After recently reading Dr. Jama Shelton and Dr. Julie Winkelstein’s YALS article (Fall, 2014), Librarians and Social Workers: Working Together for Homeless LGBTQ Youth, I was stunned by the appalling statistic cited in the first line of the article. Although LGBTQ youth make up only 5-7 % of the general youth population, up to 40% of homeless youth are LGBTQ. Many of these homeless youth spend long hours in public libraries. Libraries provide a relatively safe haven and allow them access to much-needed information about social services. But libraries have long struggled with how to handle homeless patrons and these teens fear that they will be stigmatized if they spend an inordinate amount of time in the library. Many of them are over 18 years old, which means, in many libraries, they are no longer eligible for young adult services.
So what can librarians do to address this powerful need? The article by Shelton and Winkelstein cites 11 strategies to help homeless LGBTQ youth. One of the most powerful strategies is to be a visible advocate within our communities for LGBTQ youth. Last year, I volunteered to be part of an initiative in my library to reach out to LGBTQ youth in my community. My first step was to contact the high school GSA (Gay Straight Alliance) to make a connection and offer them the library’s support. Through that first connection, I met Logan Sherman, a high school senior and transgender person. I contacted Logan recently to ask if he could share his experience with homeless LGBTQ youth. Here’s what Logan said:
I’m currently a second-year college student, but during my senior year of high school I was the GSA president. My goals were to bring visibility to the LGBTQ community as well as to provide safe spaces for students where their gender identity and/or sexual orientation would be accepted. I wanted my high school to become a more welcoming place for queer-identified students. To accomplish this, we held GSA meetings every Monday.
The first hands-on experience I had with LGBTQ homelessness came as a direct result of my GSA presidency. Casey*, a sophomore student, regularly attended meetings for support. He was somewhat effeminate, wore his hair long, and often dressed head-to-toe in black clothing. Casey was older than most sophomores because of his complicated family background. He had been homeschooled and moved around quite a bit before his grandparents became his legal guardians. Casey settled into the school year, but struggled to socialize with his peers and was a frequent target of bullying.
I remember getting the phone call: Casey, in tears, explained that he came out to his grandparents and that his grandfather told him, “Pack your things and get out of my house.” With nowhere to go, he went to our city’s library. I met up with him there to offer support and help him find a place to stay and other resources. The biggest challenge was that the nearest LGBT center was a half hour away and our suburban community was not particularly well-equipped to handle homeless youth, especially LGBTQ ones.
Casey was able to move in with a friend temporarily, but after that initial fallout with his family, his situation went downhill. He only attended school and GSA meetings sporadically and wasn’t doing well in his classes. Eventually, he stopped coming to school entirely and I had a hard time getting in touch with him. I’m fairly sure that he moved away to live with his dad at the end of the year, but I can’t say for certain.
I was incredibly fortunate in that even though my family did not accept my trans* identity at first, I was out of my parents’ house when I came out to them. LGBTQ youth struggle enough with self-acceptance in a society that tells them they are wrong or defective or going through a phase, and having to worry about finding a place to spend the night on top of it is an overwhelming amount of stress to place on a young person. It is vital that our communities demonstrate a commitment to diversity and inclusion, and that visible allies can be identified by young people. If a young person’s home is not a safe place, then it would be my goal that they could find a easily accessible and safe place for themselves in their own community. I think libraries can be powerful safe havens in that they are public, accessible, and resource centers. With statistics like the ones previously mentioned by Jan (up to 40% of homeless youth are LGBTQ), there is no question that there is a need for support for these young people. As allies to these youth, making yourself visible and having resources on hand can have an enormous impact.
*Name has been changed for the sake of privacy
*Trans* is an umbrella term that refers to all of the identities within the gender identity spectrum. See more at: What does the asterisk in trans* stand for.