First off, you may be amused to learn that I’ve been relaxing before bed with a 1976 Dr. Who serial in which a disembodied hand threatens to destroy the entire Earth.
That’s what’s known as an ice-breaker, before I get down to the dark business of today’s blog post.
You know those stats about LGBTQ youth? And how much greater their risk is for homelessness? HIV? Abuse?
“Netherland,” by Rachel Aviv, brings those abstract, distancing numbers to vivid life. But it’s hahssenfrassenpaywalled.
The protagonist of this article, Samantha, was a straight-A high school student. But her family did not believe her accusations that a family friend molested her. And they would not accept that she was gay. So she did her A-student-style research and planned, extensively, how to be homeless in NYC. She took some notes then left her parents a note and disappeared into the complex world of New York’s LGBTQ homeless youth.
One remarkable aspect of this article—remarkable to wordsmithy folks, at least—is how straightforwardly it’s written. Aviv wrote something like a transcription and condensation of journal entries. It’s the straightest, cleanest narrative I’ve ever seen in the New Yorker. It’s like all narrative, with no research, no asides, no breaks in the plot.
Such a plot-driven narrative style serves its subjects well: people who choose to live as themselves on the street rather than in homes with families that reject them. People for whom finding food constitutes a whole day’s worth of energy, intellect, and strategy. People who look dirtier to make more money panhandling, or who act more disturbed to qualify for mental illness benefits. Aviv does not put an intellectual apparatus between the reader and their story.
The article details many aspects of Samantha’s crew’s life, such as the “gay families” that coalesce to offer protection, support, and instruction to these young folks. She details the complex social structures dictating how different people can make money and build alliances, depending on a variety of indentifications, orientations, and preferences.
Samantha never felt ‘fabulous’ enough to be part of a gay family–the music she had mistaken for cool, like AC/DC and Led Zeppelin, had put her at a permanent disadvantage. The gay families reminded her of high school. … Samantha felt more comfortable socializing with people in street families, which were smaller, whiter, and included both straight and gay kids.
So she built her own family, who shared resources, traded duties, and supported each other’s quests for money, jobs, and housing.
Trans people are particularly at risk on the street: rejected by gender-specific shelters, more likely to face violent assault.
Without addresses, homeless youth are almost always turned away from jobs, even when they are qualified and managed to wash and dress in appropriate clothes. They turn to shoplifting and sex work, on top of panhandling, to pay for food. As sex workers, they are extremely vulnerable to STDs, including HIV.
Their goals to get a job and apartment seem almost impossible. Samantha engaged tremendous willpower to force herself to spend one day a week thinking about achieving these goals, matters of course in my life but seemingly impossible in hers.
When she and her close friends finally achieve this dream, stable jobs and subsidized housing, they have tremendous difficulty adjusting. Struggling to keep away from drugs, uncomfortable with quiet and privacy, and sick.
When we talk about how LGBTQ youth are “at risk” of illness, homelessness, and suicide, we don’t often think about how such risks are lived by real people. Aviv’s article detailing these lives makes them real to us, and makes our indifference much less tolerable.
I’m deeply committed to supporting marriage equality. But I agree with some critics that because this has been the sole focus of the mainstream LGBTQ rights movement, we have not fought for Samantha’s life as much as we should. Of course, bourgeois rights like marriage are more comfortable to fight for than, say, safe beds, food, and STD-prevention for homeless youth.
The marriage fight can be won in the Supreme Court (IhopeIhopeIhope). The LGBTQ homelessness fight needs to happen in thousands of donors’ wallets, hundreds of municipal hearings, and wherever we can go and whatever we can do to prevent rape. Of anyone, anywhere.
So let’s have it all! Fight for Edie and Thea! And fight for Samantha, too.