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
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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.