As an early riser, I walk through the West Village and see the kids sleeping on a bench in front of a church on Christopher St. or huddled together near the Queer Pier in Hudson River Park — the many homeless L.G.B.T. (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) youth. They’re outside in every season, even winter. Most are black and Latino. Many are transgender. I feel sad and guilty about my white middle-class gay privilege as I walk past them when rushing to my job as a college teacher.
When I struggled to come out to my conservative Catholic family in 1979, I role-played for weeks in my therapist’s office. I’m sure my parents in New Jersey had some idea. I hadn’t brought home a man in years. Back in my day, people tended to come out in their 20s after trying to be straight. I dated men during high school and college, although it turned out two of my boyfriends were gay (and both later died of AIDS).
I was a wreck when I sat down at my parent’s wooden kitchen table for the big talk. I had no idea how my announcement would be received, but I couldn’t continue living with this secret. By the time I told them, I had finished college, and lived in a walk-up apartment in the East Village. Whatever happened, I would not be on the street.
My mother cried a lot and my father said he thought homosexuality was abnormal and deviant. But they assured me they still loved me and I was still their daughter. It could have gone over better, but this was decades ago, and later they came around.
Today people are aware of their sexual orientation at a much younger age. Many kids come out as teenagers while still living at home. Increased visibility on the stage and screen makes it seem O.K., even glamorous, to be out. Just look at Ellen on TV every weekday. Check out the gorgeous Laverne Cox on the cover of Time magazine.
The queer community also encourages folks to come out, but we’re not dealing with the fallout for those kids whose families kick them to the curb. We are their cultural parents. If we don’t help these young people, who will?
At least 40 percent of the homeless youth in New York City are L.G.B.T. — a shocking statistic. The National Lesbian and Gay Task Force estimated there are 8,000 homeless queer kids in New York City. It’s no surprise there is a high rate of drug abuse, mental illness, suicide and H.I.V. infection among a group struggling to survive day to day and to avoid violence on the street.
Manhattan’s Ali Forney Center, the country’s largest provider of shelter and services for L.G.B.T. youth, has a long waiting list. Only 250 beds in the city are designated as safe spaces for queer kids. In the Village, various churches — St. Luke’s on Hudson St. and St. John’s on Christopher Street- serve nutritious meals and provide counseling but they are not shelters.
Earlier this month, I attended a rally for homeless L.G.B.T. youth in Washington Square Park sponsored by the Ali Forney Center and the National Coalition for the Homeless. The event’s purpose was to kick off a campaign to increase the number of beds. Carl Siciliano, the Ali Forney Center’s executive director, calls the current situation “the largest crisis in our community in our times.”
So where is the outrage, like during the AIDS crisis? Where is the exposé, like “The Normal Heart”? The hour-long rally was well attended, but as I looked around, I mostly saw young people. I spotted a few seniors from the gay synagogue holding a banner. But the absence of middle-aged and older gay men and women was surprising.
While I made a point of being at the event, I must confess I have not volunteered to prep or serve meals at these churches. I vow to get more involved when I retire in a few years. But I have attended benefits and written a check to sponsor a gay kid at a queer summer camp. We all need to do more.
Not sure what explains the apathy. Is it lack of awareness? Is it the obsession with gay marriage? Is it a disconnect felt by the middle-class white gay community? As a longtime far West Village resident, I must admit the queer street kids seem loud and outrageous as they stream down Christopher St. flaunting it. It sometimes feels like an invasion, especially in the summer, but where else can they express themselves? I fled from New Jersey to the Village for the same reason — to be myself.
Gay icon Edie Windsor, who spoke at the rally and joked about how she felt like an old lady, plans to make the homeless queer kids her new cause. Windsor is the Greenwich Village resident whose lawsuit in the Supreme Court defeated the Defense of Marriage Act. I was thrilled to meet her at a private party in my building last year. As I thanked her for her work, she gave me a big kiss! I hope the involvement of a visible hero — Windsor was grand marshal of the Pride March in 2013 — inspires more high-profile people to address this crisis.
I also feel it is incumbent upon Mayor Bill de Blasio to keep this front and center. The fact that there are so many homeless kids on the streets is shameful. During Pride this year, let’s remember the queer kids who have no safe place to sleep after the party ends.