To the editors.
The July I Reader article called “Child in the Streets”, may succeed as Faulknerian literature, but it does not succeed as journalism at any level.
First of all the only audience who could possibly understand what Timothy went through as a child of the streets would be the Reader’s gay audience. The gaping holes that mar this piece could only be filled in by gay and lesbian readers who have faced an adolescence characterized by the ostracism of family, school, church, social institutions, and the criminal justice system.
Timothy’s string of dependences on drugs, the occult, and finally Christian fundamentalism is interesting and sad. However, Kitry Krause’s account of Timothy’s painful, self-destructive journey provides no way for the Reader audience to interpret or understand this phenomenon which confronts all too many gay and lesbian youth.
What was left out? What would give this character study some meaning? What would enable the reader to understand Timothy’s experiences on Chicago’s north side?
1–analyzing those elements in society which force gay and lesbian adolescents out of their homes, their neighborhoods, their schools, and their churches.
2–presenting the overall attitude of the gay and lesbian community toward bars like the New Flight and lives like Timothy’s.
3–presenting the efforts of gay and lesbian organizations like Horizons Community Services, the Illinois Gay & Lesbian Task Force, and others to deal with the problems faced by gay and lesbian youth.
4–revealing the efforts of Christian fundamentalist groups to bar gay and lesbian people from their social service programs.
5–exposing the fear of many gay and lesbian organizations to allow participation by gay and lesbian youth in their activities and social services. (Because of society’s stereotype of gay and lesbian citizens as child molesters.)
These are the elements that are missing from “Child in the Streets.”
They are not interesting little side issues. They are key and central facts–all of which were ignored by Kitry Krause.
1. Beverly Johnson-Biehr, Superintendent of Curriculum for Family Life and Sex Education in the Chicago Public Schools has said that next to pregnancy, the most difficult issue a teenager faces is adjustment to sexual orientation. Dr. Joseph Harry reported to the National Institute of Health’s Conference on Teenage Suicide (1986) that gay and lesbian adolescents attempt suicide at a rate that is as much as 6 times greater than that of heterosexual youth. Although neither Johnson-Biehr or Harry have given the reasons for these assertions, as a teacher of 18 years, I believe I know what they are. Teachers, counselors, parents, ministers, police, social service providers are afraid to address issues of sex on one hand and sexual orientation on the other. “Straight” and gay teenagers have no basis for understanding their sexual feelings–especially if they are attractions to the same sex.
When the Illinois Gay & Lesbian Task Force gives presentations to the cadets at the Chicago Police Training Academy and at the Cook County Department of Corrections, we have to carefully explain the Kinsey scale of sexual orientation which these men and women should have found out about when they were in junior high school.
The question is, why does society hate gay and lesbian adolescents? Why is it afraid to discuss the issue of sexual orientation? Why will families, churches, schools, and other social institutions refuse to recognize that by not confronting this issue, they are pushing the gay and lesbian teenager out onto the street to look for answers–to look for connectedness–to look for the truth.
2. About two years ago the New Flight, the hustler bar mentioned in “Child in the Streets,” tried to move up to the Halsted strip of gay bars. There was a furor in the gay and lesbian community.
In mentioning only the sleazy bars, Kitry Krause gives the impression that such places are a large or significant element of the gay and lesbian community in Chicago. It makes me think that Krause came in from New York or someplace to interview Timothy about what is going on in Chicago. Doesn’t Krause live around here somewhere?
Omitting what the gay and lesbian community thinks about bars like the New Flight was one of the journalistic sins of omission in this piece. Gay and lesbian people are often fathers and mothers. They are always members of families, and in many cases work with adolescents as I once did for eighteen years. The article asks questions about the adults who would allow kids like Timothy to run the streets or who would encourage their living off the streets. By omitting the efforts of the gay and lesbian community to address this problem, Krause implies that it is doing nothing.
3. Horizons Community Services has been providing a place for gay and lesbian teenagers to meet and socialize under adult supervision for many years now. Many youth come there on the point of suicide. When they find themselves in their natural habitat, the result is very often instant euphoria and self-acceptance. (Hans Christian Andersen describes this experience in “The Ugly Duckling.”)
The Illinois Gay & Lesbian Task Force has been trying to motivate the Chicago Public School System and others to reach out to gay and lesbian youth–so that they stay in school, and so that they feel like someone is on their side. We have criticized sex-education books which list homosexuality with “masturbation,” “prostitution” and “rape.” We have disseminated an educational packet for counselors on how to deal with gay and lesbian youth. We have presented testimony to school boards, Mayor Washington’s Chicago Youth Commission, counseling departments, and to other professionals in the area.
Our main message has always been that gay and lesbian youth are forced into the hands of unscrupulous people by their families, their schools, and their churches who desert them and refuse to provide them with a way of understanding themselves and their worth as human beings. Most gay and lesbian adults have arrived at an understanding of their worth through a complex set of circumstances–one of which (and this was true for myself) was the care of an older lover.
Will funding organizations fund the type of educational projects initiated by the Illinois Gay & Lesbian Task Force? The answer is no. It is seen as proselytizing. Horizons Community Services has had better luck at getting funding because they provide services, and (this is significant) not long ago they changed their name from Gay and Lesbian Horizons to Horizons Community Services.
4. Representatives of the Christian fundamentalist sect, the Salvation Army, told us (IGLTF) that they could not minister to self-accepting gay and lesbian prisoners. IGLTF and the Metropolitan Community Church has been in a battle with the Chaplaincy Council at Cook County Department of Corrections for the last five years. They do not want us or anyone providing positive Christian ministry to gay and lesbian prisoners. So far they have been successful in keeping us out.
When Janis Malone of Women And Children ReEntering Society (WACRES) was still alive, she took in lesbian women with children whom the Salvation Army had literally thrown out in the snow.
So long as Timothy hates himself for being gay, and so long as he denies himself the joys of safe sex, the Christian fundamentalists will take care of him and love him for hating homosexuality.
5. If there is one criticism to be made of the gay and lesbian community, it is this. Many are more concerned about what society is doing to them than of what it is doing to gay and lesbian youth. For example, Dignity, the gay and lesbian Catholic organization, does not accept members under 18 years of age. This is a desertion of gay and lesbian teenage Catholics.
It sends the message that Dignity is an erotic organization that should be rated PG, or R. I assure you it isn’t.
Other gay and lesbian organizations take this attitude as well. The result is that not only do their “straight” families isolate gay and lesbian teenagers, but their potential gay families treat them the same way.
While readers know a little more about gay and lesbian people than they did ten years ago, they don’t know that much more. Some background information is needed when writing about gay and lesbian people. Secondly, it needs to be integrated into the article to help clarify the issues.
“Child in the Streets” reads like it was written ten years ago when such articles were written for an audience that did not know or did not want to know that gay and lesbian people existed. Surely the caliber of journalism at the Reader has risen in the last ten years.
Illinois Gay and Lesbian Task Force
Kitry Krause replies:
The issues you suggest are missing from my article are no doubt important to understanding the pressures on young people–and adults–who happen to be gay or lesbian. But Timothy’s story is more than just a look at what it’s like to grow up gay in our culture. (He says his parents accepted his preference.) Parts of his story are apparently typical of the stories of many of the teenagers living on the street, whether they’re homosexual or not–and many of them are not.
As I mentioned, there are a few agencies and organizations–and I am glad to hear of more–trying to help these young people. But 10,000 kids on the streets of Chicago alone suggests that something more is needed.