Today I am so pleased to welcome Ryan Berg to Joyfully Jay. Ryan has come to share an excerpt with us about from his book, No House to Call My Home: Love, Family and Other Transgressions. It is a nonfiction book about the plight of homeless LGBT youth. Please join me in giving Ryan a big welcome!
The group home is called Keap Street. It houses gay, lesbian, and transgender youth in foster care and is one of only a handful of such programs in New York City. The kids are anywhere from fourteen to twenty-one years old. All of them are black or Latino. They’ve been placed in care because they were either neglected or abused by their parents or because their behavior was unmanageable in their homes. Most of them are here because when their sexual orientation or gender identity was discovered, they were again abused by someone at a former group home or thrown out by a foster parent. There are twelve residents. I read all of their files prior to meeting them. When we met I tried to connect their faces to their stories.
Maite is sixteen, with long black hair. She styles herself in a tough way that is contradicted by her eyes. Her heroin-addicted mother died of AIDS when she was nine, and her father was murdered in a gang dispute when she was eight. Junior (his birth name is Sheadon) is a nineteen-year-old immigrant from Jamaica. He was placed in care by the courts because he’s been deemed a thief and a liar. He was raised with five siblings in a one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx, and he tells people he’s a doctor with houses in Long Island and Florida. Diana, called Crush because she crushes so hard on girls, was placed at the home after a stint in juvenile detention for lifting some sneakers for “a shorty I was crushing on.” In detention she got into trouble for flirting with another girl whose boyfriend found out and hit Crush in the head with a brick. Now she has periodic epileptic seizures. Nothing happened to the boy, but Crush was labeled a sexual predator and removed from the facility. Now she’s in love with Fasheema, who has a trusting face and a dimpled smile. Fasheema has had to rely on sex to survive in the streets, and she uses her body in the group home to manipulate the other residents, namely Crush.
Pimple-faced and slinky, Christina is a cocoa-colored sixteen-year-old transgender Latina from the Bronx who thinks she’s a white girl from the suburbs. Her Britney Spears infatuation is all-consuming. Nineteen-year-old Raheem—thin and attractive, with full, pouty lips—was put into care because he was being sexually abused by his father and then by his foster parents. Both his mother and father have since died. He has threatened to kill other residents, and himself, on more than one occasion. Caridad is squat and stout. She prides herself on not “being ghetto.” She rejects the other kids’ fashion style—Sean Johns, Timberlands, and Akademiks—and instead goes for anything black and adorned with skulls. Her hair changes color as often as her mood ring. On the day I met her she had a four-inch nail jutting out from beneath her bottom lip. I had read in her file that she’s a cutter, and as we talked I saw that her arms were dotted with tiny sliver-scars.
And there’s Bella. I’m at the residence the day she returns from Woodhull. When she invites me to see how she’s arranged her room, I accept. “Staff says I should be an interior decorator,” she whispers, her Puerto Rican accent rolling her R’s like pastries. She smoothes out her comforter with large, calloused fingers that end in French tips. She shows me her Hello Kitty ornaments and porcelain cat figurines with real fur. The room is tidy and feminine. She has an eye for detail.
“Touch it, it’s like real,” she says, pointing to a fake cat. She giggles and covers her mouth with her hand. Bella wants to pass, but she doesn’t. With a quick glance you might not see what a closer inspection reveals. She’s constantly plucking, cinching, stuffing, bleaching, and erasing, but she can’t hide her Adam’s apple, her broad shoulders, her large hands. She fills her bra with socks, tucks and secures her penis between her legs, and tapes maxi pads together and stuffs them down the sides of her pants to create the illusion of hips. On the street she finds someone to supply her with feminizing hormones. Her regimen is uneven; only when she strolls enough can she afford it. The effects are evident: her body softens, her skin blanches. She works hard to align how she feels on the inside with her outward appearance and when a man pays her, I imagine, she feels the warmth of success.
“He likes my hands,” she once confessed to me, “he told me so. He said I got lady fingers.”
When she disappears from the home, we don’t hear from her until we get her call asking to be picked up from central booking. The charge is usually loitering with the intent to prostitute or purchasing narcotics. I’ll go get her and she’ll walk out of the men’s holding area without makeup, clutching her belongings to her chest. She won’t speak on the way home.
For months I’ve been trying to formulate a discharge plan for Bella, scrambling to find anything that could work. She has no family members in New York, no appropriate visiting resources. The waitlists for LGBTQ youth emergency housing programs are through the roof. Plus, Bella’s behavior has been so erratic lately, I’m not even sure I could get her to show up. She has no adult figures in her life except for her caretakers in the system and, of course, her tricks. Her addiction makes it impossible to keep a job. In any case, during a good stretch she can earn double, maybe triple a menial income strolling the streets.
I pat the fake cat. It’s eerie, feels dead. I’m anxious because Bella and I need to have a discussion. Time is running out, and she acts as if the impending date is just another day, as if nothing is about to change. If my job is to prepare her and provide her with basic tools of survival, I’ve failed. She isn’t ready for anything. The world will greet her on her birthday with indifference. When everything falls away, she’ll have no place to go.
“Bella,” I say, “we need to talk.” She freezes, doesn’t look up. Now that I’ve started, I have no clue what to say. I’m lost. What option does she have other than calling her grandmother and letting her know the situation? “I’m not going back to Puerto Rico,” Bella quips, flicking her finger in my face.
“Abuelita don’t want me.”
“You don’t have to go back,” I say, “but maybe you should try to get in touch with her.”
Bella won’t look at me. She smoothes the same spot on her comforter over and over. I know the parts of this story that I’ve read in psychiatric evaluations and in psychological assessments. I’ve read lists of events loosely threaded together that lead to a diagnosis. In my head I’ve reworked those events and rubbed them smooth, like Bella does her bedspread, to find something more, in the hope that not only the victim but also the person will be revealed. I’ve thought about the numerous case histories in her file, the facts strung together so many times that I’ve begun to see her life as if I were there.
“I’m not going to Puerto Rico,” she says and suddenly pushes me out into the hallway, slamming the door in my face.
The name was Baldomero. He remembers his mother running past him like a crazy woman as he played in the island dirt. She was running, he remembers, her eyes shiny with tears. He remembers her screaming, and Abuelita chasing behind her, a rock over her head. “How can you do this to your child?” Abuelita bawled and hurled the stone at his mother’s back.
“You beast!” Baldomero dug his hands into the wet earth as his mother escaped into the thicket of pineapples. “I hope you die,” Abuelita screamed. “I pray that New York swallows you.”
That is all Baldomero remembers of his mother leaving. He stayed on the island with Abuelita; there was no one else with whom he could live. His father had disappeared a year earlier to San Juan and was jailed on drug charges. Baldomero didn’t remember anything about him. Abuelita’s drinking was always bad, but when Baldomero was ten years old it worsened. The smell of rum reminded him of browning butter splattering in a pan as she barked in his face.
“You are such a maricón,” she said. “It’s because your parents abandoned you and you have no man to look up to. Now it is my job to make you a man.” She corrected his posture and his effeminate speech. She told him to act like a boy, play soccer with the other kids. She cracked a switch across his knees if he crossed his legs and sat like a girl. She hated when he giggled in a high pitch, covering his mouth with his limp wrist. For punishment she locked him in the bathroom, where he stood in front of the splintered mirror, a T-shirt tied over his head that fell like a wig onto his shoulders. He pretended to comb through what he imagined to be long hair as he removed a hidden picture of his mother from behind the toilet.
At twelve, Baldomero went out until early in the morning, eyes traced with heavy black eyeliner, lips smeared red. Tiny bruises, bloomed pansies, dotted his neck and chest. Baldomero started growing his hair; he wore tight clothes he got on the street. He placed rolled socks in his shirts and sculpted them until they resembled small, perfect breasts. This is what pleased the men in town who met with Baldomero secretly in the dark anonymity of night. They praised their little girl, their little Bella, and spoke about love as they pressed him down on the wet dirt. The marks he received from the men and those from Abuelita were indistinguishable.
“I will not have a fucking maricón living in my house,” Abuelita said and slapped Baldomero across the face. “I’m sending you to see your real mother. You two deserve each other.”
That winter, Baldomero stepped off the plane in New York. He had left his mother’s picture safely hidden behind the toilet, where he could retrieve it when he returned to Puerto Rico in two weeks. She looked nothing like what he remembered. Her face was gaunt; her eyes sunk deep in her skull. Her skin was pasty and flaky, not bronzed and clear like back on the island. When he hugged her she stood rigid. Maybe she was sick. The man standing next to her grabbed Baldomero’s bag and walked to the terminal exit. He was thick and ugly. Tribal tattoos covered his forearms and bracelets collected at his wrists. Baldomero wanted to know who the man with tattoos was, but he wasn’t going to ask.
New York was not what he imagined. There was nothing glamorous or fantastic about this city. The buildings looked old and run-down in the night sky, not unlike the crumbling shacks of el barrio bajo on the island. Exposed metal beams jutted out of junk piles from scrap yards along the side of the expressway, and the horizon glowed in a rusting haze—a mix of street lamp flush and snow. The cab driver wore a cloth wrapped around his head, and a wiry beard dropped from his chin. He spoke to the man with tattoos and his mother in what Baldomero suspected was English. Looking up at his mother he asked what the driver had said.
“He asked where we are going,” his mother replied, her words flat, her body listless.
“Where are we going?” Baldomero asked.
It took just four nights for everything to go to hell. He was in the bathroom trying on his mother’s makeup. Meringue and sour smoke trailed in from the other room. Baldomero spotted his mother’s panties and bra on the tile floor. He put them on over his clothes and burst through the door, popping his hips to the staccato tremors of music.
“Mira, Mama,” Baldomero said. “I’m Bella, the dancing queen.”
Baldomero heard the tattooed man’s voice but didn’t see him coming.
“Your son is a fucking faggot.”
Baldomero was lifted into the air and slammed back to the floor. His clothes were ripped from him; he felt a burning in the arm pinned behind him. Then the burning turned to numbness as something in his shoulder popped.
“You fucking faggot.”
His face was flattened against the wood floor; a hand covered his mouth. He saw small vials strewn under the coffee table. He saw his mother’s feet, fixed on the floor, as she sat frozen on the couch. The police spoke English. Baldomero didn’t understand why they were taking him away. His mother’s arms were cuffed behind her back; she wouldn’t look at Baldomero as they opened the door and took him out into the winter cold. He tried to stop crying, to quiet himself, but visible breath continued to spit before him. The lady officer rubbed his back, whispered, “Calm down, calm down.”
He was being taken to the hospital. The next day he would be referred to the Administration for Children’s Services and placed in foster care, where he would remain until the age of twenty-one.
“Leave me the fuck alone.” I can hear her fumbling through her things. The sounds of rustling cloth, the hollow clink of porcelain against porcelain. I ask if I can come in, if we can sit down and have a calm discussion. “Why everybody needs to talk with me? You, Gladyce, Octavia, it’s annoying,” she says through the door.
“Because we’re staff, Bella. We’re all concerned. We want to make sure you are as prepared as possible when you age out.”
The door flies open. She is wearing tight low-cut jeans and a belly shirt that exposes a ring dangling from her navel.
“Fuck you and the future.” Her voice has lost its feminine tone and settles into a kind of thunder.
She pushes past me and down the stairs. I follow, calling after her until she passes through the front door on her way into the clatter and trill of Brooklyn. I collapse onto the living room couch. B.E.T. is on the TV, blaring out Fat Joe’s shattered beats from blown speakers. Crush and a butch lesbian named Serenity are haggling in the hallway over who is better at fucking Fasheema, while Junior and Maite stagger around the residence in a slow-motion blur—glassy-eyed and dumb from the blunt they just smoked. I’m left in the center of the room. Bella’s probably crossing the Williamsburg Bridge now, I think to myself. I pushed too hard.
In No House to Call My Home, Ryan Berg tells profoundly moving, intimate, and raw stories from the frontlines of LGBTQ homelessness and foster care. In the United States, 43% of homeless youth were forced out by their parents because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Berg faced young people who have battled extreme poverty, experienced unbalanced opportunities, structural racism, and homophobia. He found himself ill-equipped to help, in part because they are working within a system that paints in broad strokes, focused on warehousing young people, rather than helping them build healthy relationships with adults that could lead to a successful life once they age out of foster care.
By digging deep and asking the hard questions, and by haltingly opening himself up to his charges, Berg gained their trust. Focusing on a handful of memorable characters and their entourage, he illustrates the key issues and recurring patterns in the suffering, psychology and recovery of these neglected teens.
“The plight of homeless LGBT youth seldom gets the attention it deserves. Ryan Berg’s book No House To Call My Home is one man’s attempt to remedy that situation…. A sobering look at the lives of a variety of LGBT kids in a version of foster care… Impossible to ignore.” —New York Journal of Books
“A moving account of the many challenges and difficulties facing LGBTQ foster youth in New York City and how the system has failed them.” —Shelf Awareness
“An important and revelatory read.” —The Rumpus
“Just as there is a school-to-prison pipeline in this country, so too, this grim report reveals, is there a home-to-homeless paradigm for many young people. Life on the streets is tough. It is tougher still for LGBT—or, as writer, activist, and former counselor Berg would have it, LGBTQ, the last element meaning “questioning”—kids, who constitute as much as 40 percent of the population of young homeless people… Berg’s portraits are arresting… His fraught encounters with individuals become universal, offering a touch of hope…Particularly important for caseworkers and social service specialists, who, by Berg’s account, are likely to encounter more young people in the LGBTQ population in the near future.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Ryan’s Berg’s No House to Call My Home is a searing, harrowing, and ultimately inspiring story of the struggles all too many transgender people experience. Berg’s heroes, denied the common decency of house and home, nonetheless refuse to surrender their humanity. Sobering, moving and stirring, No House to Call My Home is a must read for anyone wishing to understand the challenges of transgender men and women—and their caregivers.” —Jennifer Finney Boylan, author of She’s Not There and Stuck In The Middle With You
Ryan Berg received the New York Foundation of the Arts Fellowship in Nonfiction Literature and is a Lambda Literary Foundation Emerging Writers Fellow. His work has appeared in Ploughshares, Slate, Salon, The Advocate, Local Knowledge and The Sun. Ryan has been awarded artist residencies from The MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. NO HOUSE TO CALL MY HOME is his first book. He lives in Minneapolis.