Coming Out of the Streets: LGBTQ Youth Experiencing Homelessness

Coming Out to the Streets: LGBTQ Youth Experiencing Homelessness, by Brandon Andrew Robinson (Oakland: University of California Press)

Review by Thomas Hansen

This is the story of a qualitative research study in which the professor was an observer who was able to get a great deal of trust and information from the subjects interviewed.  Volunteering at the shelter where the subjects were housed temporarily, the professor conducted this ethnographic study by using in-depth interviews to look at the lives and goals of young homeless persons.   

I disagree with the author making the clear point throughout the book that the family does not shoulder much of the blame for the young people becoming disenfranchised or bullied or shunned by society.  The author hopes people will move beyond simply blaming the family for all the difficulties youth must conquer in order to survive the young-adult years.  The author insists it is “the system” that needs to be fixed—not the youth and not the family.  There would be many people who disagree with this author on this point, including many people who have battled through those difficult years and somehow made it to the other side.

While I leaf back through the book and thought again about what I had recently read, two young gay men at the next table are telling of the terrible experiences they had growing up, coming out, and finally escaping a damning and hateful family—in both of their cases.  I keep moving away from them, but I can still hear every word they are saying and do not want to listen.  However, they get louder and louder as they share their experiences and hopes out loud. 

I am embarrassed I can hear all this—at the same time I am thankful I am hearing such a timely discussion when I am trying to write some notes that will lead to a review of this book. 

They share a common story about the oppressive life they have lead “at their family’s house.”  I know very little–if anything—about these two young men.  I do not know their names or where they are from or what their parents are like.  I do not know if anything they are sharing very loudly is true or not.  But most everything they are saying is similar to a story I have heard from many young people for years.   

It is true that different people, in different situations and cities, will have disparate realities as they “come out” into whatever sexuality or personality they take on as adults.  I would argue with this author that it is the great majority of young LGBTQ persons who have had the most difficulties at home—the very people who should be loving, supporting, and protecting the youths are instead perhaps the biggest challenge facing them. 

Children’s families often abandon them and turn them off.  Without the support of the very people who should be helping, these youth often have to make sure very hard decisions and face some terrible dangers to survive.  In the meantime, the family continues to withhold their assistance.         

The professor who conducted this study insists it is society—not the family—that is the culprit in the destruction of young people who are meant to come out and live the responsible gay lives they should be allowed to live.  The professor attempts to show how blame for the young people’s stress can be levied against several different pieces of the system.  Teachers, school administrators, the courts, the police, and mainstream society in general are all to blame for presenting the young persons with great challenges and judgment.  The author makes the point that the family is not the main problem and she does this strongly in the book.

Maybe in this particular shelter where the author interviewed young people, and throughout this study, and elsewhere in this book, the family is not to blame.  However, I maintain the family is one of the most guilty parties in the oppression, judgment, and ostracizing of the young people who wind up out on the streets and facing terrible choices.

I know it is the average families, including the parents without much cultural and educational understanding, who have no idea how much they are contributing to creating a whole population of young adults in stress.  These are young persons who are struggling to gain their independence and who have to make difficult decisions to do so.  Young LGBTQ persons become involved in prostitution, selling drugs, using drugs, shoplifting and other sorts of crimes. 

The book does a good and typical glimpse of the young people who have been damaged by their families (and church and school and neighbors and etc.).  There is so much wasted time.  Instead of transitioning easily from being children to being adults, these young people have to use a huge amount of energy to survive, learn, begin to work, and then establish new goals later in life, and become adults “later” than they wanted to in some ways, and “way too early” in other ways.

Much as these young persons are still children, they are thrust into the rougher realities of an adult world not very interested in protecting them.  While I agree society can be one of the culprits, I maintain it is principally the family who bears the responsibility for making life difficult for the young people. 

There is plenty of evidence in the literature of the family’s negative role in the lives of such young adults.   

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