The Meaning of Homelessness for LGBTQIA+ people

By Eleanor McKelvey - National Director of Online Engagement (Blog)

“Home is home, and everything else is not-home. That’s the way the world is constructed.” – Verlyn Klinkenborg, The Smithsonian Magazine 2012

Multiple charities and organisations have attested to homelessness being a key problem for the LGBTQIA+ community. Often, they reference statistics collected from the 2013 Australian General Social Survey (GSS). The Survey found that 21% of bisexual people, and over one third of lesbian and gay people had experienced homelessness. By comparison, only 13% of straight Australians have been homeless during their lifetime.

The numbers are shocking, but do they tell the full story?

Defining home, and by extension homelessness, is not a simple task. Traditional views of homelessness have tended to focus on the absence of physical shelter or territory. In the GSS, homelessness was defined as being “without a place to live” (for reasons other than saving money, work-related requirements, building work, travelling or house-sitting). In this case, like many others, the definition of “living” was not made clear. What constitutes acceptable standards of living? What differentiates having a home to live in from having a place to stay?

For a start, many of us associate home with being a place of comfort and security. However, many queer people are forced to live in house where their health is put at risk. For instance, LGBTQIA+ children/young people are more likely to face abuse in their homes than those who do not identify as queer. Many LGBTQIA+ children also feel pressure to conceal their sexuality in order to avoid being kicked out. In turn, concealment of sexual/gender identity is known to cause stress and contribute to poor mental-health.

Having a physical residence does not necessarily protect queer adults from intolerance or discrimination either. In an interview for the 2017 GALFA Homelessness Report, one trans individual described:

“For 3 years since I moved into this apartment [public housing], I have been harassed, been given death threats, I was told there was a contract put on my life to kill me. There was two petitions gone around this building so far to get rid of me, because – in the petition it said I was a woman trying to be a man, and I was not normal, that I did not belong living with normal people… and I still have to live in this building after being assaulted and spending two weeks in hospital.”

Many of us consider community as another one of the pillars upon which our home is built. However, queer people who do not have the financial or personal means to choose or change where they live can find themselves stuck in hostile communities. Even in Australia, many LGBTQIA+ people still need to conceal their sexuality from their local communities, particularly in rural and remote areas.

Access to (larger) LGBTQIA+ communities means that non-heterosexual/non-cisgender people in inner cities tend to experience the fewest incidences of minority stress and social isolation. Nonetheless, not all people manage to find a sense of home in their local queer “community” - racism, misogyny and transphobia are still prevalent within LGBTQIA+ communities. Even when someone lives near a queer community, it does not necessarily mean that they feel connected to it.

If a queer person is living in fear of abuse from their co-residents, local and wider community, do they really have a home?

There has been a recent push (within academia at least) to consider homelessness as multi-level; existing on a spectrum which includes issues such as overcrowding, and housing that falls below “acceptable standards”, in addition to sleeping on the streets. This approach should be extended towards considerations of LGBTQIA+ homelessness; with being forced to live in a homophobic or transphobic community/household considered as a form of homelessness, rather than a precursor to it.

The heteronormativity in the current approach towards tackling homelessness is evidenced by queer people’s reluctance to make use of homelessness charities. It is estimated that 25% of Australia’s homeless population is lesbian or gay; yet lesbian and gay people are three times less likely to seek support from organisations after becoming homeless. Interviews with LGBTQIA+ people reveal that they can be reluctant to expose their sexuality to these organisations for fear of the mistreatment.

There are some excellent organisations out there, such as the Australian Queer Students’ Network, which provide targeted advice and support for LGBTQIA+ people struggling with their living situation. However, the existence of targeted charities should not excuse other organisations from making a greater effort to cater to the needs of queer people.

As it stands, by refusing to acknowledge isolating or dangerous living conditions as a part of homelessness; substandard, or sometimes violent, living conditions are presented as a legitimate solution to the “true evil” of not having a place to live. We need to change this attitude, because LGBTQIA+ people deserve to have the same expectations from a home as everyone else.