Youth have a Voice—We Want and Need You to Listen
I think things are beginning to change in this country, both in small, grass roots movements and on a national front sweeping through the country. It’s easier now than ever for people to tell their stories, and I sense that people are beginning to want to hear voices of those less heard, voices like mine. My story may not make headlines but I realize now it is important none-the-less.
Several weeks ago I had a chance to attend the Forty to None Summit, hosted by the True Colors Fund in New York City and attended by dozens of different organizations and groups from around the country. There I gave my speech, shared my own tale, and became involved in the growing national conversation about homelessness among youth, and specifically LGBTQ youth. This summit boosted my regard for the people that are ultimately in charge of so many major decisions that impact the lives of homeless youth every day and in every corner of America.
[WATCH: Bentley's speech at the Forty to None Summit]
Before I tell you my story, I first want to say where I am today. Something to keep in mind while you read this: I, and people like me, are not just words on a screen or in news print. While you read this, know that I am alive somewhere, living my own life, just as you are, and I am not a walking tragedy or someone to pity.
I was once homeless, kicked out of my home for being who I am.
At age 13, I was kicked out of my home in Montana, where I was living with my mother and stepfather; my parents divorced when I was eight. I was not kicked out because of disciplinary problems or for being an unruly teen. After all, we lived 40 miles away from Billings, deep in the country with no real trouble to find. The reason that I was no longer wanted in my mother’s household was because the summer before, I had told her that I liked women. This was when I was still identifying as female, having yet to find the more comfortable identification of being a transgender male. In that one conversation, I had made myself (in my mother’s eyes) a disgusting, perverted object that was no longer associated with her own child.
Things only got worse later.
From my mother’s house, I moved in with my father and stepmother in Utah. They were somewhat more accepting. The problems I faced with them were a complete lack of food, outright neglect and emotional abuse, not so different from the house I left. My stay there only lasted a year. In that time, I tried to do something worthwhile to make my life more meaningful. I tried to start a Gay-Straight-Alliance--in a small city in Utah of all places! Unfortunately, this didn’t work out all that well and I was forced to relocate again, this time a “gentler” form of being kicked out.
The year I was away gave my mother time to strengthen her resolve, and she came to believe that she could, somehow, fix me. Worse, was that I believed it, too. At that point I was beaten down, shut off. I did not want to face the world, least of all face myself. All I wanted to do was change so I could be accepted, so I could try to make my life easier and loosen some of the tension between my mother and I that had stayed taut even while I was away in another state.
For a while I managed it: going to church with my family, dressing as feminine as I could. But everything felt wrong. My mind and my outlook were distorted. I was depressed and I would have been suicidal had it not been for a promise I made to my sister, my strongest support and ally, years earlier.
Then, something magical happened.
I found out what “transgender” is. I found out it was possible to not feel so uneasy in my own skin, my role in society. I leaped at the opportunity to embrace who I am. At 15, I came out to the world as trans*!
Still, no matter the relief of finally being able to accept myself, things at home got progressively worse. Barely a year later, I was forcibly removed from the household when my stepfather tried to strangle me. There is more to the story of course, but that was the breaking point in a long line of abuse, both physical and verbal, that got me out of the house for good. I couch-surfed for a while and lived with my father after a few months when he moved back into the city. But there was never any food, and even if there was I was never really welcome in the house. My sister and I moved into his unfinished basement. We were not allowed upstairs during any celebrations (including Thanksgiving and Christmas). I spent upwards of 16 hours every day away from the house, only returning to sleep before leaving again.
It was misery, filled with yelling and constant tension. My nerves were always frayed. I was always waiting for the next shoe to drop, always trying to be prepared for it when it happened.
Not soon enough, my sister and I found a couple of rooms to rent from a woman and quickly moved out. We even managed to get our own apartment several months later. But by that point, I was so disconnected from reality that I dropped out of school. I didn’t leave that room for several months.
See, one of the hardest things then and now about leaving the house for me is that I know how people are. I know people don’t care and, if they do, never about the right things. No one could tell just from looking at me or talking to me what I have been through, and that is exactly how I and numerous other youth that have gone through similar experiences prefer to keep it. We don’t want to be looked at and thought of as something we are not. We are not family discards. We are not screw ups. We are not just a list of facts and figures, nor the endless stereotypes that plague people experiencing homelessness.
What are we? We are strong, independent, gleaming jewels that someone will find in a dark, neglected corner. We shine more brightly because of it. All homeless youth need is a bit of hope and a bit of help. It’s something so easy to give.
One of the hardest things I faced was not having a phone and not having the funds to purchase one. Some people will hear that and scoff, saying that a phone is not really needed, that it is just something extra. I can tell you, however, that living in Montana or anywhere and not having a completely stationary base of operations means moving around a lot without a way to contact anyone for help. I had been locked out of my house in the middle of winter--Montana style winter, where it will drop below negative 20 degrees even in the middle of the afternoon. For the average teen who lives in a house with a family that accepts and loves them for who they are, a phone is probably just part of their daily inventory of resources at their disposal – like a computer and easy access to transportation. On the other hand, when you’ve been cut off by your family and literally have nothing, having a way to call someone for help can make the difference between getting that help and being stuck on your own and not sure how you’re going to stay safe. If there was a way for the organizations that help youth like me on a daily basis to be able to provide every youth with an emergency phone, it would go a long way to helping youth in the middle of nowhere feel like they have a connection to someone who cares and can help them figure out where to go next.
This is just one of many ways we, as advocates, service providers, and policymakers, can better help young people achieve the four key outcomes outlined in Opening Doors: Federal Framework to End Youth Homelessness: stable housing, permanent connections, education and employment, and well-being.
Just as important as those outcomes, at least for me, is hope. Hope is something harder to give, but it also takes less effort. Something that sticks out in my mind, even now, is something very small, but it instilled in me the hope to keep going. Tumbleweed, the organization I was representing in New York, is one of the few groups in Montana that helps homeless and runaway youth. The organization sent some people to my high school during the winter. A group of us were huddled outside, braving the cold for a few cigarettes, and these people brought a giant thermos of hot chocolate and cups to hand out. Something so small, so seemingly insignificant, can do so much. It mattered far more than people realize, because it was at that moment, with that small gesture, that I started thinking about advocacy.
Now look where I am. At 18, a former homeless and troubled youth, I am now writing this blog for a Federal agency that countless people will read. I am an advocate with Planned Parenthood during campaign season and a volunteer the rest of the time. My application was accepted to join NN4Y’s National Youth Advisory Council. I have plans to move to Berlin, Germany, and attend college there, getting involved in other types of advocacy overseas, and all of this even with having been a thrown-away child.
If I can do it, then I ask people reading this blog to think about what they can do to help others do it—to help end youth homelessness. I also urge my colleagues in this work to listen to the voices of those who have lived this experience; we can help. We have a voice—we want and need you to listen.
Bentley is an activist in his hometown, Billings, Montana. Working with numerous different agencies and organizations, he seeks to make his community and, ultimately, the world a better, freer place. His plans include moving to Germany in several years to possibly attend University as well as to look into going into privacy advocacy.