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TODAY

Monday, June 26

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Detour

"It isn't politically intelligent to call it 'marriage,' but it'll get there eventually. It has to. People don't have the stomach for sustained bigotry like that," said the prettiest girl in my grade school, the girl who wanted to be a doctor, who was my only friend in my very, very small town.

"It's not marriage," I said, using my feet to keep my balance on the bike rack, wrapping up around the ends stuck into the ground, draining the last of a cigarette, "it's that the whole argument is just code words for the underlying hate." What I wanted to say was: "What else makes a parent transform from caring for you one minute, to throwing you out the next? What other arbitrary division between human beings can turn a house cold, can expel a child — a child — from the system of resources it needs to survive? Can you imagine — some 20 to 40 percent of homeless kids are gay?"

~*~

It's a small town in Indiana, so most kids could walk to school. The path you took depended on who your friends were; who you were meeting up on the way to class, and the blocks and neighborhoods to avoid. My friends fell away, but for a handful. I walked to school alone. And I saw our little town much differently than a lot of the other little boys. There were blocks and alleyways I knew I had to avoid, as if they were expanses of water or, like in a kid's game, lava. But instead of an imagined threat, the threat was real. Beat on the gay kid.

Like depression, a pain in the gut would start it, and then it would wash over me: a warm, troubling feeling, call it guilt, shame, or fury directed at myself. Those moments as a kid when my sexuality poked through the sexless innocence of childhood that, like jeans I'd outgrown, began to tear and fray as I moved into puberty. My parents, who of course knew to some degree that I was gay, dreaded this time. My father's comments about gay men became more pronounced and hostile around the house. My mother avoided conversation with me as much as possible, which made me think that my voice, the words I chose, everything, betrayed me. There was nothing safe in being me.

With my only real friend, who was one of the prettiest girls in our class and who had developed much earlier than the other girls, I would talk about my plans to move to Chicago or New York as soon as we graduated high school. I'd go to Northwestern, maybe, or NYU.

"I hate it here," I'd say, picking up a rock or a bottle and lightly tossing it at a wall.

"You shouldn't use the word hate," she'd answer, almost always, because she had the sweetest parents in our town and was the sweetest girl you could hope to know.

"I hate it anyway," I'd say, because it was an easy word to use, hate, when you were the symbol of weakness, the easiest prey. Little boys trying to prove they are men consider "the gay kid" a godsend. What better way to show you're tough than to pick a fight with the kid with no male allies? What better way to deny your own sexual confusion than to attack the kid whose confusion betrays him in external displays? (Though, really, even at that age — 10, 11, 12 — it was hardly confusion for me.)

I imagined Chicago, the nearest big city, would be like a "breath of fresh air." Even at that young age, I had an innate sense that in a bigger place, I'd be safer. Not because I knew about any gay community, or even that I was wholly sure what it meant to be gay myself. I just knew that everywhere in this town, where everybody knows me, me-being-me was dangerous. Something about me invited such hostility that I could only be safe somewhere I could hide with ease. Where I could construct a whole new me.

"I'll get an apartment, listen to music, and paint," I'd say, "And that's all I'll need." I wanted to be a painter. She wanted to be a doctor ("or a mom," she'd say) and travel around the world. Her parents had a subscription to National Geographic, copies on coffee table that she'd make a beeline for as soon as we'd walk into her house.

Getting an apartment, listening to music, and painting left out meeting people and being in relationships with people, something I figured I could do without.

A boy like me, whom everybody knew was the gay kid, is at a unique risk in a small town with fathers who talk loudly about faggots in the house. Not just the obvious stuff — name calling, exclusion, constant fights — but a more insidious form of abuse, which is becoming the object of fantasy for the other, more skillfully hidden "confused" boys. Boys with unbelievably strong, unbelievably suppressed sexual urges.

Without going into details about boyish adventures and experiments, I can tell you that the system of punishment and reward teaches you, pretty quickly, to trust absolutely no one with access to your true self. How playful, innocent childhood discovery is transformed into predatory perversion to protect one child's definition of himself at the expense of another's well being, well, it's enough to scandalize a social network of parents.

That scandal is enough to get you kicked out of your home, a father who can't abide such perversity in his house and a mother who feigns powerlessness to justify her own shameful abandonment of a child.

And that scandal is enough to land you in Chicago at 15, penniless, and confused that getting an apartment, listening to music, and painting all day requires a whole set of preexisting conditions that a 15-year-old small town boy on his own in a very big, very ominous city, lacks. The best way I can communicate that radical break where you suddenly realize that you have only yourself in the world — and not just that, but a self that you invented to hide your actual self — is the phenomenon of night terrors: being trapped in a half-real state. But there's a key difference: the "terror" is real. I nervously panhandled for money all over town before coming across what seemed to be like-minded kids. We started to hang out together, look out for each other, and, in the most primitive sense you can imagine, network with kids our age who spent their days on the streets, but out of boredom, not necessity.


Photo by Matthew Zdano.

The transition to scavenger is gradual, humiliating, and difficult. At first you abhor the eyes that watch you dig through trash, and then you shudder at the way people can walk past you as though you're invisible. Everywhere you turn there is a barrier keeping you from survival, or comfort — the CTA tokens, the price of food, do you have an ID? What's your address? What's your phone number? The scavenger floats about, trying to stay invisible, swoops in on an opportunity and flits away.

The jogger puts his wallet down on the hood of the car while he ties his shoe. I poke my head out of the alley; he doesn't notice. The wallet is about four strides on my left. I can step right out into the street. Stop signs at either end of the block, so no traffic moving too fast to stop. Alley right across the street. I look faster than this guy. Though he is running shoes. A fence I can climb. And the taqueria up a block keeps its back door open from the heat in the kitchen; with enough of a lead—

But I'm already grabbing the wallet and into the alley. The guy is just now standing, realizing what I'd done. By the time he's in the alley, I'm straddling a wooden fence and in a yard. Forget that kitchen. I hear him scrambling up the fence and turn back down the next alley, towards where I'd come. I've already lost him.

Only inject desperation into that pattern, and you'll create a predator. Predators don't steal, they take. Years of learning to hide your fears so that bullies can't smell it on you. Years of instinctually knowing when you're eye-to-eye with a fake tough guy. This guy doesn't really want to throw a punch. In America, anyway, the only kids who fight more than the poor are the gay kids, especially in rural towns. Put me on the street and the almost animal need to survive lets those years of instincts take over. And, just like those night terrors, everything is slowed down; you feel like things grow and shrink in stature. You can hear things you wouldn't really have heard before — or at least, that's how you imagine it was right after the situation is over. Predators jump happy couples for money.

~*~

It's true, in any urban setting, between 20 and 40 percent of homeless teens are likely GLBT. I would say they are thrown out like garbage, but though apt, it's too much of a cliché to really capture it. Plus, we take some care with our garbage. Wrap it up nice. Raccoon-proof lids. Zoning restrictions and environmental regulations regarding where it goes, and how it is contained. That would have been nice. And there are organizations, overwhelmed, that provide housing and outreach. If you know where to find them. For a while, we didn't. Kids on the street, sure, will turn to petty crime; the majority don't, but just drift about, doing whatever they can — whatever — to survive.

There is one beneficial side effect, though, for us: having lived more or less in secret for recent memory, we discovered skills of manipulation that we happily used to con the rich kids.

Of course, we were Belmont rats for a while, hobnobbing with the other homeless. But we drifted wherever the resources were. Humboldt Park, Little Village, Uptown, Pilsen, East Rogers. We followed temporary jobs, rich kids and drugs. Of course.

I learned about punk rock for more or less the first time.

But you could always count on the artsy trust fund kids milling around, always two or three in each group of street kids. The drama that would go on in our little clique was like that of any high school, I imagine. The love triangles. I dated boys. Some men. It's not a coincidence that I my ability to be openly gay had a 1:1 correlation with my access to resources and accepting social networks. Only in the recesses and alleys is it safe. Or so it seemed. So we had our own social network for survival, not just GLBT kids but the others: kids from broken homes, bored rich kids, drug addicts who talked to their feet. We had our own drama, and it was all designed to make sure that those of us with the best skills at manipulation ended up on top.


Photo by Seth Anderson.

I was pretty nasty. But although I'm sorry, it doesn't keep me up at night.

In and out of vacant apartments, the place of a friend of a friend, religious shelters, friends' "open-minded" parents' place, for over three years. When I was 19, I began to fall prey to the delusion that my prison, the streets — a prison of chaos that replaced the prison of order in my parents' home — was in fact freedom. Then I fell in love with a pretty boy.

~*~

For a few years after I got my GED, went to Truman and then to UIC, and then started my little career with my nauseatingly nice little apartment with my nauseatingly nice boyfriend, I thought back to those Wild West years as a "phase." As though I had rebelled and started acting crazy. It took a while to realize that it wasn't a phase, just as being wrongfully sent to jail for three years wouldn't be a "phase."

I love this part of the story, because it wasn't anything violent or traumatic or melodramatic that pulled me out of it, but love, which makes it both nauseating and, I think, a nice change from the usual misery porn.

Just under two years older than me, with his own place, he couldn't believe how we lived. My friend's friend was throwing a party, and he came with someone. I watched him trying to explain the plot to Rashomon, and tried not to ask anything stupid.

"Well, you just don't know what actually happened," he said.

"But which one was it?" I asked.

"That's the point."

I was sure he was making fun of me.

"You're a fucking dork," I said.

"You need to see the movie," he answered. He was uncomfortable with us, I could tell, but only because he'd never met homeless kids.

"When?" I asked, too eager, and then people really did laugh at me.

Blah blah blah. I'd just like to note, that the first time I came over to his neat but rickety apartment at Troy and North, he greeted me at the door with Rashomon on VHS and a towel.

"Take a shower, you smell like a thousand armpits."

Someone at his school gave him contacts to GLBT teen outreach centers. They got me started with the GED classes, and proper hygiene, and some sense of regimen. He got me a job at the cute coffee shop, I think secretly because he always wanted to date a semi-dangerous coffee shop guy. The rest, as they say, is nauseating.

~*~

Kids thrown into the streets are victims of crimes, not perpetrators of crimes. I always try to remember that when people are on TV debating the "political intelligence" of something like marriage equality, fighting in the armed services or health care benefits — that although those are very real problems, they're just the extension into adulthood of a very primal and very savage hatred that goes back to our youth. It's another way to cut us off from survival resources. It isn't about marriage or health care. And it hurts kids.

Balancing on the bike rack, a grown man now, but eating a melty chocolate chip ice cream sandwich.

"Why didn't you ever call me? I would have visited you," she says, the prettiest girl in my grade school, spooning sorbet past her obscenely perfect, plump lips.

"It was a break. I don't know. Maybe I didn't want you to see what I was up to."

"Drugs?"

"Some. Just — how I was living. What I was doing."

"Because you were gay?" she asks, incredulous, because, well, duh.

How can I say, "Because it wasn't about you, or my parents, or anyone. It was a chance to give actually living like myself a real shot. And having you, or anyone from home, around would have ruined that experiment."

So I just say, "I was up to a lot of no good." The ice cream drips off my hand onto Division Street. She nods like she understands. I look up and down the street, marvel at how safe and open it seems. Because I know how terrifying it must be for so many.

 

About the Author(s)

David Brearley is doing just fine, thank you, living in peace and prosperity in Chicago.

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