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Reflections on a Decade of Protecting Homeless LGBT Youth: Mending the Hole in the Soul of Our Movement for Equality

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When the Ali Forney Center first opened its doors 10 years ago today, there was simply no safe shelter for homeless LGBT kids in New York City. The only existing youth shelter was run by the Catholic Church, and LGBT kids who sought shelter there were routinely mistreated and gay-bashed. With nowhere safe to turn, many kids slept in parks and the subways. Most turned to prostitution, what those of us who work with these kids call "survival sex," trading sex for shelter. There was a shantytown built out of wooden boards and cardboard boxes on a pier on the West Side Highway. They struggled to survive in dangerous, squalid, humiliating situations.

I had been running a drop-in center for homeless youth and frequently had to arrange burial services for the kids found murdered on the streets. Ali Forney was one of many young people I knew who were killed as they tried to make it through the night. It was a bitter, anguished time for me. I was horrified to see that so many parents were throwing away their LGBT children. I was angry that LGBT kids were being completely failed by their local and state government, unable to safely access the publicly funded shelter system as it existed, and consequently forced to survive in shocking conditions. But I was most frustrated with the lack of awareness of and response to these kids' plight from the broader LGBT community. If LGBT organizations, funders, and political leaders did not demand protection for these kids, then who else would possibly advocate for them?

We all know kids were being rejected by their families for being LGBT long before the Stonewall riot in 1969. And when the Stonewall uprising occurred, it was homeless LGBT youth who were at the front lines of the battle, as in other similar acts of defiance in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and other places across the country. In fact, people who were at the Stonewall riots recall that as resistance began to swell against the police who were hauling bar patrons into paddy wagons, it was a young, homeless, transgender woman, known only as "Miss New Orleans," who led the charge. In a feat of strength and determination that galvanized the gathering crowd, she uprooted a parking meter from the ground and, using it as a battering ram, charged at the police, who had retreated behind the doors of the Stonewall Inn. After that, all hell broke loose, and in the wake of the uprising, our struggle for liberation took hold.

As we worked to open the Ali Forney Center, I was haunted by the fact that the movement for LGBT equality that followed Stonewall did not in any way address the needs of LGBT kids who are rejected by their families. Many worthy struggles were taken on in the years since, from protection against discrimination in employment and housing to the legal recognition of our relationships, but of all the inequalities we face as LGBT people, the cruelest, most intimately damaging, and most deeply entrenched is the unequal access so many of our kids have to their parents' love and support. In the absence of an organized response from the LGBT community, the many thousands of LGBT kids who fell victim to family rejection were left to fend for themselves in the streets. It was a hole in the soul of our movement.

I agonized over questions about why the LGBT movement failed to make the protection of our kids a priority. Did we suffer from a subconscious aversion to focusing on our kids caused by the homophobic lie that gay people are pedophiles? Were we unable to reconcile these youths' horrific suffering with the narratives we wanted to tell about the joy and liberation of coming out? Were our own damaged selves, hurt by our own experiences of family rejection, making it too difficult to face the reality of the next generation dealing with the same kind of pain?

When the Ali Forney Center opened its doors on June 19, 2002, I had no idea if we would survive. We just had one substantial donor and a church offering us free use of their basement, where we provided six cots. If the Ali Forney Center was going to be able to offer shelter for more than a few months, the critical challenge would be engaging the broader LGBT community into a relationship of caring and compassion with our kids. I needed LGBT adults to see that the struggle of these kids to survive after being so utterly dispossessed by homophobia was part of our broader struggle for freedom and equality.

Ten years later I am filled with gratitude for the response we have achieved from the LGBT community and many of our allies. This response has allowed the Ali Forney Center to become a remarkable success: We have become the largest and most comprehensive organization dedicated to homeless LGBT youth in the country. We now offer emergency shelter and longer-term housing, with a combined total of 77 beds in nine different residential facilities. We also offer two drop-in centers, where we are able to provide food, clothing, showers, free medical and mental-health care, and educational and vocational assistance, helping thousands of kids who have flocked to us for help from all over the country and the world. A great many have made excellent use of the support we offer and have gone on to successful careers and rewarding lives. The scope and quality of our services would not have been possible without the thousands of donors and volunteers who reached out to us with caring and compassion for our kids.

But I cannot let our success shield me from the bleak reality that still faces homeless LGBT youth in our city and across the nation. There are still far too few beds in New York City, where a homeless youth population of 3,800 must make do with fewer than 350 youth shelter beds. And the number of beds for homeless LGBT youth in the nation is a disgrace: There are fewer than 300 beds dedicated to them in the country. Most youth shelters continue to be operated by religious groups, many of which are not accepting of LGBT people. The handful of organizations providing housing to homeless LGBT youth across the country struggle to acquire resources and support.

The organizations dedicated to fighting for the LGBT community still must do a much better job of incorporating into their agendas youth who face family rejection. But I am heartened by the growing momentum of concern we are seeing from LGBT donors, funders, and leaders. Fundamentally, this is about love. If thousands of LGBT teens are denied the love and protection of their parents, then they need to find a safe haven within the LGBT and allied community. There is no clearer way to demonstrate such love and protection than by making sure these kids are fed, clothed, housed, and given a chance at achieving a decent life.

So, after these 10 years, I am full of pride for the success of so many of our kids. I rejoice in seeing how, with the proper nurturing and support, they are able to find the strength to overcome the most terrible mistreatment. Seeing them go to college, get jobs, and move out on their own is nothing short of a triumph over the most toxic effects of rejection. Their resilience is an inspiration to me. But no less thrilling for me has been seeing so many LGBT adults and allies wake up to their responsibility to care for these kids who have been so badly hurt by homophobia.

I see the Ali Forney Center as a vehicle that has helped the LGBT community grow into a more decent, loving place, and for that I am also very proud. I thank all of you who have stood by our side and helped us show our kids that they are worthy of being loved and protected. I hope that together we can work for a day when no child driven from their home is forced to endure homelessness in the streets of our nation.