While life gets better for millions of gays, the number of homeless LGBT teens – many cast out by their religious families – quietly keeps growing.
From that moment, Jackie knew that she was entirely on her own, that she had no home, no money and no family who would help her – and that this was the terrible price she’d pay for being a lesbian.
Jackie’s story may be distinctive in its particulars, but across America, it is hardly unique. Research done by San Francisco State University’s Family Acceptance Project, which studies and works to prevent health and mentalhealth risks facing LGBT youth, empirically confirms what common sense would imply to be true: Highly religious parents are significantly more likely than their less-religious counterparts to reject their children for being gay – a finding that social-service workers believe goes a long way toward explaining why LGBT people make up roughly five percent of the youth population overall, but an estimated 40 percent of the homeless-youth population. The Center for American Progress has reported that there are between 320,000 and 400,000 homeless LGBT youths in the United States. Meanwhile, as societal advancements have made being gay less stigmatized and gay people more visible – and as the Internet now allows kids to reach beyond their circumscribed social groups for acceptance and support – the average coming-out age has dropped from post-college age in the 1990s to around 16 today, which means that more and more kids are coming out while they’re still economically reliant on their families. The resulting flood of kids who end up on the street, kicked out by parents whose religious beliefs often make them feel compelled to cast out their own offspring (one study estimates that up to 40 percent of LGBT homeless youth leave home due to family rejection), has been called a “hidden epidemic.” Tragically, every step forward for the gay-rights movement creates a false hope of acceptance for certain youth, and therefore a swelling of the homeless-youth population.
“The summer that marriage equality passed in New York, we saw the number of homeless kids looking for shelter go up 40 percent,” says Carl Siciliano, founder of the Ali Forney Center, the nation’s largest organization dedicated to homeless LGBT youth. A former Benedictine monk-in-training, who once went by the nickname Baby Jesus, Siciliano had spent years living in monasteries and serving in shelters run by the Catholic Worker Movement before his own sexuality inextricably came between him and his institutional faith. “I ended up just feeling like the Catholic Church was wack,” he says. “Cardinal O’Connor [the archbishop of New York at the time who once said if he was forced to hire homosexuals, he would shut down all of the Catholic schools and orphanages in the diocese] was like the arch-homophobe of America.” Siciliano was working at a housing program for the homeless in the Nineties when he noticed that his clientele was getting younger and younger. Until then, he says, “you almost never saw kids. It was Vietnam vets, alcoholics and deinstitutionalized mentally ill people.” But not only were more kids showing up, they were also disappearing. “Every couple of months one of our kids would get killed,” Siciliano says. “And it would always be a gay kid.” In 2002, he founded the Ali Forney Center, naming it after a homeless 22-year-old who’d been shot in the head on the street in Harlem, not far from where the organization’s drop-in center currently resides. Siciliano had been close with Forney and felt that had he had a safe place to go, he might be alive today.