Recently, Knowledge SUCCESS Program Officer II Brittany Goetsch chatted with Sean Lord, Senior Program Officer at the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays (JFLAG), about LGBTQ* AYSRH and how JFLAG pursues its vision of building a society that values all individuals irrespective of their sexual orientation or gender identity. In this interview, Sean details his experiences with centering LGBTQ youth when creating community programs and supporting them through initiatives like JFLAG’s peer support helpline. He also discusses how JFLAG has helped connect these young people to health care services that are safe and respectful, and how JFLAG is currently looking for opportunities to share best practices and lessons learned with others implementing LGBTQ helplines around the world.
“I’m taught every day at JFLAG that it’s not about you, it’s about the community that you serve.”
Brittany Goetsch: Can you tell me a bit about your current role and what you do at JFLAG?
Sean Lord: My role is to basically provide advocacy-based support as it relates to young people. I work primarily around youth, and my work is centered around youth development, youth advocacy, youth inclusion—any area where there is some discrimination or lack of attention as it relates to youth. That’s where I step in.
Brittany Goetsch: How did you become interested in this work?
Sean: I am a social worker at heart. I believe in providing help and direction as it relates to young people. I am a people person; people tell me that all the time. And I work towards enhancing young people’s capabilities. So I drifted—I was less specific in my social work duties, and then I directed that path towards youth work.
Brittany: How long have you been working in this field specifically?
Sean: I’ve been in this specific role for more than a year. But with my social work profession, I can say [that I’ve been working for] about five or six years.
But, to be honest, [experience] cannot necessarily be measured in time, because once you have entered the social work profession, you work with everybody. That’s on you as a social worker, the moment you become a social worker. You start by working with a general population of people, and then you specify who you want to help.
Brittany: What are some of the main lessons you’ve learned throughout your time working with young people at JFLAG?
Sean: It’s been surprising. The work is centered on LGBTQ advocacy… I often have to think about the fact that I may not have certain experiences and cannot really identify with every situation. In working here, I became a little bit more humanistic in how I deal with people.
I’ve also learned that it’s great to advocate for people who cannot advocate for themselves. That’s primarily what I’m doing. When it comes to health care access, the needs of the community are great. I’m taught every day at JFLAG that it’s not about you, it’s about the community that you serve.
“I just want people to know that persons who identify as part of the LGBTQ community, persons who are queer, they’re no different from anybody [else]. These are just labels.”
Brittany: What are some of the main challenges specifically related to LGBTQ youth and SRH?
Sean: The first piece is—it’s a topic that I’m actually working on currently, and I can see that one of the biggest issues that people have is access to health care. Accessing certain spaces can be very challenging based on your identity…
For example, you may go to a health care facility just for a random checkup, and the first interaction you would have is with a nurse who may take your information. And then, say, you use a pronoun that they don’t really think you should use. Now that becomes a problem. That’s a deterrent to LGBTQ youth accessing health care. This is something that is typically seen within public health care—and private care, too, actually, because even though you are spending your own money and won’t necessarily face the same kinds of restrictions, it still happens.
There’s also discrimination as it relates to accessing certain education. So, for example, if a trans person is possibly thinking of transitioning from male to female, they would require hormones. That’s something that is not easily accessed here [in Jamaica], so a lot of people would have to use backdoor routes, illegal routes, to get the medication that they need.
Another issue that persons from the community may face—primarily gay or queer women—is when, for example, they’ll go see a gynecologist, and the gynecologist would say, “Why are you not pregnant?” Or she may say, “Let me provide you with some family planning methods,” when the patient is really just there for a general checkup. She’s not there for anything else.
Brittany: What do you wish more people knew regarding AYSRH and LGBTQ youth?
Sean: I just want people to know that persons who identify as part of the LGBTQ community, persons who are queer, they’re no different from anybody [else]. These are just labels. And just because you are labeled as something “different,” that doesn’t mean that your access to health care or how you’re treated as a person should be different. You should be able to walk into any health care facility and demand the best health care possible.
It’s also important to note that a lot of the discrimination is coming from persons who should know better. For example, doctors and nurses: a lot of them, they weren’t trained in school, it’s not a part of their curriculum—so they don’t know how to treat people that identify as queer. What we’ve been doing nowadays is trying to get some queer community information into the curriculum at the university level, so that doctors and nurses are already familiar or already exposed to this kind of information when they come out and start to practice.
My thing is just that we’re all people. We should not be treated differently because of what you identify as. Your health care is very, very important and we need the best support possible. Just be openly accepting and ready to help because that’s the reason why we are there. Give us the best possible help you can give us.
Listen to Sean describe tackling the issue of discrimination within health care systems.
“It’s people-centered … We just need to know how to approach persons based on where they are.”
Brittany: There are so many different terms and acronyms that can be used when talking about LGBTQ youth or youth from sexual and gender minorities. What terminology do you use in your work, and why? And why is respecting language so important in the work that you do?
Sean: Let me first say that the terminology is broad. Most of the terminology that we use is universal, so we use, let’s say for a trans person, we shorten it by saying “trans,” or for gay men, we just say “gay” despite the fact that “gay” also covers a large set of persons…
However, here in Jamaica, there is some slang that we use to identify people that you may not really understand. So, for example—and this is going to be very funny—for many who identify as gay men, we use a term called “battymen,” and it relates to the act of anal sex. “Batty” is another term for the butt.
And I believe that it’s important that we understand and recognize this terminology because it can bring you closer or actually pull you further away from the community. In Jamaica, we have some community members who identify with the community, but we have some who don’t. And based on socioeconomic background and status, a lot of people don’t readily identify with a lot of the terminology. So you’ll have a person who will say to you, “I am a gay man, but I am not a battyman.”
When it comes to our work, we have to be very careful, because while the organization tries to help all youth, you have people who will not recognize some terminology, or they won’t accept certain terminology. So when we go to certain spaces, depending on the space that we’re in, we choose the language that we use to communicate with the persons within that space. It’s people-centered … We just need to know how to approach persons based on where they are.
Brittany: “LGBTQ youth,” “young people from sexual and gender minorities”—they’re umbrella terms that include many different people. How should SRH program planners go about ensuring that all young people are being reached and that they’re addressing all of the individuals and communities under this term?
Sean: JFLAG has been doing work in highlighting some of the issues that relate to access. We have trained numerous health care workers, numerous providers. Not only that, but we have gone to the extent of training persons who may not strictly be health care workers, but maybe, the first person that someone from the community would interact with. This makes accessing health care and accessing information around sexual choices a little bit easier.
Based on the work that we’ve done and the research that we’ve done, we have compiled manuals, guides, and books on how to be a little safer, or more cautious, about where you access health care. We have a list of health care professionals who are tolerant, who understand the needs of the community. If for whatever reason somebody calls us to say, “Hi, do you know anybody who can provide such-and-such service,” we already have a wealth of information or a list of persons, saying “This person is cool, this person is okay, they can provide the support that you may need.”
Also, what’s important to note is because of the work that JFLAG has been doing, it’s not just
“umbrella” health. [Gender-identity specific] help is provided. So we have trans persons who may get a particular type of help that may differ from, say, the help that a cis queer woman would [want]. So it’s not just “general queer people health care.”
Watch the first episode of JFLAG’s The Real Real.
“So we have direct contact with the community, and they are willing to participate in whatever we’re doing because, in the end, they are the ones who benefit from it.”
Brittany: It’s important to have those resources, to be able to know where to go and where to feel welcome and feel like you’re in a safe space. If somebody were looking to create a similar resource for their own country, how would you suggest going about it? How did JFLAG initially go about creating these resources?
Sean: What I would suggest overall is to not assume. A lot of persons would sit on the sidelines and assume that “This person from the queer community, this is what they need,” without actually asking the persons who need the support.
So what we did was a lot of research. We did a lot of focus groups. We did polls. We did interviews. All to find out what exactly youth from the queer community want, without assuming what they want. After we’d gathered that information, we thought it would be great to reach out to people who provide support—so the nurses, the doctors, the health care facilities—and we had conversations about what help can be provided, what is lacking, what this person did not provide. We were then able to do training where we could try and fix the problems.
We also reached out to the government to say, you know, “It is your responsibility as the government to provide for your people, to try and ensure that your people are accessing the best care that’s humanly possible.” So we reached out to the government to have a conversation, to see how best they can provide their support. And then with all of that combined—all three stakeholders [youth, service providers, and the government] together—we can see how best to provide support.
Brittany: You’ve talked about the importance of speaking to people. Would you mind talking a little bit more about how you go about doing that in a safe way, when in a lot of contexts, youth identifying as LGBTQ are not necessarily accepted?
Sean: JFLAG has a database of persons who would have volunteered [with] us. Sometimes we would draw on this database and just ask some general questions about what’s happening. “How do you see support, what do you envision it being?”
We’ll reach out to partner agencies, NGOs, maybe the government and Ministry of Health to find out what the issues are or what has been reported to them. You know, “What are some of the negative reports that you have been hearing?” And then we see how we can best fix it. We do a lot of stuff. We’ll have little parties and invite persons from the community. And during those sessions, we’ll have conversations like, “What is health care like for you? Do you think it can be better?”
We also do focus groups and community sensitization sessions where we will tell them what health care should look like, what health care is, and then ask, you know, “Based on our description of health care, what is it that you’re not getting? How can this be improved? How is it affecting your life?”
We also have an LGBTQ youth-specific helpline. We also take note of helpline reports based on what the clients or the callers would report to us, what some of the issues are, and then from that, pull data.
So we have direct contact with the community, and they are willing to participate in whatever we’re doing, because in the end, they are the ones who benefit from it.
Brittany: The helpline sounds like an anonymous and kind of protective sort of space.
Sean: Right, so with the helpline, we have trained counselors who take the calls. Then depending on the needs of the client, they’ll determine how to progress. So say the client has issues with mental health. We would do mental health screenings, and then, if this is something that is beyond our scope of help, we refer them to other agencies who can provide better support. Mental health is an issue of health care; we would definitely refer to agencies that are safe, that are secure, that are confidential. And they’ll handle it from there. We can act as a bridge between the person who needs health care services and the health care provider.
Watch this description of the youth helpline resource. Does your country or organization have a similar helpline for LGBTQ youth? JFLAG wants to hear from you!
“Youth are our way forward, so just accept us. And we’re here to stay.”
Brittany: What has been your proudest moment with JFLAG?
Sean: My proudest moment would be participating in JFLAG Pride events because, here in Jamaica, open expression of homosexuality and all of that isn’t accepted, or isn’t readily accepted. And while things have become a little bit more tolerant—and people are becoming a little bit more, you know, zen—we’ve tried our best to encourage the community to rally together and just have fun. That’s what Pride is about: having fun.
And I would normally hear about Pride and not participate because of fear. But now, I am participating in whatever way I can and just having fun. It’s not just about highlighting your queerness or the gayness in you. It’s about just having fun as a community. Learning from each other, building bridges, building new friendships, support, all of that.
So for me, that was what Pride was: a way of connecting with a community of people who don’t often get the time to do that.
And let me just say: it was fun. You need to come to one of our Pride events—it’s amazing.
Brittany: I would love to. Something you said that really resonated with me: we often don’t hear about the centering of celebration in these communities. Those often aren’t the stories that are being told, they’re not the stories that we highlight when we focus on challenges and issues. Do you have other examples or stories of celebration?
Sean: As you rightfully say, people do not highlight the positives that happen. Gay people and queer people in Jamaica—they are nation builders. They contribute to the development of the country every single day.
And let me tell you, when it comes to parties and festivities, queer people run the thing. A lot of events in Jamaica, like soccer events, are supported primarily by persons from the community. Events like a carnival are seen as an expression of who you are. You are not judged at carnival or soccer events. So people from the community or queer people tend to just have fun without people being upset.
And there are allies: people who may not identify with the community, but they understand that these people are people nonetheless, and they put their support 100% behind whatever activities are happening.
Some corporations in Jamaica will support Pride. They will provide funding for parties, or just little gatherings.
Also important: some of the universities here have spaces that they use to accommodate persons from the community. So one of the things that we have is a club for queer people that meets every other Thursday. Funnily enough, it’s held in a health center, so they would meet, they would have fun, they would talk about their experiences for the year, what they want to do as queer people to make their university experience a little bit better. And queer people also participate in sporting activities, so we will have netball, football clubs, and other competitions.
Because of the work that JFLAG and others are doing—and have been doing—spaces are now a little bit more understanding. They’re a little bit more inclusive. Queer people exist, and they’re not going anywhere, so: accept, embrace, and move on.
Brittany: What excites you about the future of the AYSRH field and working with this community specifically?
Sean: I’m looking forward to being in a space where, regardless of your identifiers, you can access the services that you need. That’s my main thing … I’m looking forward to a Jamaica, a Caribbean, a wider world, where persons who identify as LGBTQ can just walk into a place and get the support that they need. And not only getting support and information but getting the best support and information possible. That’s what I’m looking forward to—and it’s not just looking, we’re also working seriously towards it.
And we’re starting here in Jamaica. I want Jamaica to be a beacon so that, if you identify as LGBTQ, we really don’t care. If you need support or services, you can walk into any place and be treated. You will be given the best help possible, full stop.
Brittany: Was there anything else that you wanted to add before we go?
Sean: I just want to say that people should look out for our helpline. We have been doing some promotions, and we are currently looking for sponsors and donors to kind of help us get it out there and not just limited to Jamaica. For those who may not be able to access certain resources, the helpline is there. And while JFLAG’s helpline is the only one in the Caribbean, we would love to see if there could be other partnering countries or agencies that would sort of help us spread this because the LGBTQ community is a vast community. It’s huge, and we are unable to provide support on our own, so we’d really love some assistance.
At the end of the day, we’re here to provide support to persons who identify as LGBT, as queer youth, and see how best we can have them included in nation-building, in having their voices be heard, as it relates to the development of the country. At the end of the day, you are a stakeholder in your country’s development, and you should have a part to play and a voice.
Youth are our way forward, so just accept us. And we’re here to stay.
Listen to Sean describe his vision for the future of LGBTQ AYSRH
*Editor’s note on the use of the “LGBT” acronym: While Knowledge SUCCESS prefers to use “LGBTQI+,” “LGBT” and “LGBTQ” are used interchangeably in this piece for consistency, depending on the context, and to remain true to our contributors’ words.