Coming out is, in and of itself, a journey. When you’re the child of a famous father multiply accused of sexual abuse and predation, one can only imagine how much more difficult that journey becomes.
For Jaah Kelly, child of embattled R&B star R. Kelly, confusion and fear marked her coming out experience, which she revealed to Paper magazine in late June (in a profile using “she/her” pronouns—Kelly says she has no preference), when she starred on one of their many Pride Month covers, which also happened to be her first photo shoot.
“When I was younger, I always felt like I had to make a choice. I knew that I was a girl who liked other girls,” Kelly recalled. “But because of what I was taught, I felt like the only way you could like another girl is if you were a boy.”
In fact, Kelly initially came out as trans in an online video at age 14, identifying herself at the time as “Jay Kelly” and saying, “I believe I am a boy and want surgery and the medication to help me be who I was supposed to be.”
“When I posted that video, I was so scared,” she told Paper. And given the treatment of trans people in America, she likely had good reason to be. But her immediate family was supportive, with mom Drea telling her “Baby, you know I love you if you were bi, gay, [lesbian], you name it and I would still love you so much.”
“I remember when Jaah first came out to me when she was 10 years old. She thought, ‘Oh Mama, I was scared to tell you because I didn’t think you would love me,’” Drea Kelly told the magazine. And despite her mother’s support, Jaah would nevertheless end up briefly hospitalized after her announcement, due to depression.
“But the unconditional love of a mother is like that of God,” Drea added. “I told her, ‘I love you because you’re mine, not because of your orientation. I’m always gonna be here to protect you.’ Meantime, live that best life, and live it out loud and in color. Who gives a damn what anybody else thinks?”
But in other spaces, Jaah was not as unconditionally accepted—even in queer settings.
“One time at the Pride parade in Chicago, I was with [my older sister] Buku and my cousin,” she recalled. “My sister had to use the bathroom afterward, but she was in there a while so I went in to check on her. I kept putting my head in the bathroom just to make sure she was good. And this lady came up and was like, ‘Sir, if you peek your head in the women’s bathroom again, I’m going to call security.’
“So then I just turned around and flashed her,” Kelly continued. “It was so funny to me and [big sister] Buku and often still is so funny — the mystery that people don’t know what gender I am.”
These days, Kelly, who did not speak on her father’s ongoing legal woes (and why should she?) no longer identifies as trans but as a lesbian—though she also answers to nonbinary or queer, telling the magazine, “I know I like girls, but that’s as far as I’ll go to label myself.”
“It’s up to you how you see me. Either way, I don’t care,” she says. “I stand in my truth, and why does my truth need a label?”