`The head of the Jacksonville Area Sexual Minority Youth Network — or JASMYN — is retiring after almost 30 years of leading an agency that helps Northeast Florida’s younger LGBTQ+ residents.`The head of the Jacksonville Area Sexual Minority Youth Network — or JASMYN — is retiring after almost 30 years of leading an agency that helps Northeast Florida’s younger LGBTQ+ residents.
Cindy Watson departs the organization she helped found after expanding JASMYN’s campus in the city’s Brooklyn community, and focusing on diverse LGBTQ+ youth issues from mental and sexual health to homelessness.
But she also leaves as new state laws restrict what LGBTQ+ groups can do when Florida’s youth ask for guidance. Duval County Public Schools ended a 20-year relationship with JASMYN over what former Superintendent Diana Greene called “inappropriate program materials” at the time.
As Watson prepares for her retirement Dec. 30 after a quarter-century at the helm of JASMYN, she said that new state laws will not end what JASMYN offers.
“We still don’t believe that we are defeated or that we can be defeated by those setbacks,” she said. “Truth be told, there’s so many people in this community that support this organization, folks who are alumni, parents who really care about their kids, people in the education system who understand how important this work is. …. Our footprint is really large because we work in the health arena and around HIV prevention.”
Watson founded JASMYN in 1994 to help the community be a more welcoming place for its young people and to work “with others to weave a beautiful rainbow fabric that is the safety net for LGBTQ youth,” its website said.
The organization works with youth, ages 13 to 24, as they discover themselves amid conservative politics and religious beliefs in the South, the website said. JASMYN offers STI/HIV testing to young people ages 13 and older in a clinical setting under a partnership with the Florida Department of Health/Duval County. It also provides health services for LGBTQIA+ young adults ages 18 to 29, plus housing help and peer support groups for that age group.
Watson became JASMYN’s CEO in 1998 and has been involved with the First Coast Community AIDS Prevention Partnership, the HIV prevention planning body for Northeast Florida, since then. The advocacy group now helps more than 1,000 young people a year at its three-building campus at Peninsular Place and Chelsea Street with a community center, health clinic and homeless youth center.
Expansion plans there include an outdoor classroom and entertainment space, more office space for mental health counselors and an expanded health clinic.
From the beginning, Watson said she knew that they were doing “really very critical work” for young people in the LGBTQ community, but did not have a lot of acceptance then.
“But I always believed that this community would come around and really embrace this organization and embrace our young people,” she said. “I never thought I would be here to see that happen so that was a high point when things really turned around. And … when we passed the city’s Human Rights Ordinance in 2017, with equality granted in Florida, all of those things made a big difference in our community acceptance for LGBTQ people.”
In recent years, JASMYN also supported gay-straight alliances in 20 Duval County schools and worked with the district to educate teachers, parents and students about LGBTQ+ support services in the community. But the school district terminated the contract almost a year ago after a right-wing news outlet, The Florida Standard, published two JASMYN Instagram posts — since deleted — showing a card game using photos of genitals.
Then-Superintendent Greene said that while the district and JASMYN has worked together for more than 20 years, the district decided to terminate its current services agreement. The district had also cut down its LGBTQ+ Support Guide, deleted an anti-bullying video and forced teachers to take down All In for Safe Schools posters from their classrooms, following Florida’s new Parental Rights in Education law.
Watson said then that the Instagram post was to promote its HIV testing services for young adults, not an activity for kids. She called the move “an overreaction to a far right extremist website spreading inflammatory misinformation” about its HIV prevention work. JASMYN never plays that card game or anything sexually explicit with young people under 17, she said.
Now, as she heads toward retirement, Watson admits that JASMYN has “had some challenges,” as well as successes that have been timely.
“Getting caught in the crosshairs of the culture wars has been a huge challenge and one that I really worked hard to address, mostly because I am really worried about the young people who are dealing with it in their lives at a time when they are really vulnerable,” Watson said. “That is one of the reasons why we are really excited about this campus, and I am pretty proud to say we will be able to open a safe place that’s lasting, that has a real footprint in this community.”
Watson points to other successes, such as increasing JASMYN’s annual budget from $20,000 to more than $2 million and working with business and community leaders on its board of directors and various community councils and employee resource groups.