Photo by Robert Stolarick
In the late 1990s when Carl Siciliano worked at Safe Space, an organization that helped homeless teens, he ended up with a lot of gang members at the intake center. Many of them, mostly Crips and Bloods, were virulently homophobic and would assault the gay and transgender teens who would show up. Instead of risking the threat of violence, many of the gay and trans teens stopped going.
That’s when Siciliano had the idea of opening housing for gay homeless youth.
“I was never into the idea of segregated spaces,” said Siciliano, who now is the executive director of the Ali Forney Center. “But it was amazing to see what a difference it made, to see how well they responded to having a safe space.”
Now, Siciliano said, he wants to take that step specifically for transgender teens. Siciliano plans to open the center’s first housing unit dedicated to trans youth by next year, with one apartment initially, which can accommodate six to eight people.
“A transgender youth needs a safe space, somewhere where they don’t experience trasnsphobic bias and judgment and hostility from clients and staff,” he said. “A place where the complexities of their gender are going to be recognized.”
He said trans youth spend much of their energy defending who they are.
“Some would do better being somewhere where they can just breathe free,” he said.
Junior LaBeija, a member of the team Siciliano assembled to consult on the new housing unit, said homelessness can be the “cruelest component” of a trans youth’s life.
“Your mindset is now influenced by the harsh reality of biases, discrimination, prejudice, excommunication, stigmatization, verbal and physical abuse,” he said. “Imagine what supports and services trans youth are denied because of immaturity from being co-dependent and thrusted into these mean streets.”
Siciliano said no one lobbies for homeless children in the city, gay or straight, and trans teens are often left out of the equation.
“It’s appalling to me that that these kids have to trade their bodies for sex to get some sleep at night,” he said. “Go to the different mainstream places and ask them: What do you do to provide for their transgender kids? See what they say. They won’t even know how to answer that question. That’s one indication of how tough it is for these kids in the system.”
Siciliano said the Center’s new housing will be driven by a recognition that trans teens have a different set of challenges.
“We acknowledge that it costs more for these transgender kids; it costs more for them to look presentable and be employable,” he said. “They need more bathroom time. They need more resources to look presentable, to get a job and to get ready for school so they are not subject to humiliation. They need safe access to hormones.”
As part of a history program he calls the Summer Sessions of Legends and Pioneers, Siciliano invited two trans women who were teens the night of the Stonewall riots.
Siciliano said they were part of a crew of LGBT youth who congregated across from the Stonewall Inn during the 1960s. They were throwing pennies, known as “coppers,” at officers as they dragged gay men to the back of waiting police wagons.
“They were the most out-there, in-your-face, not-hiding-their-queerness people in New York City,” he said.
But what most people do not know, said Sicilaino, is that after the arrests at Stonewall, a trans teen turned the incident into a full-blown act of civil defiance. Her name was Ms. New Orleans, and as she loosened a parking meter from its moorings, people saw what she was doing and helped. Once it was free, she used it as a battering ram.
“That was the moment,” Sicialiano said, “that was the moment when that night went from being hostile and tense to a full-fledged riot.”
He said the more established LGBT organizations that have benefited from the trans teens of decades ago — those who were instrumental in taking the fight to the streets at the beginning of the movement — shouldn’t abandon those same teens now.
“It’s shameful to see them pushed from the Village, but it’s more shameful to see how many of them still need to sleep on trains because they can’t get housing,” he said. “It’s a betrayal of the role that transgender youth played in the Stonewall riots, and the role they have played in the liberation movement to see these these kids pushed away.”