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Excerpt: Life Is Complicated When You're a Homeless Black Lesbian Teen

Excerpt: Life Is Complicated When You're a Homeless Black Lesbian Teen


In an excerpt from his new book No House to Call My Home, former LGBT youth worker Ryan Berg gets real about the struggles for one youth rejected by her family for being gay.

I'm surprised when Barbara walks into my office, sits down, and acts like nothing's new. She's been AWOL from the group home for a month now. I think she's living with her girlfriend's family but there's no way to be sure. Things were going well until her father and stepmother showed up at court for her permanency planning hearing, where the judge must determine the appropriateness of the agency's long-term plan for the youth and the reasonableness of the agency's efforts to execute the plan. Before entering the courtroom they cornered Barbara, berated her, and disowned her for acting like a boy. If she put on a dress, he'd consider supporting her, her father said, but as she is, she is an abomination. I tried to separate them, to shield Barbara from his words, but by the time we were ushered in to see the judge, she was trembling.

I was there to tell the court that Barbara had improved since coming to the program. She was placed with the agency after her stepmother filed a Person in Need of Supervision (PINS) petition -- a request for the court to intervene when a child becomes out of control. Barbara's stepmother said that she was wild and disrespectful. She'd leave the house for days at a time, was truant from school. The stepmother alleged physical threats and drug abuse. Barbara claims her stepmother just wanted her out of their lives. She says her father was given an ultimatum and chose his wife.

When Barbara came into our care in mid-2004, she began attending school regularly for the first time in nearly two years. Her teachers said she was smart and that she participated in class. She hadn't run away from the group home or stayed out past curfew like she did while living with her father. She never tried to hide her marijuana use, and the agency was working with her on issues of chemical dependency.

On the day of the planning hearing, her father got her so worked up outside the courtroom that when the judge addressed her, she snapped at him.

"See how she acts, Your Honor?" her father said.

Crying, she cursed at him, and had to be escorted out.

When we left court that day, her placement with the agency was extended for another six months. Barbara was silent on the train ride home and studied the advertisements for facial citrus peels in order to avoid conversation. Her face didn't betray any emotion. I told her to forget what her father had said. She was making strides and needed to continue in that direction. The subway car rattled and shook, the lights flickered as we screeched to a halt at her station. "Stay strong," I said. "I'm here for you." She smiled dimly and promised she'd continue to try hard, then turned to exit the subway car.

She went AWOL that night from Keap Street and stopped attending school. She calls occasionally to tell me she's OK but never discloses her location. I hadn't seen her since that day in court, nearly a month ago. Barbara absently punches the keyboard of my computer with one finger. Pinned up on the wall behind her, along with a list of caseworker telephone extensions and GED test locations, is the large photograph of Barbara standing with her father and brother at the zoo. In the picture there's a youthful innocence about her. That joy, that free expression on her face, is missing from the person I know.

Barbara pulls her camouflage Yankees cap down on her face. She looks frail, like she's stopped eating. The sports jersey she's wearing hangs from her slight frame; she swims in her jeans. Her dark skin is ashen and her eyes look heavy and somber. I don't know how long I'll have her here so I pull out my wallet, drop a twenty into her hand, and tell her to use it for food. She thanks me, smiles, then her eyes fall to her sneakers.

When I ask how she's doing she becomes motionless, seems to be holding her breath. She has a sweet disposition. Normally she's good-natured but out of nowhere she can erupt, lashing out for the tiniest transgression. That's a side of her we didn't see much. Typically, when still at the group home, she would be found watching B.E.T. with the other residents, her bright smile exposing a line of perfect, white teeth. When Barbara arrived at Keap Street the staff loved her right away. Gladyce, the senior residential counselor, gushed about her acclimating to the home. "She made her bed in the morning and left for school right on time. This child does her chores and don't need to be told twice about curfew. How on earth did we get this one?" Gladyce said, and then let out a sharp laugh.

The honeymoon period ended when Barbara flew into a rage at Dia, another resident, whom she accused of stealing her Nike Air Jordans. Gladyce said it was impossible to de-escalate Barbara's behavior, that it took three counselors to defuse the situation. When Gladyce tried to intervene Barbara bristled and told her to go back to her box of cookies in the office and mind her business. She persisted and Barbara grabbed a candy bar off of the counter, dangled it in front of Gladyce like bait, calling her a hippo. She was unfazed by Barbara's outburst; most of the residents were prone to lashing out. Later Barbara went to Gladyce in her office and apologized, said she didn't know what happened, didn't know why she was so angry.

Barbara is "A.G.," or an "aggressive," a label used in the gay urban community for butch lesbians. She binds her breasts, dresses in baggy jeans and sports jerseys; her hair is set in tight cornrows; occasionally a gold-plated grill covers her front teeth. On the street she's always mistaken for a boy. She has a tough, callous veneer when on the street. She hides her hurt, or at least she used to.

"I can't do it no more, yo," she says with an exhale, and begins to tremble. She makes her hands into fists then opens them, the twenty dropping to her feet. "I can't do it." Her eyes roll toward the ceiling and her body tenses. She flinches so fully that I think for a moment she's having a seizure. Then tears begin to fall. "I got nobody," she says. I wish my office had a door to shut to give us some privacy.

"Come back to the house," I say and roll my chair closer to her, leaning in. "We can make it work."

Her face becomes taut until she releases into sobs; her shoulders heave. She no longer hears me. She's alone, deep inside someplace within herself.

"Why you leave me?"

"Leave?" I say. "Barbara, I never--"

She lets out a wail that shakes me.

"Grandma," she calls out. Her head bows. She wipes her wet nose with the ball of her hand. "She the only one who really loved me."

I place my hand on her shoulder and feel how her body trembles. I search for some tissue to give her but only find a balled-up Kleenex with chewed gum buried in the center. I don't have any words that seem appropriate. I know there's nothing I can do to protect her; I'm helpless to provide even a glimmer of hope.

"Come back" is all I can say. We both know it's not enough.

I pick the twenty off the floor and push it back into Barbara's hand. Her cheeks are wet, her breathing stutters. I try to strategize the way a caseworker should: Barbara's safety is paramount and she needs immediate housing, but she refuses to return to the group home, saying it's too chaotic, that she can't put up with the other residents' lying and stealing. I could initiate an emergency respite placement at a different group home outside the LGBTQ program, but I know Barbara won't go. She is stubborn, willing to consider only one option. She wants to be transferred to our apartment program, where residents pair up with one roommate. I've told her time and time again that the program is designed for youth who have shown potential for living independently. The rules are clear. All residents considered for the apartment program have to be functioning well in the group home, do their chores regularly, and follow regulations. They must demonstrate good relationships with other residents, attend school on a regular basis, and have a part-time job. Barbara currently fails to meet any of the criteria.

I plead with her again to return to Keap Street. I'll call her school and see if they'll take her back. Between classes and a part-time job she'll rarely have to see the other residents, limiting the chance of any conflict that might arise. She could be eligible for the apartment program within a few months.

"Then who's gonna watch my stuff when I'm gone? The staff?" Her face sours. "The minute I leave the house you know they gonna jack all my shit." I know she's right. Even though all the residents have their own cabinets with padlocks to store their belongings, the moment one is left unattended it's broken into. The locks are pried open; the wooden slats of the cabinet are split; and the resident's sneakers, shirts, and caps are swiped and sold on the street. Stealing has become an epidemic in the house. Each time a resident begins to accumulate a wardrobe--the necessary accoutrements of adolescence--everything is stolen.

The program is allotted eight hundred dollars annually per resident for clothing. There's no reimbursement for stolen items. When it's gone, it's gone. The residents who steal from the others have made it big business. The main reason Barbara won't return to Keap Street is because of her old roommate, Maite. Maite had devised a scheme that when the residential staff were downstairs preparing for dinner and the other residents were at night school or work, she'd sneak up to the bedrooms, unlocking the doors with a key she'd swiped from a staff member, and sift through everyone's closet, leaving the house with the most expensive items before anyone could suspect her. It wasn't until Maite was found tossing garbage bags stuffed with her roommate's belongings out the third-story window down to her friend on the street that staff had any idea she was a thief. I promise Barbara that I'll withhold Maite's clothing money, and that she'll get a portion of it to make up for some of the stolen items.

"No," Barbara says. "No way I'm going back there."

This piece is excerpted from Ryan Berg's No House to Call My Home: Love, Family, and Other Transgressions (Nation Books), available for preorder now.

RYAN BERG received the New York Foundation of the Arts Fellowship in Nonfiction Literature and is a Lambda Literary Foundation Emerging Writers Fellow. His work has appeared in Ploughshares, Local Knowledge, and The Sun. Ryan has been awarded artist residencies from the MacDowell Colony and Yaddo. He lives in Minneapolis. No House to Call My Home is his first book.

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