Young, gay, homeless - and likely to stay that way

The potential withdrawing of housing benefit for the under-25s is an assault on the lives of young

We have seen before, under this and previous administrations, the rhetoric of fairness used to justify reducing access to affordable housing for those on benefits. Fairness, claimed George Osborne in 2010, demanded the introduction of housing benefit caps: why should families on benefits live where working families cannot afford to rent?

And so when, just before Easter weekend, Downing Street airily mentioned cutting housing benefit entirely for young people under 25, it was again on the basis of fairness. Many low-paid working young people live with their parents, unable to move out, so why, asked the coalition, should young benefit claimants be supported to live independently? 
 
"We are always looking at ways to change the welfare system to reward hard work and make work pay," was the Downing Street response to the furore that followed. This version of fairness seeks to pit claimants against the low-paid in an effort to further reduce the welfare bill.  It fundamentally misunderstands the role of housing benefit in helping to stave off homelessness and rough sleeping among the young.  Perhaps most importantly, it conveniently ignores the fact that not all young people are equally able to remain in the parental home.  
 
Young LGBT people in particular are already at much higher risk of homelessness than their straight and cisgender counterparts, with around 25% of the young homeless population in urban areas identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. Parental rejection is still an issue for these young people; many face the prospect of losing their homes on coming out, or increasingly, in the age of social media, being outed. Still more are living with parents or family members who are openly hostile or even violent. For some, the price of staying at home includes attempts by family members to ‘cure’ them of their sexual or gender identities, through reparative therapy, religious ritual, torture, corrective rape or forced marriage. Is it reasonable to expect them to remain at this cost? Is it fair to withdraw the housing benefit that gives them somewhere else to go? 
 
Homelessness services are already stacked against young LGBT people. On losing their homes and the support of their families, many move to cities that will give them a community and a social network, but ‘local connection’ requirements have further reduced the help they can get once they arrive. Domestic violence services are largely based around the needs of women experiencing partner violence; they’re not designed for young men, women and trans people fleeing violence from their families. Few hostels are welcoming or safe spaces for LGBT young people, and some give up hard-won temporary accommodation in the face of homophobic, biphobic or transphobic abuse. The transition from homeless teen to working adult is difficult to make: many young LGBT people are forced to leave the parental home long before they have acquired the skills to compete in the jobs market or support themselves successfully. Without housing benefit to fund secure, longer-term independent accommodation, many will be street homeless and at risk of exploitation.
 
In the US, where welfare services are meagre, the consequences for young LGBT people are severe: the prevalence of LGBT young people within the urban homeless population is around 40%, according to the Ali Forney Center, which provides help, support and a place to stay for young LGBT people in New York. The centre has 77 beds, which are constantly full, and the waiting list runs into the hundreds.
 
“LGBT youth here are 8 times more likely to become homeless than straight kids,” says Bill Torres, Director of Community Resources. “More than 80% of those who come to us have been kicked out of their homes for being who they are. The remainder run away due to abuse, neglect, or a combination of rejection and abuse.  And we have much less of a safety net in place [in the US].”
 
Torres feels the young people who come to the Ali Forney Center are especially vulnerable to sexual exploitation. “Surviving the street is a brutal experience. In a matter of days after being thrown out, the youth begin to beg or panhandle or steal to feed themselves.  They have to jump the turnstiles in the subway where they will sleep overnight.  Inevitably, many end up supporting themselves by ‘survival sex.’ There are ‘wolves’ – exploitative adults - that offer food and shelter and encouragement and eventually expect payback in the form of sex or in money earned from prostitution. We see kids who’ve lived this way for years.”
 
This kind of exploitation is already happening in the UK. A 2007 research report by the children’s charity Barnardos, ‘Tipping The Iceberg,’ found that young homeless LGBT people were already at higher risk of sexual exploitation, with many transitioning into sex work and drug and alcohol issues. Those who are supported to end this destructive cycle largely rely on benefits to provide them with secure housing and support until they can resume education or employment away from the risks of street life. It is surely no reasonable person’s idea of fairness to take that option away.  
 
Petra Davis is an activist and writer working in LGBT homelessness in London
25% of homeless people in urban areas are LGBT. Photo: Getty Images
A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.