Life has shown them that being themselves is never enough. Reinvention is a large part of black and brown queer youth culture in New York.
|Samantha Box - M. and his girlfriend, at Sylvia's Place, September 2008 source|
In school, Reginald has been followed between classes, mocked and threatened for his effeminate walk. Boys grab themselves, tell him to suck their dicks like a good faggot; others glare silently if he happens to make eye contact, hissing that they’re going to fuck him up. By the time he was in middle school rumors circulated that he had AIDS. On countless occasions classmates told him he was a disgrace to their race and should kill himself. What school administrators have dismissed as horseplay is nothing short of abuse. He never complained to his mother about the cruelty he experienced at school, fearing she’d blame him, or smack him, for being effeminate. She’d tell him he’d brought it upon himself. Reginald has learned to defend himself vigorously in the hallways and classrooms, never cowering to the herd mentality of his classmates. Whatever he lacks in traditional masculinity, he makes up for in physical strength. If someone swings at him, he swings back twice as hard. Only then, when the ridicule and bullying turns physical, do teachers or the administration intervene.
For Reginald school has never been about learning. It’s about finding ways to survive.
I look at Raheem and Christina. In this moment they are becoming who they have to be in order to get what they need. With ingratiating finesse they work the crowd, and I watch them do what has kept them barely afloat in life, allowing them to survive on the street. They do whatever it takes to hold the attention of this audience, because life has shown them that being themselves is never enough.
Reinvention is a large part of black and brown queer youth culture in New York.
Ms. Celeste makes it clear that her biggest frustration with this kind of work is that residents are allowed to remain blind to the veracities of the real world. At the home, they are rarely held accountable for their actions or inaction. It’s a life without consequences. She says the foster care system is so afraid of lawsuits and accusations of child endangerment that residential counselors are left with little recourse when addressing maladaptive behavior.
The result, as Ms. Celeste sees it, is a slew of young adults launched into the world without the capacity to function in it.
“These children have enough obstacles in their lives. They’re black, brown, poor, and gay. Now tell me that ain’t a bad hand. Being easy on them to stay popular in the house only shows we don’t care enough to set them straight on what’s what. If nobody calls them out on their shit in here, how they supposed to be ready when someone does it out there?” she asks, pointing toward the window with her thumb. “They never been showed respect. So how they going to learn to be respectable?” Ms. Celeste sucks her teeth. “Us, that’s how. You’re nice, that’s good. You have a good heart, that’s good too. But these children don’t need you to be their friend. They need you to be an adult. Be supportive, give them structure, there’ll be push back. But if you stick around, eventually they’ll show you loyalty like you never seen. You need to stop worrying yourself if they like you or not. This ain’t about you. Don’t go treating these children like they’re your friends and don’t go smothering them with all kinds of artificial affection. You smother pork chops, not children.”
A man from the Midwest with no social service experience, I had no right to step foot inside the 401. And who was I to tell anyone how to succeed in life? I knew from my few weeks of training that a disproportionate number of children in the New York City foster care system are people of color. Although most of the management team in the LGBTQ program, like Gena, were white, all entry-level residential counselors were black or Latino, mostly women. It was obvious a dynamic had shifted when I was hired as a residential counselor. Gena was trying something new: hire someone who seems to care regardless of race, class, or gender. It was an experiment with a high probability of failure. I would have to rely on intuition when feeling out what social workers call “cultural competency.” The only guidance I was given in that regard was when I was told not to impose my white, middle-class expectations on the youth. I understood what that meant in theory, but I couldn’t envision how that would look in practice. I had to learn on the go.
Gena explained her reasoning for hiring me when she told me I had the job. “These children are in crisis,” she said. “Most of them have never been given a chance and have never had any guidance or appropriate attention from adults. Their relationships with family are in ruins, their education almost nonexistent. They’ve been told their whole lives they’re disposable, worthless because of their sexuality or gender identity. Some of the residential counselors here do care, some don’t. I’d prefer to have a white guy from Iowa who gives a shit than someone else who doesn’t.” She paused and looked at me intently. “The youth will push you and push you in order to test you, expecting you to leave like everyone else has. But really they want you to say, ‘Keep acting up all you want. I’m not going anywhere. I won’t abandon you.’”
I realize he’s probably never had the sex talk. Queer kids don’t normally have that kind of guidance. If schools offer sexual education, it’s typically the standard “birds and bees” speech, the obligatory lecture about how a man and a woman come together to make a baby. In most cases, the only mention of homosexuality is during AIDS discussions. And transgender people never find themselves represented in these conversations. LGBTQ youth have to figure out things for themselves. Through trial and error, mostly error, they come to an understanding of how to traverse a confusing sexual landscape.
“Where’s the reward when the outcome is almost always failure?” Cam asks.
I tell him about Jessica’s response to the same question when I posed it to her in a moment of frustration. She told me about Japanese rock gardens, how when the monks finish their intricate design, they immediately begin to erase it, never giving themselves time to admire what they’ve just created. “The reward comes from the doing,” she said, “not the result.” The thing that is so profound to me about working at Keap Street is how my choices boil down to the essentials. Everything comes down to helping make someone’s life a little less difficult. And in order to do so, I need to remain in the present. There’s no hiding. Simply trying to connect with the residents, to be present in their lives, to continue to show up for them day after day, when no one else has —proving I won’t disappear— forces me to remain present in my own life.
The ACS worker scribbles down her notes. [...] She starts to make recommendations for Bella although she’s never met her and doesn’t understand the first thing about her. She talks about strategy and planning, bank accounts, and job referrals. When she uses male pronouns and refers to Bella as Baldomero, I know she doesn’t respect Bella enough to provide guidance. She doesn’t understand the difficulties of planning for her. I want to explain that finding her a job will be more difficult than finding one for a typical client. An employer will take one look at her and then at her state ID. Baldomero? And inevitably, I got nothing against you people personally, but we don’t want to make our customers uncomfortable. I want to explain that the allure of the stroll is more than just money. It’s the only place where Bella feels accepted. For a brief moment in the arms of a trick she’s no longer treated as a freak; she’s desired.
I look at the wall, the pale canary. The worker keeps spewing out words that have no relation to Bella: family resources, secured employment. She might as well be discussing stock options or summer homes in the Hamptons.
Ryan Berg - No house to call my home (Nation Books, 2015)