Queer street youth grapple with issues heterosexual counterparts do not, experts say

By Lauren Mitsuki

Sue Pihlainen talks of being liberated on the day she summoned the courage to come out to her family as a lesbian.

But among the gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual homeless youth she works with today, emancipating coming-out stories are few and far between, she said.

A step out of the closet can turn into a step onto the streets for many queer youth, leaving them grappling with issues their heterosexual homeless counterparts do not face, experts say.

“Some parents are very proud of their kids when they come out, but for the most part, that’s not the reaction,” said Pihlainen, who co-ordinates the Evelyn Horne Young Women’s Emergency Shelter in Ottawa.

“Parents have a really hard time with the people their kids are turning into and they kick them out.”

Pihlainen said that while research indicates between 25 and 40 per cent of homeless youth identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, her experience tells her the number is larger.

She said that on any given day, lesbian, transgender and bisexual women occupy at least a handful of the shelter’s 30 rooms.

Pihlainen said these young women often come from conservative households or families that uphold “right-wing” religious beliefs.

She also said some parents try a “tough love” approach, booting their teenagers out of the house until they’re ready to change.

“One of our trans youth that came in was told that if she wanted to return home, she would need to dress like a boy and act like a boy,” said Pihlainen.

“So, she wasn’t going to be going home.”

Pihlainen added that she has seen this approach appear to work on occasion, when youth return home pretending to be straight “because it’s too hard for them to be who they really are.”

Jeff Karabanow, a social work professor at Dalhousie University, said his research and clinical work indicate that the issues queer homeless youth face stem from the way they fall into street life.

Karabanow said heterosexual street youth generally have a better understanding of “what went wrong.”

Queer youth, on the other hand, often end up on the streets still puzzled by their circumstances and their family’s inability to accept them, he said.

“They tend not to come from families that are dysfunctional or abusive,” said Karabanow.

“There’s more of a real questioning around, ‘Why am I treated differently here because of something I have no control over?’ ”

Pihlainen said the lesbian, bisexual and transgender women who enter the doors of the Evelyn Horne Young Women’s Emergency Shelter often feel like they are suffering alone.

One of the first things she said she does is connect them with other queer youth at the shelter.  She said this helps them realize they are not alone and sparks the healing process.

“When they start to feel better about who they are, they can start to depersonalize

their parents,” said Pihlainen.  “They realize their self-worth isn’t always in direct connection to their parents.”

Karabanow said a queer youth’s decision to leave home isn’t always driven by single-minded parents, though.

Emotionally abusive siblings, schoolmates and entire communities can push queer youth onto the streets, he said.

Karabanow said it is common for queer youth to migrate from towns to cities, seeking the anonymity and acceptance they think a metropolis will offer.

“With a bigger city, it also provides you with support organizations that will most likely deal specifically with the queer population,” he said.

But according to Ilona Abramovich, a PhD student at the University of Toronto, queer homeless youth are reluctant to turn to support services in the first place, especially when they expect the homophobia or transphobia they experienced in their homes to pop up in other places.

“You’ve lost security with the people who are supposed to love you the most,” said Abramovich, who wrote her York University master’s thesis on the scarcity of support services for Toronto’s queer homeless youth.

“They’re kicking you out for being honest, and it creates a fear around coming out and not knowing where it is safe.”

She said the services queer homeless youth avoid are sometimes the ones that can help them exit street life.

Abramovich said she thinks an ironic situation lies at the root of the overrepresentation of queer youth in the homeless population.

“As a society, we’re encouraging people to come out at a younger age,” she said.

“But I don’t think that people are necessarily prepared to deal with that because extreme homophobia and transphobia still happens.”

*graphic: Kayla Redstone


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