Most stories about “millennials” focus on middle-class, educated twentysomethings, while the ones who grew up poor or working-class are simply ignored. Welcome to Uncovered, a series that sheds light on this forgotten group of our generation.
Tamara Williams knew her mother wasn’t comfortable with having a transgender child when the wigs, bras and blouses she bought as a teenager started to disappear. She finally moved out when she was 17 to transition without her mother’s support. It wasn’t easy. She crashed with friends or paid for hotel rooms that rented by the hour, $90 for three hours of sleep. Raised in New York City, the 26-year-old tried to survive on low-wage jobs, working for people who didn’t respect her. But they never paid enough—still don’t—and she has to rely on public assistance to get by.
She explains her situation bluntly: “I’m impoverished.”
Williams’ story is hardly the one we hear about LGBT youth in the United States. The queer community has had lots of civil rights victories to celebrate over the last decade. Nowadays, it’s not such a scandal to be queer and young; celebrities like Chris Hughes and Cara Delevingne no longer bother to have “coming out” moments. Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner have fostered public dialogue to address the realities of living as trans women in America. Professional gay men and women continue to gentrify neighborhoods and spend their disposable income. Millennials are considered the “gayest generation” now that millions of them identify as LGBT. Queer people are doing well in 2016.
At least that’s the picture painted by the mainstream media. In reality, most young queers don’t look like Cox or Jenner or Hughes or Delevingne. They’re not all privileged, clean-cut and buttoned-up. Their genders and orientations don’t always fit into neat categories. As awareness and acceptance has grown, the youngest generation increasingly dares to look more queer than their predecessors, who often desired nothing more than to blend in and be deemed “normal.” Passing as straight or cis-gender doesn’t feel as necessary as it used to be, and young queers don’t want to conform to conventional notions of “respectability.”
Yet paradoxically, the more confident they feel about flaunting their queer identity, the more likely they are to remain mired in poverty. And unlike the now-settled fight for gay marriage, this injustice is often swept under the rug. Despite our generation’s storied reputation for tolerance, it’s undeniable that the economic game is still rigged against young LGBT people.
Queer millennials across the United States live in extreme poverty at much higher rates than their straight peers. A high percentage are still rejected by their families when they come out and struggle to make space for themselves in a still-homophobic and transphobic world. LGBT kids make up almost half of the homeless youth population. According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 41% of respondents had attempted suicide, 78% were bullied in school, and 90% reported harassment, mistreatment or discrimination at work, all of which affects the ability to get and hold onto good, stable jobs.
Recently, Williams tried holding down a $9/hour gig as a cashier at a pharmacy in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood. She stuck it out for a couple of months, living paycheck to paycheck, but the harassment from her co-workers made her feel like a pariah.
“They asked if I use Nair on my bikini area,” she says. “It’s hard to work in a world that laughs at your existence and thinks it’s a joke.”
She worked hard to fit in, spending time every morning to contour her face with makeup to make her coworkers more comfortable with her presentation—even though she knew it was futile to try to meet their narrow expectations of feminine beauty.
She finally left after a humiliating incident with her boss. “I was working at the cash register and bent down to get something from under the counter,” she recalls. “He jumped back as if I was reaching for him.” She decided the job was not worth it.
“I guess it’s new for people to have trans people working in professional environments,” Williams says. “But for us to be legit—pay taxes and own property—they have to accept us.”
For visibly queer youth who live outside of the more LGBT-friendly big cities, existing and working in one’s own skin can be a daily act of bravery. Twig Deluge grew up in rural Kansas before settling down in New Mexico. The 32-year-old identifies as a working class transmasculine country queer and says it wasn’t easy being out in a rural community. “Cars were keyed, beat up twice, notes left on my parents’ doorstep,” he says. “It could have been a heck of a lot worse.”
A lot of young queers head to urban areas hoping for peace and community, but the country felt just as much a part his identity as Deluge’s queerness. Staying was non-negotiable. “I like being outside: mudding, training dogs, throwing hatchets,” he says. “I just tried hard to survive.”
He started working as a janitor and dishwasher in a tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurant when he was 16. After college, he found himself managing a bed and breakfast. He hadn’t transitioned yet but was butch-presenting with short hair and tattoos. When he showed up for the interview, highly recommended by a mutual connection, he says his future boss told him, “I wouldn’t have picked you visually.”
Deluge worked diligently for a year and was taken aback when he was told to re-style his hair because a guest complained that it was too short. Deluge told his boss she needed to find someone else for the job.
It’s that type of confrontation Denechia Powell tries to avoid by making sure to write that she’s a black queer woman in her cover letters.
“I want to say it in the cover letter because that’s who I am,” she says. “I don’t want to erase my identities.” She knows such bravery might be costing her the jobs she knows she’s qualified for but never gets a call back—“Maybe it’s turning them off?”—but at least it weeds out bigoted employers.
Originally from Brunswick, Georgia, the 28-year-old graduated into a recession and couldn’t land a job anywhere. “The only places I got into the door, the people looked more like me,” Powell says. Without the prospect of well-paid jobs, she signed up for AmeriCorps and was paid a pittance.
After seven years of doing social justice work, focusing on HIV and AIDS “because it impacted my community, as a black queer woman from the South,” Powell says she’s “disillusioned by the nonprofit industrial complex” where marginalized people remain at the bottom of organizational charts. “I’m serving people who look like me,” she says. “But the leadership doesn’t look like me.”
Microaggressions from colleagues and superiors about race, gender and sexuality are a common experience for young queer people. At one point, a school disciplinarian advised Huey Amaru to “put more bass” in his voice when talking to students if he wanted them to respect him.
Raised on the south side of Chicago, the 24-year-old describes his gender as “unique.” He grew up on welfare and free school lunches, and started working when he was 15 because his housing situation had never been stable.
“Being black and queer, I’m excluded from respectability,” Amaru says of some of his former work environments. “It’s rooted in something false and dangerous about what it means to be valuable.” The person who’s considered “professional and respectable,” he says, is a white, straight man.
Amaru realized he was attracted to guys when he was 13 but says “it took me a while to understand myself and accept it.” It helped to read Audre Lorde’s “Outsider,” which gave him the confidence to be himself. His politicization, like many LGBT youth, was an almost inevitable response to living an openly queer life.
His family still seems ashamed of him, he thinks, recalling New Year’s Day when he was “too gay” while dancing to Beyonce’s Single Ladies. “My mom never saw me queen out before,” he remembers. “[She] thought I was influenced by the white kids.” His mom was embarrassed and told the DJ to stop the music.
It’s hard enough to escape poverty if you’re straight; 70% of people born into the bottom quintile of income distribution never make it to the middle class. But being queer in America presents an extra roadblock to upward mobility. According to a report by the National Center for Transgender Equality, transgender and genderqueer Americans are still four times more likely to live in extreme poverty compared to the general population.
“My family lives below the poverty line,” says Cleo Anderson. “I still live below the poverty line. My friends who are white, daddy is bankrolling.”
Anderson grew up working class and has lived in the same apartment with her mother, a pre-school teacher, for 23 years. She describes herself as a hard femme, born and raised in Los Angeles. The 26-year-old started working when she was 14.
Five years ago, her mother asked Anderson not to tell the rest of the family she was queer, even though Anderson was rather certain everyone could already tell. Subtly has never been her strong suit, and besides, she says, it’s hard work trying to pass. And it’s ultimately not worth the effort.
“For her it’s an image thing,” Anderson says of her mother. “I teach theater and I’m a lifeguard. I’m nowhere near what she wanted.”
Anderson grew up hanging out with runaways and queers, clubbing with gay boys. Although she was bullied because she looked like a boy, Anderson didn’t realize how “different” she was until she went to college. “I was a well-informed, very queer black girl in a Catholic college,” she remembers. “No one talked to me for two months.”
College was supposed to be the way to a better life, but it didn’t exactly work out that way. Four later, she’s still struggling to scrape together rent. “I’m resolved to be poor for the rest of my life,” she says.
Many millennials feel similarly, saddled with student loans and college degrees that didn’t quite help land them the promised jobs. But it’s far more likely to be a reality for queer youth, especially those of color, who are still being told by their bosses and colleagues and families that their queerness is the problem.
Amaru, who describes himself as “still poor with a college degree,” says he endured criticism from his family. In college, he got his septum pierced, his hand tattooed and started wearing skinny jeans. “[My grandma] told me I have to dress better if I want to find a man of a higher class,” Amaru says. “I want to find someone who accepts me.”
Acceptance: such a fundamental desire, and yet it doesn’t pay the bills. Being able to make a good living shouldn’t require hiding who you are. In Denechia Powell's ideal world, she can have both. She isn’t interested in erasing her identity to land a better-paying job.
“I don’t want to put on a façade,” she says. “I’m feeling unapologetic these days.”
Lead image: Huey Amaru at a rally against police brutality in 2014 outside of Chicago Police Headquarters.
Laura Rena Murray is an investigative journalist who tackles public interest and accountability stories to expose corruption, abuse or human rights violations.