'Island boy and hot girl': McMaster valedictorian speaks on homophobia and how to be authentic
From a very young age, Shawn Hercules knew he was "different." He also knew that he wanted to "impact populations" and "work with underrepresented groups … and people who are not able to advocate for themselves."
Hercules — a postdoctoral researcher at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, developing novel prevention tools for women at high risk for breast cancer — says he is all about being authentic and wants to encourage others, especially young people, to be the same.
In addition to being a scientist, Hercules, 31, who identifies with he/they pronouns, says he's "an island boy and hot girl."
"Island boy, [because I was] brought up in the island of Barbados ... and hot girl in the fact that even though I'm a scientist and this island person, I like to look good, I like to exude confidence, I want people to feel warm and welcome around me," they told CBC Hamilton.
But Hercules says he was not always this confident. He says that long before the COVID-19 pandemic, he was wearing a mask.
I sure had to mask up so people wouldn't catch me because I'm on the radio spreading the news and Gospel of Jesus, but I was not living up to what I guess the listeners would expect me to be. - Shawn Hercules
He started wearing those invisible masks when he was around eight years old and blurted out that another boy in his church's children's choir was "cute."
"They started calling me derogatory words. I didn't realize that it would have been weird because it just felt natural to me at that time," Hercules said.
"They called me words that I did not even know, because I was young. In Barbados there is the term 'b----r,' which is equivalent to f----t. So, I was called slurs from that age not even knowing what they were."
Hercules says he told his best friend at school, who in turn told his mother and asked her the meaning of the word.
"She told him and he came to school and told me and I was gutted. Like, I felt so embarrassed, so ashamed, so awful."
At church, Hercules said he would regularly "hear more about homosexuality being a sin. You're going to burn in hell."
"So, I would try not to make it seem obvious that I was not straight. I would try not to, stare other men in the eye for too long. Like, with even just a natural conversation, I would just try not to connect … just so it's not obvious."
As a teen he got more involved in his church, but while a part of him really wanted to love God, serve at church and be as involved as possible, another part also knew that "the same God that I worship does not accept this part of me."
"I grappled with that a lot in my teenage years," he said.
I started slowly realizing that in Canada, people don't actually care that much about what you're doing with your life, your body, how you present or anything. It's not like in Barbados where there were binocular eyes on you. - Shawn Hercules
Later on Hercules worked at a gospel radio station as a DJ.
"I sure had to mask up so people wouldn't catch me because I'm on the radio spreading the news and Gospel of Jesus, but I was not living up to what I guess the listeners would expect me to be."
Hercules completed his undergraduate and masters degrees — both at the Cave Hill campus of the University of the West Indies (UWI) — before moving to Canada to pursue his PhD.
'A total social butterfly'
Juliet Daniel was Hercules' PhD supervisor at McMaster University. She first met Hercules in 2015 while on research leave in Barbados.
A professor at the UWI Cave Hill campus knew Daniel had been looking for students to join her research team to work on breast cancer projects in Black women and introduced them.
"It's like fate and a miracle, because if I had met him two or three months earlier, he would never have been in my lab … because I literally got funding, I think about three weeks before she introduced us," Daniel told CBC Hamilton.
"So, it was quite fortuitous."
Hercules moved to Canada in August that same year.
"Within a week of being here, Shawn had pretty much done the rounds of McMaster University and everyone at McMaster seems to have met Shawn in his first week.
"He was a total social butterfly for the first semester."
In Canada, he slowly started to peel his masks off. After much contemplation, he attended his first event for LGBT people, which was put on by McMaster for first year graduate students.
"I avoided as many cameras as possible, but I just felt so affirmed in the moment going to that event with the other grad students," Hercules said.
"I started slowly realizing that in Canada, people don't actually care that much about what you're doing with your life, your body, how you present or anything. It's not like in Barbados where there were binocular eyes on you.
"I started meeting more friends who are very comfortable in their sexuality and gender identity, and it just felt very affirming to be around that and to be in that space — a non-judgmental space," they added.
Science is a Drag
In 2019, Hercules and other students organized the inaugural Science is a Drag — a mixture of drag and science talks aimed at getting scientists in drag for a lip sync performance followed by a description of their research.
Hercules and co-producers Dr. Samantha Yammine, Dr. Geith Maal-Bared, Daniel Celeste and Carrie Boyce, with support from RCIScience, conceived of Science is a Drag as a way of challenging the cis/heteropatriarchal norms of academia.
"That was a really pivotal moment also because this was the first time I was ever in drag at all, and then publicly," he said.
"It was just such an amazing feeling for me and for everyone in attendance. It was like a scientific conference, but cool because it's at a bar and you have scientists in drag talking to you about their science and drag. That is just so awesome, people loved it. I loved it."
Backlash in Barbados
But word got back to Barbados and people were not happy.
"They were very unforgiving. They harassed my family for weeks on end, calling their phone, harassing them," he said.
"That was just really not cool of the people there to be doing that — you know, bring my family into it, but that's what happened."
Daniel, who was in Europe on research leave, said "it was hard" for Hercules, based on the report she got on her return.
"I don't think he expected the backlash … so, there was a bit of fallout from his coming out publicly. So, that was hard for him emotionally … he was not prepared for the backlash when it happened."
In spite of the backlash in Barbados, Hercules said, "I just continued doing what I was doing and living unapologetically."
In his valedictorian speech, Hercules said "authenticity" was the main tool that helped him navigate his journey through graduate school.
Borrowing the lyrics of a fellow Barbadian — superstar Rihanna — Hercules encouraged fellow graduates to "shine bright like a diamond."
While Hercules is encouraging people everywhere to be authentic, he's aware that there could be "safety issues" for some."
"If being authentic puts you in danger, then that's a sign of the system. Not you, but the system needs to change. But be who you can be, safely. Look around if you have a community that's supportive that you can be safe.
"It's not even just about queerness. It's just in general just being authentic and being real, it really allows you to connect with people on a deeper level," Hercules said.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.