The dark times

A comment SoF just left made me realise that if there’s one thing that doesn’t often get talked about in the GLBT community it’s our population of at-risk youth.  Part of it is basic human nature, confronting painful situations isn’t easy unless you’re in the middle of one.  However, another part has to do with how we define “at risk youth”.  Race and socio-economic class play into it, but there’s a third group of people we tend to miss: teens and young adults from across the spectrum who get cut off from their families after coming out.  More often than not we offer support only to those people from this group who meet our preconceived ideas of what they should look like.

How do I know?  I was one of those people.  I came out at 20 which is slightly above the usual definition of “at risk youth”, but was still well within range for services in the city I lived in at the time (most of San Francisco’s queer youth services go at least up to 21, if not 24/25).  I’m Latino and my parents are on the lower rungs of the economic ladder, but I pass for white and have upper middle to high income social training thanks to my father and the parents of a few friends.  I 100% do not look nor act the way people tend to think anyone in need of services and benefits should.

When I came out my parents tried to “fix” me and persisted until I was suddenly stolen away by a friend.  There was no warning, no time to pack any of my stuff, and certainly no chance of ever going back.  I don’t regret a second of it because if I hadn’t gotten out I’d have died, but it wasn’t exactly the easiest thing in the world.  At that point in my life I was still struggling with uni because my ADHD hadn’t been diagnosed, had only a part time job that could never support me, and only two of my friends lived away from their parents — all out of state.  I had an amazing emotional support system and for that I am incredibly thankful, but my practical support was virtually non-existent.

That first year was more than a little unpleasant.  The first three or so really were difficult as I learned to move about independently, but there isn’t much more challenging than having to start your life entirely from scratch.  I had to drop out of school because my parents clearly weren’t going to help with the bills and in the US you’re not considered independent for the purposes of financial aid until you’re 25, have a kid, get married, both of your parents die (or you’re a ward of the state), or you can manage to convince your financial aid advisor to put in for an override.  In my case everyone told me that it was a temporary situation and my parents would reconcile with me shortly.  Let’s just say I’m still waiting for that.

Even if I had been able to wrangle an override, the financial aid available to me wouldn’t have covered living expenses even with my job.  I don’t know if anyone’s ever tried to live off of what little they give students while living in San Francisco, but let’s just say it’s not easy (if possible).  I wasn’t doing great in school anyway though so I decided to do whatever work I could for as many hours as I could and figure out going back to school when I at least had a roof over my head.  Then I lost my job, four of my friends died in a car accident that I just barely missed being in, and in the aftermath damned near everyone else decided to move away.

I had avoided any form of social services until that point.  I figured there were people far worse off than I was who needed the help more.  I didn’t have a whole lot of money, but I had friends who were willing to feed me and let me sleep on their couches so I was doing ok.  Plus I have a lot of pride.  Even now, I hate asking for help.  Back then the idea of considering any sort of outside assistance was enough to make me think I’d rather go hungry and sleep on the streets.

In case anyone is wondering, you can only sleep on the streets and starve for so long before you start to go a bit nuts.  I can handle a bit of dirt and a few hunger pangs, my father put me in military programmes when I was a little kid.  However, I had never been in a situation where I was hungry and dirty while everyone around me was clean and fed.  It was less than two weeks before I decided that the looks I got when trying to go into a store to use the bathroom and clean myself up a bit were worse than anything I could get at a shelter or welfare office.

Here is where my lack of ability to blend in with lower income people of colour started to become a problem.  I was raised in San Francisco, I know that city like nowhere else in the world.  I love it, if I’m not back every two or three months I start to feel physical pain.  Unfortunately, it has its problems and at that point in time one of its problems was that virtually no one believed that a well spoken, half-way educated kid who looked white could be in need of anything.  I got turned away from every government organisation and the majority of non-profits for failing to come up with enough “proof” that I was homeless and broke.  If anyone has any ideas of how precisely I was meant to prove my lack of home or cash I’d really be interested because at that point I couldn’t come up with anything.

Luckily, some people were willing to help.  When I was still on the streets I figured out that Quakers and Buddhists tend to have the most welcoming soup kitchens (and have the added benefit of not requiring a sermon before you can eat).  A rabbi found me one night and took me home, fed me, and arranged for me to live with a couple who to this day are like surrogate parents.  I was (and still am) atheist-agnostic and, at that point, incredibly wary of organised religion thanks to my parents, but not once in the year I was living with them did anyone even bring the topic up.  I started T at a local clinic for free and they also helped me figure out all the forms needed to apply for fee waivers to change my name.  Finding a job was harder, but I was able to volunteer with a few GLB organisations to help pad my resume a bit.  Eventually I managed a scholarship to study in the UK.  That ended up not working out, but they did at least finally diagnose my ADHD and I transitioned to a cosmetology apprenticeship in London fairly easily.

The one major thing about all of this is that I was lucky.  Other than the scholarship, very little of what happened was due to any innate characteristics that somehow make me more worthy than other homeless teens and young adults.  I managed to not get addicted to drugs or have to resort to prostitution not because I’m stronger or smarter, but because freaking Tylenol makes me hurl and the very idea of sex at that point caused me serious emotional trauma.  I am not special, I just happened to meet the right people at the right time.

The same can’t be said for other queer youth.  Hell, the same can’t be said about homeless people of any age or sexual orientation.  We tell kids “go ahead, come out, be brave,” but then we don’t help them when the consequences of that are more serious than a few days of the silent treatment from their parents and some odd looks from the kids at school.  I’m not a fan of closets, especially not right now when people are staying financially dependent on their parents for longer than ever, but we’re doing these kids a huge disservice by encouraging them to come out and then not giving them some sort of cushion.  Not everyone needs one, I’d even go so far as to say that most people don’t.  Some of us do though.  We’re continuing to lose our most vulnerable members because we’re too damned busy focusing on the happy ideal instead of the not so pretty reality.

7 thoughts on “The dark times

  1. I’m breaking the silence here to stress how important this text is. My life was very similar in many ways, and it took me a long time to gain some stability. It was very difficult, because I had so many gaps in my education from moving out early and having little contact with family. People assume when you’re about 20, you are still supported by your family, if not financially then morally, with advise and all the small daily support. When you don’t have that, life can be very exhausting and it’s easy to get lost on the way.

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    • The emotional support is such a huge deal. People tend to forget that we keep drawing on our parents’ experience long after we leave home. I knew the basics of cooking and cleaning, but no one had ever sat me down and taught me how to budget or make a grocery list. No one was there to tell me I was being a moron when I hit 21 and started partying more than I should have. My friends all hated how much their parents tried to influence their lives and I get why, but it’s so easy to get lost without that influence. If it weren’t for my surrogate parents and a few older guys taking a (non-sexual) interest in me I’m not sure I would’ve managed nearly as well as I did.

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      • I’m down with a flu, so only a short answer-

        NA worte: “The emotional support is such a huge deal. People tend to forget that we keep drawing on our parents’ experience long after we leave home. I knew the basics of cooking and cleaning, but no one had ever sat me down and taught me how to budget or make a grocery list. No one was there to tell me I was being a moron when I hit 21 and started partying more than I should have. My friends all hated how much their parents tried to influence their lives and I get why, but it’s so easy to get lost without that influence”

        I can’t stress this enough. The stuff that is only a minor crisis when you have support tended to turn into a major catastrophy when I was on my own too early. Life became very exhausting very quickly and I was wondering all the time how other people did it.
        Today I’d actually tell people to first get a job, a support network and a flat, and then come out, because it really sucks when you get kicked out without all this. I my case, I was even certain that my family would support me cause they were leftists. But it wasn’t the case. I came out only after I moved out, but at a time when I needed support, and the shit hit the fan. You never know how people will react. It’s better to come out from a position of strength , not of neediness.

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  2. I haven’t come out yet. I live in Oklahoma, and I’m very afraid. I’m not really asking for anything here, I just needed to get that out somewhere.

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    • Make a plan. It’s scary to think about, but if you have any fears at all about being kicked out when you come out make sure you have a backup plan. It can be as simple as a packed bag and a friend who’s waiting to pick you up or as elaborate as a bank account with a few months’ pay saved up and a ticket to somewhere you think is safe. As long as it’s something you can fall back on.

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    • Echoing what NA said: Make sure you have somewhere to go. Make sure you always have somewhere to go, no matter how safe you think you might be at any time. A friend nobody knows you have, a shelter, a sympathetic faraway family member…but never, ever, rely on a boyfriend/girlfriend as your “out.” Never have sex with anyone who has power (economic, safety, or otherwise) over you, and never put anyone you’re already sleeping with in a position of power over you.

      And find your important documents. Birth certificate, social security card, high school diploma or transcript, driver’s license, green card or visa (as applicable), passport, immunization records. If your parents are holding them, get official copies for yourself and keep them somewhere where you can always get them on short notice.

      You might be surprised – everyone around you might be wonderful and supportive. My dad surprised the hell out of me when I came out a few months ago. But before you come out, put yourself in a position such that even if things go badly, you know you’ll be ok anyway.

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  3. Agree to Not Aiden’s advice. A friend of mine outed himself as gay to his parents and got beaten up by his mom (he didn’t beat her back cause he just couldn’t beat his mom). He had a suitcase prepared, a friend informed so he could pick it up and rush out to go to his friend.

    Also, kyril’s advice is good:
    And find your important documents. Birth certificate, social security card, high school diploma or transcript, driver’s license, green card or visa (as applicable), passport, immunization records. If your parents are holding them, get official copies for yourself and keep them somewhere where you can always get them on short notice.

    Anyone should do this anyway, have your most important documents together at one place so you can pick them up e. g. if your house burns. Also, it’s useful to have a copy or scans of all that stuff somewhere outside your house just in case.

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