Growing Up Young, Homeless, And Gay In New York Manny, Julius and Carlos come from different backgrounds, but their stories share a common thread. All three struggle to make a life for themselves as they navigate the rocky waters of adolescence. NPR's Farai Chideya talks with journalist Kai Wright about his book, Drifting Toward Love.

Growing Up Young, Homeless, And Gay In New York

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TONY COX, host:

I'm Tony Cox, and this is News & Notes. Manny, Julius and Carlos all come from different backgrounds, but their stories share a common thread. As gay, young men of color, they struggled to navigate the rocky waters of adolescence and make a life for themselves in New York. In his book, "Drifting Toward Love," journalist and author Kai Wright talks about those stories. He spoke with NPR's Farai Chideya.

FARAI CHIDEYA: Kai, thanks for coming on the show.

Mr. KAI WRIGHT (Author, "Drifting Toward Love: Black, Brown, Gay, and Coming of Age on the Streets of New York"): Thanks for having me.

CHIDEYA: What made you decide to approach this topic in this way, where you really went out, and you went on the streets, and you talked to young men who, you know, have been having really difficult lives?

Mr. WRIGHT: What I really wanted to do was step away from the politics, step away from the public health, step away from all of the queer studies and queer theory and all of this stuff, and give some young men an opportunity to speak for themselves about the context in which they live and the choices that they make in those contexts. We're very concerned about choices. Why would you put yourself at risk by working as a prostitute, by taking drugs, by having unprotected sex? And so, I wanted to put in the - in their voice the context in which those choices are made.

CHIDEYA: You have in the book a sentence, "No concrete measure exists of how many gay youth are homeless, either nationally or locally." Before we get back to some of the broader issues, I want to go through the young men that you profile. Manny, tell me about him.

Mr. WRIGHT: Manny is, at the start of the book, 14. He is a black Puerto Rican, lived with his mom. She loved him dearly, was fiercely dedicated to him, but also had a lot of trouble with his sexuality. Manny knew from a very, very young age that he was gay, and his only issue was, how do I live that? And so, through a combination of the battles with his mom and being able to sort of see the gay mecca of New York out there, he decided to come up with plans about how to access it. The main thing he needed was money.

And so, that set him down a road of a lot of risk, from sex work to drug use. But he's a remarkably intelligent, bright, capable kid. And this the thing about some of the - about all of the young men in the book, is I was so struck by how talented and smart they were, and how often they turned those talents on themselves for trouble instead of for good, because either the barriers to what they wanted were so great, and they had so little guidance in how to use their talents to help them.

CHIDEYA: When you think about someone like Julius or Manny, how much agency do you think they have over their sexuality and their relationships?

Mr. WRIGHT: Well, this is the thing. I mean, sex is complicated business, right? I mean, it's complicated for all of us at all ages and all sexualities. And if you have people engaged in your life helping you sort that out, either informally or formally, then you can do a lot better than if you're flying blind, you know? So, Julius is someone who, you know, is a classic New York story. He was from the South. He was a bright kid, valedictorian of his class, but he was in a foster - a very abusive foster home. He managed to handle that well, but he couldn't sort out his sexuality down there.

And so, he fled. He stole some money and fled to New York, where he thought, OK, this will be great. And he, of course, ended up homeless, and turned to sex work in order to support himself because, you know, he was young, attractive, smart. He could get - you know, he was the kind of person who could get all kinds of sexual attention. He saw that as a skill, and so he sold it. But in the process, over the course of the few years he was in New York doing that, he lost all track of what a relationship was, and no one ever engaged him on it.

There was never a time in his life where someone gave him the birds and the bees of being gay, other than, you know, here are the ways you can kill yourself. And that's one of the tragedies, too, I think, is that we, you know, we say, listen, you've got to wear a condom if you're going to have sex, and that's the extent of the conversation about sex we have with young, gay men. And that's just not enough for you to - for someone to be able to sort out how to have a healthy sex life.

CHIDEYA: How did these young men - and we'll get to Carlos in a second - how did these young men relate to you?

Mr. WRIGHT: I met all of the young men in the book through a shared bond. I went through a lot of people I interviewed, I would talk to them briefly, and they would disappear into the volatility of their lives that I was trying to write about. And the three guys in the book, we all had a shared - a very close shared friend. And so I had some trust and some background.

While they didn't know me, they knew that this shared person knew me. So they saw me as a peer, really, and I think that's what allowed them to share their lives with me in such intimate detail. And that's, I think, one of, to me, the most exciting things about the book, is that you really are able - or I hope you're able - to really hear their voices and really hear their perspective on how they're living.

CHIDEYA: Give me a story about Carlos, the other young man that you spoke with.

Mr. WRIGHT: Right. Carlos is interesting. He grew up in - lived his whole life in about a mile-wide radius in east New York, Brooklyn, which is - you know, when you dream up the, you know, the bombed-out ghetto, it's sort of an iconic example of that haunting imagery, and it has been for decades. In any case, he, you know, his - he is a 25-minute subway ride from his front door to one of the gayest places on Earth, this, you know, the west side of Manhattan, with Chelsea and the West Village, and the birthplace of the gay rights movement.

And he was 20-something years old before he ever thought it had anything to do with him. Even though he knew he was gay, but it was so removed from his world in east New York. It was so irrelevant to his world in east New York that he couldn't access it. And I think that's one of the interesting things about him, is that here's someone who was so close to this space that the gay community has created for itself, but emotionally was worlds away.

CHIDEYA: What did you get in the end out of this, in terms of policy perspectives? I mean, I know that this book is written in a way where you do have these in-depth profiles of these men, but when you think about their lives, and you think about the way that government and other societal structures interact with their lives, what would you like to see happen?

Mr. WRIGHT: Wow. Well, it's - there's a lot, and I did do my best to, again, step back from creating a policy prescription in the book, because I think part of our problem is that we want to put such a fine point on the solution, and so we miss the complexity of the problem. But I think there's certainly a host of things.

One, you know, that there's a lot of energy around is sex education in schools. You know, one place that everybody goes is the school, at least at - in early in their lives. And if we created public schools that were more welcoming and supporting to people of all sexualities, that would be a very big start. If we had counselors who stopped the gay-baiting and the gay-bashing in the hallways, both verbal and physical, if we had health classes that discussed gay sexuality, if we had schools that were welcoming to gay youth, that would be a very big start.

CHIDEYA: Well, there's much more to say, but we'll have to stop here. Kai, thank you.

Mr. WRIGHT: Thank you very much for having me.

COX: Journalist Kai Wright is the author of "Drifting Toward Love: Black, Brown, Gay, and Coming of Age on the Streets of New York." He is also a columnist for the Web site The Root. He spoke with NPR's Farai Chideya.

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