I’m hardly a stranger to dire circumstances and consider myself lucky and charmed since there was always someone close to me confronted by more severe challenges, such as my recently departed father, who struggled with chronic drug-addiction for most of his life. My second boyfriend hung himself. I saw a man stabbed in Times Square when I was 9, have been shot at by a pistol-wielding meth addict and have seen someone plummet to his death from a bridge. I suppose that my neutral perspective on such things stems from my having grown up in the disinvested Bronx neighborhoods of the bleak 1970s and desperate 1980s.
My friend Mona Rae Mason of the Transgender Project (a New York City-based male-to-female transgender study) invited me to volunteer this past fall to help with the serving of a traditional Christmas dinner at Sylvia’s Place. Sylvia’s Place is a street-level recreation room-turned-LGBT homeless youth shelter on West 36th Street (betw. Dyer & 10 Aves.), beneath the Metropolitan Community Church, which serves the LGBT Christian community. I didn’t blink an eye and agreed to help. Other friends also volunteered and even my mother applauded the humanitarian gesture, accepting my absence on Christmas night for such a touching cause.
As I ascended the subway stairs onto Herald Square, I was transported to the magical Christmases of my childhood. I remembered how my family stood in impossibly long lines at Macy’s, so that my sister and I could have our pictures taken with Santa Claus (as hysterically recanted from the perspective of an elf by David Sedaris, in Holidays on Ice). Passing Macy’s, I saw the futuristic lights of Times Square glowing and flashing, further up 7th Avenue; 34th Street was quiet. The Empire State Building beamed with blue, red and green lights, like a giant toy.
A few youngsters were smoking outside when I arrived at the shelter. One stylish girl wished me Merry Christmas as I opened the heavy metal door and made my way in. I was riveted. There were about 20 youths in the scantily furnished room. Most were African American, some Latino. Some were lost in deep contemplation; others seemed to be in despair. A couple argued with each other. I noticed a few kids sleeping on the floor on yoga mats. Others were crashed on a countertop. A few had laptops and kept busy playing games and writing emails. One girl braided the hair of a young Latina who was eight-and-a-half months pregnant. A chatty, jubilant boy danced on rollerblades. And more than a few of the youngsters broke out into fevered, improvised dance, skipping from Beyoncé to hardcore rap. It was reminiscent of the raw tribal energy captured in Jennie Livingston’s now-classic 1990 ballroom culture documentary, Paris is Burning.
There was a noticeable chasm dividing the mostly distanced youngsters (who were never rude, but had mastered neutrality) from the “tribal elders.” The dozen-plus elders in attendance included the aforementioned Mona Rae Mason of the Transgender Project, an NYPD Community Affairs liaison (who drove in from Pennsylvania) and Nancy Lamar of Crossdressers International. The East of Eden restaurant donated food and my partner, John Williams, coordinated the majority of the cooking with his brother. The rest of us washed dishes, served food and mingled with the more receptive youths. The social ice was shattered when drag queen comedienne Hedda Lettuce arrived in her trademark green and blond wig, her funny charisma warming the room instantly.
It was hard not to wonder about the circumstances that had forced these kids to seek shelter there. Most had been expelled from their homes for being queer or ran away due to abuse. They have to sign in by 10 every night and the single-room shelter has a 40-person capacity. They’re provided with clothes, a washer/dryer, canned and dry foods, and company. With few work options in the present economy, many are forced to hustle. I spoke to several of them about their dreams and aspirations. Three boys were organizing an open mike talent show. Another serpentine boy and a dreadlocked girl named Star were natural, agile dancers. Others expressed interest in social work, fashion design and makeup and hair artistry.
Homophobia, one of the most tragic of our many American traditions, is fueled by religious dogma and ill-educated hysteria. It promotes violence against gentle people. It devalues those who have individuated spiritual compositions; those who do not comply with either extreme of the antiquated, anal-retentive, masculine/feminine polarity model. Queer people are different from the norm, and it’s estimated that there are thousands of similar homeless queer youngsters living on the streets of New York City. What was once a revered shamanistic class, in societies the world over, has been stripped of its spiritual value and condemned by the very institutions that the LGBT community is seeking marriage visibility from.
As gay marriage dominates LGBT politics, more pressing issues get kicked to the curb. I agree that same-sex couples should have the right to marry, period. I know many such couples who married when they could and applauded them. But seeking acceptance from religious institutions that once tortured us and burned us at the stake is outrageous. It’s even insulting. Most of these churches won’t even acknowledge that queers populate their priesthoods like there’s no tomorrow! Churches and fevered religious leaders are the sources of the ignorance and fear and hatred that lands beautiful kids, such as the kids at Sylvia’s Place, onto the streets of New York City and elsewhere, just for being gay, transgendered or lesbian.
The LGBT political movement has become so impassioned by bourgeois equality values that it’s turned its back on the needy of its own “community.” An annual pride parade, activists, public services, DVD stores, websites and bars do not comprise a community. AIDS claimed untold numbers of mentors, teachers, artists and role models, and current generations need to assume these roles. Sure some mentors exist, but more are needed. The fight for queer equality, which is broader than “gay equality”, needs to redefine itself, if the LGBT “community” expects to change the way in which it’s perceived by others. Gay marriage only represents the ‘L’ and ‘G’ of LGBT. Gay, privileged exclusivity isn’t enough, as many of us don’t care about Queer as Folk or Britney Spears—such as those amazing kids who inspired me this past Christmas. They can always use money donations, clothes, bottled water, dry and canned foods, and oh yeah, mentors and teachers.
Volunteer at Homeless Youth Services
Homeless Youth Services operates with a very small staff so they are always in need of volunteers to help with cooking, laundry, leading groups, organizing activities, helping with resumes, turtoring and much more. Mental health professionals are especially needed. To learn about weekly needs at Homeless Youth Services by signing up with the low-volume listserv. To sign up, send an email to Lucky S. Michaels, Shelter Director, at LuckyMichaels@gmail.com.
New volunteer orientation dates will be 5:30 p.m.-7pm every other Wednesday. All orientation sessions are held at 446 W. 36th St., Ground Floor. For more information visit www.homelessyouthservices.org.