Five years ago, on the Christopher Street Pier in New York City, my eyes were opened.
I was doing a photo shoot for Interview magazine and thought it was important to include some gay and transgender youth to reflect my work with the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. My goal was to send a message of inclusion and acceptance, but what I realized after talking to these kids was just how different my vision was from what they had experienced in their own lives.
The youth on the pier that day told me story after story of exclusion, of rejection and of pain. As a mother, I can't ever imagine throwing my child away. I can't imagine kicking a kid out of my house. I can't imagine rejecting a person who is, literally, a part of me.
But for the kids of the pier, that rejection wasn't something unimaginable. It was their reality.
Anybody can end up on the street. Homelessness knows nothing of age or race or gender. It can happen to anybody.
But when statistics show that as many as 40% of the nation's homeless youth are gay or transgender, compared to 3-5% of the overall youth population, we have to acknowledge that we're facing a crisis. The disparity suggests that gay and transgender youth stand a much higher chance of becoming homeless because of abuse, neglect and familial rejection due to sexual orientation or gender identity that drive them to the streets.
The kids on the Christopher Street Pier that day, and the other gay and transgender youth living on the streets who make up the 40%, have done nothing wrong, other than being born the way they were supposed to be. And because of who they are, these kids have been forced to leave their homes, subjected to abuse or worse.
This week, we launch the Forty to None Project, a national program of the True Colors Fund dedicated to raising awareness around lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth homelessness.
And I want you to know that we've done our homework. The True Colors Fund started this project with a year-long assessment of the state of affairs for homeless LGBT youth. We looked at the state and level of services available to them and the public's awareness of the issue.
We traveled the country, visiting shelters, drop-in centers, outreach programs, and advocacy organizations. We talked to community leaders, service providers, government officials and the kids themselves. We held meetings in 10 cities, from Washington to New York to San Francisco to Minneapolis. We looked for the holes in the system, and we've developed a five-year plan to make significant changes happen.
In our first five years, Forty to None will work to drive down the number of gay and transgender youth on the streets through a campaign that includes: education and awareness to raise the visibility of these young people and the direct service providers who work with them; advocacy at the state and federal levels; strengthening the network of services, advocates, community leaders and others working on the issue; training service providers to be more inclusive and understanding of the issues specifically affecting these kids; and empowering homeless gay and transgender youth themselves with valuable resources and information.
For two years, I've been telling people that it's time to Give a Damn about a part of our society that has been swept under the rug for far too long. The Give a Damn Campaign, another program of the True Colors Fund, has been about raising awareness of the problem, especially amongst my fellow straight people. The Forty to None Project is the next step. Forty to None is about action.
As the country continues to evolve and the stigma of growing up gay finally begins to fade, it's easy to forget that we're still facing a crisis.
Those kids on the pier opened my eyes, and I've made it my mission to open everybody else's. There's no shortage of organizations focused on ending homelessness or addressing the needs of homeless youth--but everything we've learned over the past year has made it clear that runaway and homeless gay and transgender youth are being left behind. These kids, even more than others, have not received the attention, resources and support that they so desperately need.
There's a void that needs to be filled. There are kids who are struggling and need real help, and my mission is to get them that help. As I've said before--I can't imagine any parent throwing a kid away. But when it happens, we need to make sure no kid is allowed to fall into a void. That's why we started the Forty to None Project. Because I give a damn, and society should, too.
--- Cyndi Lauper is an artist, advocate, and co-founder of the True Colors Fund, an organization that seeks to inspire and engage everyone, especially straight people, to become active participants in the advancement of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender equality and to raise awareness about and bring an end to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth homelessness.