To coincide with IDAHOT 2015’s (International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia) theme “LGBTQ Youth” this is the 3rd in a series of interviews focusing on some of the challenges facing LGBTI youth living in poverty around the world.
Ja’Leah Shavers is Outreach and Development Coordinator at BreakOUT! in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA. BreakOUT! fights the criminalization of LGBTI youth who are directly impacted by the criminal or juvenile justice system in New Orleans.
Tell us about your work with LGBTI youth in New Orleans.
Ja’leah Shavers: The bulk of my work right now focuses on outreach to schools and shelters. A lot of our queer youth, especially transgender youth, are pushed out of school early because of too many suspensions or because they just aren’t comfortable around other youth in that environment.
We know that the lack of housing for youth in New Orleans is a contributing factor toward criminalisation. Covenant House is the only shelter that will take youth in New Orleans and has historically been really anti-LGBTI. Our goal is to facilitate a welcoming environment for LGBTI youth to make it a more affirming place for them to land.
This work is in the beginning stages. Hopefully, within the next few years we’ll be reaching out to more high schools and colleges across New Orleans and eventually BreakOUT! will become a household name and young queer kids in New Orleans will know us as a true resource.
What immediately comes to mind when you think about the challenges facing homeless LGBTIQ youth?
JA’LEAH SHAVERS: Poor transgender and queer youth of color as the main groups suffering from lack of resources and awareness of their rights. These young people are often born into communities badly lacking in basic resources.
Medical support is lacking – especially for transgender youth – with regard to hormones, health education, and just basic awareness of available support within the queer community. Any one of these factors is the root of the instability experienced by poor LGBTI youth.
So, if it sucks for a poor community in New Orleans then it will suck much worse for young queer kids of colour living in that community?
Ja’leah Shavers: Yes.
Tell us how you started working with LGBTI youth in New Orleans.
Ja’leah Shavers: I was having trouble finding my identity within the LGBTI community, and I just started going to meetings at BreakOUT!. I’ve always been interested in improving the lives of youth.
I work for my community whether I’m “at work” or not because it’s my life. Whether I’m answering emails, representing BreakOUT! at an action, or I’m out experiencing the world as an LGBTI-identifying person. Living my “work” helps me help others effectively because it’s life and death for me. It’s life and death for my sisters and brothers, for my chosen family, and especially for queer youth living in poverty.
Describe the struggles impoverished LGBTI youth are vulnerable to specifically because they live in such a dense urban area like New Orleans.
Ja’leah Shavers: Homeless LGBTI youth are blended in. The city is aware of homelessness as an issue but not necessarily that youth homelessness is a problem. In big cities like New Orleans poor queer youth fall into the larger group and their specific needs go unseen and unaddressed.
At one time, our city’s only youth homeless shelter consistently excluded LGBTI youth while appearing to welcome all youth. It was another example of youth issues being addressed publicly and the needs of LGBTI youth being denied silently.
Give an example of how BreakOUT! recognises intersecting oppression’s.
Ja’leah Shavers: I can answer on the basis of our work with Congreso de Jornaleros (The Congress of Day Laborers) here in New Orleans. Congreso is a group of undocumented workers that helped rebuild the city after Hurricane Katrina. Today, they are being pushed out by U.S. immigration and law enforcement. We work together because we realise undocumented folks and LGBTI youth here experience a lot of the same criminalisation and discrimination. Whether it’s being able to find a well-paying job (or any job at all) or being stopped by law enforcement because of who you are, how you identify, how you look, or the colour of your skin, BreakOUT!’s membership and our demographic are experiencing the same struggles as the folks at Congreso.
We realize that even though our struggles aren’t exactly the same they are a lot alike and we are a lot alike. Recognising this intersectionality has led us to offer support to undocumented LGBTI people and for BreakOUT! and Congreso to discover that we provide services to some of the same people.
If you were given a pile of resources (define resources as you like) but you only pick one aspect in the lives of LGBTIQ youth to improve what would you choose?
Ja’leah Shavers: That’s a tough one but if I had to choose it would be housing. As important as education and employment are I think providing housing would create a stability that does not exist for LGBTI youth living in poverty.
For LGBTI youth everything begins with stable housing. From there a foundation – eventually including healthcare, education, and employment – can be built that will give them a fighting chance to grab every good thing that’s waiting for them.
This interview was conducted by phone and edited.