Bathed in the sunlight of a hot and mildly sticky Sunday afternoon in Midtown Manhattan, Tiana tells me she's been in five separate homeless shelters over the past year, both as a pregnant young woman and now as a mother. The ease with which she says this, without the faintest hint of sadness, isn't lost on me. Neither is the fact that she's wearing all black, and beads of sweat are starting to form around her hairline. Her occasional grin shows me that she's not the slightest bit uncomfortable. I have a feeling there have been worse things for Tiana than standing in the sun for an hour and talking to a complete stranger.
And we are strangers to each other. Despite having volunteered alongside my Catholic parish's LGBTQ ministry at Covenant House for roughly two years now, this is my first time meeting Tiana. Actually, it's my first time meeting all but two of the 15 kids joining us for this weekend's Pride march. That's a bit of an indication of the turnover rate at the nation's largest privately-funded charity for homeless youth—the kids from last year's parade just aren't around anymore. Who knows if they're still in New York City or if they're still homeless. Or, worse, if they're still alive.
This is the third time the organization, which provides shelter and services to about 400 kids aged 16 to 21 daily, has had a presence at Pride. In fact, we're wearing the exact same shirts from years past: a white tee with the group's logo in rainbow colors and the phrase #CovUnity written across the back.
I didn't ask Tiana why she wasn't wearing it, though. It didn't matter, because it was already clear how she, and the other homeless participants, felt: this was their opportunity to show the throngs of revelers both marching and watching this weekend that they, too, had a reason to be there as queer-identified Americans.
"Today more than ever, I feel like a 'Cov kid,'" she says between swigs of water. "Them letting me walk with you guys, and accommodating me—it makes me feel special. There are a lot of kids who won't be able to experience a family like this."
But in scanning the smattering of fellow Covenant House marchers, she admits it's a "family" she doesn't know personally. Well, with the exception of Choice, her friend of 13 years who's standing right next to us in a tank, carrying Tiana's daughter in a baby sling. No one can see it, but Choice says the toddler is wearing a shirt that says "My mommy likes girls." Pretty appropriate for Pride, I'd say. Choice tells me he's a transgender man who's been homeless since November 2015 and living at Covenant House in New York for the past few months.
Choice's situation isn't uncommon, nor is Tiana's. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, one in five trans people will experience homelessness at some point throughout their lives, mostly due to family rejection and discrimination. And estimates show that 40 percent of our nation's 1.6 million homeless youth identify as LGBTQ.
The National Coalition for the Homeless says that 30 percent of clients using housing programs similar to Covenant House are LGBTQ. 'The Cov,' as residents lovingly call it, is just one of several facilities catering to vulnerable youth in New York City, whose Department of Youth and Community Development specifically funds programming for LGBTQ youth.
Throughout the day, all I could think about was think the impact participating in this event must have for these kids. Many of them were kicked out of their homes because of their identities; now they're openly expressing themselves at the biggest Pride parade in the world. There's absolutely no hiding from the gaze of both allies and opponents once you make that leap. I've been out for almost half my life and am lucky enough to have the love and support of my family, and I still find the process to be incredibly overwhelming. Invigorating and thrilling, to be sure, but still a bit much to fully take in. And if it has that much impact on me, I can only imagine what it means for them.
Indie, another Pride participant, tells me she feels the same. Armed with a nicely-decorated sign that reads "Indie is gay AF," the Dallas native smiled ear to ear as we chatted. She says she wanted desperately to march in last year's parade, but didn't for fear of inadvertently outing herself to her mother via social media. But a lot can change in a year.
"I finally came out to my mother this year, and it was actually her idea for me to march," Indie says. "She told me to take a lot of pictures and to post them on Facebook."
Indie's journey, of course, wasn't easy. "When I was younger, I thought I was just going to suppress my sexuality," she says, still smiling. "You know, 'what if I date only guys, then I'll be okay.' Just fake it 'til you make it." She also makes note of the rampant homophobia that plagues "the ghetto," particularly in the New York region, and how, in her mind, that adds to the queer homeless struggle. "I never thought in a million years that I would be walking in a gay parade, or wearing these colors, and proudly, openly saying that I like women."
Choice also can't believe he's marching with tens of thousands of out individuals. "I'm so happy to be here," he says, bopping up and down to keep Tiana's baby calm. "Everything right here is pure love. This is our day; this is our month."
Though the past has been "stressful" for Tiana, she says her heart feels good today. "I don't think I would've ever done it," she says, smiling to Choice and her baby.
And the joy of Pride is that everyone's smiling. I can't see one disgruntled person in the crowd; not one angry soul in line ready to march down Fifth Avenue. Instead, everywhere you turn, there's a rainbow flag waving in the faint wind; there's someone covered with glitter and dancing to Lady Gaga; there's screams of "Yaaaas" to the kinds of barely-there outfits that'll make any evangelical conservative clutch their pearls; there's kissing, hand holding, and twerking aplenty. It's exactly what our community needs.
All of us are here with love in our hearts, and we're determined no matter our race, age, sex, religion, economic background or housing status to boldly display our true authentic selves to millions. That's why I'm here. That's why Tiana, Choice, and Indie are here. And I'm so honored to march alongside them.
What crushes me is that this is probably the last time I'll ever see each of them. And what emboldens me are thoughts of everything we need to do to realize a world where that's not the case.
Follow Xorje Olivares on Twitter.