Editors' Note: Sassafras Lowrey is an internationally award-winning queer author, artist, educator who edited the Kicked Out anthology of current and former homeless LGBTQ youth. Sassafras tours to colleges, conferences, and organizations across the country. More about Sassafras is available at pomofreakshow.com and kickedoutanthology.com.
Last week, I sat on the national conference call to mark the one-year release of 'Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan To Prevent and End Homelessness.' The report itself was somewhat groundbreaking, as the government actually recognized LGBTQ youth as a specific vulnerable population of homeless youth, and outlined the need to provide them with culturally competent services. That said, it didn't go nearly as far as I would have hoped in terms of concretely making plans to provide services to the estimated 40 percent of homeless youth in the United States who identify as LGBTQ. The rhetoric of last week's call concerned me. It mirrored the trend I'm seeing from direct services providers across the country who are focused on offering culturally competent services for queer youth but advocate for an emphasis on family reunification and suggest that it is what's best for most youth.
When I was a 17-year-old homeless queer teenager, I had my court-appointed victims advocate tell me that I should lift the restraining order against my mother, move back into her home, and try to be "normal." Nearly a decade later, I can still pull from a file the folded stained pages that came through the fax machine of my high school from the court trying to pressure me into seeing my mother, and telling me that my successful development was dependent upon my family being reunited. The fact that she had plead guilty to felony assault - not even a year before - did not matter, nor did the years of manipulation and calculated abuse I had documented for them. They wanted me to risk my mental and physical safety because, clearly, that was less important than the stereotypical happy family they maintained somehow could still be achieved.
I never once asked to be reunited with my mother. I got the nerve up to leave a time that I had enough physical bruises I thought the cops would have to pay attention. I saw leaving as my one chance at survival. I was lucky. I was just old enough that my conservative semi-rural county determined I was too old to go into the foster care system and instead was left on my own. They said they "didn't know what to do with me" and that I should "not get into trouble until I turned 18." I couch surfed with adults I knew until they found out I was a lesbian and threw me out six months later. Then I found LGBTQ community, and I found other homeless queer kids. I began building family and felt loved and safe for the first time in my life. I carried a copy of the restraining order in my back pocket everywhere I went, acutely aware that my mother maintained sole custody of me, and prepared to have to fight for my freedom at any moment.
Now, I facilitate writing groups for homeless queer kids in shelters and youth centers across the country and it breaks my heart to hear how they live with those same fears that ruled my life. Over and over again the youth I meet tell me how they are literally choosing to sleep on the streets because the shelters in their city demand family notification, and promote family reunification. Some youth stay out of services for years until they turn eighteen and they know their biological families won't be contacted. I understand that most agencies only want what's best for the youth they serve, but part of that means actually listening to youth and not continuing to put resources into program models that are pushing the very youth you want to serve away.
Imagine a private or government agency suggesting that the best, or even required, course of action for a domestic partner violence survivor is to rebuild a relationship with her/hir/his abuser in order to receive services. Imagine telling them that relationships are very important and that without this person in your life you're destined to be less successful, less whole. This is exactly what homeless, queer youth are told on a daily basis at youth-serving-agency after youth-serving-agency across the country that strongly encourage or require youth to attempt to rebuild a relationship with their biological family. Imagine being forced to fight against agencies you need basic services from, to not bring toxic and dangerous people back into your life. As a community, we need to demand that service providers recognize that family reunification models are actually keeping youth on the streets out of fear.
As queer folks, it is our job to take back the idea of the family. Family is a weapon that has been used against so many of us, and in many cases it's also been taken violently from us. It is imperative that we not take it up as a weapon ourselves. Family has become a battleground. It has become politicized, privileged, and all too often, it's the most marginalized who get trapped in the crossfire. The idea of the family being something that needs to be defended is a rhetoric that has and continues to be used in homophobic and transphobic ways by politicians and religious leaders preaching and legislating around a narrow definition of what they consider to be or not be family. But it isn't just right wing fanatics who are sent on defining "family" in narrow ways. We also need to take the idea of family back from our own community and insist that agencies that serve homeless LGBTQ youth not continue to perpetuate narrow definitions of what a family looks like.
Families are built everywhere from the backs of youth centers, to bookstores, coffee shops, and conferences. They are formed at protests and in classrooms. Building family is scary and risky business. It is by its very nature unsafe. Creating family means lowering armor, showing our scars and trusting a stranger not to split you apart again. For me, the way to survive was through telling my story and building a family that did want me - not through trying to be "normal" enough to fit into the family that didn't. Instead of pushing for homeless LGBTQ youth to reconnect with their families of origin, we need to encourage the construction of new families, using a model of building instead of reunification