When photographer Letizia Mariotti began meeting homeless LGBTQ youth in New York City, she felt a duty to help spread their stories.
She began photographing the queer youth she encountered at LGBTQ gathering places and interviewing them about their experiences. All of the subjects of her photos live, or at one point have lived, at the Ali Forney Center, which serves LGBTQ youths in New York. The majority of them have faced rejection from their families because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
“I want parents of LGBTQ kids to understand the tragic scope of this problem and the profound influence family acceptance plays in the lives of the LGBTQ youth,” Mariotti told HuffPost. “I want them to understand that an indecently high percentage of the LGBTQ youth suffer emotional abuse and violence first from their parents, relatives, and the communities they live in.”
With 40 percent of homeless youth identifying as LGBTQ, Mariotti hopes her project can help others see these individuals clearly and compassionately.
“People need to be less judgmental and more accepting,” she said. “People need to stop seeing the world in stereotypes, stop trying to define what ‘normal’ looks like.”
Check out photos and excerpts from interviews with the young people featured in Mariotti’s project below.
Alexander, 24 (Man With Trans Experience)
“I started transitioning at 18. In Florida, at the time, trans-identified people were not really protected. I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and also gender identity disorder. Nowadays they categorize it as gender identity dysphoria. It’s a big difference.
“My mom was not accepting of me. But me liking someone of the same sex or gender was not the biggest issue. The problem was more me representing very masculine. She said to me once, ‘If you are going to like girls, then why don’t you look like one?’ She couldn’t understand. She was abusive both verbally and physically. After a while, it got to a point where it was too much. I couldn’t be myself. So I left.
“My time as a homeless was hard. I didn’t know if I was going to make it. Many times I thought my mental health was not going to allow me to get out of this situation. What kept me going is the knowledge that I had goals. I really wanted to get out of the shelter system.
“For a lot of people, what is missing is the hope. And hope is necessary to get out of these situations.”
Cyrus, 18 (Trans Male)
“I didn't even know what being gay or being trans meant until I was about 15 years old because it was a bad thing to know in my family. Even though I knew my whole life that I was attracted to women, I didn't know there was a label and I didn’t know it was normal.
“Before I came out as trans, I was identifying as a lesbian. And when my parents found out, it didn't go well at all for me. They deleted all my social media accounts and they wouldn't let me leave the house alone. I was not allowed to see my friends anymore. So, after a while, I got so angry that I got into a huge argument with my mom. We got a little bit physical and my dad decided to send me into a psychiatric hospital. In total, I went to five of them.
“Because I wanted to further my transition, get surgery and start hormones, I knew I couldn't stay at home. My dad doesn't want me confusing my younger siblings or our family members. So I had to go.”
Frankie, 19 (Non-Binary Trans)
“My parents tried to ignore what they called ‘my lifestyle’ and pretended that it would go away. Growing up, I started to be more unapologetic with who I am. I wasn’t hiding. So the tension at home just kept rising until one day my mom just exploded on me. She told me to leave and not come back.
“Being homeless is very scary. You have no security and you can only keep what you can hold in a bag or a suitcase. Money is also a problem. I did sex work for a few months. It was dangerous. I had a lot of encounters that were very bad, but I made money from it and I was able to buy food.
“Now I am lucky I don’t have to do it because I have a stable housing and a job.”
Eli, 17 (Gender Non-Conforming)
“I grew up in an Orthodox family. So when I was discovering my identity, I had to keep a lot of things secret. ...
“During my last year of high school, I came out to my parents. They weren't supportive of it. They thought it was a phase that would go away or something that I should religiously keep under wraps and not act on it. Most of the times, they pulled the insanity card, saying things like I am not thinking clearly or people that I am around changed my point of view. ...
“This has been really hard for me mentally. I was sent to a religious school in Israel. But I got kicked out after just two days because of my gender identity. I told one of the social workers there, because I didn’t want to keep it secret anymore.
“I booked a plane ticket and instead of going back home, I came here to New York City. I guess you could just say I ran away.”
Rose, 19 (Trans Woman)
“I realized from a very young age about my trans identity because I was surrounded by a lot of things in my childhood that forced me to mature early. I think that is why I began transitioning so young at age 13. After my parents’ death, I socially came out.
“When I started transitioning, I was mostly on my own because I didn’t have anyone to talk to. So it took me a while to figure things out. I knew about hormones and I wanted to go on them, but I couldn’t see a doctor. At 14, I managed to get black market hormones. But since I wasn’t able to get a steady supply, it didn’t last long.
“Only at 17, I was able to really start and stay on hormones. For a while, my cousin took care of me, but she didn’t know how to help me and she didn’t have any understanding for me being trans. That made things tense and difficult between us. So last summer, I came to the Ali Forney Center to try to get myself together.
“To get money, I was doing sex work. I did it on and off because I have a lot of social anxiety in general, so trying to find clients to have sex with for money was difficult for me. I would get a lot of money for it … but then I wouldn’t see anyone for weeks after that. And when I was really broke, I just went back on doing it. Sex work is very prevalent in the trans community.”
Je'jae, 24 (Non-Binary)
“At 18, I was sent to Israel on some heritage trip like a lot of young Jewish people do. The religious community where I lived forced me into it. It was also a period where I was really struggling with my sexuality. And within an environment that was telling me that I should feel ashamed, I started feeling really suicidal.
“I went through two years of shaming from our rabbi ‘therapist’ in Israel. It’s what they call ‘conversion therapy.’ In other words, it’s only physical and emotional abuse. I felt scared and trapped. It took me nearly two years to have the courage to leave that place and to tell my ‘therapist’ that I didn’t want to hide anymore. ... This man, who was supposed to be my mentor, shamed me. He said that I would grow up being alone, that I was a sick and an unnatural person.
“When I came back from Israel, as I was more open about my gender identity, my mom really started to have greater problems with me and she became even more emotionally abusive. And a year and a half ago, she locked the door on me.
“That’s when I became homeless."
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