The way we talk about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning (LGBTQ) youth homelessness matters. Without meaning to, advocates and homeless youth serving organizations may perpetuate stigma in their public messages. The thing about these public messages – whether they’re geared towards potential donors or policy makers, whether the intent is to pull on the heartstrings or the purse strings – is that they often reinforce half-truths. They tell a small part of the story. And they often relegate LGBTQ young people to a single, sensationalized aspect of their experiences. For example, how many times have you heard the message “[young person’s name] was kicked out of his home for being gay, then forced to prostitute himself on the street.” While this narrative may be true for some LGBTQ young people, it is not true for all. And there’s often a lot more to the story. Also, guess what? LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness hear our messages. Is this what we truly think about them? Do we really only see this single aspect of their experiences? Do our messages instill hope in the receiver?
All youth experiencing homelessness face stigma, however this is compounded for LGBTQ youth. The experience of stigma among youth experiencing homelessness has been associated with feeling trapped, low self-esteem, loneliness, and suicidality .
Furthermore, when we talk about LGBTQ youth homelessness within the LGBTQ movement, we don't talk about how this is an issue for us personally. We are not acknowledging that so many of our current LGBTQ movement leaders experienced homelessness, were kicked out or pushed out of their homes. Rather, we talk about "helping the kids" and in so doing, we create an us/them dynamic that distances the reality of many of our experiences and forecloses opportunities for connection between current movement leaders and LGBTQ youth who may be struggling with housing instability. This is not an us/them issue.
We know that LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness do face victimization, but we also know that they are bright, creative, strong people who are so much more than their experience of homelessness (40 OF THE FORTY) It’s time we start to talk about LGBTQ youth homelessness through an intersectional and dimensional lens. So we’re not just talking about risk, we’re also talking about potential. We’re not just talking about danger, we’re also talking about opportunity. We're not just talking about family rejection, we're also talking about how segments of our society sanction it. We're not just talking about putting more beds in homeless shelters, but also preventing our young people from needing those beds to begin with. Let's talk about how our systems often fail LGBTQ youth and let's talk about intersectionality and poverty and how youth of color are overrepresented. Let's talk about what we're doing to challenge the institutionalized oppression that makes it incredibly difficult for a young person of transgender experience to get a job, to move through Runaway and Homeless Youth (RHY) programs, to gain equal access and to have an equal and equitable shot at the future they deserve.
When we shift the message to include more holistic portrayals of LGBTQ youth and their experiences of homelessness, we open up possibilities for their success in a number of ways. First, we demonstrate that we see them for all of who they are. We can hope that this counters some of the stigma they face in their daily lives. Second, we recognize and are subsequently able to focus on their strengths, rather than solely on the experiences we assume make them victims. Non-judgmental, strengths-based programming may better equip young people to overcome homelessness . Third, focusing on their strengths in public messaging alters public perception. Shifting from a message of victimhood to a message of resilience contributes to a fundamental change in how young people experience existing programs, in what services and supports are made available to young people, and in how the public engages with our community.
The True Colors Fund is a national organization that works to end homelessness among lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth. Through community organizing, the True Colors Fund is facilitating cross sector collaborations and the creation of sustainable community based solutions to prevent homelessness among LGBT youth and intervene when it occurs. The True Colors Fund is also working to expand the number of providers across the country that can offer inclusive and affirming services.
Jama Shelton, Deputy Executive Director, True Colors Fund
Meghan Maury, Senior Policy Counsel and Criminal and Economic Justice Project Director, National LGBTQ Task Force
- Use language that does not reduce youth to one aspect of their existence – their housing status. Replace the phrase “homeless youth” with “youth experiencing homelessness.”
- Be mindful that young people are hearing the messages you use when discussing them – in your local media, to recruit donors, and on your website.
- Craft intervention strategies that take into account the varied reasons LGBTQ youth experience homelessness.
- Find ways to build upon the strengths of LGBTQ youth – in programs and in public facing campaigns.