Youths find their way in uncertain world

  • by Heather Cassell
  • Tuesday June 19, 2007
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Queer youth today, who often come out at younger ages and have seen LGBT celebrities and others gain acceptance, continue to find a way to have courage to be proud of who they are and find their way in an uncertain world.

But it's often not easy. In December 2006, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, in collaboration with the National Coalition for the Homeless, released a report that estimated 672,000 queer youth across the country find themselves homeless each year. In San Francisco, that number is approximately between 800 and 1,600, based on a calculation of 20 percent to 40 percent queer-identified youth out of the 1.6 million identified homeless youth, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Many of these young people, according to the report, either ran away from home or were kicked out of their homes for being LGBT.

"They haven't had the same experience that many of us have had growing up, where we had a supportive family environment – whatever our families looked like – to be able to help us transition successfully into adulthood," said Sherilyn Adams, executive director of Larkin Street Youth Services in San Francisco.

Often, these young people wind up on the streets, in shelters, or in some cases participating in survival sex in exchange for basic necessities, such as shelter, food, and clothing. The luckier youths find their way to services, such as Larkin Street.

John and David (Larkin Street has a strict policy of media identifying its clients by their first names only), two gay young men who benefit from Larkin Street's services, navigated through the tricky terrain of homelessness.

"Since we're young, there's a stigma," said David, 22, a student at City College. "Trying to meet that standard of what I'm supposed to do and how I'm supposed to perform as being gay and young. Gay youth are all trying to find themselves. Where do you draw the line of how we are supposed to act or just be ourselves?"

His parents kicked him out of his home in Maryland for being gay when he was 18. He made his way to San Francisco and no longer communicates with his parents. David said that mothers train girls about men while they are growing up and how to become a woman; queer youth don't receive that type of training.

John added, "I used to say to myself, 'I didn't get the how to be gay manual or rule book.'"

Both young men described how the exploitive situations they found themselves in demoralized them.

The young men found that the lack of visibility of their ethnic community in the Castro or around the city hasn't helped them either. John is black, David is Latino.

"It's kind of weird," said JR, 20, who is black and identifies as queer, and is also in the Larkin Street housing program. "It seems like after you grow up, colored people don't want to be in the Castro no more or something, because the only minorities running around the Castro are queer kids."

JR, an intern at the LGBT Community Center, hopes to work for Pixar after attending the University of California, Santa Cruz and studying computer graphics.

JR and John are both from Sacramento.

All three youths came to the city hoping for a better life – and life has improved for them since they tapped into the city and community services. But they all expressed a wish that more opportunities – from housing to mentorship programs – could be available for LGBT youth. The youths desperately wanted to connect with supportive adults.

"To get yourself out of the box, you have to know that you are in the box in the first place," said David. "A lot of us don't know that we are in it, so we don't get a chance to get out of that."

The Larkin Street youths told the B.A.R. that one of the ways they helped themselves out of life on the streets was by not depending on support from their peers. They actively sought out adults and programs that could help them.

"They are young people with goals and dreams and what they lack is support and the tools to be able to accomplish this," said Adams.

The difference support makes

Unlike John, David, and JR, Gabriel Duncan, 20, a Native American bisexual young man who came out as gay when he was 11 years old, had the support of his family. Duncan told the B.A.R. that his mother was worried when she noticed he was getting into fights in middle school. She didn't know it was because he came out to his friends at school. He came out to his parents when he started attending a queer youth group.

Duncan said that his father told him that he loved him and that he supported him, no matter what. He soon found himself at Holden High School, a private alternative school, but he wasn't very academic, so he ended up taking the California Proficiency Exam when he was 15 years old.

With his parent's support, Duncan thrived and found success outside of the classroom. He joined boards of local queer youth organizations and coordinated LGBT conferences. He also continued his interest in photography.

Duncan is a first year student at the California Culinary Academy, where he met his girlfriend of six months, Jessica Jimenez. Duncan suddenly had to come out again. He told the B.A.R. that he did experience some biphobia, but having experienced homophobia during his teens and being in college it wasn't as intense and he didn't allow it to get to him.

"I used to be gay up until I got my girlfriend and I don't even know how I got my girlfriend," said Duncan. "She's awesome! I have no idea where that puts me. I think the binary world is really tripping us up. It's a scale. There's a big scale of sexuality and no one weighs in perfectly."

Jimenez, 18, a bisexual Latina from Tracy, California, came out when she was around 13 years old. She told the B.A.R. that she was a bit confused and at one point she thought she might be a lesbian, but realized that she liked boys and girls. She was active in her school's gay-straight alliance and is supported by her father and brother. She isn't out to her mother who, she said, doesn't talk about sex and relationships.

Duncan and Jimenez are both excited about their futures. An exhibit of Duncan's will be on display this summer at the Marin Museum of the American Indian and Jimenez will spend the fall semester in Chicago as part of her culinary program.

"I just basically want to work hard, live my life, and fall in love with whoever I want," said Jimenez. "It's my choice and it shouldn't be anyone else's."