It's Pride Week, but the struggle isn't over
It’s Pride Week in New York City, and members of the LGBTQ community have reason to celebrate with gay marriage now legal in 19 states (plus the District of Columbia) and support among the American public on the rise. This year’s theme, “Yesterday’s struggle is today’s heritage,” gives festivalgoers an opportunity to reflect on the storms the LGBTQ community has weathered and the strides it has made since the 1969 Stonewall Riots in Greenwich Village.
But despite civil rights advances and growing support at the national level, youth across the country still get thrown out of their homes for being gay or transgender, even in seemingly tolerant places like New York. This can have very real and, at times, perilous consequences for LGBTQ-identified teens and young adults who may not have anywhere else to go. A 2012 study found that among homeless youth, 40 percent identified as LGBT, having fled home because of family rejection or abuse they experienced when they came out, or due to family violence or poverty.
Surviving on the street
Once they’re out on the streets, it can be hard to find a supportive safety net, and some youth turn to trading sex in order to meet basic needs.
The first time I got involved because, all right, my friend used to do the same thing. And yeah, so I like, picked up on it. I picked on because, like, my family wasn’t providing for me and nobody was doing nothing for me, so I got to find out a way how to get money. And yeah, that’s how I got started getting money and getting food in my stomach.
We interviewed the young person above as part of a new study we’ll publish this fall on LGBTQ youth, young men who have sex with men, and young women who have sex with women who are—or are profiled as by law enforcement—engaged in New York City’s commercial sex market. Our study aims to get at how and why these teens enter the sex trade and what services they need. We know from past research that the majority of youth who enter the trade wish to leave it, but the pathway out is not always clear and can be laden with obstacles.
Current services aren’t enough
New York’s emergency shelter services currently offer 250-300 beds to homeless youth, but the total homeless youth population numbers in the thousands. If a young person can secure a shelter bed, they can only stay for 30-60 days, which may not be enough time to come up with a stable housing arrangement. And often, they face homophobic and transphobic abuse in shelters and group homes. This can perpetuate a cycle where youth return to trading sex in order to have a place to sleep, a meal, and a shower.
I don’t remember it that vividly, all I know is just that I was starving. I was starving and it was this, like, my friend was like, come to the stroll, trust me, you'll get somebody. I was hungry, I was cold, so I did it…
Supporting the family
Although many of the youth we interviewed were trading sex for their own personal survival, some youth that we spoke with still lived at home, but began trading sex for money in an effort to support other family members.
My mom got laid off a couple of weeks ago and we didn’t have any food or anything like that, so I told her I was going to try to find a job, which I did try to find a job and I couldn’t get a job. Some jobs told me I was overqualified and so I was desperate, and my first time was about around February of this year…
What needs to happen next?
No teenager should feel that they have to trade sex for basic survival. Our research points to serious services gaps when it comes to support for LGBTQ youth. At the top of the list is a need for increased emergency and long-term housing options so that youth have immediate and available places to go. They also need access to both formal and informal education, training opportunities so they can acquire skills for employment, and living-wage jobs.
While intervention efforts are paramount to helping youth find other options, stepping up prevention-based programming at the community level is equally important. This includes building public awareness of the issue and addressing systemic factors like poverty, abuse, and homophobia and transphobia that put LGBTQ-identified youth at risk of homelessness and needing to trade sex for survival needs.
With the country’s growing support for gay rights issues prominently on display in New York and other US cities this weekend, it’s time to celebrate the civil rights victories of 2014. But it’s equally important to remember that the struggle isn’t over for everyone.