You weren't born to be abandoned
You weren't born to be forsaken
You were born to be loved
You were born to be loved
Over the past few weeks I have been meeting with homeless LGBT youth. Each young person was, at the time I met with and photographed them, struggling to survive out on the streets as they waited for one of the few youth shelter beds in New York City to open up to them.
Their stories do not fit in the traditional narratives of the holiday season. No warm family gatherings for these kids. No presents, no feasts. No "sleeping in heavenly peace." Many have been cast out of their homes, driven out by homophobia. Made to know that being LGBT makes them unlovable in the eyes of their families. Made to know that being gay made them disposable.
Nor do their stories conform to the traditional narrative of "coming out" that the LGBT community likes to tell. Coming out for these kids was not primarily experienced as liberating and freeing, nor was it experienced as finding acceptance in the broader LGBT community. For these kids, coming out meant being driven from their homes, denied love, denied all economic support, made to suffer utter destitution. And, shamefully, despite the numbers of homeless LGBT youth across the nation reaching epidemic proportions, their plight has not been at the forefront of the attention of the LGBT community.
And their stories certainly belie the notion that the citizens of our city, state, and nation can find some safety net to protect them. I noted with sorrow that, as I was photographing these abandoned children on the piers and streets along the far West Side of Manhattan, I could often gaze upon the Statue of Liberty downriver, with its promise:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
Alas, there has been little political will to protect these kids. In New York City there are merely 250 youth shelter beds funded by the city and state, though there are 3,800 homeless kids, 40 percent of whom are LGBT. Both Governor Cuomo and Mayor Bloomberg have sent the distressing message that these kids do not have any right to be sheltered, with the governor having cut New York State support for youth shelter beds by 50 percent in the last year, and the mayor having repeatedly attempted to cut youth shelter funds in half, as well. How fitting that these kids, whose desperate conditions speak so profoundly of unjust economic priorities, so frequently found refuge with the Occupy Wall Street movement when they could not find a shelter bed.
To be a homeless LGBT youth in New York City means battling the cold, desperate to find somewhere warm and dry at night, knowing it would be a catastrophe if your shoes and clothes get wet. It means being exhausted, suffering chronic sleep deprivation as you try with little success to rest on the subways and train stations and on the streets. It means being terrified, afraid that the police will kick you out of the subway cars and train stations, afraid of violence when you have to sell your body, afraid that you will be beaten or robbed while trying to sleep on park benches or under bridges. To be a homeless LGBT youth in New York City all to frequently means being hungry, forsaken, alone, brutalized.
Is there a more terrible expression of homophobia in our times than tens of thousands of teens being cast out of their homes and made homeless in our streets? How horrible it is that kids are made to experience such brutal abuse, just for being who they are? I believe that these youths are, without ever intending to be, unsung heroes of the LGBT movement. They are heroic because of the terrible price they pay for their honesty.
I thank all of the youths who told me their stories, and allowed me to look into their eyes and photograph them. It was courageous of them to do so -- for many teens being abandoned by their family and becoming homeless is experienced as humiliating and shameful, something you don't want people to know. I hope that we will care enough to listen to the devastating stories these kids have to tell. I hope that we will have the courage look into their hurt eyes. I hope that by doing so, we can find the compassion and resolve to protect them.
Every young person deserves to be loved. If so many LGBT youths are denied love by their families, then the LGBT community needs to give them love. We need to assert their human worth and value, despite actions by their families and their government that speak to the contrary. We cannot allow them to be left to fend for themselves in the cold.
Click here to find out how you can help and for more information on the Campaign for Youth Shelter, which is calling on New York City and New York State to commit to a plan to provide shelter to every homeless youth.
I grew up with my mom in Brooklyn. I came out to her when I was 15. She wasn't happy with it. My friends told me it takes two years for your parents to get OK, but two years went by and she still wasn't OK. She attached all the negative stigmas to being gay. Doing sex work, having AIDS. She was always saying I was going to get AIDS. I wasn't even sexually active! I didn't lose my virginity until this year. I began doing research on transitioning. When I told my mom, she said, "I gave birth to a boy, not a transvestite." She wasn't cool with it and got more and more angry. One day she said she was going to leave me. I thought she was joking, but three days later she packed up and moved. She told me I had to vacate the apartment that day, and left me $40. I was so shocked! For the last six months I have been waiting for a shelter bed to open up. I walk all over the city at night until I get really tired, so I can hope to fall asleep on the subway. I try to sleep on the trains until the workers throw me out. It feels horrible to live like this. You feel like you have nobody on your side. You think of your mom, and you think of someone always on your side. I try not to think about it because I'm like, "Oh my God!" I try not to get down when so many people are already down on me. I try to be inspirational. I'm going on job interviews and am working on my music. I want the world to see who I really am. And when I get a lot of money, I want to open a drop-in center for other kids.
I grew up in Puerto Rico in a small town. I used to walk to the beach and swim in the ocean. Sometimes I think coming out wasn't a good decision. A lot of people abandoned me. I came to New York last February. For a while I was staying with my boyfriend at his parents' apartment, but that didn't work out -- they didn't like us being gay, and they humiliated me. When I go on job interviews I get discriminated against. Everyone says that I am too feminine. My boyfriend and I have been sleeping on the subways and in the subway stations. My boyfriend has been on the streets off and on for three years, since he was 16. He knows how to make it OK on the streets. At least I'm not by myself. I have five sandwiches in my bag for us to eat tonight. The best thing about coming to New York was that I gained my pride. I never thought I'd be part of the gay community.
I grew up in Staten Island. I lived with my aunt, until she put me out three years ago. I was sleeping on the front steps of a building in Staten Island until a few weeks ago, until it got too cold. Now I am riding the trains. Last night I slept on the 1 train. It was all right. Maybe I got to sleep for four hours. I've been arrested and harassed for sleeping on the trains, and I was almost robbed, so I feel like I have to try to sleep with one eye open. The worst thing about being on the streets is the weather. You just feel hopeless, especially when you don't have the proper clothing. I'm on the waiting list to get into the Ali Forney shelter. When I have a place to stay, I hope to get back into school. I finished the 11th grade, but now it is pretty impossible to go to school when you don't have anywhere to stay.
My parents passed away when I was 15. I moved in with my aunt in Brooklyn, but she was really conservative and couldn't accept me for who I am. When I became homeless, I couch surfed, moving from one friend's couch to another, and then I stayed in abandoned buildings. Recently I was staying in Zuccotti Park. I was sleeping in a big tent with a bunch of other people. I was arrested when the police evicted Occupy Wall Street from the park. Last night I spent the night sleeping on the steps of a church near Wall Street. I was with nine other kids. We have three dogs -- Sue, Jen, and Cheyenne -- who make us feel safer; we feel safe enough to sleep because they bark when strangers come.
I grew up in San Paolo, Brazil. Then my father was murdered, and my mother made me leave the country. She was afraid the same men would kill me. I never came out to my mother. I moved to the U.S. I moved in with my older sister in the Bronx. I was doing OK; I got a job off the books in a department store. But when my sister found out I was gay, she put me out. She is very religious and said I was going to the inferno (hell). She said she did not want her son to become gay like me. Now I am staying on the A train. It is a long ride from the first stop to the last, so you can get more sleep on that line. Sometimes I do sex work to get something to eat, or to get a place to spend the night. It is bad doing sex work, but you gotta do it -- it's better than being out in the cold. When I get a place to stay, I want to get into a job training program. I want something better for me. It's hard sleeping on the trains a lot. You feel so alone. It is too hard.
I grew up in Foster Care in Greensboro, N.C. It got bad when people realized I was gay. The staff treated me horribly after that. They would make gay jokes about me and tell me I was going to die of AIDS. You don't treat a 13-year-old kid like that. I have been on the streets for two years -- in NYC on and off for a year. Recently I slept in a park in Chelsea, by a dog run next to the West Side Highway, where we took my picture. I was cold, scared, but it was pretty much the safest place I could think of. Between the cars and the cold, I couldn't get comfortable enough to sleep. I tried to commit suicide last summer. I was in a dark place. I feel a lot better now that I am back on my meds. Being gay and having a mental illness is a double whammy. They both hold you back. But I'm working with my case manager at Ali Forney to get into supportive housing for people with mental health issues.
I grew up in East Harlem. Anything you think about the hood, that was my neighborhood. Drug dealing. Sirens all the time. I was the kid that got chased through my neighborhood. I was 15 the first time I got kicked out of my house. My lowest point of trying to make it on the streets was three weeks ago. My girlfriend and I had to sleep on the roof of a building in the Bronx. It was raining cats and dogs. I let her sleep and stayed awake to make sure we were safe. I really want to be a writer, though first I will probably do something with my food handler's license to get on my feet. But definitely, when I retire, then I will write.
I "escort." I have to jump in and out of cars to get food and a few dollars to rent a room. When it started raining and getting colder, I had to do more stuff I didn't want to do just to get a place to sleep for a couple of hours. I've been abused and attacked in the streets. I try to be bubbly and joke, but it is really hard when you are hungry and don't get any sleep. I remember one night I was trying to sleep in the piers, but I was just crying and crying all night, wishing God could just take me out of this. Last night was crazy. I was staying in an apartment with four other kids. One of them was crazy; he attacked me, dragged me out in the hall, punching me in the face, pushing me into doors. He pushed me down the stairs. I cannot go back there. I cannot be his punching bag. I was so upset and stressed that I broke out in hives. I need a change. I cannot go on like this much longer.
I grew up in New Jersey with my dad and my stepmom. I came out when I was 14. They tried to act like it was OK, but I could tell it wasn't with my stepmom. I heard her tell my dad that I was going to rape her son. Why would she think that? I started using drugs when I was 15. I got badly addicted, I guess to escape the reality I was living, which was unbearable. I haven't been home since I was 15; for the last four years I have been in group homes, drug treatment facilities, the streets. Last night I rode the trains and then slept in Penn Station. It was kind of scary, and I was afraid of being robbed, but I am so thankful I was inside, where it was warm. A lot of homeless people were trying to sleep there. The police kicked out a lot of the people trying to sleep. I am thankful I looked good enough to be a customer waiting for a train. The police left me alone. I want to go to college and double major in psychology and political science. When I am on my feet, I want to do advocacy for people that are mentally ill.
When I was 11, my father demanded to know if I was gay. When I said yes, he reacted horribly. He wouldn't talk to me for three years. My mother says mean things. I'm the child she didn't want. I left home because I felt I didn't belong. I've been leaving since I was 11. Right now I've been on the streets for two months. I was staying in Zuccotti Park with Occupy Wall Street. Since the eviction I've been staying in churches that have opened to the OWS people. Last night I slept on the floor of a church in Harlem. They woke us up extremely early. I usually only get three to five hours of sleep a night, and that isn't enough, you know. I feel like I shouldn't be going through this, but it's going to make me stronger. I hope to get into a GED course real soon. When I get my diploma I want to join the Air Force so I can have a way to pay for college.
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