Family / Guest blog posts / News & Politics

LGBTQ Youth Homelessness

LittleFam

(L to R) Susan, Luca and Rocki
PHOTO CREDIT: ROCKI SIMÕES

Guest author Raquel (Rocki) Simões is a white Brazilian butch who came to the United States in the late 80s, fell in love with women and Rice Krispies treats (not necessarily in that order) and decided to stay. Most of her community organizing work has focused on queer youth and homelessness. Most of her personal work has focused on being a loving friend, partner, ex-partner, anti-racist community member, and parent. On a good day she does some of these things well.

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Why are so many LGBTQ youth homeless?  Chances are the F word came to mind – family.

During this last year I have had many conversations with queer youth, organizers, and advocates about the ramifications of a narrative we have highlighted for years:  queer youth homelessness exists because of family rejection.  Though the clarity of this truth is compelling and effective when it comes to raising awareness and gaining community support and funding, we are long overdue for a deeper and more nuanced national conversation.  Just this last month, as I talked to a co-worker about wanting to do better around this ‘deepening’ in relationship to my work with the GLBT Host Home Program (or GLBT HHP), her response made me yet again recognize the extent to which we have attached ourselves to a clear-cut story of rejection.  Her words: “You will have a harder time recruiting hosts.”

And I am afraid that she is right.

For some context: the GLBT HHP is a community- and volunteer-based housing program in the Twin Cities that matches young queer and trans people experiencing homelessness to people who have an extra bedroom in their homes.

So why would a more nuanced dialogue about queer and trans youth who are experiencing homelessness (most of whom are youth of color) potentially hinder our opportunities for recruiting future hosts (most of whom here in Minnesota are white and middle-class)?  Because many in our community want to hold on to the belief that once a queer youth is safely housed and nurtured, success, as defined by caring adults and youth workers, is right around the corner. A more layered conversation would mean recognizing and understanding that such an assumption is likely not true for most of the queer youth who are youth of color.

For many of us who are white and LGBTQ, sharing our homes and growing to love – in a familial and personal way – a young trans woman of color means experiencing profound heart-break as we witness just how much the system fails them, especially systems that have largely worked for us.  It is indeed less painful for some of us to cling to family rejection as the sole reason for their situation.  Family rejection is a truth that we can potentially share, relate to, and build community around.

Though the last thing I want to do is disrespect or minimize this truth and the power of connection and healing that can arise from it, now is the time to complicate how we talk about LGBTQ youth homelessness within a larger movement-building context.  I have learned much in the last 20 years and have made many mistakes, including simplifying the stories of the young people with whom I have worked.  The GLBT HHP, for example, is still talked about by many as a program that specifically addresses housing for LGBTQ youth who have been kicked out of their homes.  What I have learned, though, is that their stories and connections to family of origin, however tenuous or conflicted or abusive or beautiful, are layered and not easily nor neatly packaged.  And I am not even tackling the adoption and foster care systems here (so much for ‘deepening’, right?).

My specific concerns about the overwhelming presence of the reductive family-rejection narrative are two-fold: 1) since most queer and trans youth who are homeless in this country (or remain homeless for longer times) are youth of color, are we reinforcing the dangerous belief held by many in the white LGBTQ community that communities of color are more homophobic and transphobic? 2) are we unintentionally creating a hierarchical system of who deserves our support and what youth need to say/not say about their situation as they seek support?

Have we created a culture wherein we are more willing to embrace and love a ‘courageous’ queer youth whose parent has kicked them out specifically due to their sexual orientation and/or gender identity than a ‘chronically homeless’ queer youth who has a criminal record, or whose mother is mentally ill, or poor and unemployed, or facing deportation, or recently evicted, who may or may not be experiencing added conflict related to coming out issues?

The whole truth of those stories require us – especially the white LGBTQ community and social service organizations – to organize efforts that go far beyond love and acceptance and cultural competency.  And that is much harder to do.  Please don’t get me wrong – we all need love and acceptance.  But that will not end queer youth homelessness.

When we stop making families the enemy, intentionally or not, and truly engage with the systemic and generational disparities and under-resourcing that many families/communities are experiencing, then maybe we can shape responses and create spaces where queer and trans youth are able to share their whole selves, their whole truths – however difficult and complex – and still feel the love.

 

[FEATURED PHOTO CREDIT: ROCKI SIMÕES]

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9 Comments

  1. Bravo! Nuance can be overwhelming and busy people often prefer tangible action steps. But this is 2013 and i think we’re ready for a real conversation. Thanks, Rocki, for leading the way out of the closet and out of the box.

  2. Dialogue is good. Nuanced dialogue is even better. Thanks for sharing this with us Raquel.

  3. YES! Thank you, Rocki.

  4. This is such a heartbreaking article. Thank you Rocki. Working with queer and trans youth of color, I’m constantly wanting some simple answer to the stream of crises and trauma. I’m a white trans woman, who was able to access housing and mental health support after 5 years of homelessness and drug addiction. I get so tired and frustrated seeing trans youth of color I work with be denied the same access over and over. What is the answer? What can I do to help my communities survive? It’s not as simple as I wish it was, but there are solutions – and it’s work like you’re doing Rocki, and media like this article, that complicates the narrative in all the right ways. Let’s not forget how vibrant and creative we are capable of being, and keep reinventing ourselves when the time is right. <3

  5. Thanks for this! I admire the work of Dr. Caitlin Ryan, the director of the Family Acceptance Project in San Francisco, California. Looking at 245 young adults, she studied the reactions that parents had had to news about their children’s sexual orientation. She found that young people whose parents had shown strongly rejecting behaviors were more than 8 times as likely to commit suicide, almost 6 times as likely to have been depressed, and 3.4 times as likely to engage in risky sexual behavior or use illicit drugs as those whose parents had been accepting.

    What I found most interesting, compared to young people with parents who were very rejecting of their gay identity, those whose parents were only slightly rejecting were half as likely to attempt suicide, use illegal drugs, or take other serious risks with their health.

    Dr. Ryan saw that parents often expressed rejecting behaviors out of love for their children and concern for their safety. In many cases, they wanted to protect their children from the violent prejudices of society, so when they asked them to stay away from gay friends, act more masculine or feminine, or keep their LGBTQ identity a secret, they felt that they were acting in the child’s best interest. They didn’t know their reactions made their children feel rejected and unwelcome. Yet the parents truly loved their children.

    Dr. Ryan understood that parents who felt very uncomfortable about their child’s sexual identity still did not want their actions to endanger their child’s health. The Family Acceptance Project lists more than fifty accepting behaviors, such as talking to your children about their LGBTQ identity, showing affection to them when they tell you who they are, advocating for them if they are mistreated because of their identity, connecting them with an older role model to show them they can have a happy future, or inviting the young person’s friends and partners into your home.

    Dr. Ryan has seen parents mourn when their children contracted AIDS, committed suicide, or were beaten up after leaving home following a family battle. She feels hopeful, though, because her research has shown that such rifts can in some cases be avoided.

  6. Thanks, Tina, for sharing that info.

  7. Such a powerful article. I appreciate so much your thoughtfulness, Rocki. You’re willingness to admit where you have experienced oppression, but where also you have experienced the benefits of privilege. These are important conversations that I hope we will continue to see an openness in this area, so that we can truly address some of the disparities that are rampant in our systems.

    • Thanks for your kind words. I m grateful (most of the time!) to live in a community that doesn’t let me off the hook very easily. I wish I could say that I think and question the many faces of power and privilege without needing to be pushed. Thanks again.

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