I have spent much of the last ten years offering digital arts workshops for LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay Bi-sexual, Transgender, and Questioning) youth at REACH LA, a youth driven non-profit organization in downtown Los Angeles. Providing a space for youth to explore creative expression through digital technologies has been an immensely rewarding experience and has opened my eyes to the important role that digital technologies play in the lives of these young people. They seem to have an innate sense of the importance of creating their own histories and families since mainstream society has failed LGBTQ youth in providing positive role models and safe spaces to find themselves. Digital technologies and mobile devices provide opportunities for these youth to connect with one another, share stories, and create safe social spaces where being gay is not just okay...it’s the way to be. Technology is not a distraction for these youth, it is a lifesaver in their coming of age process. Rather than keeping them from deeper experiences and understandings, phones and other mobile and social technologies provide the home they need from which to develop self and community.
The primary program area of REACH LA is to serve LGBTQ youth who are at high risk for HIV infection with prevention and testing services. This is a tough group to organize and keep tabs on, as most have unstable living situations including short-term rentals, couch hopping, or homelessness. Growing up gay or transgender in an unsupportive family home can subject youth to physical and verbal abuse and/or lead to them being kicked out of the home or running away. For these youth the stress of finding a safe place to live in Los Angeles has been exacerbated by the closing of GLASS (Gay and Lesbian Adolescent Social Services) in 2008, that provided the only group home for LGBT foster youth, and by recent budget cuts to social service and nonprofit providers that work with these populations. For most of these youth, pulling together first and last month rent plus deposit is an insurmountable obstacle to obtaining stable housing.
Alfred Lopez checking his phone at the REACH LA Ovahness Ball
Less financially daunting and considered the must have accessory for any youth today is the cell phone, sidekick, or smart phone. These devices essentially become “home-base” for at-risk youth and a means by which services providers can keep in touch with this hard to track population. I know many youth that can’t afford to keep a roof over their head, but will pay for a smart phone since this is their way of staying connected to the world. Phones can be used to look for jobs, search for apartments, meet up with friends, and update their Facebook or Myspace status. For service providers, mobile access is essential for keeping in touch with these youth to make sure they get follow-up counseling, get to medical appointments, and just to check-in to see how a client is doing.
Many agencies including REACH LA use text messaging lists as the most inexpensive and effective way to reach this population for outreach events and service updates. REACH LA also uses mobile phone service as a way for youth clients to check whether HIV confidential testing is available at any given day/time. The phone serves as a very discreet and intimate means to get information about HIV prevention and/or testing status. The combination of mobile phones and Facebook has greatly improved nonprofits abilities to stay in touch with this highly mobile group of youth. For example, if a client loses their phone (a common occurrence) then Facebook serves as a back-up to re-establish contact with that youth until a new phone number is set up. In the past this may have meant losing touch with a client for months or even years, resulting in a perilous interruption of services.
Youth are doing amazing things from their phones. One homeless youth that we worked with, who is now residing in Atlanta, keeps us updated with his news and writings by blogging from his phone and serves as an inspiration for other youth. Another youth, responding to a dearth of housing for LGBT street youth in Los Angeles, organized a series of hostel style apartments in Hollywood where youth could pay for a week at a time to have a bunkbed space in a shared living arrangement (the Hollywood Dorms). He used his sidekick phone to remotely arrange meetings, conduct interviews, check on the security system and even open and close the apartment doors for clients. This is a youth that came up through the foster system and did not attend high school. His tech and organizing savvy comes from years of promoting large safe party events for LGBT youth by using phone line recordings and mass text messaging connected to a dedicated Myspace page.
LGBT youth need ways to meet other youth, to find information about LGBT services, social and cultural events…more so than do other youth. They need devices to connect them to the world, so they can understand that the feelings that they have today have been shared by many that have walked before them. Probably the most critical service that a mobile device can provide is a feeling of being connected when it is needed the most. When your situation is dire and you are sleeping alone in a park, or at the beach, or even in a hostile home environment, the phone can literally be lifesaver connecting LGBT youth to a suicide hotline, shelter, police, or just a comforting voice of a mentor or friend.