by Tim Gilmore, 1/18/2017
They’d call the exhibit “Show Me Some Love.” Photographer Mary Atwood would lead five-week workshops. The kids were excited. Then, two days before the first workshop, on June 12, 2016, Omar Mateen shot up Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, murdering 49 people and injuring 53 others. The art the young people at JASMYN produced took a bleak turn.
Angela Strain points to a framed photograph by a young man named Skai. Only first names are indicated, but each description includes the artist’s gender association and a brief explanation of the piece.
“He’s one of those people, very gregarious, who seems happy all the time, like he never has a bad day,” says Strain, JASMYN’s director of development. “So we were taken aback when his self-portrait showed us what he feels like inside.”
Black, gay, having grown up poor, Skai’s upbeat affability conceals a deeper need to understand, explain and defend his identity.
That struggle and creative energy infuse the atmosphere at Jacksonville Area Sexual Minority Youth Network, housed in a set of historic buildings on the border of Riverside and Brooklyn, which serves the LGBTQ community ages 13 to 24.
JASMYN’s is a success story and a love story. It’s one of Jacksonville’s most touching and hopeful progressive narratives.
It begins in 1993, when Ernie Selorio Jr. posted a desperate appeal in Riverside’s Willowbranch Library. He had only just come out to himself. He felt lonely and isolated. He thought about suicide. The response to his appeal was a small support group of eight to 10 people.
Cindy Watson volunteered for JASMYN from the beginning. Her first office was the trunk of her car. In 1998, she wrote JASMYN’s first grants for HIV education and became its executive director.
In 2012, JASMYN decided to “come out” to the community. It had kept kids safe and saved lives. JASMYN House, at 923 Peninsular Place, just beneath the flyover of Interstate-95 onto I-10, had never used signage.
But the house had met its capacity. It served hundreds of young people a year, and into the two-story 1912 house JASMYN crammed its health clinic, administrative offices, counseling rooms, and kitchen and hangout space for kids.
Since the only way to grow and attract funds was for JASMYN to tell the city its story, it began its first public relations campaigns.
In 2015, donors purchased the house next door, and allowed JASMYN not only to spread out, but to honor the mantra, common to many nonprofits, of “not just making do, but making things right.”
The 1914 house, with bay windows, beveled glass, Ionic porch columns, and Prairie-style stairway capitals, has an illustrious nonprofit history. In the 1970s, the Women’s Center of Jacksonville was founded in this house, and today, the Women’s Center’s rape recovery counselors visit JASMYN each week.
JASMYN treats “the whole self,” offering young people self-agency, privacy and independence. Last year, JASMYN served nearly 1000 kids, mostly on campus, but also in schools.
One fifth of the young people JASMYN serves are “housing insecure.” Most kids who have been evicted by their parents don’t see couch-surfing as homelessness and don’t recognize potential exploitation. If they’re sexually abused at a homeless shelter, they may choose next to sleep under a bridge or spend all night with a book in a hospital E.R.
Fifteen is the average age kids “come out,” and the average age they start to trade sex or are sexually assaulted. JASMYN’s “Kicked Out Fund” helps kids whose parents put them on the streets.
And if those statistics aren’t frightening enough, Jacksonville is ninth in the nation for new HIV cases, and 6th for new AIDS cases.
“We say that HIV is no longer a death sentence,” Strain says, “but it’s still a life sentence.”
The side effects from HIV medication include kidney and liver damage. Also, shame. In 2014, two of JASMYN’s young people died from medication side effects.
Meanwhile, many of JASMYN’s kids live in a cross-section of identity struggles with race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic background. The life expectancy for a trans woman of color, Strain says, is 35 years old, about how long you might have lived in the Middle Ages.
A poster etched with marker in the kids’ hangout room says, “Black Trans Lives Matter.” Kids choose JASMYN’s house colors. A mural that stretches across multiple panels in the back yard says, “No Pride for Some of Us without Liberation for All of Us.”
When Ernie Selorio, Jr. started JASMYN, Jacksonville had no such support network. In 2003, students at Sandalwood High School founded the city’s first GSA, or Gay Straight Alliance.
Now Cindy Watson has her own office, and it’s not the trunk of her car.
JASMYN’s clinic works as a partnership of five separate entities including University of Florida Health and Gilead Sciences, which sponsors a pilot program called PrEP, or Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis.
Despite numerous frustrations, including the protracted failure of the City of Jacksonville to extend its Human Rights Ordinance to LGBTQ citizens, Strain feels optimistic.
Her optimism involves a great irony that should hearten progressives in the current political environment.
Culture often moves forward despite or even counter to politics.
“It’s not just young people hearing, ‘We value you and love you as you are,’” Strain says, “but it’s families hearing, ‘We care about your son or your daughter or your sibling or your niece or nephew. They’re not only okay as they are, but this city, this community, values, needs, and loves them.”