Every night in this country, thousands of young people 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? They began to answer that question in last week's installment, Meet the LGBT Leaders Who Used to Be Homeless.
This week Lowery and Shelton sat down with with Morgan Keenan, the founder and director of the Missouri GSA Network. Interviewing Keenan for The Advocate, here's what Lowery and Shelton discovered:
The Advocate: How did you become a community organizer?
Morgan Keenan: I became a community organizer kicking and screaming in the queer movement. Because of my lived experiences, I wasn’t really ready to be engaged with LGBTQ issues until I was 25. Don’t get me wrong, I worked on social justice issues like economic justice for folks in poverty who were being oppressed by payday loan sharks, and workforce development for people of color who worked as contractors in the transportation industry. But I wasn’t ready to be a part of the queer movement until I realized that being queer wasn’t the reason that I didn’t get the support I needed from my family. Instead, it was because my family didn’t know how to give me that support.
On a personal level, how does that intersect with your experiences of homelessness, running away, or being kicked out?
When I think about my experience, I know that the myth that homelessness has a singular story or face is just that: a myth. I learned quickly to survive and started to work out the survival muscle that so many other people have also had to build. My survival muscle was strong, and to this day I am still good at being resourceful. However, surviving didn’t leave a lot of room or space for building power and thriving. In my organizing, I work to do more than just survive. I demand to thrive.
Why have you chosen to be open about a being formerly homeless queer kid?
I never take the act of sharing my experiences lightly because it not only affects me, it also affects those around me, like ripples from a drop of water in a pond. I tell my story because queer young people who experience these types of situations don’t all live in big cities or find themselves in a big city through their experience. In southern Missouri, one out of every four young people in rural areas live in poverty. It’s not enough to just make it out of these situations ourselves; we have to fight to bring down the systems and institutions that make poverty and homelessness possible.
What considerations went into the choice to share your story?
I considered the question Why? a lot. Why me? Why now? Why not someone else? I think if we know why we do something and keep that at the center of our work, we can more easily understand the "how" and "what" part of the work we are doing.
What have responses been? Has that changed over time?
I get a lot of hugs. I also get a lot of questions about my current relationship with my biological family. I get a lot of pity and, to be frank, very little of that feels all that good to me. I like it when people say that sucks and then stand with me to build power with queer young people in Missouri to create change. It hasn’t really changed. We have all these amazing organizations and nonprofits and we still aren’t there yet. We need to do more, give more, serve more, and invest more.
What conversations do we feel are missing in movement conversations about LGBT youth homelessness?There is starting to be more of a connection in folks’ minds about how young people financially create their own economy when their backs are against the wall. However, there is still a value judgment in our movement. In theory, our movement gets that the criminalization of sex work and survival sex will not bring about justice. But at the same time, it is not comfortable with what markets for sex actually look like. They often mirror traditional systems of oppression and give privilege to a body based on a capitalist hierarchy. This puts young people who are or have been sex workers in a bind, especially once they become leaders. Do they disclose a history that the movement in theory accepts but in practice treats with ambivalence or even contempt? Or do they stay silent and run the risk of being outed down the road? We have to start having a more nuanced conversation about queer young people and sex work.
How do you feel the work or conversation shifts when formerly homeless LGBT youth are in the room — and able to be out about that experience ?
The bullshit meter turns on when the work involves working directly with queer youth who share these types of experiences.
What do you hope to offer to the next generation of movement leaders?
I hope that I can offer them tools, a network, and one more person that will listen to them as they struggle with what it looks like to be a leader.
Is there something we missed? Is there an aspect of your work that you want to share, but we didn't ask the right questions?
I guess I would also just like to speak about what it looks like for me to do this work creating a network in a state where we don’t have many good queer youth resources. In many ways, Missouri still is the three-fourths compromise state. We are building the Missouri GSA Network slowly because in this state and region, change has many opponents. But the fight makes the victories that much sweeter. In the next year, right here in Missouri, we are building a sisterhood of young trans* women of color led by an amazing 16-year-old leader, Ka’Milla McMiller. That is why we do the work. Keep asking "Why?" at the center of "how" and "what" you do, and you won't have to worry because you will know.
Morgan Keenan went to Jackson High School in southeast Missouri and now lives in St. Louis. He is the founder and director of the Missouri GSA Network. His background is in social justice movements, including working on issues of economic justice and transportation equity through workforce development for minority contractors. Morgan helped run the St. Louis social support organization for LGBT youth for more than four years as a volunteer creating new programs and developing sustainable resources for the organization. He also organized the Missouri Safe Schools Coalition's partner-building organizations and ran a statewide campaign for safer schools. His education background is in political science and public administration, with a concentration in nonprofit management. When he is not working with the Missouri GSA Network, he works as a consultant for the Trevor Project as well as for a few local nonprofit organizations in Missouri. He credits his success professionally to his loving partner, Jason. Morgan loves playing with their black Lab Julie, designing, running distance, hosting dinner parties, and exploring a great thrift store. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or through the Missouri GSA Network's Facebook or Twitter.
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's 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.