The Ohio State University campus area is a home many teens choose as they transition to their burgeoning adulthood. For MD Sitzes, it wasn’t a choice.
In the late 1990s, Sitzes came out as queer, and with a parent who couldn’t handle the situation, they were forced out and lived on the streets of Columbus.
“The first response was ‘you have to leave my house,’” Sitzes told the OCJ.
A bill passed by the Ohio House in June would compel Ohio educators to out children to their parent or guardian. LGBTQ+ have a 120% higher risk for homelessness and about 40% of youths experiencing homelessness are LGBTQ+, even though LGBTQ+ people only represent about 7% of the youth population. A study from Lesley University shows that half of all teens get a negative reaction from their parents when they come out to them, and more than 1 in 4 are forced to leave their homes.
Sitzes knew from a young age that they were part of the LGBTQ+ community, and they started coming out of the closet, “slowly but surely,” in high school.
They were able to explore their identity mainly with the support of one teacher who didn’t push in any particular direction, but instead “gave the room to talk.”
“I didn’t have examples (of queer identity) during that time, there weren’t cultural references like there are now … ‘Will & Grace’ was barely on TV,” Sitzes said. “I just knew, and it was only through teaching myself that I found those models.”
When Sitzes was on the streets, they said it was a constant struggle to pivot based on the what essential need was most prevalent that day, and zig-zag different area’s rules on what was considered a “public space,” all so they could sleep for a night.
“People look at you and they pass you over a lot if you look dirty and you look homeless,” Sitzes said of those days. “There’s this social forgetfulness.”
The hardship brought a different kind of community, networks of people trying to help, but Sitzes also spiraled into addiction and, through later mental health support, realized they suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Amidst everything they were dealing with after being forced out of their home, one feeling would sometimes rise above them all.
“I would call my mom on a pay phone, on her work line, even if it was her (voicemail), just to hear her voice because I missed her,” Sitzes recalled.
The lack of acceptance from their parent, which Sitzes partly attributes to misinformation and social standards, ended up keeping the mother and child separated, even after Sitzes got back on their feet.
“It tore us apart and it kept us apart for many years,” they said. “The calling eventually ended in me not calling anymore.”
For Sitzes, the experience they had in the late 1990s seems eerily familiar to what LGBTQ+ youth are dealing with now, especially as the Ohio legislature pushes through GOP priority bills banning gender-affirming care and trans women from playing sports with the gender with which they identify.
“The politicizing of identities is not new,” Sitzes said.
Their experience led to a calling, when an inquiry into legal documents led them to a job at Equality Ohio, for which they are now the communications manager.
“I feel so fortunate to be in a role that’s sort of hugging my younger self,” Sitzes said.
Part of the job is raising awareness and acknowledging the pervasiveness of homelessness that still exists within the LGBTQ+ youth community.
According to the National Network for Youth, those who identify as LGBTQ+ have a 120% higher risk of experiencing “some form of homelessness.”
The Journal of Adolescent Health found that 40% of the 4.2 million youth in homelessness identify as LGBTQ+.
“(LGBTQ+) are also more likely to experience assault, trauma, depression and suicide when compared to non-LGBTQ+ populations while also being homeless,” the network stated.
The statistics worsen when adding in racial inequities.
Though there is a lack of mechanisms to fully study how many LGBTQ+ youth are homeless in Ohio, the Kaleidoscope Youth Center estimated 1,750 homeless or at-risk-to-be-homeless LGBTQ+ youth in Columbus alone, according to a 2019 fact sheet.
Part of the issue in determining how many homeless LGBTQ+ youth exist in the state is the federal definition of homelessness, according to Erin Upchurch, executive director of Kaleidoscope.
The federal and traditional housing programs consider homelessness to be within 14 days of being without a home and those that do not have shelter that could serve as a home, like a friend’s couch or an individual’s home that may be physically available, but psychologically risky for gay youth.
“In the shelter system, you have to be certified as homeless before you can access a shelter bed,” Upchurch said. “Things like couch surfing can disrupt the definition of homelessness.”
With partnerships through Ohio programs like the Huckleberry House, Upchurch said Kaleidoscope has been able to provide homeless LGBTQ+ youth housing without some of the barriers that can be a part of the homelessness assistance system as it stands now.
“We know the number one reason for LGBTQ youth to be homeless is having discord in their homes or families of origin,” Upchurch said. “We also see young folks with generational poverty, and those are the most frequent reasons (for homelessness).”
Every individual that comes through one of Kaleidoscope’s housing programs gets a case manager to address not only the need for a safe place to sleep, but also the toll homelessness can take on a person’s basic needs.
“It’s going to impact them physically, it’s going to impact them medically, and it’s going to impact them psychologically,” Upchurch said. “They’re living in survival mode.”
Though recent legislation on gender-affirming care may not impact Kaleidoscope’s housing programs, Upchurch worries about what the legislation could do to those they are serving in the programs.
“Imagine that your validity, your humanity, was being debated in this very public, this very global way,” Upchurch said. “With adults saying you don’t deserve medical care, you don’t deserve to play sports.”
With the legislation and the possibility of more regulation on LGBTQ+ lives, Upchurch said the youth center sees “more fear of identity crimes.”
As legislation surrounding the topics that can be discussed in schools continues to be considered, Sitzes fears the one outlet they had, the teacher with room to talk, might not be available for future generations, including her children.
“Fear does a lot to our mental health capacity,” Sitzes said. “It’s in the hands of these lawmakers that continue to push these trends that aren’t representative of what Ohio wants.”
Regulation and legislation isn’t the answer, Sitzes and Upchurch say; education and compassion are.
In the end, Sitzes and her mom were able to mend the fences that had separated them for more than two decades.
After therapy and a lifetime of experiences, Sitzes said they were able to have the conversations with her mom, showing her ways to “unlearn and relearn” things, and it opened the door to a new relationship.
“She started asking questions, and she learned new terms and other ways of being supportive,” Sitzes said. “All she wanted to do was love me, and she didn’t know how.”
The measures being pushed by the GOP supermajority do not reflect what community groups say they see as the general opinion of Ohio when it comes to child wellbeing and LGBTQIA+ support.
“What we need is for people to use their voices and say this is not our state, this is not who we are,” Upchurch said.
The same legislation that Upchurch fears may worsen the mental health of current at-risk LGBTQ+ youth also threatens to break apart mother and daughter again.
Sitzes, her wife and their twins have left the state, fearing for their own safety as a queer family.
They, along with advocacy groups, predict more migration out of Ohio if families and individuals don’t feel safe with the laws in the state. Equality Ohio’s legal clinic has been “flooded” with cases, so much so that there’s a waitlist.
“If there’s a waitlist, you can’t say that people feel protected,” Sitzes said.
Even as a homeless teenager, Sitzes said they took that situation as motivation to “forge a path out.”
“I think that because I was able to forge a path out, I’m alive today,” Sitzes said.
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