Homelessness, rape and HIV
BY INGRID BROWN Associate Editor - special assignment firstname.lastname@example.org
ABANDONED by their families, gay Jamaican teens -- some as young as 13 years old -- end up on the gritty streets of the capital city where they are sexually abused by older men who expose them to various sexually transmitted diseases.
A group of young gay men who recently spoke with the Jamaica Observer painted a horrific picture of the physical and sexual abuse they face on the streets and the emotional scars they still bear from those experiences.
With no other means of survival, some have turned to prostitution, either by selling sex on the streets or soliciting clients on gay websites, despite being infected with HIV.
Life on the streets, the young gay men say, is not an option they willingly chose, but one they were forced into after family members turned them out of their homes when they suspected them of being gay.
One of several gay teens who spoke with the Sunday Observer said some of the younger boys who hang out in New Kingston have either ran away from boys' homes or were chased from their family homes.
"Some of the boys are as young as 13 and 14 years old and when you call the CDA (Child Development Agency) to get them somewhere to stay, them don't come, so there is nowhere else for them to go," he explained.
Many of these young boys, the gay teen said, are themselves abused by older men who have sex with men (MSM) who often rape them on the streets.
He recounted an incident in which a 13-year-old, who recently showed up at the hangout spot in New Kingston, was brutally raped by two older boys because he was too timid to defend himself.
"Him was very quiet and so him just come and stand up there and two big youth just come and carry him go weh to a corner; when him come back him couldn't even walk," said the teen, whose story was corroborated by his peers.
Meanwhile, the young men to whom the Sunday Observer spoke said Jamaicans would be alarmed to know just how many schoolboys have been engaging in a homosexual lifestyle without anyone giving them the necessary guidance on how to protect themselves against contracting sexually transmitted diseases.
"When you go on the gay websites you see the whole heap ah 12- and 14-year-old schoolboys who are trying to hook up with somebody, and many of their parents don't even know that they are gay," one young gay man said, arguing that there is the need to have this sort of discussion in the schools.
"I never talk to any guidance counsellors while in school because they were just terrible, and so I didn't even know I was to use a condom when I had my first 'real' sexual experience with an older man at age 14," said Sam, a young gay man who revealed he knew from age four that his sexual orientation was different from that of his cousins as they grew up in a tough inner-city community.
"When me deh basic school me had a friend and mi remember how ah use to think how him brown and thick and so one day we go to the bathroom and start play with one another," he said.
His next sexual experience would be at age nine when he again experimented with a boy who lived in the same tenement yard, he said.
He recalled that in his community an adult relative would entice him with all sorts of treats if only he would act more masculine around his cousins.
But it was in the same inner city where young men are expected to be "rough and tough" that he had his first real sexual encounter with a man who seemed the least likely to be engaging in this act.
"Him offer me some money fi do it and me tek it and dem time dere me neva know bout AIDS or condom," he recalled.
However, after he refused to engage in sex with the man, given his terrifying ordeal the first time around, the young man said he was brutally buggered. He, however, remained silent as the man began supplementing the meagre lunch money his mother was giving him.
He only found the strength to break away from his plight after he discovered that the man was engaging in similar acts with his younger brother.
History then repeated itself as Sam himself began a relationship with a schoolboy when he was 19 years old.
"He was 15 and I was 19 and one day him tell me that him have a burning and he was afraid to go to the school nurse; me tell him to go to the hospital but them tell him he need an adult to come with him and me was afraid to go and him never had nobody fi tek him," he recalled.
Dr Sharlene Jarrett of the National Family Planning Board said the constraints in providing direct sexual and reproductive health service to gay teens is the same as reaching the wider adolescent population because of the clash between existing policies and the law.
"There is a serious barrier in terms of what we can provide to MSMs," she told the Sunday Observer.
As such, she said these gay teens have to be reached at the treatment sites, albeit that this is usually after they have become infected with a sexually transmitted disease.
"For MSMs our national HIV programme doesn't have data in terms of the age range of these teens coming to the workshops which we have been having for the past three years to link them to support services," she said, noting however, that what is being done to reach these gay teens is just not enough.
"There are limits to where you can carry a group of young men to give them a service which will help them," she said.
Chief executive officer of the Jamaica Family Planning Association, St Rachel Ustanny, also agreed that services for gay teens are limited.
With the conflict between law and policy preventing the wider youth population from accessing contraceptive services such as condoms, Ustanny said the problem must be large within the sub-population group of MSMs.
Ruth Chisholm, country programme manager for Population Services International/Caribbean, said the current environment makes it very difficult to provide information and counselling to these gay teens.
"There would be less demonisation if dialogue started in the home as this is a key solution to some of the challenges," she said.
But this dialogue has not started in the homes for gay teens, as the Jamaica Forum for all Sexuals Lesbians and Gays (J-FLAG) Executive Director Dane Lewis said it is becoming an increasingly common practice for some parents to turn out their children when they self-affirm or are suspected of being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT).
"Every month we intervene in about 10 cases involving young persons, most of whom are young male adolescents, whose families have put them out because of their real or perceived sexual or gender identity," Lewis said, adding that J-FLAG's crisis intervention officer reports that there has been a significant increase in the number of cases since 2011.
He noted that a child's sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression should never be used as an excuse for parents or guardians to abandon them, as that is child endangerment, according to the law.
The situation, he noted, also serves as further evidence of the reality that Jamaica is experiencing a crisis in parenting.
"The abandonment of children is having adverse repercussions on the lives of many young people whose dreams of completing their high school education and making a meaningful professional life while contributing to Jamaica's development are shattered," he said.
According to Lewis, J-FLAG has been successful in reintegrating children in their homes and preventing these evictions in a few cases. However, the organisation does not have the human or technical resources to always respond effectively.
"We are therefore calling on the Ministry of Youth, Child Development Agency, Office of the Children's Advocate and other relevant State agencies to intervene. This is a recurring issue and we strongly encourage the development of evidence-based interventions to address this grave problem which contributes to the increasing number of youth who have no family, little or no access to education, nowhere to sleep, and no food to eat," he argued.
"We have witnessed this in and around the Corporate Area where groups of gay and transgender youth are forced to fend for themselves in harsh and unforgiving environments because they have been made homeless or abandoned by their parents and families," Lewis said.
He further noted that the Child Care and Protection Act places as paramount, the interests, safety and well-being of the child and makes it a criminal offence for parents or other caregivers to wilfully abandon or endanger children by evicting them from their homes.
"If parents need help or advice because their children are LGBT, we urge them to seek it from sensitised and qualified people or entities, rather than push them onto the streets," he said, adding that J-FLAG stands prepared to offer such assistance to parents in collaboration with the local, regional, and international partners in youth development.