Guest Opinion: Young and no home for the holidays

  • by Leslie Ewing
  • Wednesday December 14, 2011
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Last week, someone, around 40, walked into Pacific Center and said, "I'd like to do something for gay kids this holiday, but what do they want?"

The first thing that came to my snarky mind was, "Please! Not another It Gets Better video." But, in the spirit of communityness, I kept my cynical (however, spot-on) opinion to myself. Our visitor was sincere and deserved a real answer. The problem was I wasn't sure I had a real answer. Certainly not a definitive answer.

His question started me thinking about the "us and them" division between LGBTQQI2S youth and the gay community at large. Too many of us want to support youth, but can't relate to their lives. Those of us who came out in our 30s simply have no clue what it's like to live an "out" life at 13 or 14 and few of us have tried to find out. Overall, I don't think we've done such a hot job at building bridges across our particular generation gap ... it seems very wide. Who knows, maybe, someday when all of us get through fighting over marriage, we'll start working on ourselves, on our movement – and rising it up. Maybe. Someday.

Meanwhile, there we were at Pacific Center ... in Berkeley ... on Telegraph Avenue ... four blocks away from People's Park. Most of the transitional aged youth (13-21) who really need our help are newly out and on their own. What they want more than anything else is to find a safe place to stay instead of being on the street or couch surfing.

Unfortunately, Pacific Center can offer a safe space to hang out, but not housing. And, when we work hard to help youth find trustworthy housing, there just isn't enough to fill the need. It feels very similar to being in San Francisco in the early 1990s when so many young men with HIV escaped the prejudice of their hometowns and moved to San Francisco, simply because of the promise of a compassionate response. Today, self-emancipated youth from every corner of the country show up on the doorsteps of Bay Area community centers and youth organizations, hoping to find that same spirit of compassion. More often than not, the spirit is willing but we let them down no matter how hard we try.

And, let's face it: housing is at the top of many lists, not just the one titled "Queer Youth Needs." Addressing the housing crisis takes a lot of will and money. However, nothing will ever get off the ground unless we persist in making the case why providing safe housing for queer youth is an investment in the future. We adults need to put the pressure on our elected representatives and encourage them to address this crisis. What all of us need to understand is that our lives are more interconnected than we realize. Our queer youth also hold our future in their hands.

And, that future is happening right now, even though we may not realize it. Queer youth are doing their part to make change happen. Over the last few months, youth – and especially queer youth – have taken to the streets as foot soldiers of the Occupy movement. And, in this leaderless movement, queer cyberactivists have been at the organizing forefront. Recently, in the New Yorker, Mattathias Schwartz reported that "the engine" propelling is a band of transfolk geeks who call themselves Trans World Order. class=MsoFootnoteReference> Organizing and building community is in our collective queer DNA: Bayard Rustin, your spirit lives on.

And during all this, the media keeps asking, "What do they want?" and lamenting the lack of a cohesive list of demands. The answer seems pretty clear to me: nothing more, and nothing less, than fairness. Historically, it's a very queer demand. The same answer can be interpreted as an ethereal response to our visitor's question last week.

But, as I said before, he deserved a real-time answer to a real-time question. So, after much thought, here are a few "gift ideas" for all of us to consider this holiday season: time, experience and respect.

Time is your most precious possession. Your experience runs a close second. If you can, share some of it with youth. Make your effort a personal one. Take the time to call your local LGBTQ community center, or youth organization, and talk to the youth program coordinator. Ask if there is a young person who needs new shoes or warm clothes, or even a warm meal. Then do it. Maybe you can provide a trip to the museum for a few kids. Maybe you can connect a couple of kids with part-time jobs. Do what you can to keep youth safe and provide a healthy example of how to live life fully.

And, if you don't have much time to give, financially support community organizations that provide direct services. We are all working very hard with very limited resources. Think of your donation as a community long-term growth investment.

But, don't be surprised when your efforts go unappreciated. Give respect first. Be patient. One of my biggest "learning opportunities" (i.e. embarrassing moments) at the Pacific Center happened the first time I dropped by our afternoon youth group. I was ready to start a conversation about a video project with our senior peer groups, but they wouldn't even make eye contact. And a conversation? Not a chance. I eventually learned to back off and simply respect their ability to address issues important to them. Conversely, I had to earn their trust before I could ask for their respect. It takes time.

Meanwhile, forget the YouTube stuff and memoir writing – unless you must.

Leslie Ewing is the executive director of the Pacific Center in Berkeley. For more information, visit