/ 9 November 2016

There’s no place like home for queer youth kicked out by their families

Homeless LGBTI youth.
Homeless LGBTI youth.
Mpho Selebe knows what it feels like to be punched because of her sexual orientation. And to live on the streets for the same reason. Still, she says, “there is no place like home”. She prays that God will help her to change her circumstances: “This is not a good way to live.”

She was five years old when her parents died and she went to live with her uncle. After years of verbal and physical abuse, the 22-year-old was thrown out of the house she had been living in for close to two decades and told never to return.

“They said it’s because I am a lesbian; that they don’t tolerate my sexuality.”

Selebe is but one of the many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people who, after being rejected by their families because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, have to fend for themselves on the streets.

Patrick Solomons, the director of Molo Songololo, a non-profit organisation that aims to advance the rights of children and young people, says many LGBTI youth are “chucked out of the house when they come out”.

“Besides the usual challenges that youth generally face, LGBTI youth can face discrimination, marginalisation, suppression and not being accepted by family, schools, communities and are particularly vulnerable to bullying … sexual abuse and exploitation,” he says.

This is supported by the findings of two reports released this year. The first, Love Not Hate Research, was released by the LGBTI organisation, Out Wellbeing, in February. It found that “many LGBTI individuals [55%] have had to endure verbal abuse while at school, with threats of violence also common [35%]”.

The second report, Progressive Prudes,released in September this year, also noted that, in terms of South Africans’ attitudes towards sexual orientation and gender identity, “of most concern is that young people (aged 16 to 19) are up to three times more likely than any other age categories to report the use of violence, especially towards gender nonconforming women.”

This same age group was “most likely” to view homosexuality and gender nonconformity as “wrong” or “disgusting”.

Gabriel Khan, the sexual diversity rights officer in South Africa for Hivos International that tackles persistent global issues, concurs: “Coming out generally comes with repercussions, particularly if you are young.”

In addition to the violence and stigma young queer and trans people face from their peers, sociocultural attitudes places significant pressure on them.

Khan, who grew up in “largely conservative” Benoni, experienced this firsthand when he was thrown out of his parents’ home at a young age because of his sexuality.

“Religious and cultural factors also play a huge role, leading to [families rejecting LGBTI children],” says Khan. “For many people, especially on the African continent, religion is a huge factor — both Christianity and Islam tend to read same-sex relationships negatively.”

He was one of the privileged few. “I had access to somewhere I could live. For many others, their situations are made worse by a lack of income or access to resources. If you’re fairly affluent and you get kicked out and you have access to resources — family or friends or finances — that keeps you kind of safe. But for the majority of people on the continent, this is not the case.”

Khan, who also represents Hivos in the African Queer Youth Network, a transcontinental body made up of queer youth-focused organisations, adds that although no real statistics exist of the number of homeless LGBTI youth locally or across the continent, “we do know that young queer and trans people are more at risk — particularly trans people, as they are gender nonconforming”.

“Young queer and trans people are more likely to drop out of school because they experience bullying from their peers, discrimination from their teachers and often have to learn things that are homophobic or transphobic in their life orientation classes.”

In his work as a research consultant for organisations such as Sonke Gender Justice and Sex Workers’ Education and advocacy Taskforce (Sweat), Paddy Nhlapo focuses particularly on minorities.

“I see many, many trans women coming here from other Southern African countries because they are not safe in their countries. Some have been thrown out of their communities or from their homes.”

He says that entering into sex work or transactional relationships is often the only survival option left to young trans women.

“I recently conducted a focus group as part of my work with Baragwanath Hospital’s Perinatal HIV Research Unit. Of the 25 trans women in attendance, 90% were youth and all of them were either doing sex work or were in transactional relationships with older men. Most were also battling depression and addiction.”

Their access to money keeps most of the trans women off the streets — but those without homes “tended to go from brothel to brothel for a roof over their head”.

Not so for the trans kids Nhlapo has encountered while working in KwaZulu-Natal. “I came across trans kids who were completely homeless. Thirteen-year-olds who have been on the streets for three years — either thrown out of home or [they] left home because of abuse. It broke my heart.”

According to the report Canaries in the Coal Mines — An analysis of spaces for LGBTI activism in Southern Africa, released earlier this month, “the greatest area of exclusion, for LGBTI people, is also the most primal: the family. In focus groups run by this project in Swaziland, this was described as the greatest exclusionary factor, and the area of greatest pain. The dilemma faced is whether to risk rejection by one’s family, or whether to lead a double life: the Rock of Hope Needs Assessment survey found that 80% of its members remained in the closet because of fear of family rejection.”

The report went on to suggest that “the most effective initiative — and one of the least explored, by LGBTI organisations in the region — might be the establishment of support groups for families of LGBTI people who come out, who in turn serve public roles as advocates and allies”.

Countries covered in the report are Angola, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana.

The report was commissioned and compiled by the Other Foundation with the aim of “assessing the depth and nature of social exclusion of LGBTI people across southern Africa and better understand how LGBTI groups are organising”.

The Rainbow Identity Association (RIA), a nongovernmental organisation based in Botswana, is doing exactly that — by involving the parents of its members in “every facet” of what it does. This includes meetings, dialogues and a WhatsApp support group for parents.

Mpho Tekany, one of organisation’s founders, says: “Many parents understand being gay or lesbian, but there is still so much confusion around being trans or intersex.”

She tells the story of one RIA member, a trans man, who was kicked out of his home but is now on speaking terms with his family again because of the organisation’s efforts.

“His family didn’t want to hear anything about him being trans, but now their relationship is on the mend.”

She says that initially it wasn’t easy to get parents involved. “At our first meeting, some were really not interested in what we had to say, but they sat and listened.”

The organisation, which aims to “find ways of challenging transphobic laws and transphobia in Botswana”, is hoping to extend its reach to other family members.

“We tend to forget that someone’s mother or father might accept them, but those parents might be getting pressure from less approving family members.”

The Canaries in the Coal Minesreport underscores the role organisations such as RIA play in changing attitudes. “In Namibia and Botswana, the nature
of the public discourse about LGBTI people has shifted dramatically over
the past decade [to] a more positive or neutral stance.

“What these countries have in common is: a more sympathetic or neutral media (often due to sensitisation training by LGBTI organisations and their allies), effective strategic advocacy by LGBTI organisations and mobilisation of effective alliances with other human rights actors and with state agencies,” reads the report.

Matthew Clayton is research, advocacy and policy manager with the Cape Town-based organisation, Triangle Project, which has been working with the Western Cape’s department of social development in the training of social workers to offer “affirming and inclusive care for LGBTI youth”.

This work was undertaken, says Clayton, because of the problem presented by the lack of LGBTI-friendly shelters.

“We are faced with this issue frequently. Shelters often enforce policies in a way that can be transphobic in terms of gender segregation and there is a real gap in the knowledge of some shelter staff when it comes to offering affirming and inclusive care for LGBTI people.

“While there may be some solutions that can be found in an emergency in Cape Town, when you move out to more rural areas of the Western Cape, LGBTI youth are largely on their own.”

Khan concurs: “In our experience, many shelters are quite homophobic, especially if you present as gender nonconforming. This means that if you’re queer or trans, you have been not only rejected from your home, your place of learning and your place of worship, but you are also rejected from shelters. So, spaces in which you should ideally be finding comfort are spaces you are expelled from.”

Solomons agrees. “There is a great lack of mainstream services for youth in poor areas — and an even greater lack of services catering specifically for LGBTI youth.”

This is why there is a “vital” need for the creation of safe spaces for LGBTI youth. Clayton says LGBTI youth also need a safe space “where they can continue their schooling or get access to further education and training”.

“For some young LGBTI people, the support provided by Triangle Project and others is literally life-saving. We provide emergency assistance and try to find longer-term solutions. Much more needs to be done to make this more than an ‘LGBTI issue’ and it must be a normal part of the work of other human rights organisations in South Africa.

“If we want to truly talk about equality, we need to take active steps to ensure that LGBTI youth are able to be safe, affirmed and realising their potential,” he adds.

There are many LGBTI youth who do not feel affirmed and are unable to realise their potential.

And there are many who can relate to Selebe when she says: “I sometimes think that it must be better to be dead than having to struggle as much as I am. I mean, how can it be worse?”

Shelter from mean streets of Mauritius

We started the Young Queer Alliance to empower young LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersex) people here in Mauritius to try to promote equality.

Compared with other youth, LGBTI youth here generally have it more difficult, particularly during their school years. There is a lot of stigma to being gay, so they face harassment and also a lack of comprehension from their parents. You’d find also that parents are really concerned with “what others might say”. Homosexuality is still taboo here.

Although homelessness is not a huge issue in Mauritius … there are LGBTI people who find themselves on the streets because of who they are. Trans people are most vulnerable.

What we have found is that older trans people tend to play a big role in taking care of LGBTI youth who are homeless.

It is generally difficult for LGBTI youth to access shelters — especially if they identify as trans. So, we, the Young Queer Alliance, decided to open an emergency shelter for youth earlier this year. It can accommodate only up to four people, but we have already started seeing a difference in people’s lives.

One of the guys here ran away from home after his grandmother tried witchcraft on him to “cure” him of his sexual orientation.

For two weeks he slept on beaches and in temples until one of his friends told us about him.

Since he’s been here, we’ve clothed him, fed him, counselled him, and encouraged him to go for job interviews.

This was difficult for him, because he dropped out of school because of the abuse he got there — he was not really qualified. But he got a job after only two weeks of looking. We were all very happy.

Now, by the end of this year, he should hopefully be able to move out of the shelter, find his own place and eventually find his feet in the world.— Najeeb Fokeerbux, president of the Mauritius-based organisation Young Queer Alliance, as told to Carl Collison, the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian

The Other Foundation