Meet the LGBT Leaders Who Used to Be Homeless
BY Sassafras Lowrey and Jama Shelton
June 06 2014 5:00 AM ET
Every night in this country, there are thousands of young people who sleep on the streets, in emergency shelters, in their cars, or on friends' couches, uncertain of what tomorrow will bring — and 40 percent of those young people identify as LGBT.
But what happens when those young people grow up? In some incredible cases, documented in this exclusive, month-long series, those formerly homeless young people go on to become leaders in the LGBT movement, pressing our society toward greater inclusion, acceptance, and equality.
Throughout Pride month, The Advocate will feature true stories of formerly homeless queer youth who have not only survived their experience but gone on to thrive, inspire, and educate the next generation of activists. These stories will bring awareness to the ongoing crisis facing LGBT youth and encourage openness among LGBT adults who experienced homelessness as young people.
For the past decade, author Sassafras Lowrey and social worker Jama Shelton have worked as advocates, direct service providers, and policy advisers on issues related to the epidemic of LGBT youth homelessness. Both of them also happen to be formerly homeless queer youth. And together, they are posing the question, What if today’s LGBT movement leaders were out about being formerly homeless youth?
Sassafras Lowrey: The idea was born last spring when the Center for American Progress released "Seeking Shelter: The Experiences and Unmet Needs of LGBT Homeless Youth" report. Jama was in Washington, D.C., for the release, my writing appeared within the report, and I was live-streaming at home in New York City. I remember watching the coverage of the release, hearing Jama introduced professionally first, and then as a formerly homeless queer youth.
Jama Shelton: I remember really struggling with that decision — whether or not to share that part of my history at that event. A few months earlier, when hired to direct the Forty to None Project at the True Colors Fund, I had come out about the experience in writing. And then I pretended like no one would see or read what I had written. Saying it out loud, in a public setting in front of new colleagues, was a whole other thing. The tipping point was seeing the video introduction featuring Sassafras.
Lowrey: As a direct service provider [who works with homeless youth themselves], I think that it can be a more complicated and fraught disclosure. There are professional client/staff boundaries — guided both by professional training and agency norms, but I think there is shame too, and fear of judgment from our coworkers. I have worried that if I am open about my own experience, that my professional judgment and expertise in the area will be discredited, and that I won’t be able to be effective in my job. There are so many aspects of our lives we share professionally in the movement, but teenage homelessness so often remains quietly tucked away and unspoken.
Shelton: This is such a good point.
Lowrey: I remember when I first started speaking nationally about LGBTQ youth homelessness; there was an assumption that homeless youth were a population I had some kind of academic interest in studying. Still, I find myself frustrated that so often conversations about the epidemic of LGBTQ youth homelessness happen with an assumption that no one in the room was themself homeless, or kicked out, or a runaway as a teen. To privilege the stories of survivors — to recognize that we don’t need to go look for them, that we are already in the room — changes the dynamics of these conversations, and ultimately my hope is that it will alter the direction policy moves in.
That moment at the report's release was really powerful, because I realized that Jama was just like me. She was part of the kicked-out family, and that like me she was committed to doing this work. I sent Jama a Facebook message while she was still on stage in D.C. We were professionally acquainted, but I needed her to know that her coming out mattered — it mattered a lot.
Shelton: I had spent so much time trying to make part of my past not matter that I had not considered the potential impact, or how my experiences could actually matter to someone else. Part of the hiding, for me, was about the minimization and denial of my experiences of being kicked out, part of it was about social work training related to boundaries and self-disclosure, and much of it was about shame. What would other people think? Would people look at me differently? What if my family somehow became aware, and after years of careful mending those relationships were severed again?
Lowrey: I can so relate to that! The first question I get when I speak publicly and out myself is if my family and I have "reconnected." We haven’t. The last time I saw my mother, I was 17 years old and walking out her door. In being public about this work, I carry a lot of fear that my story — my choice to permanently sever all contact with my mother — will not only be judged but will also be used to discredit me as an advocate.
The last decade-plus of my life has been spent making good on a promise I made myself as a scared, homeless queer kid. I promised myself that if I made it, I would do whatever I could to build a world where homeless queer kids wouldn’t feel as alone as I felt in that moment. I did make it, thanks to a lot of luck, the family I built, and incredibly dedicated LGBTQ youth center service providers. My life is filled with incredible activists and writers who as teenagers ran away or were thrown away.
Shelton: I love this part of your narrative — the promise you made. My narrative is quite different, in that I did not even really acknowledge within myself that I had been kicked out and the subsequent struggles associated with that experience. One day I was working with a young person to find shelter. She was frustrated and afraid and she said, "You have no idea what this is like." In that moment, I realized that I did actually. Not exactly her unique experience, but my own version of it. I guess I had not been able to deal with it prior to that moment in my life, so I kept it quarantined in the corner of my brain.
Lowrey: Within days of the CAP report event, Jama and I were exchanging stories of what it was like for each of us to be out professionally as a formerly homeless LGBTQ youth, working on issues pertaining to the epidemic of LGBTQ youth homelesness, and our dreams for what this work could look like. We found many commonalities, and shared experiences, and began to realize all over again, in a new way, that we were not alone. That there were many of us in positions of power within the LGBTQ community, in nonprofits, activism, and art, who were formerly homeless LGBTQ youth. Not all of us have been out about this part of our lives, for a variety of reasons — shame and fear of being judged or not taken seriously amongst them. Our conversations continued, and together we wondered what would happen if we shattered this closet, if formerly homeless youth were able to be out about our experiences. How would service delivery, or policy work change? How would the LGBTQ rights movement respond if not only were we working on issues connected to LGBTQ youth homelessness, but we were also out about our own experiences?
Shelton: The more I spoke about my own experiences, the more others working in the movement confided in me about their similar experiences. And it occurred to me that when we talk about LGBTQ youth homelessness within the LGBTQ movement, we don’t talk about how this is an issue for us. Personally. We are not acknowledging that so many of our current LGBTQ movement leaders experienced homelessness, were kicked out or pushed out of their homes. Rather, we talk about "helping the kids" and in so doing, we create an us/them dynamic that distances the reality of many of our experiences and forecloses opportunities for connection between current movement leaders and LGBTQ youth who may be struggling with housing instability. This is not an us/them issue.
Lowrey: Conversations about LGBTQ youth homelessness cannot continue to occur assuming the people in the room are not themselves formerly homeless youth. Jama and I are committed to shifting the conversation about the epidemic of LGBTQ youth homelessness to tell our stories, and support other activists, organizers, and policy makers in our community in telling theirs. We are also committed to finding ways that we, as LGBTQ movement leaders, can open doors for this next generation of movement leaders, bring them to the table, listen to what they have to say, and insist that others in the room do the same.
Throughout the month of June, we will begin this process by honoring the experiences of current leaders working within the LGBTQ movement who are also formerly homeless LGBTQ youth. Please join us every Friday here at The Advocate for these important, exclusive stories.
Sassafras Lowrey got hir start writing as a punk zinester in Portland, Ore. Ze is the editor of the two-time American Library Association-honored, Lambda Literary Award-finalist Kicked Out anthology, which brought together the voices of current and former homeless LGBTQ youth. Sassafras is also the author of Leather Ever After, a finalist for the National Leather Association Writing Award. Sassafras' debut novel, Roving Pack, was a Rainbow Award winner for Transgender Fiction, and honored by the American Library Association. Sassafras is the 2013 winner of the Lambda Literary Foundation’s Berzon Emerging Writer Award. Ze lives and writes in Brooklyn with hir partner, two dogs of dramatically different sizes, two bossy cats, and a kitten. Learn more at www.SassafrasLowrey.com.
Jama Shelton is the Forty to None Project Director at the True Colors Fund. For more than a decade, Jama has worked in the field of LGBTQ youth homelessness. Having worked as a direct service provider, housing program director, researcher, program evaluator, and trainer, Jama brings a comprehensive understanding of the issues facing both LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness and also the service providers with whom they work. Jama received her doctorate in Social Welfare from the City University of New York Graduate Center in 2013. Her dissertation examined the unique experiences of transgender and gender-nonconforming youth experiencing homelessness. She is also an adjunct professor at both the Hunter and New York University Schools of Social Work, and a proud parent of two French bulldogs named Bambino and Meatloaf.
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