LGBTQ organizations: Fostering new leaders
The best organizations do not just represent a population as a source of clientele, but rather reflect that population throughout the organization. Many organizations that currently serve the LGBTQ+ community emerged in the 80s and 90s as the AIDS crisis created a need to develop care from within the community. These same organizations, however, have not necessarily changed their leadership in the last 20-30 years from when they had primarily been focused on representing an urban and suburban white gay population. But now serve a diverse population that includes Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) and trans communities. People we spoke with noted that organizations work best when they are led by the people who they serve. But sometimes organizations feel they must decide between delivering a resource and capacity building.
“In terms of capacity building… they don’t have those resources in order to keep the lights on. Then you have to sacrifice something. And I think that the services to the most marginalized—the folks that have intersecting identities are the ones that are being sacrificed. Those are the compromises. We are the compromised people.”74
The demand on institutions to broaden the definition of their spaces and reframe their orientation has consistently come from trans and BIPOC community members. One can see this in the way Rhode Island Pride had been encouraged to expand and include the priorities of the larger BIPOC and trans community, or as one of our interviewees pointed out, expanding ideas about who can perform drag can challenge traditional gatekeepers and leaders. The growing pains that many groups face are important and can demonstrate the health of an organization. Some groups and organizations are better able to grow with grace than others.
Youth age out with nowhere to go
Organizations that serve LGBTQ+ youth provide a fundamental service for the state often with very few resources. These are not just gay-straight alliances. These are organizations that often protect youth from abusive situations and create a welcoming and safe space for youth that have effectively been kicked out of their homes or who live precariously in hostile homes. These spaces might be the first time youth hear that they are accepted and welcomed as they are. An example of this, is the role of the food pantry at Youth Pride, Inc. (YPI), the main LGBTQ+ youth-serving organization in Providence.
“When I was younger, and youth at high school, there was a lot of resources. And now that I’m getting older, they’re going away, I’m phasing out of YPI.75 I won’t be able to access their pantry and I desperately need to use pantries. I spent two months working with SNAP to try until my SNAP application and get all the paperwork in and as like someone who has a spouse who’s married, but it was like, it was so complicated being someone who has three jobs, is a full-time student, working to fill out this application and meeting these requirements.”76
A very common trajectory for youth in Rhode Island is that they move up through these organizations and become mentors, volunteers, and employees as they age out. This has its strengths. Many former youth spoke of the importance of these organizations as supportive second and first families–the broader kinfolk that LGBTQ+ people have had to create for generations.
“Folks that come in as young people…are either coming and looking for resources because they’re dealing with homelessness, or because they don’t want to go home right after school. Or they’ll just need a warm place to chill. You know, seeing the variety of folks that come in through the space and have access to the space and watching them claim some of that ownership of the space or knowing that it’s a safe space where folks can go, bringing their friends, watching those folks then become— get out of school, graduate, find jobs, move on and start to…have autonomy over themselves and be able to own that for themselves.” 77
Yet, this system also highlights a gap in services for LGBTQ+ younger adults; once youth age out they no longer have the connections and often fundamental support systems to rely on.
And this dramatically increases the precarity of younger adults in their late teens and early 20s. Many have no families to fall back on, so small troubles become much more difficult to navigate and can lead to a cascade of troubles that include finding stable and safe housing.
This was clear in our focus group conversation with older youth and students in college.
As mentioned in the Housing section of this report, there are disproportionately higher numbers of LGBTQ+ youth and youth of color experiencing being unhoused in the state than their heterosexual, white counterparts. And even these numbers are likely a gross underestimate of the number of LGBTQ+ youth experiencing housing instability.
There are fewer than 20 subsidized housing beds for youth and most are rapid rehousing. Most youth require permanent housing and very little of this exists. A lot of youth have mental health and learning disabilities and aren’t getting the in-depth services they deserve alongside housing needs. When the state has been the primary care-giver, oftentimes young folks don’t have the chance to develop techniques to thrive.
Ninety percent of young people who are homeless are couch surfing which disqualifies them for many services, so these youth cannot access the services they need regarding homelessness—
there is a mix of youth for whom paid sex work is part of their survival, some engage in sex work to keep shelter/food, others feel like they can’t say no to those who are providing housing and food, and some people feel like they would rather stay with that person than go into the foster system.
A newer organization named Haus of Codec is working to address this vulnerable period. It is the state’s first youth shelter and services youth ages 18-24. Led by BIPOC, trans and nonbinary folks, some of whom have experienced being unhoused, Haus of Codec centers LGBTQ+ politics of care and homemaking in addition to providing direct services such as a food pantry and case management. Part of what makes them both successful and limited, however, is their size. They are able to address many of the needs of the youth they serve due to their small-scale approach, but are only able to serve 6 at a time and have to turn many youth seeking housing away.
Location is another important concern regarding housing instability for LGBTQ+ youth. Rhode Island faces a density dynamic that many other states do when it comes to funding and access. Much of the funds and organizations are located in urban areas and the rural areas are left with little. Youth who grow up in rural areas face a different set of challenges that mean many do not have any support system to lean on or they are forced to make risky migrations to urban centers.
BIPOC & Queer
The experience of being both/and for BIPOC individuals living in a predominantly white state that sees itself as progressive can be frustrating. And oftentimes, when people pushed traditionally white organizations to think about intersectionality,78 and address some of the structures that might be limiting to the BIPOC community, there was backlash.
“There was a vigil that I went to after that Florida shooting in Providence, were you at that vigil?79 What I’m saying it’s just like, really intense and really exclusive and awkward and feeling that divide. And sometimes—and I’m sure you have so many thoughts on this—it’s like trying to make sure that we’re not expelling so much energy that we’re constantly exhausted. But also like realizing that it’s important to engage in a discourse…How is it that we’re even having an argument right now about someone who wants to speak at this event [for a shooting] that affected [mostly Latinx LGBTQ+ people]?” 80
Pride came up in a number of conversations as an example of the ways in which certain parts of the community remain exclusive.81 As one of the most visible cultural events, it also served as a point of division for the community.
“But then if you go to queer, POC, trans or queer people,… they feel like the queer community is very divided between the whites and the non whites. There’s so many times people don’t want to go to Pride because it feels like a celebration of something that they’re not really a part of. Also, the the racism that people have faced in queer spaces, especially from cis gay men... I’ve done tabeling and been like, Hey, y’all want to get political? You want to talk about legislation? And they’re like, I don’t do political stuff.
No bye... I think that also coincides with the history of the LGBTQ movement in that it was very radical at first, but then in order to actually make progress on things, they had to assimilate, they had to be friendly with their messaging.” 82
Here, there is a direct connection between how the ability to engage people politically is often curtailed by the inability for some queer spaces to represent the breadth of the community, and be welcoming to BIPOC members. Often, rather than spaces becoming inclusive, alternative spaces open up as is the case with the Dyke and Trans People of Color March (DTPOC). Some of these alternative spaces are long lasting and others emerge as a short term antidote.
Community & family
LGBTQ+ people have been building and forming beautifully diverse families for a long time. The need for community when traditional families or the state are unable to meet your needs is part of the reason for this, though these families are often founded on mutual interests and a desire to be a part of building a community. Unfortunately still, there are many LGBTQ youth who experience homelessness as a result of violence within their families of origin and the state’s insufficient response.
A national study of youth ages under 18 to 24 showed that over half, (54%) of respondents named abuse in their family as a significant factor contributing to LGBTQ homelessness. Other factors included verbal abuse, parental substance use, aging out of child welfare systems, and limited to no affordable housing options. Transgender youth are more likely (75%) than their LGBQ counterparts (70%) to name being kicked out of their homes as the primary reason for homelessness.83 The corollary impacts of this include:
- LGBTQ youth are more likely to experience sexual victimization within the last three months preceding becoming homeless--this is especially true for male queer youth.84
- Many youths experience abuse at homeless shelters, particularly within those that are geared toward serving adults.85
- Foster care systems contribute to youth homelessness; 12-36% of emancipated foster care youth experience homelessness within their first year of being discharged from foster care.86
- LGBTQ youth who are homeless, especially transgender youth, are significantly more likely to engage in survival sex to access basic needs such as food and shelter.87
- While there is no data with exact percentages, it is clear that youth of color who are LGBTQ are more likely to experience homelessness than their white counterparts.88
These alarming statistics demonstrate the urgent need for rebuilding the networks of care that have systemically been privatized within the nuclear family.
“Because I feel like when I was coming out, specifically in my chosen family community, I feel like it was, it was funny. It just was sort of all of a sudden, I realized I was just surrounded by queer people. So when I came out, everyone was like, “Yeah, you know, we know, you know?” I feel really lucky to have been held by so many people. It just was sort of— that was just the way that I don’t know, my friendships were developing over the years.” 89
Another person spoke about community building emanating from “fractured origins” and that some of the benefits that have been fought for have been unevenly distributed.
“We come from fractured origins, and we have to find each other…it’s become more apparent to me…that there’s a very uneven way that marriage equality affected the community. Folks who came from more privileged backgrounds, were able to sort of move into a more affluent, mainstream place and use the securities of that relationship status, and you know, the tax benefits that everyone talks about, but sort of like that is, we were able to sort of slide in, where that was more socially acceptable than for the folks that did not fit into the benefits of that structure. It’s become very apparent that it’s just what it means to be queer, or gay, or lesbian or trans…are very different things for very different people.” 90
This was precisely the reason that kinship networks and a focus on building community needed to be central to the work that people did. Providing these networks of support of mutual aid in challenging times needs to occur. The work is considering how these sources of mutual aid can be inclusive.91
The pandemic exacerbated an already existing challenge of social isolation for the LGBTQ+ community. For some it was isolation of the elder community, which one person noted could be “dramatic”:
“When I was involved with SAGE, the social isolation was really dramatic. In the LGBT elder community, you know, people are much less likely to have a spouse, less likely to have children or really any supportive family, even friendships.” 92
- Forty percent of LGBT elders’ social networks have dwindled as they have aged and about 34% of older LGBTQ people live alone compared to 21% of non-LGBTQ people.93
- For older transgender people, experiences of social isolation may be heightened due to a history of medical professionals requiring that they divorce their spouse and move to a new area to build a new identity.94
Another person noted that oftentimes the trajectory of coming out has left LGBTQ+ of any age unable to explore their full selves and leaving them socially anxious.
“Queer people have the hardest… we’ve got a lot through a lot of trauma…I have talked to people and even just from older people to young people, who have said that they’ve spent so much time in the closet, or that they’ve been so isolated, or in mental health issues, even myself… I feel like people say that, they have to learn how to socialize later in life, because they never got to, because they felt so isolated....And then you know, it becomes a feedback loop of just becoming more isolated, and it’s even a harder time to get out there. That’s something that also needs to be sort of thought about when trying to build community is just how much people have gone through how much healing people that need to go through.” 95
- Trans women, trans men, and gender nonconforming persons all have higher rates of “frequent mental distress,” a common metric of self-rated poor mental health, compared to cisgender men (but not cisgender women). These three groups also have higher rates of depression diagnosis compared to cisgender men (but not cisgender women). Further differences exist among trans subpopulations, as trans men have higher rates of frequent mental distress than trans women and gender nonconforming persons.96
- Trans women and men have higher rates of prior problem alcohol use (31% and 30% among trans women and men, respectively) and prior problem use of other drugs (21% and 25%, respectively).97
- Nonbinary persons have higher rates of binge alcohol use (58% in the past year).98
- In a study conducted in 2020, LGBQ women and men had high rates of binge alcohol use (48% and 58%, respectively).99
The pandemic increased social isolation and made building community almost impossible. There was a way in which community across the world developed as technology allowed for people to communicate across great distances. Technology presented its own issues, leaving some technological novices, particularly older folks, at a disadvantage. Many people who might have been able to volunteer or join an organization to meet others, found themselves unable to do so leaving people “supremely isolated.”100
The art & music as premier community space
Rhode Island has a unique and rich arts and music-driven environment that has been the backbone of many of the oldest LGBTQ+-accepting and LGBTQ+ led organizations: AS220, Youth Pride, Inc., New Urban Arts, RIOT101 and more. As one person who has directed grants and funding pointed out:
“Supporting arts and culture in every community is an upstream strategy, right? So if you have opportunities to grow in cultural spaces, as a young person, with intergenerational kind of context, so you’re meeting elders, you’re meeting middle aged people, they’re mentoring you, you’re mentoring them in some cases…what would it mean to see arts and culture as something that’s not just extra, but is actually core to our community while being like, geographic,Rhode Island?”102
These organizations have helped to sustain the LGBTQ+ community, they are anchor institutions. The possibility of “making your own world”, as this individual notes, aligns queer community spaces and community arts spaces.
“You get to make your own worlds and sort of like in a sort of proto-queer space, it’s sort of like having the power to make something is also means that you have the power to create your own narrative, and build a world that you don’t see in front of you. And I think that that’s incredibly important for any person no matter what, because I think that another surprise is like, the LGBTQ+community is ever expanding, you know, it is not something that has, hopefully tight, you know, borders, that it is something that people see themselves in.” 103
According to many people we spoke to, some of the most vibrant organizations are those that serve youth, whether LGBTQ+ focused or not. These organizations have accepted the change that is demanded by working with youth. One person spoke of their work with RIOT RI:
“So for example, when you come to RIOT, you know that people are going to use your pronouns correctly and properly and are going to put effort into making sure that that happens on a daily basis. And that is just the norm. Like that is the type of precedent recently we’re setting or trying to set for people. And so I think sometimes, things as simple as that are actually huge for people. And I think for folks that are not used to some of those evolutions in language, they might not fully understand how things like that can really make or break down the development of a young person, the confidence and self-esteem of a young person and an adult. And so I a lot of engagement with queer communities is, for example, hiring queer people, paying queer people fair wages, bringing in queer instructors.”104
Part of building community is respecting the way people want to be named. For youth it is also a part of the “becoming” process. Being a location and a space that is open to youth who are learning who they are, requires that an organization and its leadership practice humility and openness.
A community space
Everyone of our discussions eventually talked about the desire for a community space. Some people felt agnostic about whether it needed to be a unique physical structure, while many wanted a specific LGBTQ+ center. There were a variety of needs expressed in these conversations: space for music and art, a safe space, a sober space, a Black Indigenous and People of Color space.105 A physical space emerges more as a need the more structural barriers you face.
“A lot of the youth that we work with—they’re not just LGBTQ+, they’re from BIPOC populations. A lot of them are first generation, or are immigrants themselves, or are…lower socioeconomic status. They have a million barriers in their way, in addition to the barriers around their sexuality and gender…we lost contact with a lot of those kids, especially in the beginning of the pandemic, because having a physical space for them to come to really was the way for them to get connected into things.” 106
Traditionally, bars were some of the only relatively safe spaces that LGBTQ+ people could gather. Today, as the community itself becomes more diverse there is a need for a variety of spaces that invite all members.
“I just want us to break away from this idea that queerness is just gay white men who go to clubs. It’s like, no, it’s like that /and/ we— many of us are BIPOC, queer, trans, we’re fem, some folks are fem. Also, many of us have families or want to have families or build our families on our own terms, and need space for that, too. So, I just think about that. And also, I just want us to have spaces, too, that are not necessarily tied to alcohol and club culture, because we also deserve wellness.” 107
Binch Press, which recently joined forces with Queer Archive Work, is an example of just this. They were initially a queer print-making shop but now identify as a space for queer and trans folks that sometimes make prints. One of the barriers they face, however, is being able to get operational grants rather than program-specific grants, which are so important for brick-and-mortar spaces.
A space that could be an umbrella organization appealed to many. The loss of many of the more traditional community spaces (including bars) has created a hole in Rhode Island. Many people had fully formed visions of what this might look like.
“I think something like an LGBTQ community center would be beneficial. That it, would be a social service agency in some ways, but it would also provide a space for people to go and you can create it in a unique way. You can create it in a way that does allow a little coffee shop, that does allow a drop-in place for people to shop. And then there’s also places for people to connect with social service agencies, if they want to. I was talking with some people in the community last year, and we were talking about that. We were talking about how, again, so going back to the building community— you’re building your family. You don’t have family, so you have a place to go.… I think a community— we talked about that and the community center where other agencies can comment can provide services of people that are in need, but the biggest thing is that it’s providing a space, it’s providing a place to create awareness, and hopefully, a community center with shelter would be even better. But [a] community center, an office where people can gather up space for people to gather, I think would be the first step.” 108
It is clear that a kind of hybrid space–one that is both for the community, but offers a variety of ways to connect that move beyond shared identity and substance use, would be beneficial.
Political organizing: Getting dirty & building community
We live in volatile political times and LGBTQ+ people are often in the crosshairs both literally and figuratively. The recent shooting at Club Q in Colorado Springs is just one extreme example of this; there are many slower kinds of political violence aimed at the LGBTQ+ community. In our conversations people reflected on the instability and fear from a tumultuous political environment at the federal level and the growing unease with right-wing grassroots politics.
“Specifically, before I was trans… I joined the military, it was a little after Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was overturned. So I kind of felt like, Okay, I could, maybe be successful...They started to allow transgender people in the military and for existing service members to transition through military healthcare process. I was kind of blown away that this was suddenly available… But when Donald Trump got elected I immediately said no, no, I don’t think I want to do this right now. Then not even a couple months later, he announced that no more transgender people in the military and that kind of kind of frightened me a little bit because I was still in the military. So I didn’t know what was going to happen to me... So it’s that fear that it really just depends on who’s in office. And that’s kind of terrifying.” 109
Another area of common concern, particularly among trans, nonbinary, and BIPOC LBGQ folks was police harassment and surveillance of LGBTQ+ youth of color which contributes to disproportionate incarceration rates of LGBTQ+ people of color.
- In Rhode Island, 51% of respondents to the 2015 Transgender Survey they would feel uncomfortable asking the police for help if they needed it.
- One in six transgender people have experienced incarceration; that number rises to about 50% incarceration rate for Black transgender people.110
And though fear and frustration were often the motivating emotions, many spoke of developing political engagement and the joy of bringing people together and forming community through political action. Here one younger filmmaker talks about political organizing against conversion therapy.
“It’s about us trying to ban conversion therapy, but it’s not about that, because it’s not really about conversion therapy. It’s more about… how there was a big upheaval of people who were very interested [in politics] suddenly, and wanting to get involved, but not knowing how to. And our group was of like, we want to do something queer focused…A lot of people found their political starts there”.111
Another person who has organized for the community for decades pointed to the volatility of politics for LGBTQ+ people.
“The thing about gay marriage, I think it’s a great example because it was it was absolutely wonderful. But it took up a tremendous amount of time and energy. And then everybody said, Okay, we’re done… And we were so far from done. And so I mean, gay marriages is fabulous, but…this might be taken away from us. So there’s so much that could have been done to secure it… And I do think that the community spends too much time playing, and not enough time getting dirty.”112
There is a growing sense in the community that the focus on “rights” meant that a broader focus on liberation (to borrow Jim Downs’s distinction113) was left behind, and now we face a challenging future where much of those hard-won rights are seen as expendable by a large section of the broader population as well as seeing them challenged by the Supreme Court. This suggests that the need to “get dirty” and push for liberation is required for the fullness of the LGBTQ+ community to emerge and flourish.
- Interview Nov 17, 2021 (2:12; 55)
- Youth Pride, Inc
- Focus Group Nov 22, 2021 (16:3; 67)
- Interview Nov 9, 2021 (9:14; 103)
- They are referencing the incident at the June 13, 2016 Providence vigil honoring Orlando shooting victims when a member from PrYSM was booed and had the microphone turned off for discussing race and police brutality.
- Interview Nov 9, 2021 (11:3; 49)
- RI Pride has recently regrouped and there is hope is that it will emerge a stronger and more inclusive community
- Focus Group Nov 14, 2021 (5:11; 100)
- “Serving Our Youth: Findings from a National Survey of Services Providers Working with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth Who Are Homeless or At Risk of Becoming Homeless.” L. E. Durso & G. J. Gates, 2012; “Homelessness and Housing Experiences among LGBTQ Young Adults in Seven U.S. Cities” Jama Shelton, 2018; “Serving Our Youth 2015: The Needs and Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Youth Experiencing Homelessness” Soon Kyu Choi et al.; “Comparison of HIV Risks among Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Heterosexual Homeless Youth” Rashmi Gangamma, 2008.
- “Challenges Faced by Homeless Sexual Minorities: Comparison of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Homeless Adolescents with Their Heterosexual Counterparts” Brian Cochran, 2002.
- “LGBTQ Homelessness” National Coalition for the Homeless, 2017.
- “On the Streets: The Federal Response to Gay and Transgender Homeless Youth” Nico Quintana, 2010.
- Interview Nov 9, 2021 (11:2; 49)
- Focus Group Aug 12, 2021 (7:5; 95)
- There are a few examples of informal mutual aid popping up in RI to support queer folks.
- Focus Group July 29, 2021 (15:4; 101)
- Human Rights Campaign. “Long-Term Equality For LGBTQ Elders.” Equality Magazine. 2020. https://issuu.com/humanrightscampaign/docs/equality_winter2020_final/21.
- "Trans Aging” Loree Cooke-Daniels, 2006.
- Focus Group Nov 14, 2021 (5:21; 167)
- “Gender and frequent mental distress: Comparing transgender and non-transgender individuals’ self-rated mental health” by H. P. Crissman, et al., 2019. Used BRFSS data.
- “Characterization of substance use among underrepresented sexual and gender minority participants in The Population Research in Identity and Disparities for Equality (PRIDE) Study” by B.T. Barger, et al., 2020.
- “Characterization of substance use among underrepresented sexual and gender minority participants in The Population Research in Identity and Disparities for Equality (PRIDE) Study” by B.T. Barger, et al., 2020.
- Interview Nov 9, 2021 (11:4; 55)
- RIOT, formerly known as Girls Rock! RI, changed its name to be more inclusive of gender diversity.
- Focus Group Aug 12, 2021 (7:6; 119)
- Focus Group Aug 12, 2021 (7:7; 134)
- Interview Nov 9, 2021 ( 11:1; 37)
- Some recent examples of ephemeral community spaces have emerged, such as Que Dulce’s sober dance parties
- Interview Nov 19, 2021 (1:8; 34)
- Interview Nov 18, 2021 (13:7; 49)
- Interview Nov 18, 2021 (4:8; 39)
- Focus Group Nov 14, 2021 (5:6; 55)
- “Injustice at every turn: A report of the national transgender discrimination survey” by Jaime Grant, et al., 2011.
- Focus Group Nov 14, 2021 (5:9; 89)
- Focus Group Nov 14, 2021 (5:14; 112)
- Downs, J. (2016). Stand by Me: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation (1st edition). Basic
The conclusion to this report is actually one of invitation and opening. There is much to celebrate in terms of the strength and effectiveness of organizations and institutions serving our LGBTQ+ community members.