“Can you carry me foreign?” This question was posed to me last night at a candle-light vigil to benefit Kingston’s homeless gay youth, hosted by the non-governmental organization the Color Pink Group. Seventeen-year-old Christopher asked me this in hopes that I would be able to use my status as a foreigner to help him migrate somewhere more safe. Christopher does not feel safe because he is a gay youth who lives in Jamaica, a nation not known for its tolerance towards homosexuals.
(Check out the latest news here, about “rowdy” homosexuals in Kingston, or here, about this group of gay men who have been evicted from their “home”, which is really a ditch, the only place they can live. And we cannot forget about Dwayne Jones, who was murdered this past summer).
Christopher, a tall, skinny young man wearing a camouflage t-shirt, was not alone last night. He was among dozens of young men who attended the event, at which candles were lit in memoriam of those who have lost their lives to violence or HIV/AIDS. To be a young, gay male of low economic status in Jamaica is to be vulnerable. Most of these youths are told to leave their family homes, they cannot find work and they are discriminated against and subjected to violence.
Jermaine Burton, founder of the Color Pink Group, told the audience last night that the goal of his NGO is to break this poverty cycle through education and awareness of health. The Color Pink Group will do this by providing training in hospitality, food and beverage services, housekeeping and tourism. “The youth really are the future of this country,” Burton said. CPG works with young, homeless gay men who are involved in commercial sex work. Burton, who himself was homeless for a time, founded CPG with the aim of providing vocational training, education in HIV and sexual health, psychosocial support and mentorship and school homework assistance. To date, CPG has touched the lives of 15 youth.
The evening opened with a prayer (after ascertaining that there were no atheists in the audience who would be offended) and the national anthem. CPG field officer Asley Grey then said a few words, reading from a script, before abandoning that to speak from his heart. “I do not believe in special welcomes,” Reid said referring to the Jamaican tradition of acknowledging each and every “dignitary” in the audience. “We are all equal, in every shape and form,” Grey said. “We all have the same colour blood…We are here to speak out against any sort of hate, pain, disgust, discrimination that persons of different sexualities and lives face. We are all born with simple, basic human rights.”
Grey went on to say that CPG recognizes the stigma and violence these youth face, in addition to the health-related challenges of HIV/AIDS. “This continues to affect the lives of loved ones by affecting their quality of life,” he said, adding that 30 per cent of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community are affected by HIV/AIDS.
After these words, people lit candles and uttered the names of those who have lost their lives or experienced persecution. It was a somber affair, of course, yet at the same time there was a feeling of strength and perseverance. One young man remarked that it was so nice to be able to just sit in safety and watch television. (The event also included a screening of the movie Precious.) Attendees also ate fresh and delicious chicken foot soup, cupcakes and coconut drops.
Empathy is a powerful tool when it comes to understanding the challenges our fellow human beings face. I try to experience empathy for these young men who have been kicked out of their home, who fear for their very safety on a daily basis, who cannot work, who do not take their future for granted, who must eternally monitor their behaviour. Yet in reality, most of us cannot even pretend to be able to understand what this life feels like. After spending some time with these young men over the past few months, I feel I have just started to understand the extent of the challenges they face. Witnessing them in an environment in which they are not judged or attacked, where they can simply sit and watch television and eat warm food, is to begin to understand their life. To witness a group of Jamaica’s most vulnerable citizens experience some moments of freedom and pleasure was a beautiful thing and we must commend those risking their own well-being to continue to advance the protection of the basic human rights we should all enjoy. Congratulations to Jermaine, Asley, Romario, J-FLAG, Quality of Citizenship Jamaica, Suzanna, Amy and all those involved, directly and peripherally in this event and all the other hard work that still remains to be done that will finally secure the future for the country’s most vulnerable citizens.