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The face of ‘modern slavery’ looks a lot like us

Sunday, September 30, 2012
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“The ugly truth is that this goes on right here,” he said. “It’s the migrant worker unable to pay off the debt to his trafficker. … The teenage girl — beaten, forced to walk the streets. This should not be happening in America.”

These were words spoken in a speech by President Barack Obama at the Clinton Global Initiative’s annual meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 25. He was speaking about human trafficking, which he also said should be called by its real name: “modern slavery.”

For most of us, myself included, we have chosen to ignore the facts of human trafficking in the 21st century.

The word “slavery” conjures up Civil War-era cotton fields, and “darkies” being bought and sold and used for whatever purpose their master had in mind. But this isn’t 1862. This is 2012, and people are still being bought and sold on United States soil and used for whatever purpose their master has in mind.

This isn’t just an issue that affects poor people. The LGBT community needs to understand and accept that this is also a gay issue. The Center for American Progress estimates that 320,000 to 400,000 LGBT youth face homelessness each year in the United States.

Imagine, if you can, 400,000 gay youth forced to leave their homes, with no family, no support, and living on the streets. They become the most vulnerable among us. They become the epitome of what is an easy target for the criminals who want only to exploit their bodies for sexual prostitution; and not just prostitution, but commercial sexual exploitation.

Children who are forced out of the only home they have ever known by parents, who can’t tolerate the thought of their child being gay, find themselves alone and on the street. They latch on to the first people who offer them a place to stay and a chance at a new life, only to find themselves thrown away once again; this time for sex and drugs and money.

Most of us don’t even want to let our minds wander to that dark place of “modern slavery.” We don’t want to think of it, read of it and hear of it, so we simply pretend it doesn’t exist. Or we believe that it does exist, only not here in the United States and not here in San Diego, America’s Finest City. Not here in the “land of the free, and the home of the brave.”

The State Department estimates that nearly 50,000 persons enter the United States of America each year having been sold into bondage. Slaves. They may not be black, stuffed into wooden boats arriving on the shores of Virginia or the Carolinas and sold on auction blocks, but they are slaves’ none-the-less.

President Obama’s speech on this “modern slavery” is in itself historic. No other government figure has ever spent the time in a public forum dedicated to this subject. The President signed an executive order to ensure the U.S. would “lead by example” on trafficking-free government contracting.

“We’re making clear that American tax dollars must never, ever be used to support the trafficking of human beings,” Obama said. “We will have zero tolerance. We mean what we say. We will enforce it.”

The President made clear his intent to help the victims of the modern slavery recover. He promised to offer better access to treatment, access to legal services and to make the visa process for victims brought to America against their will simpler to navigate.

As citizens, we cannot simply close our eyes and our minds, and refuse to believe that such atrocities exist in our United States of America. This could be any one of us. This could be our children, our nieces and nephews, our cousins, our relatives.

For those of us who are gay and have had family turn their back and throw us out, we know the pain; we know how easily it could have been any one of us landing alone on the streets of a big city only to be lured by the promise of “family.” We must step up and show up when it comes to reporting something that doesn’t look quite right. To be silent is to put another child in danger.

The Center for American Progress reported in 2010 that there were “approximately 1.6 million to 2.8 million homeless young people in the United States, and estimates suggest that disproportionate numbers of those youth are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.

These vulnerable gay and transgender youth often run away from home because of family conflict and then face overt discrimination when seeking alternative housing, which is compounded by institutionalized discrimination in federally funded programs.”

The truth of the matter is that we are our brother’s keeper. It’s the only way we can make any sense of the dark, dark places of the world.

To wish a life of slavery on any one person because of race, sex, gender, orientation, age or for any reason, is wrong in any country in any language. But to know that on the streets of the United States of America in the year 2012 we have young men and women enslaved as sex objects – to know that in towns and cities all across our nation we have men, women and children working in conditions we wouldn’t subject our pets to is an abomination.

It’s not just the job of the government to combat this modern slavery. It’s the job of every American to combat this atrocity.

Raise your voice, report things that don’t look right, look into where your local hotels, restaurants, etc. are getting their workforce. Follow their supply chain, and hold these companies accountable. And when it comes time to vote – vote for the people who will hold these big companies accountable.

I know I won’t hide my head in the sand any longer; I’ll be vocal, and ever vigilant. I’ll also show great kindness to the kid on the street knowing that “there but for the grace of God go I.”

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