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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Where the Day Takes You


Recently I returned to San Francisco after a long absence.  It was my third time in the city, the first being an idyllic sojourn at the Fairmont on Nob Hill at age 14, when my mom and I accompanied my dad on a business trip. I remember being told with great politeness that the man who played the piano in the cocktail bar was very particular about who else touched it, and then being presented with another instrument (Steinway grand, natch!) in a disused conference room with the invitation to enjoy it for the rest of my stay.

My second visit was in 1991 with my then-roommate Glenn.  In our early 20s, we were traveling on a budget and relied on the Hotel/Motel Red Book  for our choice of accommodations sight-unseen in those pre-Trip Advisor days.

Our first hotel looked as if it survived the Great Fire of 1906, but just barely.  If there was an actual fire, other guests on the floor were instructed by a large sticker to break the painted-over glass in the door to our room to access the fire escape.  We decided to leave before one of them decided to try.

Our next place of residence, the Leland, was -- unknown to us until we had arrived -- not exactly a tourist hotspot either. Most of its guests were either more permanent, or just there for an hour or so.  We stuck it out for our few remaining days in town, but the Fairmont it was not, and I was not surprised to learn that it suffered a major fire a few years later, displacing 60 people who called it home.

Polk Street was at that time in its last throes as a former gay mecca that pre-dated the Castro.  By the 1990s, in a city decimated by AIDS, the once-vibrant scene was pretty downbeat. We were largely surrounded by sex workers and those whom they attracted, as well as many young people who were -- as the Brits say -- "living rough" on the streets of the Tenderloin.  Both were surprisingly engaging and we had a number of exchanges, some humorous, some heartbreaking.  At a luncheonette, for example, I learned that you could eat three-quarters of a meal before pretending to find glass in it and walking out in a manufactured huff.

Everybody had a story: Going to be an actor, going back to school, just here 'til I turn 18. They accepted our presence without question; thrown -- if anything -- by the fact that we were neither buying nor selling, and really only interested in conversation. By and large, they took it in stride.  I -- on the other hand -- had my world rocked. I grew up in the woods in what I now understand to be a life of great privilege compared to how most of the world lives.  We understood such things as poverty mainly in the abstract: we knew that it was important to care for those who had less than you, but we rarely encountered the kind of gritty reality in which my friend and I found ourselves.

The following year saw the release of Where the Day Takes You, a film portraying the lives of a group of young people on the streets of Los Angeles.  It marked the feature debut of Will Smith (as a double amputee, no less), but also featured such names as Dermot Mulroney, Ricki Lake, Kyle McLaughlan and David Arquette which would later become household words.  Their daily routines of trying to score food, money, drugs, a place to sleep, were starkly similar to what we witnessed first hand in the Tenderloin, and both have haunted me ever since. Below is a montage of scenes from the film, set to "Precious Pain" one of several songs by Melissa Etheridge that appear in the soundtrack.

"Empty and cold, but it keeps me alive
I gave it my soul, so that I could survive
Keeping me safe in these chains, precious pain"


There are approximately half a million homeless young people in the United States, with just 4,000 shelter beds designated for this age group.  Depending on whom you ask, between 20-40% of them identify as LGBT (compared to 10% of the general population).  These young people are twice as likely as their straight/cisgender peers to have experienced sexual victimization (60% vs 30%) and seven times more likely to experience sexual violence, and most have either been thrown out of their homes or fled for their own safety.  A crushing 62% of them commit suicide.*  In the movie, Lil-J, portrayed by Balthazar Getty, resists and then ultimately resorts to sex work, only to be traumatized by a flashback of being molested by an uncle.  Young people who experience gender variance are at particular risk, frequently being denied access to shelters or encountering violence.

Signs at San Francisco Shine
Signs at San Francisco Shine 2009
PHOTO CREDIT: LarryBobSF flickr.com/larrybob
Some Rights Reserved
Used under Creative Commons License.
In a country that views the homeless as "a problem" and will spend money to install spikes in the sidewalk so they can't find a place to rest instead of offering them food, shelter or counseling, runaway/throwaway LGBT youth and young adults are near the bottom of an already-low pile.  Struggling young mothers and their children garner much of the limited sympathy the public can muster.

Fortunately, at least in some places, this unique need is being met in specific and appropriate ways:
  • The Church of St. Luke in the Fields is located just off Christopher Street in New York's West Village, where many young people (a large number of them either homeless or housing-insecure) gather every weekend.  The congregation responded by creating an event each Saturday night known simply as "the church" which provides a meal, programming, and access to counselors and doctors.  The church would like to expand the mission to a 24/7 drop-in center but is meeting stiff resistance from some of its neighbors.  
  • Another youth center which intentionally engages LGBT youth (although not exclusively) is The Door, which provides a host of counseling, education, and social opportunities in a positive, affirming environment.
  • The Hetrick-Martin Institute, which helped open the Harvey Milk High School in 1985 as a place of refuge for LGBT students to learn in safety, recently added an after-school drop-in center in Newark.
  • In addition, the Ali Forney Center operates a network of shelters and temporary residences, while providing access to health care and counseling. Residents are encouraged to continue their education and secure employment, with the goal of preparing them for an independent and stable future.  Their "get help" page lists resources in many other states.  Several of their facilities were badly damaged during Hurricane Sandy. 

Contributions and other support for all of these projects are always welcomed, and -- in some cases -- sorely needed.

I am mystified and saddened that parents could reject their own offspring on the basis of something as innate as attractional orientation or gender identity, but -- given what our society prioritizes and glorifies -- I suppose I shouldn't be.  In a place where a person can say gays deserve death by stoning and still get elected to statewide office, there are clearly people who agree.  It is equally sad, but unsurprising, that there appears to be a strong correlation between identification as "strongly religious" and rejecting your kids.

In the years since I last visited, the Tenderloin has -- like Times Square -- been sanitized and gentrified.  The coffee shop where we conversed with those young survivors is now part of a trendy chain, and there was scarce evidence of the area's former population.  However, they're still around. A recent article estimated there are 1,000 teens and young adults squatting in abandoned buildings, couch-surfing, or camping in the city's parks.  The Homeless Youth Alliance focuses its efforts on the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, and acknowledges that the city has long been a mecca for young people seeking an escape.

I will go to bed tonight in a house my great-grandfather built, doubly grateful for a family who has accepted me as I am.  I pray for those who are not so fortunate.

NOTE: Statistics from a 2009 survey by the National Coalition for the Homeless

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Sorry Seems to Be the Easiest Word

I live under a pop-culture rock, and it is only because of his inner-orbit position on the Six Degrees of Channing Tatum that I even know Jonah Hill’s name. But his recent run-in with a paparazzo, culminating in his angrily calling the man a derogatory term for a gay man and commanding him to perform a particular sex act, to me is less about who he is than what he said, the public’s response, and his later reaction to his own behavior.

Hill appeared both on The Howard Stern Show and The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon to apologize for his outburst. Calling himself a lifelong supporter of LGBT people, he first claimed that he “didn’t mean it in a homophobic way” but then refused to give himself that pass, saying “I think that doesn’t matter how you mean things... Words have weight and meaning, and the word I chose was grotesque and no one deserves to say or hear words like that.”

The first part is old hat. We have all heard “that’s so gay” as a synonym for “stupid” or “lame” … it gets thrown around quite casually, and -- when challenged -- the default response is “that isn’t how I meant it,” in a tone that suggests that this should just be okay with you.

More extreme epithets like the one Hill used are tossed around by alpha-males like a football in their understanding of good humor, but emerge for others only at moments of anger or stress. He attempted to explain to Fallon’s audience that his behavior was triggered by a prolonged bout of harassment by the cameraman, who was hurling insults at him and his family. He seemed almost shocked, however, by his own choice of words, as if he didn’t know he was capable of saying such things. Either he’s a better actor than 22 Jump Street gives him room to demonstrate, or he genuinely regrets that we all know this about him and was somewhat stunned to learn it about himself.

What I think bears reflection, however, is why is this where (generally male, but not always) people’s brains go in that moment. Hill told Fallon “I wanted to hurt (him) back, I wanted… the most hurtful word I could think of at that moment.” Hill assumed his antagonist was heterosexual, and thus the go-to insult would be to not only imply otherwise, but to immediately then direct him to a passive role, asserting Hill’s superiority over him.

The day after this all happened, The OASIS, the LGBT ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, marked 25 years since it became the first such outreach authorized by a Christian bishop. The project, established at All Saints Church in Hoboken, N.J. in 1989 by the Right Rev. John Shelby Spong, provided a “safe space” for gay men and lesbians (bisexual and transgender folks were added to the equation later) to worship with their whole selves at a time when this was largely impossible even in a comparatively progressive church.

In his sermon at the event , the Rev. Harry Knox invited the participants to unpack a very similar theme, which is that endemic misogyny is at the root of homophobia and transphobia. If one starts out with the premise that it’s just a little bit better to be male than female, then logically one will look with disdain on a man who seems to reject this privilege by assuming a role and mannerisms you associate with women. And a woman who dares to assert herself and claim authority reserved in one’s psyche for men will be perceived as a threat. Even the gay male community has bought into it, with personal ads peppered with “masc. only” or even “straight-acting” as a selling point.

We can claim to have evolved as a society, and in fact on paper we have. New laws giving LGBT people various rights and protections are passing at a rate which has triggered resignation and even backlash from those who feel threatened by the loss of privilege the status quo might have given them. In many social settings, it is no longer okay to make racist, sexist, or homo- or trans-phobic comments and one can be expect to be challenged for it. There is noise from some quarters that this has gone so far that our collective sense of humor has been lost as a result. I think it is healthy to be able to laugh at ourselves and a little irreverence does help keep things in perspective.

That is different, however, from using words as weapons. Hill claims he regrets his actions, and many of the on-line commenters seem willing to forgive him. I have no reason to doubt his sincerity, but this accomplishes little unless he does the extra homework to examine why, as a self-proclaimed friend of our community, he immediately defaulted back to asserting his hetero-male privilege when the chips were down. If I call someone the name that he did and acknowledge I did so as an act of aggression, that means I have -- somewhere in my psyche -- bought into the idea that this is a bad thing to be, and less than me. And -- unlike what I might say during a carefully-scripted talk show interview -- what I say in the heat of a stressful encounter is raw and pure, closer to the heart.  If I were Mr. Hill, I’d be spending some time with that.

As Luke’s Gospel tells us, “Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops.” What we say impulsively lends more insight to what’s really going on inside us than the lines we get time to rehearse.

Adaptions of this post were published by: