In the three-story brick house in Northeast Washington, there are eight bedrooms, each filled with a young person who identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. And like Sarah — a transgender woman who until February was sleeping at Reagan National Airport, washing her hair with shampoo fished from the trash — each ended up homeless or close to it.
As the District takes significant strides to advance the rights of LGBT residents — for example, recently legalizing same-sex marriage — the youths who pass through the Wanda Alston House tell of the vulnerability the community still faces. The house, named after an
LGBT leader and mayoral adviser
in 2005, is one of a handful of transitional houses in the nation that cater to people who experts say are more likely to become homeless and who, once in that category, pose challenges most shelter systems are unequipped to address. Should a transgender female be placed in a shelter with men or women? Where should a transgender male who still has the anatomy of a woman shower? What about a young gay man?
Recently, two teenagers repeatedly punched and kicked a transgender woman after she used the women’s restroom at a McDonald’s in Baltimore. It was a brutal act, caught on tape, that resulted from what seems a brief crossing of paths. In a homeless shelter, interactions are more immersed. Everything is shared: rooms, showers, dinner tables.
“These kids get swallowed up in the system,” says Brian Watson, who manages the house through the District’s Transgender Health Empowerment program. He says he has seen young people come from shelters who have been sexually abused, ridiculed and, in one case, made to sleep in a common living room instead of a bedroom because she was transgender.
“These are good kids, really good kids,” Watson says. “They just need a chance.”
In Room 1, Devin sits on his bed, a broken guitar and Bible nearby, reading a poem he has written:
I don’t subscribe to their norms. So I must be the enemy. Unsurprisingly, both they and I share the same make up, the same creator, and some of the same sentiments. I too delight in the breeze on a warm summer day. I enjoy traveling even though I haven’t gone very far. I appreciate companionship, a listening ear, a warm heart. Yet somehow these human similarities are disregarded, and I become reducible to a “he/she” or an “it.” An animal, an alien, a traitor.
Devin, a 22-year-old transgender man who asked that his last name not be used, used to wear bright pink Christian Dior glasses and competed in beauty pageants, starting when he was a baby. More than once, he won the title Miss Photogenic.
“I was socialized to be very feminine,” he says. He recalls shopping as a teenager in Connecticut, where he grew up, and picking out the brightest pinks and greens, thinking, “What’s the most girl-like?”
Later, while studying pre-med at George Washington University, he joined a sorority.
Still, no matter how much he tried to fit gender norms or received praise, he wasn’t happy. There were times he dreaded showering, would even skip days, because it meant looking at his womanly curves. In darker moments, he says, he questioned life: “I said, ‘I don’t even feel I’ve got a reason to live.’ ”
Before deciding to take testosterone, Devin says, he prayed, fasted and decided: “This is a huge leap of faith, but I really believe I’ll be a more productive human being by taking this.” He was 20, and his father took him to get his first shot.
Eight months passed before Devin wrote his mother and other relatives a letter, telling them of his decision and saying he hoped they could still love him. That’s when he went from studying medicine to facing homelessness.
“She was heartbroken,” Devin says of his mother. She pulled her financial support, and with his college tuition went his housing, he says. “I understand how she feels. In my mother’s eyes, her child died.”
Devin’s girlfriend, who had only dated biologically born men before meeting Devin in college, says the hardest part of his transition has been his family’s “abandonment, just their not being able to handle it.” At the beginning, his mother couldn’t talk to him on the phone without crying and telling him he was going to hell, but now Devin says they have brief conversations. “I hope, and he doesn’t have a choice but to hope,” his girlfriend says, “that someday she’ll be able to spend time with him.”
With testosterone, Devin’s shoulders have grown broader, his face has begun sprouting hair, and his size 38D chest has shrunk so that he can wear a sports bra under baggy clothes without feeling self-conscious. (When he first started dating his girlfriend, she says, he wouldn’t let her see him without a binder constricting his chest). Showering is also no longer an ordeal. Devin says he is now less bothered by his body, one that he has no intention of changing with surgery, except for maybe getting a mastectomy.
“I still see the person I was born as, which I’m in no way trying to deny,” he says. “But I also see this person who is more self-assured and confident.” A person, he says, who sings in a church choir in a voice he never had as a woman.
Almost two dozen names of young people hoping to get in the house sit on a waiting list.
Most of them hear about the place through word of mouth, Watson says. Many grew up in the Washington region. But others came to the area through circumstance: a relationship gone wrong, a parent’s job change, a search for a more tolerant neighborhood.
Residents, ranging in age from 16 to 24, can live at the house for up to 18 months. And in that time, LaShone Hoffman, one of six housing monitors, says she tries to give them the guidance their parents, if they were in the picture, would provide. She teaches them how to bake cakes, how to tie ties, how to shop with coupons.
“I motivate them so I can escalate them,” Hoffman says. For the most part, they don’t just have goals, she says. “They have huge goals.” One wants to become an executive chef and own a chain of restaurants. Another wants to do makeup for the dead because he remembers how his grandmother, the woman who took care of him, looked at her funeral. Another wants to be a pharmacist. Another, a pediatric neurosurgeon or a minister.
While studies are sparse, experts say that LGBT youths make up a disproportionate number of the young homeless population. Although only 5 to 10 percent of young people identify as LGBT, they make up anywhere between 20 and 40 percent of homeless youths, said Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. And once they become homeless, she said, research shows they are more susceptible to sexual exploitation, physical abuse and suicide attempts.
In Room 4, three pairs of gray sweatpants sit folded in a drawer. They are what Kadeem Swenson, 19, wore for more than a year to school when his home consisted of a square of stained carpet in an abandoned apartment building.
As Kadeem tells it, he already had a rocky relationship with his parents when at 16 he told them he was gay and they kicked him out of their Maryland house.
For a while, he lived with his grandmother in North Carolina. But if he stayed, he says, he wouldn’t have been able to enroll in school and would’ve had to settle for a GED. “I’m too smart for that,” he says. So he returned to the District and lived with a friend’s family until they moved.
On the night they left, he slept on a park bench near Chinatown. The next day, he walked around the neighborhood near Ballou STAY Senior High School in Southeast Washington and felt lucky when he found the building with plywood-covered windows and an open door.
On a recent afternoon, Kadeem returns there. An unlighted stairwell crunches underfoot with broken glass, chunks of drywall and dirt-caked trash. In one room, a refrigerator sits on its side. In another, a sink rests upside down in a hall closet.
He stops at Room 302.
“This is the one I was in,” he says. On the floor of the bedroom is the small Tweety Bird pillow he slept on. On the wall, a school calendar with his writing. Under the date, Sept. 21, 2010, it reads, “Ms. Lloyd class test.” Under Oct. 12, “College Fair!”
“The plan was to stay here until I went to college,” he says.
For most of 11th grade and part of 12th, Kadeem lived this way, washing up at a grocery store down the street and surviving off fast-food dollar menus. Only when he ran low on money, he says, did he tell school officials. They referred him to Transgender Health Empowerment.
Next month, Kadeem and one other resident will walk the stage and get their diplomas. Kadeem has enrolled at the University of the District of Columbia and hopes to transfer to an Ivy League school, ideally Harvard, he says. He’s interning with a city official and is practicing sports he hopes will give him an advantage.
“I’ll be a black gay man who plays tennis, golf and rowing,” he says, flashing a wide smile. “Oh, Lord, that has to spark their interest.”
As she gets dressed, Sarah Feliciano’s insecurities slip out.
“Don’t be afraid to speak up if something I put on doesn’t look nice,” she tells a visitor, tucking tan boots under white hip-hugging pants. There are few women in her life to tell her how to put on makeup or which skirt to pair with which blouse, so she often asks her housemates for advice.
Dressing as a man was easy, Sarah says. The choice was always blue or black. “But being a girl is almost a fashion show every day,” she says. “They expect a lot more out of you as a girl.”
Sarah, who has legally changed her name, was 18 when she learned the term transgender and 19 when she started ordering hormones over the Internet.
The way she figured it, she had a choice: become a woman and lose every comfort she’d known, or stay a man and lose her mind.
“It was a hard decision not to make,” she says.
That’s not to say it’s been easy. She didn’t use a public women’s restroom until men on the street started saying, “Hey, baby.”
And to this day, she tests how feminine her voice sounds by whether strangers call her “ma’am” or “sir” on the phone.
She recalls the first time she walked out of the house dressed as a woman. She wore a pair of torn jeans, a black tank top and a long, flowing wig.
The convenience store was less than a block from the room she rented in Rockville — a long enough distance, she figured, that she would know whether she could pass as a woman and a short enough distance that, if she had to, she could run home.
With each step, she recalls, she felt the stares. The mailman gawked, drivers eased on their brakes, sidewalk-slouchers snickered. Someone said, “That’s a man dressed like a woman!”
“I guess I looked like a man in a wig or maybe a clown,” she says.
It took more than a month and a therapist’s encouragement to get her to leave the house again. Once she did, as she feared, everything she had known slipped away: Her roommates asked her to leave, at least 10 landlords refused to rent to her and relatives didn’t know how to deal with her. The few who still talk to her call her “Guy.” With nowhere to go, she spoke to a social worker in Maryland about housing but was told her only option was to go to a men’s shelter — which she describes as “ridiculous.”
At National, Sarah slept on a chair by the window for 50 nights. She was there on Christmas, she says. There when a man propositioned her with, “Baby, I don’t care what you are.” There when an airport employee told her about Transgender Health Empowerment and walked her into the drop-in center.
“That’s how I ended up here,” Sarah says of Room 8.
In most of the other rooms, the personalities of the occupants jump off the walls. There’s a Tyra Banks poster here, a Van Gogh print there. In one room, shredded sheets hang from the ceiling, creating a floating waterfall effect.
But Sarah’s room remains undecorated.
She plans to keep it that way, she says. She doesn’t want to get too comfortable.