Seattle musician Moni Tep’s journey to explore and improve the lives of LGBTQ youth in Jamaica began in the dead of night, and in the cemetery where many of them were living.
The cemetery had no tombstones and was the site of a mass grave for those who died during an outbreak of cholera. Several dozen LGBTQ youth sought refuge there after being exiled from their families and communities in Jamaica, one of 79 countries where homosexuality has been criminalized.
“That’s where these young people are staying. I saw them, at least 30 of them sitting on top of this land and we just went and talked with them and they agreed to talk with me and do interviews.”
Tep, 23, a local musician and teaching artist also known as Jus Moni, traveled to Kingston, Jamaica in October to document the lives of LGBTQ youth.
“I think that it is important for us to document our own stories and to create and continue to build a network with each other to provide resources and connections,” the busy artist told me in an emailed interview.
She also found that youth there had an urgent need for resources.
Tep, accompanied by a friend, drove up into the mountains to conduct the interviews in privacy. The ones who suffer most are the ones who are out of the closet. “They’re not trying to pass for anything. Some of them do to get money, but for the most part they are out.”
Anyone caught violating Jamaica’s anti-sodomy law could face up to 10 years of jail time. There are no laws against woman to woman intercourse, but lesbians still suffer from anti-gay stigma.
Under that hostile climate, many of the youth who have chosen to come out or been outed by others, have been kicked out of their homes and rejected by their communities.
The homophobia and conservative Christianity took root during the British colonization and continues to leave its mark.
“I had articles written about me before I even landed — about how I had a gay agenda and was coming to disrupt their Christian state,” said Tep with a laugh. “I guess I’m a gay evangelist coming to save everyone from the straight?”
There are some organizations that have been formed to provide support. “There is a specific collective called SO(U)L that provide so much support and love around the work I am doing,” said Tep. The Jamaican Forum of Lesbians All-sexuals and Gays (JFLAG) was founded in 1998 and was the first human rights organization to advocate openly for the rights of queer Jamaicans.
“As to how effective they are, you’ll hear many different stories depending on where you coming from in privilege and access,” she said.
It’s dangerous work. In 2004, one of JFLAGs co-founder’s Brian Williamson was stabbed to death in his own home. “The community had a celebration outside of his house because the batty man was dead,” said Tep. The group has since moved JFLAG to an undisclosed location.
Tep was conscious of the risks, but that was secondary to her need to help the LGBTQ youth in the country.
“Of course there were concerns, but I say this around any of the work I’m dedicated to in my life, when you believe in liberation, you give yourself selflessly to that movement.”
Tep’s work in Seattle includes curating safe spaces for youth through her work as a teaching artist with organizations like Youth Speak. She was a teenager herself in the leadership organization Seattle Young People’s Project when she first became interested in working with youth.
“I’ve been a queer-identified person since before I became a teen, this was always my work,” she said.
Tep’s trip was made possible through JetBlue’s Flying it Forward philanthropic program, which also made a video of her journey. Each awardee is selected by the previous contest winner via Twitter, and then selects the next one.
The trip was Tep’s first time in the Caribbean country.
“I’ve always wanted to visit Jamaica,” Tep said. “One because it is Black. The food, music and spirituality of that country has been something that has interested me for a long time. As I became more clear in what it was I was supposed to be doing in Jamaica, the land and opportunity presented itself to me.”
Though just the beginning, her work in Jamaica has already made an impact. “The highlight of my experience was being able to look young people in the eyes who are facing some of the most adverse situations, and for them to tell me they were thankful for my existence and believe in our power to support each other.”
Her next step is providing help through her GoFundMe campaign. Tep hopes to raise $60,000 that would go toward the direct support of 10 LGBTQ youth living in Kingston.
“It’s not just about personal initiative all the time, sometimes it is about circumstance and trying to navigate that,” Tep said. “If you can’t eat then what are you supposed to do? If you can’t take a shower then you can’t get a job.”
The money would go directly to provide basic needs such as food and shelter and vocational training. The money would also provide help with applying for political asylum for the youth who are interested in leaving Jamaica.
“There were many unsafe moments during my trip, but to much is given much is required — had anything happened to me, the ones I love and affected would be in full understanding that it was for the liberation of us.”