"And you know how people say a mother's love is unconditional? When I was 12, I figured out that my mother's love was conditional," stated Jenelle,* a 21-year-old Hispanic transgender woman, who I met while conducting research on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) youth homelessness. She went on to tell me about growing up in a family with a great deal of fighting, where her "bigoted" father "calls me by my birth name and uses 'his' pronouns. And it just -- it was heavy on my soul." After experiencing sexual violence, which exacerbated her continual conflict with her family and her own mental health challenges, Jenelle began experiencing homelessness.
Jenelle's story is one of the many about LGBTQ youth who make up at least 40 percent of the youth homeless population in the United States, despite being only about 5-8 percent of the U.S. youth population. Most discussion surrounding these disproportionate numbers focuses on family rejection, that lesbian, gay, and bisexual homeless youth are often kicked out or run away from home because of family conflict about their sexuality. Indeed, 73 percent of gay and lesbian and 26 percent of bisexual homeless youth report that they are homeless because of parental disapproval of their sexual orientation. Service providers indicate that 68 percent of the LGBTQ homeless youth they work with experience family rejection. These statistics paint a picture of homophobic and transphobic parents - many of them religious - casting their child out onto the streets. However, as a recent Huffington Post piece captures, the lives of LGBTQ homeless youth are complex. LGBTQ homeless youth are also disproportionately racial/ethnic minorities, and they often come from family backgrounds of instability and poverty. Perhaps then there are other factors compounding these experiences of homophobia and transphobia?
Obadiah is a 20-year-old white male youth, who dates transgender women and who moved to the LGBTQ youth shelter after living in his grandfather's shed for about a year. When I interviewed him, he calmly described his family life before going into Child Protective Services (CPS) care. "I use to go to school with bruises all over me when I was little," he explained "And my mom was a drug addict, and I remember when I was little, me and my brothers had to literally frickin' take off the door knobs to the restroom -- took it apart -- and we found her in there shooting up with this guy, when my dad was in jail. My dad was always an alcoholic. He spent more times at bars than anything."
As a sociologist who has been working with LGBTQ homeless youth for a year and a half, I have seen that family instability is the common pattern that marks their lives. I volunteered in central Texas at a homeless youth drop-in center and at a LGBTQ youth homeless shelter. At both sites, I interacted with youth, slept in the shelter, attended events with them, and conducted extensive interviews with them and service providers. Although family rejection contributes to homelessness, I've found that the rejection of an LGBTQ child operates differently in marginalized families -- not because poor and working-class families are more prejudiced, but because they contend with structural constraints that generate particular ways of responding to and enforcing society's gender and sexual norms.
Naomi, a beautiful 18-year-old transgender Latina, often wore colorful purple or silver wigs, and adorned herself in flashy jewelry. Sitting at a picnic table, she described to me how she bounced between her parents' houses and that she experienced abuse at both places. "My mom knew something was different about me, but she abused me as a kid." She went on, "My family would see slap marks on me, and they wouldn't say nothing about it. And they already knew what she was doing, but I honestly now, looking back, I honestly think she did that 'cause she knew that I had took away her son. What she wanted was a boy, and I felt like now, looking back, that's the reason why she beat me, 'cause she knew that I was going to end up being different, and she was worried about that."
All of the youth in my study -- three-quarters of whom were youth of color -- came from a context of family poverty shaped by instability, including parental incarceration, contact with CPS, parental drug and alcohol use, abuse, and other stressful life events. "Coming out" or being perceived as LGBTQ often generated more instability in already destabilized families and communities. Impoverished families may already see their children's future as constrained and may be less likely to give their children the freedom to express their non-normative gender and sexuality out of fear that it will inhibit their already-limited life chances. Abuse, rejection, and eviction then become mechanisms that the parents utilize in trying to "improve" their child's life chances through compliance with gender and sexual norms.
Children and youth are also not just raised by their parents, but they are nestled within other institutions and communities as well. Unfortunately, the youth I met often experienced abuse and bullying in their under-resourced schools, in their religious communities, and within CPS care. Within impoverished environments, there seems to be no protective spaces for LGBTQ youth, only cumulative stressors of homophobia and transphobia adding to their already fraught contexts and lives.
It must be noted that more affluent families are also homophobic and transphobic, but it does not appear that LGBTQ children from these families experience homelessness (or, at least, not in the same rates or the same ways). Researchers, service providers, journalists, and others invested in LGBTQ youth should consider if youth from more stable backgrounds who experience family rejection have other networks and resources that protect them from homelessness. The main point I want to make, though, is that the LGBTQ youth I worked with describe their lives prior to homelessness as marked by homophobia and transphobia within contexts of poverty and under-resourced communities. By contextualizing their lives, it becomes clear that investing in marginalized families may lessen the cumulative nature of the violence, homophobia, transphobia, and instability that the youth face.
Returning to Jenelle's comment, I do ponder, "What material and cultural conditions allow for 'unconditional' love?" As Laura Durso, Senior Director of LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress, mentioned earlier this year, to address LGBTQ youth homelessness, scholars, service providers, journalists, and policy makers must not only focus on family rejection but also poverty. Family reunification is often the proposed solution to youth homelessness. Services for LGBTQ homeless youth, which focus on family rejection, assist parents in understanding and accepting the youth's sexual and/or gender identity to attempt to reunify families. Education is important, but these interventions do not address the fact that LGBTQ homeless youth come from over-looked and under-resourced families overwhelmed by poverty and instability. Our norms around gender and sexuality in congruence with stigmatizing and not assisting the poor do not allow for much acceptance, love, and support for LGBTQ youth from impoverished contexts. Ultimately, we need more nuanced solutions that highlight the intersections of being LGBTQ within contexts of familial poverty and racial inequality to prevent and end LGBTQ youth homelessness.
*To maintain confidentiality, all names are pseudonyms.