I recently read a piece that informed readers about the ‘new priority’ of the LGBQT movement. Now that this marriage equality thing appears to be in the bag, readers learned, people could start to focus on the new priority—homeless queer youth. This was the point at which my jaw dropped and I had to manually close it before shaking my head firmly and then pinching myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.
I’ve had my beef with the marriage equality movement for a long time; to me, it shouldn’t be that high a priority, with all due respect to queers who very much want to get married. I have my qualms about marriage as an institution, and I dislike the fact that certain rights (like the ability to see a hospitalised partner) are contingent on marriage. While I certainly agree with the premise that marriage equality is a thing that should happen, the issue has never been very high on my personal list of concerns.
Homelessness among queer youth, on the other hand, has been, because it’s a very real and immediate threat to the health and safety of the younger generation. Queer youth, particularly those of colour, are much more likely to end up in unstable housing situations than their straight counterparts. They may be kicked out of their homes or made to feel deeply uncomfortable in their home environment, forcing them to rely on friends and family for housing. Some end up in the foster system, and others are out on the street.
To come out or be found out, as a young queer person, is to run the risk of losing everything. There is a chance of being bullied and abused in school, for example, another issue which I argue should be a high priority for the LGBQT movement. There is also a risk of either being told to leave your home, or being presented with a list of conduct rules that are unfeasible for you to comply with. Being cut off from your family can be traumatic and has a lasting effect, especially if you are forced to survive in the streets.
There’s a reason some queer youth, especially trans youth, need to turn to sex work to support themselves, and sometimes end up in exploitative situations as a result. There’s also a reason that trans youth tend to commit crimes at higher rates; not because transgender people are criminals, but because they may be forced to steal and engage in other illegal activities to access treatment and support themselves. The bulk of trans youth in incarceration are people of colour, with a heavy emphasis on young trans women of colour, who face significant abuses in the penal system including being housed with male inmates and denied access to treatment. The revolving door system that keeps people returning to the prison system can trap trans women of colour, and this, too, is an issue the LGBQT movement should be much more active on.
I find it deeply troubling that people are seriously saying homelessness is a ‘new priority’ for the LGBQT movement, like it is somehow less important than ensuring that we can marry the people of our choice. It’s deeply enraging to know that these priorities do exist, that they are being set, and that it’s primarily older white men who are setting them; much of the push for marriage equality, for example, has come from middle class gay men who may never have known homeless or incarceration, and thus don’t consider these issues to be priorities for ‘their’ movement.
MY movement includes all my people, not just the ones like me. I wasn’t kicked out of my house for being queer as a snake’s suspenders, but that doesn’t mean I don’t care about the homeless rate among queer youth, and the systemic issues it contributes to. To be homeless is to lose access to education, health care, job opportunities, is to be denied many chances in life. To be homeless is to be put in a position where you may need to commit crimes or engage in unsafe activities to stay alive. Once you start down that path, it can be very hard to stop, especially in regions like the US, which seems to have serious trouble tackling chronic homelessness.
This isn’t a ‘new priority.’ Protecting the younger generation should have been a priority all along. Seeing mainstream organisations and publications say otherwise is a stark reminder of the social and class divides within the LGBQT movement. For some, the biggest concern is having your partnership recognised by the government. For others, it’s staying alive through the night. And when you’re busying staying alive, you don’t have much time for lobbying, for forming organisations, for building connections, for reaching out to the people around you to form coalitions.
Which means that the marriage equality camp has been able to dominate the conversation about which issues facing the LGBQT community are most important, and which the movement as a whole should be focusing on. Is it any wonder that some young queers are feeling alienated and aren’t falling into lockstep with their elders? Many have little in common with a movement based on middle class whiteness, and it is clear that some ‘leaders’ are unwilling to shift outside their comfort zone to look to the needs of their community as a whole.
I support the right for marriage equality for a variety of reasons, but it will never be my highest priority.