Homeless for the Holidays: New York City’s Homeless LGBT Youth
Executive Director, Ali Forney Center
Published in the Huffington post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/carl-siciliano/homeless-gay-youth_b_1158040.html?ref=gay-voices#s555253&title=Envy
You weren’t born to be abandoned
You weren’t born to be forsaken
You were born to be loved
You were born to be loved
Over the past few weeks I have been meeting with homeless LGBT youth. Each young person was, at the time I met with and photographed them, struggling to survive out on the streets as they waited for one of the few youth shelter beds in New York City to open up to them.
Their stories do not fit in the traditional narratives of the holiday season. No warm family gatherings for these kids. No presents, no feasts. No “sleeping in heavenly peace.” Many have been cast out of their homes, driven out by homophobia. Made to know that being LGBT makes them unlovable in the eyes of their families. Made to know that being gay made them disposable.
Nor do their stories conform to the traditional narrative of “coming out” that the LGBT community likes to tell. Coming out for these kids was not primarily experienced as liberating and freeing, nor was it experienced as finding acceptance in the broader LGBT community. For these kids, coming out meant being driven from their homes, denied love, denied all economic support, made to suffer utter destitution. And, shamefully, despite the numbers of homeless LGBT youth across the nation reaching epidemic proportions, their plight has not been at the forefront of the attention of the LGBT community.
And their stories certainly belie the notion that the citizens of our city, state, and nation can find some safety net to protect them. I noted with sorrow that, as I was photographing these abandoned children on the piers and streets along the far West Side of Manhattan, I could often gaze upon the Statue of Liberty downriver, with its promise:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
Alas, there has been little political will to protect these kids. In New York City there are merely 250 youth shelter beds funded by the city and state, though there are 3,800 homeless kids, 40 percent of whom are LGBT. Both Governor Cuomo and Mayor Bloomberg have sent the distressing message that these kids do not have any right to be sheltered, with the governor having cut New York State support for youth shelter beds by 50 percent in the last year, and the mayor having repeatedly attempted to cut youth shelter funds in half, as well. How fitting that these kids, whose desperate conditions speak so profoundly of unjust economic priorities, so frequently found refuge with the Occupy Wall Street movement when they could not find a shelter bed.
To be a homeless LGBT youth in New York City means battling the cold, desperate to find somewhere warm and dry at night, knowing it would be a catastrophe if your shoes and clothes get wet. It means being exhausted, suffering chronic sleep deprivation as you try with little success to rest on the subways and train stations and on the streets. It means being terrified, afraid that the police will kick you out of the subway cars and train stations, afraid of violence when you have to sell your body, afraid that you will be beaten or robbed while trying to sleep on park benches or under bridges. To be a homeless LGBT youth in New York City all to frequently means being hungry, forsaken, alone, brutalized.
Is there a more terrible expression of homophobia in our times than tens of thousands of teens being cast out of their homes and made homeless in our streets? How horrible it is that kids are made to experience such brutal abuse, just for being who they are? I believe that these youths are, without ever intending to be, unsung heroes of the LGBT movement. They are heroic because of the terrible price they pay for their honesty.
I thank all of the youths who told me their stories, and allowed me to look into their eyes and photograph them. It was courageous of them to do so — for many teens being abandoned by their family and becoming homeless is experienced as humiliating and shameful, something you don’t want people to know. I hope that we will care enough to listen to the devastating stories these kids have to tell. I hope that we will have the courage look into their hurt eyes. I hope that by doing so, we can find the compassion and resolve to protect them.
Every young person deserves to be loved. If so many LGBT youths are denied love by their families, then the LGBT community needs to give them love. We need to assert their human worth and value, despite actions by their families and their government that speak to the contrary. We cannot allow them to be left to fend for themselves in the cold.
The Lesbian Scene in Jordan: All You Need to Know
I will approach this subject through the lens of a new comer, who is not a part of the mainstream Queer female community in Amman. Kindly be advised that the views I express here are my personal views, based on professional people watching and limited contact with the community (please do not consider them blanket statements, or take them as unquestionable truths).
What is the Lesbian Scene like in Jordan?
Lesbians have conquered the Ammani landscape, since the advent of ROYGBIV. I have made it through a year and a half as a native Jordanian lesbian; this victory somehow qualifies me to write about the Kingdom’s lesbian scene.
Lesbians in Jordan bear a resemblance to the city’s skyline, with its house-mounted hills, dominating features, and dryness. Those who have come to constitute “Jordan’s lesbian community” often come off as unfriendly to the new lesbian tourist as the dented roads and broken speed bumps of Amman.
As an outsider looking in, the young mainstream lesbian scene in Amman seems hungry and carnivorous; it views every new queer female as fresh meat to be consumed and re-consumed by the entire group of friends, with a side of much expected lesbo drama. People like me, watch it happen over cosmopolitans and long island teas, and think to themselves;
no thanks, I’d rather be celibate and grow
cobwebs in Virginia (pun intended).”
Why is it so Difficult to Break Into Jordan’s Lesbian Community?
True, the LGBT community in Jordan is highly exclusive. Directly approaching a group of lesbian-heads poking a cloud of cigarette smoke and viscous gossip at books @ cafe is ill-advised, unless there’s a common friend stringing you together. However we must all admit that it is offensive for a stranger to self-declare you as gay, while simultaneously attempting to trigger a “get to know you” conversation using your gayness as a foundation. Such an approach can be intimidating to the lesbian comrade chilling at a cafe, given how taboo the subject is. Your direct approach may come off as judgmental, since you’ve simplified this girl’s entire being into who she shares her bed with.
I have been a victim to that kind of approach in Jordan, must I say by straight people, and in all honesty, I did not enjoy being outted (to myself).
As a new lesbian, it is crucial to keep in mind that the community’s exclusivity is more of a defense mechanism against homophobia, rather than an arrogance and simple lack of trust. I find the lesbian scene in Jordan to be very reactionary.
Naturally, years of discrimination, exile and name-calling can elicit a bitterness towards new faces. Human beings, at large, tend to abuse those they categorize as “weak” by using the same methods implemented against them by those they categorize as more powerful. It is a means of self-validation and revenge. For example, domestic abuse against women is more prevalent in lower-income households, because modest men are often “emasculated” by the affluent landlord, the wealthy client, and the government official who shames him into subservience for a petty work permit. Consequently, these men from find the need to replicate the abuse they experience onto groups of people they perceive as weaker; in this case, their wives.
Believe it or not, the same scenario applies to lesbians; intolerance by parents, bullying by schoolmates and unflattering comments by emo-looking hunks on rainbow street is replicated in the interactions between old-timer lesbians and “weaker” new lesbians trying to break into the community. A new lesbian has to “pay her dues” so to say.
Why So Hungry?
Blame it on the unavailability of queer women in Jordan, or the risks a lesbian exposes herself to whenever she outs herself to a new love-interest. One of the most frustrating aspects of being a single lesbian in Jordan is the self-consciousness that your gay-dar should never be trusted, since culture and religion draw a sharp line between a girl’s tendencies (what she likes) and her actions (what she’s willing to admit and act upon).
I’ve come across quite the number of raging homosexuals in denial, banking on their self-control in respect for tradition and God.
As a single lesbian, I admit it’s extremely difficult to identify queer women in Amman, and even more difficult to approach them unless you have a common friend. Naturally, this limits your pool of candidates, and so don’t be surprised why groups of Jordanian lesbians tend to be extremely incestuous.
The Jordanian Online Lesbian Community
When I first got to Amman, I was disgruntled by how difficult it was to meet fellow queer females. There was no “correct” way of doing it. I resorted to facebook groups and other websites, such as afterellen.com, in search of Jordanian lesbians who would have mercy on the new lesbo in town. I found posts by foreign lesbians, who were in Amman for a visit, or a temporary stay. I found a couple of posts by Jordanian lesbians, who offered help. Given the how closed off the rest of the community was, I was suspicious of the Jordanians who were open to meet with new lesbians.
My hesitance was later justified, when I heard stories from acquaintances who did fall victim to the welcoming posts, only to find themselves in a car with two lesbians, and one bottle of vodka to be chugged.
I am not saying you should not reach out to the online community; I am simply encouraging caution.
Online Resources For Lesbian Women in Jordan
MyKali is an invaluable source to the LGBT community in Jordan. If you have ever googled Jordan LGBT, then you have probably found yourself surfing through this online magazine. Although the magazine –and all other Jordanian online resources for that matter- cater mostly to gay male audiences, I am of MyKali’s columnists (my articles go under - “Lesbo and The City”. No I didn’t pick the name), and I’ve been trying my best to focus on lesbian topics. MyKali is putting in much needed effort into involving queer female writers nonetheless, the deficiency of lesbian-specific information and resources can be frustrating. The limited information is what compelled me to start my own blog; Queer Girl’s Ink - Jordan(www.queerink.tumblr.com).
One thing I realized as a consequence of my experiences as a lesbian in Amman, is that you should be proactive, if something does not exist in Amman (and many things don’t exist in Amman) then you must be the one to create it. Call it proactive.
The lesbian scene in Amman is hard to crack. However, I realize now that being a gay woman in Amman is not as terrifying as I first thought it would be. You may have to rely on coincidence, common friends, or the internet to meet your first lesbian in Jordan, but once you do, you’ll witness a small community germinate around you.
Believe it or not, this society is making strides. To say “I have a gay friend” is not as suicidal as it used to be.
I have noticed that straight friends, near strangers and family members, who have been suspicious of my sexuality, try their best to signal their suspicions, while letting me know that “it’s okay”. The way they their sentiments are expressed is extremely politically incorrect, but that’s beside the point. I find their sincere effort to be a step forward. Straight people are confronting my sexuality, instead of blocking it out. Straight people are learning how to co-exist with my gayness. Perhaps, they are even beginning to like it.
So to the new lesbian in Jordan, I will say; Amman is a harsh city, but don’t be disappointed. It takes a little bit of patience.
Alyah Al Aswad
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Day 30: Not the Last Poem ~ Alyah Al Aswad
We used to be hand held mugs of hot cocoa in a basement the morning after a highschool slumber party. We used to be clutched kite strings in green spaces where dogs poop and kids ride bikes with 3 wheels. That one afternoon, a family looked beyond the elasticity of gender bends in my suspenders and smiled intently, as if it should make up for a marriage contract. Your face was a ripe tangerine in the sunlight. You sat on my knee as we watched a wedding ensuing 10 feet away. You asked if I think we could have a two-dress wedding in a few years.
I said; Yes, I want kids who enjoy the occasional smackdowns with sugar commas. In reality, I wanted your kids and hoped they would enjoy an occasional smackdown with a sugar comma. 4 months later I proposed to you on one knee and a $180 solitaire ring - I was a student and it was all I could afford. You said yes, but once I arrived home the summer after graduation, you said the entire engagement was a silly idea. because we were still kids. It broke my heart.
You moved to a third world country to be with me. I became distant and swallowed a wandering eyeball. One time on my way out of the door you said; baby, come back home tonight. Come back sleep next to you tonight. Come back, slip into a hoodie knitted of my feelings for you tonight. Come back home tonight. Make home in you again, and I wished I had it in me.
This is not the last poem I write about what happened, because this is not even a poem. It is a document. It’s exactly what happened.
Day 29 Poem: Rainy Jazz ~ Alyah Al Aswad
Mornings under a roof are just a proclamation that you got your ass off the streets for 10 hours. For 10 fingers of ours aren’t enough to keep our nudity warm.
How do you rewind an eviction notice into a welcome note addressing us as the next tenants.
I have a dented barrel in my living room, oozing gray in the aftermath of a flame quarreling with my own manuscripts. The little I own peals my lips into orange pulp feeding on canned fear of hunger. I love what I write, but my darling got cold last night. Her toes pet the oak of my studio floors at 6:47 am, after one alarm snoozed itself into a 10 minute death. I touched her back with jumper cable arms to electrify the daily rise. I sit in an unmade bed, dipped in mattress warmth. She used to say good-morning, but stopped. The foaming of scratched brush and tooth is supposed to say something to me to replace the words I lost in the barrel, but silence isn’t something I can beat onto a typewriter.
From her spot in the kitchen, she manages to recreate the rain hitting my bedroom window glass with whole grains ticking against the ceramic of a bowl. My stomach feels as thick as hollow milk-box compressed. I stand inside my tied shoes, jeans buttoned on, but topless as her unbuttered toast. I slip into my cup of coffee, eyeing her through the steam. She scrambles for office keys, when I’d much rather she’d be a squatter frying scramble eggs in a pan with me. Nine to five jobs are proof of an abusive relationship with bills in the mail. She shouldn’t have gone for the doorknob. My lap was still spare and my day unplanned as a pregnancy scare. At the edge of by hallway, she said goodbye.
Who would want to wake up to a goodbye.
Day 28 Poem ~ Alyah Al Aswad
Re-crumple the geometry on the college block of an exhale,
into a shadow show of flames
that dance in the pit of your diaphragm.
Her eyes have learned how to fork yellow sun ray missing the flat of a wooden blind,
so her joy can splatter like egg yolk.
She talks at me,
with the consideration that my depth is shallow fried
because I barely unribbon the instruction in her voice,
just sink my pocket watch in her voice,
as it pumps through the valves of my
tonight, wine bottle, and alone,
I sweep her hum under my memory rug as she talks weight and iron
I need its acoustics in my bones in winter.
She doesnt speak enough.
She communicates in knee caps slashing their way through
the thick of people.
Her best temperament visits on Wednesdays.
She sits on the ground,
knees bent backwards
Her hair is a throne.
Her neck is pivotal.
She does not walk,
she orchestrates with hips.
She is an orchid growing in the wood of a farm swing.
The son of same sex parents speaks in Ottawa speaks against marriage discrimination. Absolutely worth your time.
End LGBTQ marriage discrimination everywhere. In Muslim and Arab countries too. In Jordan even.
Day 27 Poem: Tissue Matters ~ Alyah Al Aswad
You carry me up to the inner junction of your eyes,
as if I am to have a conversation with a giant,
they river on the banks of too much laughter.
I swallow the saline water
and my flat chested-ness cringes at the taste
of your flow.
You tuck me back into your pocket,
I fit in well and rub my cheek against your thigh,
for a minute, I have an owner and I belong.
Silent beings are destined to be disposable.
You force your back hand into my home,
ambivalent about whether I should face my fear of heights
and the crash into the interior of a trash can.
I saved your sleeve from the run in your nose,
next thing I know I am shivering
in the violent hum of a garbage truck.
Thank God your mayor believes in recycling,
in my reincarnation.
Day 26: Family Secret ~ Alyah Al Aswad
is a moment in a romantic novel,
where pages begin to bite on bookmarks
to help keep their mouths shut,
dividing the book’s spine in such a way that mourns a Berliner’s precedence of
dividing people to keep their mouths shut.
My bed is in my parents house.
I fold the girl I like into an origami of secrets,
because we had just arrived at that moment
where she bites on my shoulder
to keep her mouth shut.
Day 23: Snow White: As told by the ‘Evil Queen’ ~ Alyah Al Aswad
in a land where beauty was measured by how little melanin
villagers had in their skin, and God was thought to be a white neon light
dangling from the universe’s ceiling;
The whitest of men got crowned a king.
He wedded the whitest of women;
from which he had one little girl,
so bleached, he named her Snow White.
Snow White was a narcissistic bitch.
She was brought up to believe that her skin could was the Holy Grail;
a throne to the world so undeserving of men.
She turned tailors into fashion designers
and made them make ugg boots.
Her mother developed a sickness of the heart,
which ended her life at a young age.
The King was a kind man;
a man who did not believe in racial injustice.
After years, he looked to marry a woman of color;
white as he is, he wanted to expose his daughter to people of color,
because it was unacceptable that she goes on believing her skin
gives her an advantage over peasants.
So I was picked to get married to him.
It was a controversial matter,
I undergone medical tests under the instruction of
Royal Family to prove I wasn’t a fake piece of body art
or worse yet; a hyena.
We got married.
Snow White could not stand see a woman of color succeeding her late mother.
I began feeling insecure about my looks.
In an attempt to remedy that; the King bought me a mirror that speaks;
that was meant to encourage me to go on.
The mirror was as racist as its maker, so it didnt help.
The king then banished Snow White into the forest
so she can learn how to appreciate nature and God.
Her ugg boots got tattered
and she rather be a vegetable than barefoot.
A 100 years later,
the world was as racist as it is now.
A White prince discovered Snow White,
and chose to make her his wife.