As he prepares to host a discussion about LGBT+ homelessness at National Student Pride in London this weekend, Attitude Editor Cliff Joannou says its time to renew efforts to get young gay kids off the street for good. (This article first appeared in Attitude issue 292, February 2018).
I have been guilty of running away from my problems in the past. It's happened when I've avoided confrontation with offensive friends, in tackling awkward situations at work, and in relationships. This probably comes from a childhood habit of sweeping issues (and emotions) under the carpet, hoping they’ll go away.
My parents and I didn’t argue much when I was young. I was a reasonably quiet kid and did what was expected of me. My Greek-Cypriot parents attended church every week and were actively involved in the local community. My sexuality was never an issue to them because I buried my identity so far away inside myself that it never surfaced for them to condemn me for it.
By hiding myself, I ran away from dealing with the issue. Doing so cast a shadow of shame across my life that would take me years to step out from.
I was 21 when I travelled to Australia after university to accept myself. When I moved back home a year later I got my first job in media, and bought a flat. I was 26 before I came out to my mum, my father having passed away earlier that year. It took me that long to stop running away from the "problem" of telling my mother I was gay. But it happened on my terms, and by then I had my own home to run to if it all went wrong.
I often wonder how my parents would have reacted if I'd told them I was gay as a teenager. They didn’t speak to my older sister for five years because they disagreed with her choice of boyfriend, due to his race. What arguments would we have had about me being gay? My sister was old enough to move out. Where would I have gone at 16?
For too many young LGBT+ people, when their families reject them there is only one place to go, and that’s the streets. It’s a depressingly sad fact that an Albert Kennedy Trust survey found 24 per cent of young homeless people identified as LGBT+.
Think about that statistic for a moment. When our queer community is estimated to be around 10 per cent of the wider population, it’s shocking that almost a quarter of young homeless people are LGBT+. Of those, 77 per cent believe coming out was the major factor driving them on to the streets.
We repeatedly hear how the UK is a better place to be queer today. Equality laws allow us to marry and adopt, and protect us from discrimination. We have greater representation in TV, music and film. But the brutal reality is that all these things mean nothing if your family have homophobic views, be it for religious reasons or the simple fact that they are of a different generation.
I hid my sexuality from my parents for years. I was able to avoid telling them until I felt comfortable and safe. But this isn’t the case for everyone. Some are outed by disapproving siblings, or parents who go through their child’s phone to find texts that expose them. For trans people, hiding their identity may simply be impossible. The consequence can be rejection from the very people who are supposed to love you unconditionally.
I chose to run away from my problems until I could be in a safe space. For too many young people running away isn’t a choice — it’s a matter of survival.
National Student Pride starts February 9-11, 2018 at the University of Westminster. For more information visit studentpride.co.uk.