be—to respond, saying no. I could not have owned up to that in front of my parents,” he said. Years later, even during his three-year relationship with a man back in Trinidad and Tobago, his secret remained. “I never said yes,” he said. “To this point I have never said yes at all. I’ve always sort of fought for my independence at home because it’s hard having to explain all of those things.”

Despite Nathan’s silence with his parents about his sexuality, he describes them as a “close-knit family,” speaking sometimes four or five times a day. Their time together involves “turning a blind eye,” he said. “It’s there, but right now you pretend it’s not there.”

Perhaps it was partly a desire for independence and self-expression that led Nathan to pursue music at The University of the West Indies, St. Augustine Campus (UWI). While working toward a Certificate in Music with a focus on pan (steel drum) and a Bachelor of Music with a focus in voice and piano, Nathan met Dr. Jonathan Babcock, Associate professor of the Texas State University Choral Department and Associate Director of Choral Activities. Introduced by Babcock’s husband, also from Trinidad, Nathan and Babcock discussed the possibility of graduate study at Texas State with a focus on conducting.

“I wanted something to compliment my personality,” Nathan said, laughing. “I was always a little bit bossy. As a conductor, I could tell everyone what to do.”

With Babcock’s encouragement and assistance, Nathan enrolled in Texas State’s Graduate School of Music in the spring of 2017 and moved to San Marcos. It was while working toward a Master of Music in Choral Conducting, that Nathan heard the words he wishes he could have heard when he was growing up: It’s okay to be gay.

Nathan was preparing for a performance of Considering Matthew Shepard, the Grammy award-winning oratorio about the 1998 murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard. The ninth movement, entitled “A Protestor,” contains some of the homophobic vitriol spoken by members of the Westboro Baptist Community:  

A boy who takes a boy to bed?
Where I come from that’s not polite.
He asked for it, you got that right.
The fires of Hell burn hot and red.
The only good fag is a fag that’s dead.

Recognizing the disturbing nature of these words, conductor Dr. Joey Martin spoke to Nathan and the other members of the choir. Nathan explained, “I was moved by the horror that comes from people and religious folk. And so my professor said to us, I just want you to know that it is okay, it is absolutely okay, to be gay.”

Nathan has also had the pleasure of performing with the writer of Considering Matthew Shepard, Craig Hella Johnson, Founder and Artistic Director of Conspirare, a Grammy award-winning choral ensemble based in Austin.

Now that Nathan has been accepted into the Doctoral Program for Musical Arts at The University of Texas at Austin, we hope to see more of him around town and at South Austin PFLAG meetings. The very first time he attended a meeting, Nathan “just sat there in awe.” It was his first time, to his knowledge, to meet a transgender person, a pansexual person, and to hear “all of these other terms I hadn’t heard before,” he said. PFLAG is where Nathan knows he can go “for help and understanding.”

When Nathan was still living in the closet in Trinidad and Tobago, he turned to shows like Will & Grace and Queer as Folk for a sense of belonging. “This was back in the day when you had one television,” he said. “I would have snuck out of my bedroom to watch TV because I wanted to see other people like myself.” He needed to know, he explained, that “there is a world where [being gay] was normal.”

Now, hearing stories about other members of the LGBTQ community, particularly children and young people, gives him hope. “When a kid knows that he is a she from a very young age—” he began—“I still wonder how I was at that age. Did I really know? I think I did, but to have the courage to say that—to go beyond that—it’s amazing. We do represent that spectrum. It’s huge, and it’s growing even more, now that we can have a conversation like that.”

Our teas finished, the ice melted and consumed, Nathan said that PFLAG could use his name in this story. We had failed to ask, so engrossed in the conversation, and asked if he were sure. “Yes,” he said. “If I don’t use my name then it won’t be my story. I think it’s time.