So far, 2009 has been a bleak year for homeless youth in Utah, and homeless youth who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender in particular.
According to Jude McNeil, the Utah Pride Center’s Youth Program Director, 42 percent of the state’s homeless youth population identifies as gay, lesbian or bisexual, while one percent identifies as transgender—trends, she added, that reflect those across the nation, which currently has 1.3 homeless youth. Of such youth, a startling 75 percent have gone through youth placement programs (including foster care) before ending up on the streets.
As if these numbers weren’t troubling enough, McNeil noted that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth make up “only about three to eight percent of the youth population.”
“Something’s not matching up here,” she said. “LGBT people are coming out younger and younger and our systems of care and schools are having a hard time keeping up and [finding out] how to serve LGBT youths.” Social taboos about youth sexuality, she noted, may be part of the reason.
“Our schools and youth-centered environments are often uncomfortable addressing issues of sexual orientation and gender identity, so our youths are falling through the cracks,” she said. And what does falling through the cracks entails not only homelessness but many of the things that accompany it: drug use, attempted and successful suicide attempts, self-mutilation and even pregnancy. Despite their sexual orientation, McNeil noted that queer female homeless youth were “three times more likely to get pregnant” than their straight peers, thanks to internalized homophobia.
“They are at higher risk for riskier behavior if they don’t have a supportive adult,” noted McNeil.
Thankfully for Utah and the nation’s population of queer homeless youth, they have two such adults in Chloe Noble and Jill Hardman. In May, the two Salt Lake women will embark on a 3,000 mile cross-country journey that will take them from Seattle to Washington, D.C. and then by bus to New Orleans and Austin, Tex. On their way, they will speak at a number of gay and transgender community centers on the struggles and needs of queer homeless youth. To show the urgency of their cause the two will also live homeless and film hours of footage of gay and transgender homeless youth. They will also be blogging as they travel, and even giving up to the moment updates through the Web site Twitter. They have named their journey the Homeless Youth Pride Walk 2009.
McNeil and the Utah Pride Center are helping Noble and Hardman, who have never undertaken such an effort, with media contacts and with connecting them to organizations across the country who may be interested in their walk.
“In general, whenever they have questions or need help, I’m able to give them information and help them out,” said McNeil.
“Now is my time to shine”
In March, Noble told QSaltLake that she is interested in helping homeless queer youth in part because she spent periods of her 20s on the streets. Youth often end up there, she said, because being homeless is often safer than staying with family who are physically, emotionally or sexually abusive when a youth comes out as gay or transgender.
Noble, who came out at age 20, said that her devout Mormon parents could not accept her sexuality or her interest in “bending gender norms.”
“So to leave home was an empowered choice, but not entirely,” Noble wrote in a March 20 blog post to the walk’s Web site, pridewalk2009.org. “For I had no where else to go but the streets. Inside of me lived a fire that was determined to shine against all odds. I would do whatever it took to make it on my own. But who would I turn too [sic] when I needed safety and appropriate guidance? How would I get my own basic needs met? There were no adequate youth centers to provide any form of information or support. Needless to say, I lost my clarity and fell back into old patterns just to survive. I became a statistic again in a different environment.”
Fifteen years later, Noble has a partner, Jenny, and is a small business owner. She is at a good place in her life, she said, and feels that it is now time to give back to the community.
“Now is the moment for me to reach out to help those less fortunate in our community, in our nation, and in our world,” she wrote. “Now is my time to shine for those children who are seemingly trapped in a prison without walls … that it may inspire them to overcome incredible odds and to stand in triumph as they share their profound experiences. I want to be there as they rise from adversity and help to support them as they discover who they really are.”
Noble agreed with McNeil that schools and child welfare systems are currently not doing enough to help at-risk queer youth, in part because of anti-gay and anti-transgender bias. Without help, Noble noted that these youth are at risk for physical abuse, rape and sexual exploitation, mental illness, drug abuse and even death.
“Parents of LGBTQ youth and child welfare systems sometimes have biases and misconceptions that are not investigated,” Noble explained. “Many of these youth have spent time in a child welfare placement where they have suffered discrimination and further harm for being queer. At this point in time, our systems of care are not given effective tools to work with LGBTQ youth, so these youth end up homeless. Our society in general and our systems of care have a duty to serve these youth and to make sure they are protected inside and outside of the home.”
“We are walking because we believe that our youth should not have to live on the streets, sleeping in the cold, wondering where their next meal is going to come from,” she said.
Like her walking partner, Jill Hardman also grew up Mormon and learning that there was only one way to live.
“Attend church regularly, get a proper education, find an appropriate job, get married to a worthy man, have a family, and make lots of money,” Hardman wrote in a speech she will give at the walk’s launch. “These are the values of my family. This is my family’s American dream. But this was not my dream.”
Being told by her family that her own dreams were unworthy and that her sexuality was the result of hanging out with “the wrong people” left a lasting impression on Hardman, who said she often considered taking her own life as a youth. These experiences, she said, have made her sympathetic to the struggles queer homeless youth face.
“I relate to their feelings of self-doubt, anger, abandonment, and fear. I understand what it feels like to be overlooked, misunderstood, devalued, and unfairly judged, because of my sexual orientation, unique spirituality, and desire to live my life according to my own standards,” she said. “I want their story to be heard and I want to be part of their recovery. This is my dream.”
Since Noble and Hardman announced their walk in March, they have received an outpouring of support, both locally and nationally. Utah organizations supporting their walk include the Utah Pride Center, Volunteers of America Utah, The Inclusion Center and the Homeless Youth Resource Center. Nationally, the two are being supported by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, gay publications including the Philadelphia Gay News and Web site GayTwoGather.com, a number of homeless youth activists, authors and filmmakers and several Metropolitan Community Churches, at which the women will speak.
But support for their walk is coming not just in media attention. When Noble and Hardman realized that they would need extra hard drives and a laptop to store their footage, Noble said they nearly had to call the walk off because they couldn’t afford to buy $4,000 of equipment. Happily, an anonymous donor from Ogden gave them the money they need to purchase seven portable hard drives, four desktop hard drives and a new iMac laptop.
Additionally, Provo resident John Rasmussen donated all of the supplies the women needed for their trip, including sleeping bags, backpacks and other gear. McNeil also gave them $600 worth of handmade wristbands to use, said Noble, as “street currency” and to give out to the homeless youth they meet.
“Many local and national organizations and private citizens, have also donated their time, talent, energy, and education to make Homeless Youth Pride Walk 2009 possible,” said Noble.
In fact, interest in the walk has been so great that Noble and Hardman are now able to set up a non-profit organization before they leave. The foundation will be named the Noble Echoes Foundation. The women have also brought on Matt Rouse as their Media Relations Director to help with the high volume of emails, telephone calls and other messages they are now receiving from across the country.
May Launch and the Future
Because the Utah Pride Center serves a large number of queer youth (many of whom are homeless), McNeil said the center’s building was the perfect place to launch the Homeless Youth Pride Walk. She also said that the center will work with Noble and Hardman upon their return to Salt Lake City. The two have plans not only to turn their walk footage into a documentary and public service announcements, but to implement a program at the center that would let queer youth help homeless queer youth get back on their feet.
“It is our intention to unify LGBTQ youth through artistic expression, and to teach them how to become mutual mentors in a process of self-awareness and collective healing,” Noble told QSaltLake in March. “It’s an opportunity for empowered youth in the LGBTQ community to [help] at risk youth, whether that’s creating an event or a PSA that will help … build a bridge between at risk and empowered youth.”
Ultimately, Noble and Hardman hope that they can help put Salt Lake City on the map as a truly progressive city when it comes to helping homeless queer youth. Although Utah has received much negative attention in the past few months thanks to the LDS Church’s campaign to re-ban gay marriage, Noble said that this negative attention can be turned into something good.
“It’s a hot zone right now and we want to use that hot zone to do something positive,” she said.