Distance Isn't Merely Miles

by Shaker Sarah in Chicago

Being a Sociologist means you often come across material in both your research and your teaching that really resonates personally. National Coming Out Day 2008 is coming up at the end of this week, and while doing some research for a 100-level class I am instructing, I came across a pile of material on homeless LGBTQI youth; amongst it a study from the NGLTF, and an online documentary series from OurChart.

I often joke with my friends that I'm totally an HRC-lesbian (Human Rights Campaign) as I am thoroughly their demographic; I'm white, conventionally feminine, non-trans, professional, academic, living in a gentrifying urban dense gay neighbourhood, from an upper-middle class family background (we had two boats, a large swimming pool, and as I grew up, we had this large house looking down the main approach of the pacific ocean to my city in New Zealand, in a virtually all-white community ... privilege lived in the spare-bedroom).

However, what a lot of people don't know, is that about a decade and a half ago, I was a terrified teenager, sitting on the bonnet of her car at 2am in the morning, staring out at the pacific ocean, realising she was queer, knowing that her parents were going to implode, and having to come out nonetheless, and was almost homeless herself.

I first told my parents that I wasn't quite going to fit into their plan for me when I was 15, when I was forced out by my mother. That went down like a lead balloon, and I ended up being sent away to school and private board ... we never really discussed "why" per se, although there was some mention of educational opportunities. But then in my sophomore year of university my parents sat me down at the dinner table and grilled me. Apparently they'd been checking my mail, listening in on my phone conversations, and had gone through my room. Seems like WASP denial wasn't working as well as they hoped. They told me either I would "stop what I was doing" or I was "no longer going to be a member of this family".

What followed were some of the worst periods of my life.

I won't go too much into the details, but suffice it to say, having to pin your own mother up against the wall to prevent her from continuing to hit you, being sent to psych-professionals to cure you, being told you were naive for believing in unconditional parental love, and repeatedly staying till the university library closed late at night to avoid going home because you don't trust anymore, kinda rocks a child's world.

When a couple friends said they were looking for a third to get a flat together, I took the chance. Whether I jumped or was pushed is moot at this point, because 'home' had gotten to the point of being beyond intolerable, but it resulted in no contact for nearly 7 years with my parents. Luckily, in New Zealand, we have social welfare support for youth that are kicked-out, and that and a small part-time job allowed me to put myself through university.

And you know what? I'm one of the lucky ones.

LGBTQI youth make up 20-40% of all homeless youth, with the statistics suggesting we're closer to the upper-end of that range. But it doesn't stop there, as we're often assaulted and abused, often by our families, and then later, by others on the streets, and even the social services that in their, at best, ignorance and heterosexism, and at worst, outright bigotry, attempt to 'help' and so often just further alienate us. And that doesn't even begin to cover what it is for trans-youth, who over-represent even more than LGBQI kids, for whom I can only imagine the hate thrust upon them.

If they survive, anger is often the result. And drug and alcohol abuse to escape. The world is not a nice place to begin with, let alone when you're a kid, especially not a kid that is really different. Trust becomes an abstract concept that one can remember, but not really have anymore, as the scars run deep. Of course, so does the strength, as they are alive despite it all.

In 2006 the NGLTF released the study I mentioned above. There was also a documentary series done last year in 2007 on homeless youth at the Hetrick-Martin Institute in NYC, that is viewable online: Intro, Episode 1, Episode 2, Episode 3, Episode 4, Episode 5. (Possible trigger and blub warnings.)

I'm one of the lucky ones; I had a social network, and the social-welfare resources to not end up on the streets. But I really easily could have not, and so many don't. We die out there.

I particularly wanted to pop this up today, before the end of the week, given the economic news that's coming down. In the capitalist society we live in, the powerful benefit, but the more vulnerable bear the costs, and LGBTQI youth are some of the most vulnerable there are. They are among those who will particularly be the undiscussed faces of this recession, peering at you from alley-ways and youth-shelters, and schools if they are lucky, as you hurry to the office each day. Look into their eyes and you'll see the lifetime or more therein.

Distance isn't just measured in miles, and risk doesn't have to have a monetary value.

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