My name is Shareef Hadid Jenkins. I am from Lancaster, Pennsylvania
Growing up, I knew I was different. I knew that people sort of whispered about me. My family would – my uncle would ask me how ballet was, how playing the violin was. But I didn’t play the violin, I played the trumpet. I didn’t do ballet, I did football. When I was 13 in middle school, some of the football team members would always call me “gay” or “sissy” but they’d always high-five me when we won a game, like I was cool when we won a game, but outside of football they would always call me names. And I didn’t really understand – I knew I was different. I didn’t know what it was called.
But one day, walking in the hallway, someone said, “Hey Shareef, you’re gay!” It hit me and I was like, Oh my goodness, I am gay. Like I would wrestle with guys and I would be a little bit more into it than the other guys would be, and I realized that gay meant that I like guys.
My mom, when I came out to her, said, you know, “There’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” And that was basically it and we didn’t talk about it. I did hear her and my stepfather arguing about the fact that I was gay once. She sent me to live with my dad to make me become a man. And when I came out to my father, he was livid. Actually, he went to a frat brother of his who is a psychologist and took me there and said “Cure my son.” And the psychologist told him that I am gay and that he has to accept it.
So his version of acceptance was, Okay, we’re gonna take you to the mosque every night, you’re going to learn how to be a man and you’re gonna learn how to have willpower so that you don’t act on being gay, you don’t think about men, and that’s the way it’s going to be. And after a couple months of that, I tried to kill myself. So I took a lot of pills and, thank God, I didn’t die. I just woke up and my father was standing over me and he said, “Okay, if you’re going to be gay, I can’t do anything about it. You just can’t be gay in my house.” So that’s when I was on the street without my parents.
There is a place in Philadelphia called the Attic and they were in the attic of this place that helped runaway kids and throwaway kids. And I went there every week while I was living with my father and not telling him that I was going to the gay youth group. And when I was out of my own, they helped me find a place. One of the people there was a college student – was a facilitator at the Attic and they took me in. He had an extra bedroom. It was a house full of college students and said, you know, “We’re your family now.”
After maybe two or three years, my father called out of the blue one day and he said, you know, “You’re my only son and you only have one father. So I can’t change who you are and who you are is who you have to deal with with your god. But because you’re my son, if you ever need anything, if you’re ever starving, if you’re ever out in the cold, I will take you in. We will not talk about your homosexuality and we should just be in each other’s lives.” Maybe on holidays, we’d call each other. If we see each other, it would be for 5 minutes.
I moved to New York and I felt like, you know, this is – this is a place I need to be. This is where I knew that all the gays went. A couple years after that, I live with my boyfriend, my appendix burst one night when we were out having dinner. And my boyfriend just grabbed me and took me to the hospital and he ended up saving my life.
My father came the next day with his wife. He took my boyfriend’s hand he said, Thank you for saving my son’s life.” And he sat down in the room. It was the first time in my life since coming out that he actively showed that he loved me and that the gay thing wasn’t going to stand in the way of his love. His wife, however, who loved me and would always call me during the years, wanted to see how far this would go. I had pictures with me of me and my boyfriend. We just came back from a trip to London.
She would show my dad and said, “Look at this. This is your son in love. This is – this is love. This is what it looks like.”
And he stood up and he said, “Thank you for saving my son. I love you, Shareef. This is as much as I can handle. I love you and that’s it.” After that, we – our five minutes turned into ten minutes. We would see each other – it was a little bit more time. He would call little bit more often.
So years went by. We didn’t really see each other a lot. And maybe three years without seeing him, maybe talking three times a year for our ten minutes. And I found out I was positive. In a moment, I didn’t really think. I called my parents and I just said – at first I said I had cancer. Because I didn’t know how to tell them I was positive.
They called me a lot more, they – my dad came up. He took me to dinner. And then I told him I was HIV positive. And he cried. He told me that, you know, “You’re my only son. I’m your only father. We only have one life. A week isn’t going to go by without me talking to you.” It was almost like him saying, All this homophobia that I was holding onto is not worth not having my son in my life. Because he felt like that was it. I’m about to lose you and I’m not going to take that. And that kind of love coming from parents who threw me out was unexpected. It was what lifted me out of the depression of Oh my God, I have HIV. It gave me an – it gave me life.
So today, I run a business, a non-binary fashion company. I make harnesses, underwear, jumpsuits. My father designs scarves, bags. Interesting, right? The guy who did – who couldn’t accept his gay son does fashion. Pretty amazing. We’re working together to start a line of underwear for African American men, you know, kente cloth underwear, boxers. And I mean that’s coming a long way from being a child who my parents are like, Get out, to actually, like, not only seeing my father for more than 5 minutes at a time, but working with him on a business, father and son business. And I see this makes him happy and it makes me feel joy.
It’s one thing to go through life without your parents, but right now is all that matters and the fact that they’re in my life has made my life beyond its – living my life beyond my wildest dreams.