Homelessness Representation in Pride Week

Boston Pride Week has grown massively over its forty-year history. What was once a few marchers and ralliers is now a massive celebration that brings people, organizations, churches, local businesses and, for better or worse, large corporations around the rainbow flag. In fact, the 2013 parade saw a record, setting 230 groups march. While Mass. is often seen as a leading state in lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) rights, there are still many issues facing the community, include challenges in the homeless community.

The actual number of homeless LGBTQ individuals is difficult to determine, as data collection on the homeless population in general is a flawed process; However, findings consistently show a disproportionate number of homeless LGBTQ youth—according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, LGBTQ youth make up 20 percent of the homeless though only 10 percent of the general population.

In 2011, a Children’s Hospital Boston study of more than 6,300 Mass. public high school students found nearly one in four gay or lesbian teens and 15 percent of bisexual teens are homeless, compared to only three percent of heterosexual teens. These teens were also more likely to be unaccompanied by an adult or guardian. That same year, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education estimated more than 44,000 homeless students enrolled in Mass. public schools.

Common anecdotal evidence cites sexual orientation as a factor in youth homelessness as many teens are kicked out of home by unaccepting parents or fleeing a hostile or unsafe environment.

“Young people bear brunt of economic problems or abuse, and suffer the most negative impact,” Grace Sterling-Stowell, Executive Director of the Boston Alliance of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Youth (BAGLY), an organization devoted to safety and equality for LGBTQ youth. “LGBTQ youth are often forced out of or feel unsafe in homes they grew up in.

“Homelessness is one challenge that’s yet to be fully addressed—whether within shelter or transitional systems,” she said. It’s harder for them to find a safe or welcoming environment, and they face disproportionate challenges.

Fortunately, LGBTQ homelessness does see representation in Pride Week. For example, BAGLY marched in the Pride Parade and cosponsors the Boston Pride Committee’s annual Youth Pride festival.

Sterling-Stowell—who also serves on the Massachusetts Commission on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth—points out that when it comes to dealing with homelessness, “there’s a lag time in all communities, and the LGBTQ community is no exception.” The unique challenges facing the LGBTQ homeless community weren’t as prioritized as more mainstream issues like equal marriage laws gained support. “Now we can start focusing on a community that we always knew were there,” she said.

Sterling-Stowell adds that transgendered individuals face even more challenges. “Most shelters or services are divided by gender and sex. Someone born male but who identifies as woman would be unsafe in male shelter.”

“Transgender folks often have a hard time in a shelter setting whether on the male or female side,” Pamela Klein, a nurse who works with transgendered clients at the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program said. “I think the solution to this issue ultimately rests in more housing for people, not separate shelters or space in existing shelters reserved for transgendered people.” Using the existing resources will be more beneficial in the longterm, making it easier for clients to pursue school or work.

Sterling-Stowell agrees with Klein, adding that there needs to be more comprehensive training and more competent or comfortable workers in existing shelters and systems. In other words, what’s needed is improvement, not separation.

Omar, a BHCHP client, doesn’t face too many problems fitting into a male shelter—“I already have a beard, it’s not too difficult,” he said in Spansih. He still feels unsafe without a home, of course, but “passing” isn’t his main obstacle—it’s documentation. He’s having problems obtaining his birth certificate form Puerto Rico, but even when he has it, there are other problems.

“Employment and housing provide extra challenges. Even if a transgender individual ‘passes’ as their desired gender, if they do not have matching documents they get ‘outed’ as transgender and may suffer abuse or discrimination,” Klein said. “Getting documentation changed is costly and sometimes next to impossible—the Mass. Social Security Administration will not change your gender in its system without documentation of gender-related surgical intervention, something many people either do not want or cannot afford.”

The BHCHP was sure to represent the issue at the 2013 parade, with about thirty staff and a half a dozen clients marching. The transgender clients had painted a separate banner that was displayed along with the BHCHP banner. Klein adds that the BHCHP’s recently formed GLBT Committee—whose aim is to assure that all BHCHP providers and staff are comfortable and competent to care for GLBT individuals—hopes to get even more involved.

“I think it’s great to raise awareness of LGBT homeless issues during Pride week and the GLBT Committee is already thinking about how to do more of this during Pride week next year.”

–Alex Ramirez

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