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Weathering a slew of bad experiences, 24-year-old Korey Anthony Chisholm has been able to take the negatives in his life and turn them into positives, displaying resilience beyond his years. Korey is no ordinary young man. In fact, if he had allowed what life has thrown at him to get the better of him he would not have been here today. But instead he planted his feet firmly on the ground, seemingly made stronger by adversity.
Brutally raped by two men at the age of 16, becoming infected with HIV and being a gay man in a society that is still intolerant to homosexuality are just some of the hardships Korey has battled and is still dealing with. But he has not allowed these events to make him cower. As an HIV infected individual he has only allowed this to improve his advocacy for the rights of the most vulnerable. As a gay man who still struggles in a society that is intolerant, he has strengthened his resolve to fight for the rights of peers who have no means of doing so themselves.
Korey has no self-esteem issues. In fact, he says his self-esteem is way above his small stature. “My self-esteem is here [he raises his hand above his head] and any time I feel it getting here [he points to his nose] I shake myself and get it back up where it is supposed to be.” His experience of being collared by three men on a Georgetown street just as evening approached and taken to a dark corner where two of them stripped him naked and brutally raped him is one that would make anyone stop and listen. And that is just what he does; he makes people listen as he is not afraid to talk about his experiences which he sees as a means of helping others who may be having difficult times.
He escaped from his attackers by grabbing his top and running through the streets naked and bleeding. He finally pulled the top, which was long, over his head and ran to the bus park where he begged for a drop home. The stares and whispers from those at the park and in the bus indicated to Korey that persons suspected what had happened to him. When he got home he told relatives that he had been robbed. Korey was later rushed to the hospital complaining of pains and he told the doctor he was punched in the stomach repeatedly while being robbed “and he gave me some pain tablets and that was it”. But the experience left Korey with lasting emotional trauma.
Shortly after this incident, Korey, who had just finished secondary school with just three subjects under his belt, started volunteering with a non-governmental organization.
He soon started working with persons living with HIV and was trained as a peer educator. Korey recalled that he was in the office of the second NGO he started volunteering at when everyone in the office decided to get tested. I thought I knew what my result was so I readily agreed to be tested but I lied to the counsellor who was testing because I told him I never had sex… I did not tell him I was raped,” Korey said.
When he got the results of the test, Korey said, he was so shocked that he just sat “there smiling after I was told.” He did not believe the results and visited two other places where he was tested before he accepted the results. Because of his positive status Korey has never had a relationship and except for one other encounter – which he regretted after – he has never had sex. He said there have been times when he was interested but once he reveals his status – something he insists on doing as he feels it is the right thing – the relationship does not progress further. “So now…I do not allow myself to become emotionally involved. As soon as interest is shown I let them know and that would be it, although some of them remain friends.”
Korey’s dream was and still is to work with the United Nations. So when he saw the advertisement in 2006 to become a UNAIDS fellow in its Special Youth Programme at its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland he applied for it. He was one of the persons selected besting over 300 applications from youths who would have applied worldwide. And while from time to time his work does not bring him the reward of cash, the impact his advocacy work has on the most vulnerable is reward enough, he says.
Korey sat down to bare his soul to Stabroek News because even though as a UNAIDS peer educator and now a National UN volunteer and community facilitator he has travelled the world and told his story there are still some persons he struggles to talk to. So while he will be sharing his life with the public through these pages he will also be sharing his story with family members for the first time. He said his parents, who are separated, may have an idea that he is homosexual but he has never had “that talk” with them, or the aunt he lives with. They don’t know he was brutally raped and only one relative knows he is HIV infected.
It is not that he hid his homosexuality. Korey revealed that in 2007 he took part in a gay pageant which he won and it was broadcast on a television newscast. Korey’s mother now lives in the UK and he describes his relationship with her as “being close but still not close”. He says she has thrown “hints” about his sexuality. “I remember at one time [he was a child] she saw me laughing with my tongue out of my mouth and she said only women laughed like that and ‘if I know you would turn out to be a woman I woulda bore you in you mole’ or something to that effect.”
And while he knows all his mother’s “business” from his childhood days he still does not know if his mother wants to have that talk with him even though she would ask from time to time when he was getting married. “I plan to write to my mom and tell her about the two hot topics that I am telling you about now [being gay and having HIV] because to sit down and speak to her — it is going to be emotional.” He feels that when his mother hears about him speaking about his life through these pages it would be that much easier. As for his father, Korey says he does not have a relationship with him and he has not really hidden his sexual preference from him, but yet they have never discussed the issue.
Korey recalls that his childhood was very difficult as he could remember being taunted from as early as nursery school days. “I remember it [the taunting] from nursery school. You know they would ask me why I was walking like that and it is always been with me,” he told Stabroek News. Because of this Korey said he seldom wanted to walk the streets and he knew all the short cuts in the area as he attempted to avoid persons and would rather stay at home and read books than be outside.
“You know at that time what they said was not hurtful but it was a kind of shameful feeling… You know, like you’re walking down the road with your friends and no one has any issues and then this group of people would say something and it just puts you in a spot.” He said he struggled emotionally as at that time he did not understand what the taunting was about even though he recalled that he always took up the role of the mother when he played “dolly house” with his friends.
In secondary school at St John’s College the taunting continued and it was even more difficult as he was older and understood what was happening inside him and what people were saying to him. “It was very hurtful, you know. I even recall that this [male teacher] at one time called me into the staff room and was teaching me how to walk and how to behave,” Korey said. He also faced the stigma of persons not wanting to sit next him and most of the male students wanting nothing to do with him. “But [now that we are older] one of them actually apologized to me for the way he treated me in school and now we are great friends. Sometimes I never cried but when I think back I thought about killing myself, I was in second form at the time.”
In secondary school he did Home Economics and he topped the class and Korey recalls that after a while he took over the housekeeping while living with his mother. “Childhood was interesting. I grew up in Hopetown in Berbice, a very small village where in some way or the other everybody knows everybody…,” he said, adding that his family situation was also interesting. His early childhood days were with his mother and father but later he ended up living with his father’s relatives. “I can’t remember how I really ended up there,” after his parents separated. He moved from relative to relative but when he was in primary school he moved to Georgetown to live with his pregnant mom who was a police corporal at the time.
To this day, Korey says whenever he visits Hopetown, where his younger sister still lives, he takes the back track or stays at home because he is still taunted by persons including old school friends. Korey takes it in stride. His immediate plan is to obtain a degree in public health. With only a secondary school education Korey hopes to get a scholarship which would see him doing two years in a US college before moving to a university to read for a degree in public health.