While life gets better for millions of gays, the number of homeless LGBT teens – many cast out by their religious families – quietly keeps growing
One late night at the end of her sophomore year of college, Jackie sat in her parked car and made a phone call that would forever change the course of her life. An attractive sorority girl with almond eyes and delicate dimples, she was the product of a charmed Boise, Idaho, upbringing: a father who worked in finance, a private [Catholic] school education, a pool in the backyard, all the advantages that an upper-middle-class suburban childhood can provide – along with all the expectations attendant to that privilege.
“There was a standard to meet,” Jackie says. “And I had met that standard my whole life. I was a straight-A student, the president of every club, I was in every sport. I remember my first day of college, my parents came with me to register for classes, and they sat down with my adviser and said, ‘So, what’s the best way to get her into law school?'”
Jackie just followed her parents’ lead understanding implicitly that discipline and structure went hand in hand with her family’s devout Catholic beliefs. She attended Mass three times a week, volunteered as an altar server and was the fourth generation of her family to attend her Catholic school; her grandfather had helped tile the cathedral. “My junior year of high school, my parents thought it was weird that I’d never had a boyfriend,” she says, “so I knew I was supposed to get one. And I did. It was all just a rational thought process. None of it was emotionally involved.”
After graduating, Jackie attended nearby University of Idaho, where she rushed a sorority at her parents’ prompting. She chose a triple major of which they approved. “I remember walking out of the sorority house to go to Walmart or something, and I stopped at the door and thought to myself, ‘Should I tell someone I’m leaving?'” she says. “It was the first time in my life where I could just go somewhere and be my own person.”
In fact, it took the freedom of college for Jackie to even realize who her “own person” was. “Growing up, I knew that I felt different, but when you grow up Catholic, you don’t really know gay is an option,” she says. “I grew up in a household that said ‘fag’ a lot. We called people ‘fags,’ or things were ‘faggy.'” Her only sex-ed class was taught by a priest, and all she remembers him saying is, “‘Don’t masturbate and don’t be gay.’ I didn’t know what those words meant, so I just hoped to God that I wasn’t doing either of them.”
When Jackie got to college, the “typical gay sorority encounters” she found herself having didn’t seem to qualify as anything more than youthful exploration; she thought all girls drunkenly made out with their best friends. By her sophomore year, she was dating a fraternity brother but was also increasingly turned on by a friend she worked with at the campus women’s center. “I was just playing it off as ‘So maybe I’m just gay for you – I mean, I don’t have to tell my boyfriend’ kind of thing,” she says. “I knew what I wanted, but it was never something I ever envisioned that I could have on a public level.” And yet, as her friendship with this woman turned physical and their relationship grew more serious, Jackie saw her future shrinking before her: a heterosexual marriage, children, church and the knowledge that all of it was based on a lie. “I honestly thought my whole life I was just going to be an undercover gay,” she says, shaking her head in disbelief.
For better or worse, that plan was never to be. Toward the end of her sophomore year, Jackie got a text message from one of her sorority sisters who said she’d been seen kissing another girl, after which certain sisters started making it clear that they were not comfortable around Jackie. (“You’re living in the same house together,” she says, “and, of course, to close-minded people, if somebody’s gay, that means you’re automatically interested in all 80 of them.”) Eventually, she went before her chapter’s executive board and became the first sorority girl at her college to ever come out, at which point she realized that if she didn’t tell her parents, someone else would. “I was convinced somebody was going to blast it on Facebook.”
So while Jackie hoped for the best, she knew the call she was making had the potential to not end well. “You can’t hate me after I say this,” she pleaded when, alarmed to be receiving a call in the middle of the night, her mom picked up the phone.
“Oh, my God, you’re pregnant” was her mom’s first response, before running through a litany of parental fears. “Are you in jail? Did you get expelled? Are you in trouble? What happened? What did you do?” Suddenly her mom’s silence matched Jackie’s own. “Oh, my God,” she murmured in disbelief. “Are you gay?”
“Yeah,” Jackie forced herself to say.
After what felt like an eternity, her mom finally responded. “I don’t know what we could have done for God to have given us a fag as a child,” she said before hanging up.
As soon as the line went dead, Jackie began sobbing. Still, she convinced herself that her parents would come around and accept her, despite what they perceived to be her flaw. As planned, she drove to Canada to celebrate her birthday with friends. When her debit card didn’t work on the second day of the trip, she figured it was because she was in another country. Once back in the States, however, she got a call from her older brother. “He said, ‘Mom and Dad don’t want to talk to you, but I’m supposed to tell you what’s going to happen,'” Jackie recalls. “And he’s like, ‘All your cards are going to be shut off, and Mom and Dad want you to take the car and drop it off at this specific location. Your phone’s going to last for this much longer. They don’t want you coming to the house, and you’re not to contact them. You’re not going to get any money from them. Nothing. And if you don’t return the car, they’re going to report it stolen.’ And I’m just bawling. I hung up on him because I couldn’t handle it.” Her brother was so firm, so matter-of-fact, it was as if they already weren’t family.
From that moment, Jackie knew that she was entirely on her own, that she had no home, no money and no family who would help her – and that this was the terrible price she’d pay for being a lesbian.
Jackie’s story may be distinctive in its particulars, but across America, it is hardly unique. Research done by San Francisco State University’s Family Acceptance Project, which studies and works to prevent health and mental health risks facing LGBT youth, empirically confirms what common sense would imply to be true: Highly religious parents are significantly more likely than their less-religious counterparts to reject their children for being gay – a finding that social-service workers believe goes a long way toward explaining why LGBT people make up roughly five percent of the youth population overall, but an estimated 40 percent of the homeless-youth population. The Center for American Progress has reported that there are between 320,000 and 400,000 homeless LGBT youths in the United States. Meanwhile, as societal advancements have made being gay less stigmatized and gay people more visible – and as the Internet now allows kids to reach beyond their circumscribed social groups for acceptance and support – the average coming-out age has dropped from post-college age in the 1990s to around 16 today, which means that more and more kids are coming out while they’re still economically reliant on their families. The resulting flood of kids who end up on the street, kicked out by parents whose religious beliefs often make them feel compelled to cast out their own offspring (one study estimates that up to 40 percent of LGBT homeless youth leave home due to family rejection), has been called a “hidden epidemic.” Tragically, every step forward for the gay-rights movement creates a false hope of acceptance for certain youth, and therefore a swelling of the homeless-youth population.
“The summer that marriage equality passed in New York, we saw the number of homeless kids looking for shelter go up 40 percent,” says Carl Siciliano, founder of the Ali Forney Center, the nation’s largest organization dedicated to homeless LGBT youth. A former Benedictine monk-in-training, who once went by the nickname Baby Jesus, Siciliano had spent years living in monasteries and serving in shelters run by the Catholic Worker Movement before his own sexuality inextricably came between him and his institutional faith. “I ended up just feeling like the Catholic Church was wack,” he says. “Cardinal O’Connor [the archbishop of New York at the time who once said if he was forced to hire homosexuals, he would shut down all of the Catholic schools and orphanages in the diocese] was like the arch-homophobe of America.” Siciliano was working at a housing program for the homeless in the Nineties when he noticed that his clientele was getting younger and younger. Until then, he says, “you almost never saw kids. It was Vietnam vets, alcoholics and deinstitutionalized mentally ill people.” But not only were more kids showing up, they were also disappearing. “Every couple of months one of our kids would get killed,” Siciliano says. “And it would always be a gay kid.” In 2002, he founded the Ali Forney Center, naming it after a homeless 22-year-old who’d been shot in the head on the street in Harlem, not far from where the organization’s drop-in center currently resides. Siciliano had been close with Forney and felt that had he had a safe place to go, he might be alive today.
Since founding the center, Siciliano, 49, has become one of the nation’s most outspoken homeless advocates. “I feel like the LGBT movement has been asleep at the wheel when it comes to this,” he says, running his hands through his closely cropped hair and sighing. “We’ve been so focused on laws – changing the laws around marriage equality, changing ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ getting adoption rights – that we haven’t been fighting for economic resources. How many tax dollars do gay people contribute? What percentage of tax dollars comes back to our gay kids? We haven’t matured enough as a movement yet that we’re looking at the economics of things.”
Siciliano also understands that the kids he works with don’t sync up with to the message everyone wants to hear: It gets better. “There is a psychological reality that when you’re an oppressed group whose very existence is under attack, you need to create this narrative about how great it is to be what you are,” he says. “It’s like, ‘Leave the repression and the fear behind and be embraced by this accepting community, and suddenly everyone is beautiful and has good bodies and great sex and beautiful furniture, and rah-rah-rah.’ And, from day one of the Stonewall Riots, homeless kids were not what people wanted to see. No one wanted to see young people coming out and being cast into destitution. It didn’t fit the narrative.”
Jackie knew well what her parents thought of homosexuality, but she still held out hope that maybe over time her family would come around. With the last of her cash, she bought a bus ticket back to campus, where within a few weeks she defaulted on her rent. She started couch surfing and persuaded the women’s center to let her work through the summer for $6 an hour, 10 hours a week. “I mean, it was crap money, but it was something,” she says. “I didn’t tell anybody the situation I was in. I didn’t tell anybody I was hungry every day. I didn’t tell them I didn’t have a place to stay, because I thought this was my punishment for being gay and I deserved it.” She’d ask friends to crash overnight, lying about being too drunk to go home. If that fell through, she’d spend nights in study rooms on campus. She found herself dating women simply to have a bed, which she admits was neither “healthy nor permanent.”
In the upheaval that had suddenly become her daily existence, Jackie felt that she had to cling to something constant; she chose her education. The day after returning to campus, she went to the financialaid office to ask for the help she’d never before had to seek, appealing to the university to gain status as an independent student. Though she did eventually receive tuition assistance, Jackie says, “You’re not meant to be homeless and a student. I learned really fast how to pretend to not be poor. I learned that if I had a couple of nice things to wear, nobody would notice that you wear them all the time. Or if you are a sociable person, people don’t notice that you’re never actually buying drinks. You just sort of figure it out.”
She was soon taking any job she could get: on campus, in town, even picking up the odd construction shift. “I would do anything I could for money,” she says. She finally pieced together enough funds to get a room in an apartment, but she couldn’t afford furniture. To hide her penury, she never let anyone in her room. Even being around other gay people was sometimes difficult, a reminder that though “they had committed the same ‘sin,’ their parents loved them,” she says. “They got to go home for the holidays. I had these moments when I would say, ‘I did everything right. I excelled in all the right ways. So why me?’ That hurt really bad. I mean, how do you explain to people that your parents chose not to parent you anymore?”
At times, it felt like more than Jackie could bear, and in these moments of doubt and despair she wrote her mother and father countless letters and e-mails begging them to be her parents again. “I wanted to take it all back so badly,” she says. “I was just like, ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean any of it.'” They eventually responded: If she went to a conversion therapist and tried to be straight, they would at least help her financially. At first, she agreed. “But I couldn’t do it,” she says now, four years later, in a city hundreds of miles away from where she imagines her parents still live. “I wanted to be their kid, but I couldn’t change. Everyone I’d ever known my whole life cut ties with me. But this was who I am.”