By Edith England
This Saturday, 40,000 people will celebrate lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans equality in Wales’ biggest celebration of LGBTQ acceptance. Yet can we really say we have achieved equality, when LGBTQ people remain at much higher risk of homelessness?
June 28th, 1970. Two thousand New Yorkers marched, from the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street, to Central Park, 51 blocks away, to demand LGBTQ rights. LGBTQ identity was still criminalised, with LGBTQ people seen as dangerous and mentally incompetent. It took bravery to march through the city, holding banners and signs aloft, to demand equality. This was the first Pride.
Exactly one year before, police had raided the city’s most popular LGBTQ bar, the Stonewall Inn, for what would be the last time. Despite being continually targeted by New York’s brutal police force, the Inn was a haven for America’s harassed and victimised LGBTQ community. That night they fought back, led, in part, by a young, self identified, homeless, “street queen” named Marsha P Johnson.
A seasoned activist, Marsha’s gender identity and expression were ambiguous and don’t fit modern categories neatly. At 22, she had already had many of the experiences common to LGBTQ homeless youth- parental rejection, high risk of abuse, familial violence. The Stonewall Inn was one of the few places in the city for homeless LGBTQ youth, like her, to meet, exist, and be accepted.
Fifty years have passed. British lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people’s rights are beyond what the Stonewall protestors dared to demand. Marriage equality, parental and adoption rights, and strong anti-discrimination laws place the UK among the best in the world at protecting its lesbian, gay and bisexual citizens. For trans people, progress has been slower. However, as well as protection against discrimination, and the right to gender recognition (for some trans people), the new Gender Identity Clinic in Wales, for trans people who want medical care as part of their transition, is a welcome move forward.
But not everyone has the same access to equality. In the shadow of this phenomenal progress exists a shocking statistic: in Britain today, 24% of youth at risk of homelessness identify as LGBTQ. A quarter of trans people have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives. This is made worse by discrimination in other parts of young LGBTQ people’s lives. Many schools remain unsafe places for LGBTQ youth. High numbers of LGBTQ people have experienced hate crime. Unsurprisingly, drug and alcohol addiction and poor mental health are higher in LGBTQ people than the rest of the population.
No young person should be homeless. No young person should have to stay with an abusive family, or have nowhere to turn after being thrown out by their parents. LGBTQ youth, like all homeless people, need more than just accommodation. Homelessness is a traumatic experience. To help them move on, they need joined-up support. They need access to services that understand them, that accept them and that value them for who they are.
Fifty years ago, homeless LGBTQ people were in the vanguard of the fight for equality. We owe our modern LGBTQ rights to them. In the years after the first Pride, Marsha P Johnson, with Sylvia Riviera, continued their street activism. Still in their early twenties themselves, they set up and funded the STAR house, the first refuge for homeless LGBT youth.
Yet in Wales, in 2018, homeless LGBTQ youth have few targeted services, no dedicated hostels or refuges, and few specialist workers. In comparison, England has several specialist charities, including the Albert Kennedy Trust, which provides intensive support for homeless LGBTQ youth (including a UK-wide helpline).
Homeless lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people in Wales are being let down. It is time for change.
Shelter Cymru is currently looking at the experiences of trans people who have been homeless in Wales. If you are trans, have been homeless and would be willing to talk to a researcher about your experiences, please get in touch with Edith England EnglandEA@cardiff.ac.uk. You will receive a £20 gift voucher and travel expenses.