As the Occupy Wall Street movement spread around the world, one woman’s 40-year fight for the queer dispossessed continues.
by Sassafras Lowrey
“It’s been 50 years since I sat here, I feel like I’m 13,” began Jay Toole, legendary butch activist and the director of The Shelter Project at Queers For Economic Justice as she sat on an old bench in New York City’s Washington Square Park. Jay, who first became homeless at 12 years old in 1961 when she returned to her family’s South Bronx apartment with a flattop haircut, spent decades years on the streets. Now she works tirelessly in partnership and on behalf of homeless queer folks.
I had the opportunity to spend a day with Jay as she took me on a walking tour of the N.Y.C. parks and neighborhoods that were her home for so many years. She shared incredible stories about what it meant to be a young butch in the ’60s, and how “if you didn’t know how to fight you were in trouble,” altercations with police and the mafia, and about the women she loved. Walking The Village with Jay gifted me with the most powerful and intimate lessons into lesbian history I’ve ever received, and was a poignant reminder of how much work remains to be done in our community around issues of homelessness.
Homelessness remains incredibly stigmatized in our society, including within our LGBT communities. As our political focus continues to be on issues such as marriage equality, things like the systemic economic inequality that LGBT communities face which includes increased risk of homelessness fails to rise to the level of community attention, let alone mobilization. In a policy briefing, Queers For Economic Justice a national LGBT organization focused on promoting economic justice in a context of sexual and gender liberation explained “no fully representative data on LGBT poverty exists that takes into account the complexities of race, age, immigration status, disability and other factors that have clear economic impact.”
Although homelessness is far from a new experience in our community, due to the economic downturn, and the increase in poverty, unemployment, and underemployment, the rates of homelessness have been on the rise across the country. This has been particularly hard hitting for many LGBT individuals who in many communities are vulnerable to legal discrimination in areas such as housing and employment. Also, many historically gay neighborhoods that for decades provided sanctuary and shelter to homeless LGBT individuals have in recent years seen an increase in popularity and gentrification thus pushing long term residents out, and in some instances onto the streets. Early in the walk Jay looked around the park that had been home to her and countless other young queer folks, now boasting flowerbeds and fenced in children’s playgrounds shaking her head and saying “this is so sad” and beginning to talk about the violence, but also the haven that the streets of The Village offered to her.
For Jay and other young homeless butches, each day was filled with the freedom of being able to be out, authentic, and also incredible danger. “Being a homeless youth, you’re scared, but you get over it quick. You have to posture, if you’re going to survive.” The life she lived—being beaten and assaulted by the cops, serving time at the Women’s House of Detention, dealing drugs, pimping out femmes—might sound like a piece of queer historical fiction but as Jay reminds us, “It was the same way back then as it is today at 40-something years past [Stonewall] [but] our community still doesn’t see [homeless queer youth]” as an epidemic.
LGBT homeless youth were amongst the first to fight at Stonewall. In fact, Jay remembers being woken up in Washington Square Park where she was sleeping on her bench and heard something had happened at The Stonewall. Despite their pivotal role in founding our modern gay rights movement the needs of homeless queers systematically continue to be ignored.
A new study out of the Children’s Hospital in Boston has found that one in four gay or lesbian high school students had or was experiencing homelessness. The researchers suspect that this number is in actuality higher because Massachusetts is a more liberal state, which has passed Marriage Equality and thus on the whole has a more accepting attitude towards LGBT issues. Additionally, the study only accounted for gay and lesbian teens, and another study from the Center For American Progress completed last year demonstrated that transgender and other gender non conforming teens were more likely to experience homelessness.
“How many LGBT adults are there in New York City shelters?” asks Jaye. “The only answer I can give is lots of us, if you go by the numbers of folks attending the shelter support groups that QEJ run, hundreds and hundreds [per year]. If we assume that 10 percent of the population is LGBT then that means there are about 4,000 LGBT adults in the shelter system of N.Y.C. alone,” estimates Jay.
There is a consistent shortage of services. Even in major cities like New York and San Francisco youth are continually turned away from LGBT youth shelters because there simply are not enough beds. In a federal report examining youth homelessness the Obama administration sited LGBT youth as a “special needs population” speaking to the need for culturally competent and LGBT youth specific services, yet there are far more youth than even the best social service providers can serve. In mainstream homeless youth facilities like day centers and shelters LGBT youth are often harassed, abused and violated by staff and fellow youth as a direct result of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. The result, is that in the absence of LGBT specific programs, many youth choose to remain on the streets and face incredible violence.
Queers for Economic Justice provides supportive services to LGBT adults involved in the shelter system and experiencing homelessness and are at the forefront of demanding that this aspect of our community be properly counted, and that services be provided to them. They also act as a watchdog: they “negotiate unprofessional, discriminatory, and dangerous treatment in many vital social service agencies, including being denied services, falsely arrested, and physically and sexually assaulted,” states a report exploring the experiences of low income LGBT individuals.
Walking together through the parks and streets of The Village, Jay talked with pride and honor about the nearly 30 arrests for sexual deviancy (being butch, and not wearing three pieces of women’s clothes) that remain on her criminal record to this day, and how she chooses to not have it removed, because the arrests are a badge of honor and proof of the world she fought to survive in.
“I have a big problem with big organizations that forget other people, queer homeless families and those in the shelter system,” remarks Jay as she looks around at the streets that for decades were her home, and remain home for so many in our community. (q4ej.org)