Overcoming homelessness, police abuse, transgender inequity, LGBT people reject life at the margins

NewsWorks and NLGJA, the association of LGBT journalists, presented a public discussion on Sept. 15 at WHYY studios about the long-running and ongoing priorities of LGBT communities in the Philadelphia region that may be overlooked in the mainstream emphasis on marriage equality.

Five guests shared personal stories to illustrate some of those critical issues, both as Speak Easy commentaries and in person at the forum. Running through their stories were common themes — rejection, isolation, unemployment, poverty, cultural incompetence — that continue to hold LGBT folks back from full equality, whether they can legally marry or not.

Youth homelessness

Phantazia Washington, from The Attic Youth Center, spoke about how her experience with homelessness led her to realize that family rejection is at the root of “greater forms of institutional oppression” for LGBT youth.

Nationally, about 26 percent of LGBT youth experience violence, and 30 percent are forced out of their homes, said Washington. As a result, about 40 percent of the national homeless population comprises LGBT people. Recent data shows a worse situation in Philadelphia, where 54 percent of all homeless youth identify as LGBTQ.

Homeless LGBT kids generally have three paths, she said: child welfare, juvenile justice, or invisibility. Of those who enter the child welfare system, 56 percent run away from foster care when they encounter violence, victimization and rejection from the people meant to be protecting them. She said that some of her friends had been forced into conversion therapy or exorcisms.

Many young people who do not have the means to avoid child welfare eventually end up in the juvenile justice system, where LGBT youth are disproportionately represented as well, and where they are likely to encounter further victimization.

The fight for same-sex marriage, which was won “through dismantling this heterosexist idea of what love looks like,” said Washington, provides a lesson. The first step is to attack the problem of family rejection, to support LGBT teens and young adults who are unable to form support networks, and to demand that so-called social safety nets do not perpetuate the trauma that prevents LGBT youth from finding stability.

Relations with police

Deja Lynn Alvarez, a transgender advocate with GALAEI and Mazzoni Center, described a history of abuse and mistreatment by Philadelphia police, which eventually led to her work as a liaison between the city’s LGBT communities and the department.

The stark reality, Alvarez said, is that half of all trans people attempt suicide before they reach adulthood. And trans women of color are at the greatest risk to be assaulted or murdered just for being who they are.

Finding the gayborhood to be an unsafe space for the T of the LGBT community, and experiencing that the people charged to protect and serve were more likely attack and traumatize, Alvarez said she hit a tipping point. After a physical confrontation with a cop at 13th and Locust streets — where the crosswalks are today outlined in rainbow stripes — she decided to push back, a step that led to major improvements in relations between the police and the transgender community.

Now, years later, she now trains police cadets as part of the Philadelphia Police Liaison Committee. “One of the things that I try very hard to do in the advocacy and the activism that I do is to recognize where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going,” she said.

She is regularly on the phone with Deputy Commissioner Kevin Bethel. “That’s a big change from all them years ago, when I was this scared little girl walking down the street, ducking behind cars, because I was afraid the cop was gonna catch me going from bar to bar,” she said.

Even though she has seen — and helped to create — such progress, Alvarez was nearly overcome with emotion while telling her story, because the memories are still raw and painful. She says still to this day, when she is traveling, she freezes when she sees a police officer, thinking: “Oh god, is he going to pull me over? And then if he pulls me over, if he finds out that I’m trans, how is he gonna treat me? Am I gonna get locked up? Am I gonna get beat up?”

Transgender rights and issues of aging

That enduring fear of abuse, and the poison of familial rejection, were central to the story that panelist Dawn Munro* told. Munro, who serves on the boards of the LGBT Elder Initiative and PFLAG Philadelphia, said she has found a good life in Philly.

“I’m very, very blessed because I live in the [LGBT-friendly John C.] Anderson Apartments,” Munro said. “And to replace the family that I lost and all the friends that I lost, I have now got a wonderful cadre of friends, people that I care passionately about and I know care passionately about me.”

She started her story as a child growing up in the UK, when she explained to her parents that she was not happy as a boy. When her psychiatrist father realized this was not the passing whimsy of a child, he forced her into electroconvulsive therapy at an asylum.

“If they couldn’t talk me out of my feelings, then they could sure as hell knock it out of my brain,” she said. “It taught me that, if I wanted to be happy and not be harassed, the last thing I wanted to do on God’s green earth was talk to my parents.”

She left high school, left home, and found bar work in London, where she, like Alvarez, suffered trauma and abuse at the hands of police.

“I came to understand that this wasn’t going to change any time soon,” Munro said. “In those days if you were transgender, you were — the common term was ‘pervert.’ I don’t know if I can articulate what that does to your self-esteem when someone calls you to your face a ‘pervert.'”

But she endured through night school and graduated on to university, earning degrees in microbiology, geology and environmental science, and public health. She left the UK after her employer prevented her from fully transitioning and she feared the loss of her job.

“I am ferocious in my defense of trans people,” said Munro, who was honored last year for her activism at Philly’s Outfest. “We all have to stand up.”

Munro acknowledged the common thread of unequal opportunity running through the panelists’ stories. “There are many trans people, from the time they leave school or walk away from school, they have no jobs. They go from hand to mouth all through their lives. They end up in retirement, and they’ve got nothing, because society would never allow them the opportunity to create anything for themselves.”

She described a friend in North Philly, age 58, unemployed, scared to go out at night, as a “prisoner in her own home.” Another friend who transitioned late in life, now 69, has Alzheimer’s disease. “She has no memory back to the time when she did something about her anguish. All she can remember is a life full of sorrow. What happens to people who get into that position?” Munro said. “Who stands up for them? Who will ultimately take care of them? I’m not so hopeful for the future as far as that’s concerned.”

She says marriage equality to her has become a kind of sad joke. “I took part in God knows how many demonstrations, letter-writing campaigns, telephone campaigns in support of this,” she said. “And I sometimes think, you know, I’m not hearing too much from this greater community that I espouse as being my own about how they all feel about us and our struggles. Because we do need to have real equality in this city, in this state, and certainly in this country.”

Munro also called for better representation in the media. “Too often the achievements of trans people get ignored,” she said. “I am not unusual. I know of at least 30 trans people who are in highly respected positions in their various professions. These are not just people who were born losers. People are not born as losers. They’re made losers.”

The intersection of religion and LGBT experience

Panelist John Bright, a religious studies Ph.D candidate at Temple University, got to the ideological roots that prevent LGBT empowerment. “We need to be honest that much of the opposition to our civil rights does come from religious sources,” he said.

The reason LGBT rights groups won the legal argument about marriage is because they won the moral argument first, said Bright. As LGBT people have become more visible, the Golden Rule has begun to operate. That fundamentally moral argument eventually overcame the argument from supposed moral leaders with institutional authority.

“As we move forward, we need to lean into the fact that we did win that moral argument,” he said — that LGBT people have the insight and experience to know that the power of what people say in opposition is not based on the institution that backs them but rather whether what they say is true. “I think that that point can continue to propel us forward for the battles that we continue to need to wage,” Bright said.

Bright also urged compassion within and among LGBT communities for LGBT people of all religious traditions, because they are in a position to do work from within faith communities that non-religious people can’t do.

He himself has confronted anti-LGBT street preachers and protesters. “I have been able to catch [Philadelphia-based Repent America minister Michael Marcavage] without a megaphone and have real conversations with him enough that he literally runs away from me now when he sees me. You would think that someone like that, who makes a point of being very public about his opposition, and in situations when he is very outnumbered, would actually be courageous or eloquent … one on one. And he’s entirely the reverse. He’s neither courageous nor eloquent. He doesn’t run because I’m physically intimidating or I have a megaphone. He runs because he’s not actually capable of engaging in these conversations intelligently.”

*Dawn Munro declined to be recorded on video for this report.

A scheduled fifth panelist, Christian Hill, a health educator with Camden Area Health Education Center, was unable to attend the forum. I urge everyone to read his very personal and moving story about his struggle to overcome an abusive relationship. Hill counsels many young men of color who are in similar situations and directs them toward more positive physical and mental health outcomes. 

We take very seriously the idea of giving space to people to tell their own stories, and for giving others an opportunity to hear them. Submit a personal essay, commentary or op-ed to Speak Easy for consideration. 

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