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New book looks at struggle of homeless youth of color in New York

By |2008-06-19T09:00:00-04:00June 19th, 2008|Entertainment|

It’s a good bet that most of the people reading this story – indeed, most of people reading any portion of this paper – have never been to East New York. But in his new book, Drifting Toward Love: Black, Brown, Gay, and Coming of Age on the Streets of New York ($24.95 hardcover from Beacon Press), author Kai Wright takes the reader on a trip to the gritty Brooklyn neighborhood. “East New York has long been the sort of place people conjure when imagining post-apocalyptic urban worlds,” Wright said. But gay life exists even in the ghetto, as Wright so eloquently reveals.
“I have been writing about sexual politics and sexual health for a little over 10 years now,” said Wright. “I started off at the Washington Blade in DC, and the very first story I wrote was about this question of risk and the risks that gay men take. Over and over again, as this question returned in my reporting, it became clear that this was a particularly acute question for gay men of color.”
And when that question was discussed, Wright said it was often spoken of “in such de-contexualized ways. We boil things down to sort of one-dimensional questions and answers. ‘Sex without a condom is risky so wear a condom,’ you know. I feel that is definitely a departure from reality. That is not how people view their lives. So I wanted to have an opportunity to step back and talk about risks in the context of a full life.”
Hence the very clever title, “Drifting Toward Love.”
“The title sort of is the context,” Wright explained. “I think that, in the broader context, all this takes place in the search for a space in which it’s safe to love; just a space in which to be who we are, to develop in your entirety without external barriers. … But some men, the ones I wrote about in my book, have extreme barriers toward finding that and so they have to take extreme risks.”
The risk-takers in “Drifting” include Manny, a 14-year-old boy of Puerto Rican and Jamaican heritage; 22-year-old Julius, an African-American man originally from Florida; and Carlos, who is 25 and Puerto Rican.
“I kept meeting people who sort of seemed exceptional, their circumstances seemed exceptional,” said Wright. “And after a while, I realized their stories weren’t exceptional at all. They were everywhere, between the homelessness and the sex work and everything they had to do in order to find their space. Those things are sadly common.
“What’s striking about the guys in the book is how little time they spend confused about what they want,” Wright continued. “They all knew they were gay from a very young age and are just seeking to lead happy, healthy lives. We’re so obsessed about talking about closeted men of color, with the downlow and all this other mess. Even within the gay community we’re obsessed with the closet cases when we’re talking about people of color. So that fetish gets in the way of all these people who are trying to live healthy lives, who are out trying to succeed.”
But, sometimes, the obstacles outnumber the opportunities.
“I think the most compelling story is Julius’, and that’s just on the face of it, because of the fact that he’s sort of a classic New York story in terms of showing up here with a bus ticket in his hand and its not going right,” said Wright. “He’s a very attractive young man, very charming, very smart and the tragedy is of him trying to figure out what to do with those skills. He would turn them on himself so often. I think Manny has the most shocking story, because it starts with him being 14 and he’s turning tricks and doing drugs, so I think that captures people. But I think the tragedies in Julius’ story are greater.”
Interspersed between the three profiles are powerful facts and statistics that flash a spotlight on the some of the struggles the trio face.
“The stats show that anywhere from 25 to 40 percent of kids sleeping on the street on any given night are LGBT,” Wright said. “So in New York, that means anywhere from 3,000 to 8,000 every night. And that’s a conservative estimate. And there are just over 100 beds dedicated to LGBT kids. These are kids who are homeless because of their sexuality. They often find the larger youth shelters to be hostile environments. Many of them are extremely gender queer and, frankly, are at risk for violence in these shelters. And we’ve managed to cobble together 100 beds. Shame on us!
“In the LGBT community, we have so many things facing us,” Wright continued, pointing out the message he hopes readers take away from his book. “But we have to figure out how to put more resources into taking care of our kids. We have to do a better job of creating accessible space for everybody. Not just middle class people. And we must realize that we’ve changed the world and made it possible for gay kids to start coming out at young ages, and now we have to take care of them.”

About the Author:

Jason A. Michael has been with Pride Source since 1999 and is currently senior staff writer. He has received both the Spirit of Detroit Award (presented by the Detroit City Council) and the Media Award from the Community Pride Banquet & Awards Ceremony for his writing and activism. Jason is also an Essence magazine bestselling author for his authorized biography "Strength Of A Woman: The Phyllis Hyman Story," released on his own JAM Books imprint.
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