OK to be proud | Inspire

Six years ago, the tragic suicide of a teenager motivated the launch of an initiative to support young LGBTQ people in Trinidad and Tobago. Bridget van Dongen reports on the Silver Lining Foundation, and how they work to protect the vulnerable

  • Silver Lining Foundation members and friends at their Easter 2018 family event in Port of Spain’s Queen’s Park Savannah. Photo by Brandon Kalyan courtesy the Silver Lining Foundation

In September 2011, Trinidad and Tobago was rocked by news of the suicide of sixteen-year-old George Kazanjian. A student of one of T&T’s so-called “prestige” schools, his suicide brought to the forefront the problem of bullying — especially of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, etc) young people.

The tragic event distressed many — and for one young university student named Jeremy Edwards, it was a call to action. “When George’s story emerged in the media,” Edwards recalls, “I myself was contemplating suicide, because of the difficulties in dealing with my own sexual orientation and not having anyone to turn to.” At Kazanjian’s funeral, the priest told attendees to find someone they could talk to. “I did find someone,” says Edwards, “and it took me all of six months from that day to begin to turn around from my depressive state.”

During this time, Edwards reached out to Kazanjian’s family. “I wanted to connect with them and let them know how their son’s tragedy gave me new life. I also knew in myself that I had had this great gift given to me, and I needed to now give back in George’s memory to those who needed similar support, love, and acceptance in dealing with their own battles.” 

Edwards rallied together some fellow university students, and in February 2012 they launched the Silver Lining Foundation (SLF), intended to ensure that LGBTQ youth had a safe, secure, and reliable support system to help them navigate the difficulties of dealing with their sexual identity during their teenage years, at school and at home. The founding principle was that youth can mobilise other youth to create, facilitate, and sustain a strong peer support network. They encourage the development of safe environments where people can lean on each other for support.

When asked what he considers the group’s most significant achievement in six years of advocacy, Edwards names the creation of Safe Space: “one of the first campus-based/school-based, psychosocial peer support groups in the country. It really was a key moment in beginning to deliver on the care and support to LGBTQ youth that they so desperately needed,” he explains.

A Safe Space is also the title of a short film produced by the foundation (screened at the 2015 Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival, and now available for viewing on SLF’s YouTube page), documenting both harsh realities and inspiring testimonies from local and international families and individuals dealing with issues faced by the LGBTQ community. It’s part of a series of activities designed to bring public awareness to issues which many would rather sweep under the carpet. Hence, also, the Silver Lining Foundation’s Day of Silence, organised annually since 2013. Held in April, it brings attention to anti-LGBTQ name-calling, bullying, and harassment faced by young people.

 

How serious is the situation in schools? One of the Silver Lining Foundation’s recent achievements was the publication of a School Climate Survey, charting bullying and gender-based violence in the T&T school system. Edwards explains the rationale: “In the first few months of starting SLF, I told the team during one of our meetings that twenty of us sitting around a table and sharing our stories . . . does not reflect in any way the reality of what is happening in all schools across the country. We needed to get out there and gather data to help us shape and direct our limited resources on critical interventions where they were needed most. It took us a few years to complete,” he adds, “but I am still so very proud that we were able to finally produce statistics that show, yes, LGBTQ children exist, LGBTQ bullying exists, and it is a problem that requires urgent attention as it threatens and impedes the right of each child to their education.”

As a direct result of the publication of the survey, the SLF is now in talks with T&T’s Ministry of Education, and creating training workshops designed to assist teachers in treating with matters of sexual identity and gender diversity in schools.

As advocates for young LGBTQ persons, the foundation believes it’s imperative they are visible at as many events as possible. In April 2018, at a protest outside Parliament in Port of Spain, I spoke to the SLF’s chief administrative officer
Kennedy Maraj, gender affairs specialist Renelle White, and art and creative consultant Brandon Kalyan.

Kalyan told me he’d struggled with his gender identity and sexuality as a teenager. “I was bullied for being myself, but I want to show kids that it’s OK to be proud of who they are, and OK to be unapologetically gay, even in a homophobic society like Trinidad.” 

Maraj spoke about the SLF advocating for stronger families — for example, through a series of workshops for the families of LGBTQ people. “Our goal is to create a series of family-friendly events where whole families can come together in a supportive environment,” he said. So last Easter Sunday, the Silver Lining Foundation hosted a family event at the Queen’s Park Savannah in Port of Spain. “Support from families is crucial for LGBTQ youth, but many families do not know how to handle it when their child reveals that they are gay.”

The SLF is also attempting to take their message outside Trinidad and Tobago. In 2013, they received international funding to launch a Caribbean youth LGBTQ movement. “The aim of this movement,” according to the SLF website, “is to assemble a coalition of young voices throughout the Caribbean, attempting to beget a generation of change in the region, as young people become empowered to stand up and demand what is rightfully theirs.”

It’s an admirable goal, and a brave one — especially in a society where homophobia is still widely seen as legitimate, and where LGBTQ people are still regularly put out of their homes for coming out. As one young person, Samantha, puts it: “Even though I came out at the age of sixteen to my parents, I still struggled with my identity. Getting involved with SLF has allowed me to accept myself as a member of the LGBTQ community, and their Safe Space has made me grow as a person.”