Out of the closet and onto the street

Young, gay and homeless in Vancouver

Jin: ‘You realize you are homeless and it’s like hitting a bottom’

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Sitting across from his mom and stepdad at the restaurant table, Jin* mustered up the courage to come out to them.

“If I was gay or bi what would you do,” asked the 20-year-old.

“Well I didn’t raise a gay or bi son,” his mom replied. “So we’d disown you.”

Jin continued eating his cheeseburger and dropped the subject. Two months after starting an acting program in Vancouver his parents were now in the city visiting from Toronto. Money was tight in Jin’s family and he hoped this conversation wouldn’t end with him being cut off financially.

“It’s really hard. You have parents you are supposed to look up to and seek for that support and they’re not willing to give it to you,” Jin says, wearing his upward-turned baseball cap and a shirt given to him by a local youth shelter. “Especially in the Korean community. It’s like if you don’t do what your parents expect of you, you bring shame, you bring embarrassment.”

The aspiring young comedian relocated to the West Coast in September 2009. Since he’d struggled to keep a stable home, trying to live off an $800 allowance his mother gave him each month. In a city where the average rent of a bachelor apartment costs $800 plus, that didn’t leave him with many options. Jin couch surfed and moved in and out of apartments, scrambling to pay his bills until the following May.

“That’s when everything just went downhill,” Jin recalls, who was tossed out of school for unpaid tuition fees. He was unable to reach his mother for nearly five months. He sold most of his belongings, and in August began having sex with strangers in exchange for a place to stay.

Listen: Jin: “There would be sex involved but that wasn’t the proudest moment of my life, that’s for damn sure” (1’42”)

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“I would basically, wouldn’t say prostitute myself, but it was more like I would give services just so I would have a roof over my head,” Jin explains with wide eyes. “I was always safe about it and never asked for money. Never asked for anything, just meet them late knowing that they’ll let me stay overnight.”

‘We need to do more to help’

Jin’s story is representative of teens coming to terms with their sexuality. A 2002 study by the McCreary Centre Society found that almost a quarter of 19 to 24-year-olds who were homeless or at-risk of becoming homeless were lesbian, gay, bisexual or questioning their sexual orientation. For teens 19-years-old and younger, the B.C. research group found 33 per cent identified in the same way. Studies also show that street youth who are lesbian, gay or bisexual are more likely to be sexually exploited than their heterosexual peers. Overall, boys are just as likely to be sexually exploited as girls.

“What this says is we do a pretty bad job of protecting our gay, lesbian, bisexual teens,” says Dr. Elizabeth Saewyc, the research director of the McCreary Centre Society. “We need to do more to help families understand and support their sexual minority adolescents or their teens who are questioning their orientation.”

Lesbian, gay and bisexual young people are often pushed to the streets by family conflict and find more acceptance there than at home.

“The same protective factors that work in the lives of all kids, work in the lives of gay and bisexual kids, too. It’s just that they have less societal support and may face rejection from their family,” Saewyc explains. “When they don’t have those things going on, when they have family support and societal support they do well. They do just as well as heterosexual teens who have those kinds of supports in their lives.”

Sex and a place to sleep

Not knowing where his parents were to ask for help, Jin turned to online dating websites like Squirt.org and Manhunt.net. Cruising at Internet cafés late at night proved resourceful he says, because the later the hour the more willing men were to let him stay the whole night.

“All the men I was with were basically using and abusing me,” Jin says, looking away as he walks down the city sidewalk.

Jin describes most of the men he met as closeted homosexual guys in their 40s and 50s who’d start out acting nice but in the end only really wanted one thing. One man he saw a few times called him a “bug catcher” after sex, a pejorative term insinuating Jin wanted to become infected with HIV.  “He was a monster,” Jin says,
“He acted like he cared.” Suffering from psychosis after downing hard drugs together, the man told Jin never to speak to him again.

As the organizer of an outreach program for men in survival sex work called Hustle: Men on the Move, Matthew Taylor has noticed more young men are using the Internet to find dates, rather than working on streets corners. One of his main challenges remains confronting myths that men and boys aren’t vulnerable and that they don’t sell sex.

“Traditionally sex work is seen very much through a female lens,” Taylor says. “The realities are very much that men are exploited. Men are in sex work.”

A 2005 report called Under the Radar: The Sexual Exploitation of Young Men, interviewed 40 people who were involved in British Columbia’s male sex trade. It showed that almost two-thirds had their first “date” before turning 18-years-old and 70 per cent had stayed in shelters at one point. The young men had similar histories of sexual and physical violence as young women, and were more likely to enter prostitution at a younger age and stay in it longer than them.

‘Will you still love me?’

Jin reconnected with his mother last October. Where she and his stepdad disappeared to exactly he doesn’t know for sure. Recently, he’s moved into a basement apartment with financial help from his aunt and parents and has tried coming out to them again.

“Will you still love me,” Jin asked his stepdad testing what his reaction would be.

“Well, I’ll still love you but I just won’t respect your way of life,” he responded.

His mother remains in denial of her son’s sexual orientation, so Jin’s decided to keep quiet for the time being.

“If I told them now, you know what would happen to me?,” he asks. “I’d lose everything. And right now the only way I’m going to be able to survive is with their financial help.”

*Name changed to protect privacy

Written by Jenna Owsianik

July 31st, 2011 at 10:37 pm

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