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When Sex Means Survival for LGBTQ Teens

HOST II: A report released last week shows that many of them are trading sex for food, cash and a warm place to sleep. On a recent Sunday, a large group of LGBT homeless youth came by a Greenwich Village church for a hot dinner.


Outside Saint John Lutheran on Christopher Street, the snow is coming down. Just half a block from the site of the 1969 Stonewall riots, an iconic moment in the gay rights movement, 50 young people chow down and catch up. But after dinner, Domingo, Jamal and Lotus have to find somewhere else to sleep.

AMBI: Dinner sounds. Hot soup, hot soup coming through (0:06)

Where are you headed after this?

A shelter

24 hour Dunkin Donuts…on Wall Street

Um…I’m headed…um…uh…I don’t know… (0:11)

Melissa, though, will probably end up selling sex on the street.

Melissa: In two hours I can make $800. (0:03)

She calls it “street work.” But the Urban Institute, a public policy nonprofit, calls it something else:

Meredith: Survival Sex (0:02)

Meredith Dank published a study for the institute on LGBT homeless youth in New York City who have sex in exchange for cash, food and shelter. Over three years, she and her team interviewed almost 300 young people. They found that half of them come to New York from other states, looking for acceptance and a steady income.

Meredith: Once they get here I think it’s definitely a harsh reality, particularly when the weather is as bad as it has been and it’s so cold, with very few shelter beds and other places for them to go. (0:13)

And it’s hard for them to find work. Kate Barnhart runs the Sunday night dinner. She says that one in four youth who come in test positive for HIV, and many can’t get jobs without proper identification.

Kate Barnhart: when you’re kicked out by your parents for being queer they don’t say “Oh by the way here’s your birth certificate and your transcripts and your immunization records.” (0:07)

And even if they do have ID:

Meredith Dank: Finding employment if their gender expression and identity doesn’t match their documents, it’s really hard to fill out employment applications and school applications and things of that sort.

Dank says some transgender youth engage in sex work to pay for costly medical procedures linked to their gender. Of those in the study, almost all are black, Latino or biracial.

Sasha Washington is a 28-year-old transgender woman. She was born into a very large family. In grade school, she started acting like a girl.

Sasha Washington: I would go and sneak my mother’s lipstick and I would act like I’m Ms. Diana Ross and I’m prancing. And you know it was inappropriate behavior for them. My father is very southern, strictly down south.

Her parents gave her up for adoption and she was sent to a group home. Washington bounced from shelter to shelter. Some nights she slept outside in the city’s parks and subways clutching pepper spray and a knife. She was 15 the first time she traded sex for a place to sleep.

Sasha Washington: There’s times I wish I could go back. And start all over.

Three years ago she was starving and desperate. Washington agreed to have oral sex with a man for $40. When she was ready to leave, the man, he got violent. He chopped off part of her finger.

Sasha Washington: And he told me that I have a choice. I either live, and give up my anal, my backside, or he’ll kill me. So for me to live, I had to sacrifice so, he raped me. (0:18)

That’s when she became close with Kate Barnhart.

Kate Barnhart: When she went to the hospital they called the precinct, and the detectives who responded ran a warrant search on her, made fun of her and made her feel that she was at risk for being arrested.

Washington got scared and dropped the case. She doesn’t do sex work anymore. With Kate Barnhart, she’s trying to help other kids who are doing sex work stay safe. Or get off them the streets altogether. And, for Washington, things are starting to look up.

Sasha Washington: Where are you going to be sleeping tonight?

In my own apartment that I worked hard for, for three years, in Brooklyn. (0:09)

According to the study, three out of four homeless youth who work the streets want what Washington has found – a way out.

Ariel Ritchin, Columbia Radio News.


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