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?
This week, Lowrey and Shelton sat down with Twiggy Pucci Garçon, a community health and program development specialist, ballroom gatekeeper, model, trainer, and special events coordinator with FACES NY. Follow Garçon on Twitter at @SimplyTwiggy.
The Advocate: How did you become an activist, organizer, and movement leader?
Twiggy Pucci Garçon: In 2009 I began working at FACES NY Inc., as a peer educator and recruitment specialist. With a background in beauty and fashion, this [activism] was all very new to me. The thing is, I've always had the burning desire to be someone who helps others through their struggles, so immediately upon entering the wold of empowerment and advocacy, I went full-force. I took as many trainings and workshops as possible, and dedicated all my time and energy into the work I was doing. Soon enough, I was promoted to community health specialist, which afforded me the opportunity to be even more hands-on with the community [we worked with], the house and ballroom community. Since then, I have become a leader of the movement simply by being committed to the activism and community organizing, and sharing my story and who we are as a collective.
On a personal level, how does that work intersect with your experiences of homelessness, running away, or being kicked out?
My parents split when I was in the seventh grade. I wouldn't say I was homeless growing up, but my mother and I did live in several places. She did all that she could to make sure we always had a roof over our head, food on the table, and clothes on our backs, but we moved around a bit. Fast-forward: A year after moving to New York, I had my first apartment with a friend of mine, and after we lost it in late 2008, I basically had nowhere to go. My best friend, Dominique Crisden ,took me in, and around that same time I began working at FACES. I lived with him for a while, then got another roommate for a few years, but there was a point where I had to couch-surf and live with people when I could. I've never publicly spoken out about this, but it was very difficult to live in such an expensive city making the money I was working at a nonprofit — and it still is difficult.
Why have you chosen to be open about being a formerly homeless queer kid?
Having that lived experience makes it that much more important for me to help all the community members in my reach who are marginally or unstably housed. It's important that we tell our own stories for several reasons: One, no one can tell our story like we can; two, if we don't tell our story, it may never be shared; and three, we never know how our stories may touch and empower others to take action and control of their own situation. Thinking back to when I was laying on the couch of a friend or loved one, I've been afforded and blessed with many opportunities that I never thought would happen. Although the scope of my work has shifted at FACES, I remain open to help anyone in need when and where I can.
What considerations went into the choice to come out about your past?
Growing up in the South, many of us are taught to keep your business at home, at home. The thing is, what about when you have no home to keep your business? Or, a deeper notion: who loses out when we don't share our "business"? I am Twiggy Pucci Garçon, but that name is bigger than me, and doesn't speak to the struggles leading into the triumphs. The fact that one person reading this may be touched or inspired led me to make the choice to speak out about being formerly homeless.
What conversations do we feel are missing in movement conversations about LGBT youth homelessness?
One thing that is common in movement conversations about LGBTQ youth homeless is housing for those who live with HIV and AIDS, particularly in New York City. I hear that conversation constantly, and I agree that it is a huge cofactor that affects the issue — but what about the other cofactors? What about the youth who've been kicked out simply for being who they are? What about those of trans experience whose families just don't understand, therefore ostracize and exile their children? These are real-life factors that play an enormous role in why there are so many homeless youth, but many feel they should "keep their business at home."
What do you hope to offer to the next generation of movement leaders?
The one thing I hope to offer to the next generation of movement leaders is to be open about their homeless experience, if they have any. There is nothing more inspiring to me than being able to relate to someone's story that you either know, or identify with.
TWIGGY PUCCI GARÇON is a Virginia-born, New York City-based house/ballroom runway performer, the New York City Prince of the House of Comme des Garçon, and a community health specialist and organizer at FACES NY Inc. Twiggy also does consulting work as a logistics coordinator and event planner. After studying at the Fashion Institute of Technology, Twiggy went on to found the kiki scene’s largest international house, the Opulent Haus of PUCCI, whose primary function is to promote premiere ballroom performance, personal and professional development, and targeted community service initiatives within the LGBTQ community. Twiggy has been working in community health since 2009, with skills ranging from peer education, to HIV testing and counseling, intervention leadership, and public speaking. He has spoken at conferences nationwide, including the U.S. Conference on AIDS, the Whitney Biennial, the Museum of Modern Art’s PS1 Sunday Sessions, BallStar Weekend Los Angeles and Dallas, and the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce’s Annual Business and Leadership Conference. His recent work in HIV, STD, and substance use prevention, education, and intervention has led to the creation of a community-level intervention, The WIZ, designed specifically for the house and ball community, as well as the development and execution of numerous balls and performances. Twiggy has been honored with many prestigious awards, including the New York Black Pride Ballroom Leadership Award, the HEAT Program’s Outstanding Leadership and Community Service Award, Gay Men's Health Crisis and House of Latex Project’s Hector Xtravaganza Excellence Award, and the Kiki Scene’s Community Organizing Award. He has been featured in major media publications like Paper magazine, New York magazine, MetroWeekly, DBQ, The Huffington Post, and The Advocate. He was also a featured subject in Timothy Greenfield-Sanders's documentary feature film on HBO, The OUT List. Twiggy has walked in several fashion shows, namely for Adrian Alicea Couture at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week. He currently cowriting a documentary feature film alongside film collaborator and director Sara Jordeno titled Gesture, which paints an intimate portrait of the ins and outs of New York City's kiki ballroom scene.
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.