I grew up in an abusive home, in a small, conservative town in Texas where I was taught that gay people went to hell. I believed it. My mother was very, very religious. But I always knew that I was different, that I wasn’t like the boys I went to school with. I was constantly picked on because I acted a certain way. When I started to understand what gay meant I realized that this was not something I could change. I began talking to other gay people on line.
My father found my cell phone, read some messages that made it clear what was going on, and beat me up. I called the police on him and they basically said go home and work it out so I tried. I wanted to be different. I told my parents I thought there was a possibility I could change in a new environment so they sent me to live with an aunt in San Antonio for the rest of the school year.
All alone in a big city at 15, I started to seek that love and acceptance that I wasn’t getting from my parents. I found it online with a 36-year-old man who I eventually formed a relationship with in real life. He got sex, I got love and acceptance. I thought this was what normal relationships were about. At one point I tried to return home but nothing had changed – except me. At that point, I realized that nothing was wrong with me and this is who I am and I can’t change. My parents said I had to go to counseling, or conversion therapy camp or leave, so I went back to San Antonio and to the man I thought was in love with. I even got help from a lawyer who figured out how I could legally live with this man who was clearly abusing me!
Eventually that relationship soured – as you can imagine. With nowhere to go, I was once again lured by another, older man on line. He claimed he lived in Austin in a huge, beautiful home and made me all kinds of promises about work, about continuing my education, and all that.
Instead he began grooming me. He got me to go to the gym, put me on a healthier diet, made me trust him. Then he said he was a massage therapist and that I should learn how to be one as well because it was a good skill to have and I could always make a living with it.
Since I was too young legally be licensed, instead of training with a school he said I could just watch him and participate a bit to learn. It turned out that the kind of massage he provided was erotic massage. I was a selling point. He was a trafficker. He posted pictures of me shirtless on Craigslist to get more clients and have me participate. It was degrading and terrifying but I was too scared to leave. I felt like I had nowhere to go and my trafficker kept reinforcing that to keep me under his control.
Eventually I fled, more damaged than before because of the trafficking experience and the sense that I couldn’t trust anyone. I did what I had to do to survive. I eventually wound up in Boston at the invitation of another man I had formed a relationship with. While the relationship didn’t work, he told me I could stay at his home rent free on one condition. “Here we go again. Someone else taking advantage of me,” I thought but actually his condition was I go back to school. I got a degree in cosmetology, began a stable working life, and formed the healthy, loving relationship with my partner that I remain in to this day.
I also learned that what happened to me with the man in Austin had a name: Trafficking.
When I figured that out I began to pay attention to the issue more and eventually I heard from someone I knew that the man who had trafficked me was actually arrested for doing something similar to another young boy – and trying to take him to London to prostitute him at the Olympics.
I called the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline and told them my story and that I wanted to help. The Trafficking Hotline figured out how to put me in touch with the prosecutors of the case and I wound up testifying against my trafficker at trial. He got 30 years.
Now I am working on a memoir and trying to get my story out there in the community so people can learn how trafficking really works and how LGBTQ+ young people are particularly vulnerable to traffickers who are expert at exploiting the pain and loneliness when they are rejected by their families and their communities.
I am also trying to spread awareness because there were so many points in this story where things could have turned out differently if the systems that are supposed to protect vulnerable people – children in particular – had worked. Child Protective Services had been to my family home a number of times because of the abuse but nothing was done. When my father beat me for being gay, the police told me there was virtually nothing I could and suggested I leave home! They said they could put him in jail for a night but he would be home the next day and things would be worse.
I went from being a really good, really motivated student to basically failing and no one in the school system asked why, or followed up. I was young and I looked even younger and yet when I was homeless, or living with an adult who was not related to me, no one really paid much attention.
That’s the point I really want to drive home about sex trafficking. The most important part to saving victims is realizing how many different ways we could have done something before as anything as horrific as to what happened to me happens to me someone else.
– Jose Alfaro