When I came out to my parents a long time ago I was already out of the house, living on my own 3,000 miles away. I was worried about what the conversation would be—how I would actually say it, what they would say, how the conversation would end. But I also was fairly sure that we would get through the challenges that ensued. And even if it was hard for a while, I knew I had a buffer of 3,000 miles to protect me.
Fortunately, I was lucky on many counts, with a supportive family and friends. But many young people—even those here in Massachusetts, where we’ve had marriage equality for almost 10 years—don’t have the same fate. Sadly, many young people don’t have that buffer of distance or the support of their families or guardians. When these youth reveal their sexual orientation or gender identity, they are kicked out of the house or victimized and have no other choice but to leave. These are 40 percent of the young people that are homeless and alone on the streets of Boston, Worcester, Springfield and Cambridge.
This staggering statistic should be a wake-up call to the greater lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) community and the service providers and policymakers looking to reverse this trend. These LGBTQ young people face multiple barriers and risks, more than their non-LGBTQ counterparts. They are at higher risk for discrimination and assault on the streets, are more likely to turn to sex work in order to secure food or a place to stay, have a greater likelihood of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, and are at increased risk for substance abuse and mental illness. They must endure homophobia and transphobia—both the external and the internalized versions. As a result, sometimes they do not self-identify as LGBT, leading to poor and ineffective services. And for many, family reunification is rarely an option.
For LGBTQ people under the age of 18, these barriers can be compounded. If they seek services, the provider is usually required, as a mandated reporter, to contact the Department of Children and Families. Often, the young person will be placed in a foster home. Though there are ongoing efforts made to ensure that prospective and current foster families are welcoming and supportive of all foster children regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation, it is not always the reality.
Mandatory reporting and other laws intended for their safety and protection can sometimes play the opposite role for these youth. A law enforcement officer may take a runaway youth in Massachusetts into custody, and it is a crime in Massachusetts to contribute to the delinquency of a young person. This may inadvertently provide a disincentive for young people to come forward to seek services if they feel that they may be punished in some way. Our state currently has no process for emancipation of a minor.
In Massachusetts, policymakers, youth providers and advocates are endeavoring to address unaccompanied youth homelessness in a variety of ways. In 2012, the state legislature created a commission to investigate the unique needs and barriers facing unaccompanied homeless youth. One of the commission’s tasks was to look specifically at LGBT youth: the barriers they face to accessing services and housing, the unique services that might be useful in supporting them, and if it might be appropriate to amend some of the laws specifically affecting homeless youth.
The commission also held focus groups with young people to learn more about why they were homeless and to hear about some of their experiences on the street and in shelters. The stories they shared were stark and powerful, while also encapsulating their resilience. Here are some of their voices:
“I didn’t have a choice. My parents said I was no longer welcome in their home, so I didn’t have a home anymore. It was pretty simple.”
“I went to a shelter once and woke up, and the shoes had been stolen off my feet.”
“I’ve met people who could’ve stayed at their home, but they were being abused or molested there so it was safer for them on the street. It was a guarantee at home.”
“I lived with starvation. I lived with trading my body for a place to stay or for food.”
When I came out to my parents, I did so with feelings of trepidation about how they would react and what they would say. But I knew that I would be safe and they would continue to care for me. These young people don’t have those assurances.
We can do better than this. We need to do better than this. Especially here.
Carly Burton is the deputy director of MassEquality—a statewide grassroots advocacy organization working to ensure that all people in Massachusetts can be equal, safe and free, from cradle to grave.