In a country where an alarming amount of young people take their lives in response to bullying over sexual orientation, organizations like Chicago-based Youth Pride Services are vital.
For nearly a decade, this national program has provided leadership and hope to a generation of Black, queer, youth. "Youth at hope, not at risk," is the YPS slogan on their Facebook page. This member-driven initiative has helped shine light on issues of sexual orientation and HIV awareness within young, ethnic MSM ( men who have sex with men ) communities via outreach events, lectures and resources.
"They have been a heart to the youth in Chicago," said Michigan chapter leader Jose Love, 20. "From helping mold the mindset of the youth so that they can be good citizens and so much more. I am forever thankful that they put faith in me to be the bridge for Michigan, to do the same with my team here."
This year, YPS/Code Red are sending Jose Love to the Black Treatment of Advocates Network ( BTAN ) National Steering Committee. BTAN is being backed by the Black AIDS Institute and Jose Love will be part of a very public platform that will help initiate teams and services for getting all Black Americans living with HIV into treatment.
Love, along with another YPS member, were selected by their peers by election as a representative for YPS to the BTAN National Steering Committee.
Empowerment at large is what this service is all about. The national YPS collective, Code Red, is comprised of the top LGBT youth leaders in the country. Code Red members also act as the national faces and public voice of YPS and meet via teleconference to discuss issues facing their demographic.
"I am most grateful in being selected! I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would be on such a platform so soon in my life. God has something for me to do here and this is just the beginning," said Love.
Jose Love nee James Fergerson was born and raised in Detroit. He was born with strong connections to the churchhe's the son of a pastor. "I'm a very optimistic person. … The church has been a big part of my life. I think it's helped form the foundation of my activism. I don't care if you're gay, straight, bi, Christian or Jewish, we all have the divine right to be treated equal," Love said.
Life as an openly gay man has not been particularly easy for Love. He attended a Detroit public high school that he recalls as being "full of machismo. In a predominantly Black high school it was so hard to be the first openly gay guy. It took me two difficult years to change most of their minds about homosexuality. And I try not to define myself as just gay. I'm human and I don't want me or anyone else to be treated like a leper for making our life decisions."
On coming out of the closet to his family, Love was met with more adversity: "Sweet Jesus it was hell. My mom took it so hard: we fought, cursed at each other and I was put out. My name was blackened in the family. However, my father's side handled it with grace. All he said was that it was between me and god. Were they happy? No, but in the end they wouldn't judge me for who I am. My mother's mindset has since changed because of how I carry myself and who I have become."
After graduating high school in 2010, Love got involved with Code Red when a friend told him about YPS. "The mission statement was something that I believed strongly in, so I got active." In his short time with YPS, Love became a part of the more administrative Code Red where he is a youth mentor and an open ear for the problems facing the YPS members he guides. "I tell my folks to show their true colors. When I show my true colors, I attract so many more people," he said.
"I believe I have always been an activist and not just for the LGBT community, but the world and what is right," Love said. "It pains me to see the things going on, and not just in the gay community. My problem with my specific community is how far apart we have become. As I look at documentaries about the struggles that so many have undergone so that we can be where we are today, it saddens me. People have lost their lives and in return we act uneducated. That's not who we are and that's why the world has such a negative viewpoint of us, because of the ignorance some people are displaying."
Now that Love is part of an even bigger committee, his guidance will be more important than ever as BTAN's National Steering Committee has much to accomplish. "I'm hoping through being on this platform that I can touch nations and be a voice for the people that don't know and don't have the resources to know."
In addition to Love's commitments with YPS and BTAN, he is studying psychology and counseling at Schoolcraft College in Michigan. "My life is headed in a very positive direction. As well as being a student, I just became a Balie Dai model. I'm on the right track I believe. My career goals are simple."
This story is part of the Local Reporting Initiative, supported in part by The Chicago Community Trust.