Britney. Charm. Jason. Martin. Russell. Winsome. Portland. Gully Queen.
Those were several of the names uttered on the evening of Dec. 10 at a candlelight vigil for homosexual, bisexual, transgendered men held by the Colour Pink Group. (Read more about this group here, but they advocate for this community and provide employment training and general support.) The names are of men who have died as a result of being targeted for their sexuality and/or having HIV/AIDS. About 65 young men gathered at the Mayfair Hotel and lit candles to recognize these tragic and unnecessary deaths. Hosted by CPG founders Jermaine Burton and Astley Grey, the evening also featured entertainment, food and the presentation of certificates for the men who have completed and are currently enrolled in CPG’s training program. The first cohort saw 20 men graduate with a certificate, many of whom are now employed and possess a skill, while the second is now underway with 15 men. CPG receives support and funding from several groups, including J-FLAG, the National Family Planning Board and various UN organizations.
“We only had two persons when we started,” said Astley Gray of the founding of the program about two years ago. (Both Gray and Burton have been victimized and stigmatized themselves and have lived on the streets.) “But we know that when it comes to human rights, we realized that gay men are highly stigmatized, so it is hard to get an education and a job.” Last night’s vigil was deliberately held on International Human Rights Day, and Gray and Burton kept reminding the young men that they deserve to enjoy basic human rights such as health care and education and to live free of discrimination. Many of them do not enjoy these basic rights because they have been kicked out of their homes and communities for their sexuality, so they have difficulty in completing their education and maintaining employment.
More disturbingly, Gray mentioned a recent survey in which 75 security guards were asked if they thought gay men deserved to die. ONLY FIVE SAID NO. Because of such a hostile atmosphere (among other factors), some members of this community engage in criminal activity to fend for themselves. “These young men in Kingston have reached a point in their lives when nobody will help them,” Gray said. “When your back is against the wall, you have nothing left to do, what are you going to do to survive,” he added, referring to some of the aggressive behaviour exhibited by a group of men who live in a gully near Kingston’s corporate area.
On a more hopeful note, Andrew Higgins of the National Anti-Discrimination Alliance spoke kindly of Burton and Gray’s work. “They do wonders with what they have. They have taken CPG from a very small concept to something far greater.” Kayan Lue of the National Family Planning Board seconded this notion: “We are really excited for Jermaine and his group. It is tremendous work they are doing.” Christopher Rowe is currently enrolled in the cohort now undergoing training. “I’ve been learning a lot, some things I didn’t know. I’ve been going to classes every Saturday,” he said.
Roger Codling, age 24, also directly benefitted from CPG’s program. He went through the first cohort and is now a trained cosmetologist. Wearing a bright pink shirt and pants and a flowered vest, Codling spoke about the support CPG has provided and how it has a wider, positive impact on his entire community. “Deep down inside of me, I know that if I wanted to be somebody, because of Jermaine and the resources he has, (I know I can,)” Codling said. He added that CPG provided a support group for his community, in which his mother could talk to other parents of homosexual sons. Once the parents found out they were not alone, they accepted their sons more easily. “Now I feel safe in my community because when the family accepts you, you don’t have to live on the streets, then the community accepts you.”