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.