Kicking off a year-long celebration of its 25th anniversary, JASMYN alumni, staff, board members, founders, and community supporters danced the night away at the JASMYN Gayla, a glamorous black-tie affair held at TIAA Bank Field’s swanky Assure Club. Alumni from multiple generations attended the sold-out fundraiser. Some of the original youth members are now in their forties, and a lot of them have stayed in touch throughout the years. For others, it was a momentous homecoming and reunion. JASMYN also will be celebrating at the Strides for Pride 5k in April, various youth events, including the annual prom, and the Coming Out Day breakfast in October. To top things off, staff will mark the expansion of their campus by opening J3, the organization’s newest building.
The New Facility
In the last five years, JASMYN’s campus doubled in size, and now they are adding a third building. Although they’ve been addressing issues of homelessness for years, soon there will be an entire building dedicated to those specific needs. Thanks to generous donors, construction began in December 2018, and will open for business in August of 2019.
According to the Coalition of Homelessness, the population of homeless youth in Jacksonville rose by a whopping 145% from 2017 to 2018. JASMYN CEO Cindy Watson explains that young people in the LGBTQ community are even more vulnerable than the average teen: “Bouncing
from place to place and dealing with parental rejection and peer conflict…it’s hard for them to keep jobs, it’s hard for them to stay in school. And that’s on a good day. On a bad day, it’s violent, it’s exploitative, it’s traumatic.” One of the most difficult issues for trans youth is holding down a job, says Watson. “A lot of young people engage in underground economies, whether that means survival sex, or stealing … and then they end up in the criminal justice system.”
The new JASMYN building will be a day center for homeless young people who need a safe place during the day and resources to help them get back on their feet. Staff will provide outreach and front-end support, connecting clients to the organizations that can help with overnight housing.
Filling a Need
The story of JASMYN began in the early 1990s when Ernie Selorio, a lonely, gay teenager, was looking for a support network. He was closeted at the time, fearing his conservative family would reject him, so he looked elsewhere for acceptance. He began organizing the first support group of gay and lesbian youth. They would meet after school at the Willowbranch Library in Riverside. The group grew rapidly: It was clear there were many other kids in town just like Ernie.
At the time, PFLAG was just getting its start, and there was an LGBTQ community newspaper in town, but there was nothing for gay teens in Jacksonville. Watson says that a lot of adults in the LGBTQ community were wary about getting involved with youth because of the pervasive stereotype that gay people were pedophiles. “People got targeted a lot for being child molesters,” she says, but the caring adults who wanted to help the organization were determined to help.
Watson remembers the day it became official: JASMYN was born. “We signed the articles of incorporation in my living room.” They needed $500 to file as a non-profit, so they had to hold a fundraiser. At the beginning, board members were doing all of the work because there was no money for employees. Cindy says that the culture in Jacksonville was still fairly unsupportive, but many people moving here from other cities, brought energy, ideas, and hope.
Not long after, JASMYN received its first grant: $1000 from the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services to support HIV education. By 1998 they had a small office, but those first few years were very difficult for the LGBTQ community, particularly because of HIV. Not only were they fighting a seemingly incurable disease, but the community at large was
generally unaccepting. “The need was there, but there was not a lot of support,” says Watson.
When AZT (one of the first effective treatments for AIDs) first became available in 1993, the tide started to finally turn. Before that, most patients were dying. “We lost a lot of people in our community.” But as the threat of HIV and AIDS began to diminish in the late ’90s, JASMYN and its supporters turned their attention to defending basic human rights and ending harassment.
One of the challenges they faced was simply ignorance. When Watson would attend public meetings, people would say things like, “we don’t have those kind of people among our youth.” There are still some individuals in public service, including those in the school system, who believe they shouldn’t have to support the “decision” to be gay, but the difference now, says Watson, is that the institutions support equality and uphold following the policies that are in place. “That is how change gets made,” she says. “You have to change policy and law.”
In 2002, JASMYN moved to a larger house on Peninsular Place under the Fuller Warren Bridge. Shortly thereafter, they started receiving support from Dolores Barr Weaver and the Jaguars Foundation, sparking controversy among some fans. Season ticket holders began to boycott by sending their tickets back, but the Weavers remained strong in their support.