Rej Joo stumbled into a career helping Portland, Oregonâ€™s queer youth help themselves. A few years ago and fresh out of college, Joo (â€śjust a guyâ€ť who identifies politically as a trans man) took an Americorp position with Portlandâ€™s Sexual Minority Youth Resource Center (SMYRC.org), an organization that addresses at-risk LGBT youth through activities like artistic creation, community organizing, peer support and job preparation.
As SMYRCâ€™s first health education specialist, Joo collaborated with the organizationâ€™s Tobacco Prevention Coordinator, R.E. Szego, on Breathe Free, a statewide LGBT smoking prevention and education initiative to raise awareness about the tactics the tobacco industry uses to target marginalized populations. They examined tobacco use and other risk-taking behaviors by masculine characters in popular films, television and advertising.
â€śWhy is it sexy that this guy is smoking?â€ť Joo asks rhetorically. â€śThe Marlboro man and Shane [on The L-Word]â€¦the more masculine characters tend to be smoking and people see that as being hot.â€ť
As Jooâ€™s Americorp tenure wound down, Outside In asked him to spearhead a pilot project targeting homeless LGBT youth. A Portland agency dedicated to low-income adults and homeless youth, Outside In offers services like transitional housing, a community health clinic, the Transgender/Identity Resource Center and Virginia Woof, the first doggie daycare in the country thatâ€™s also a job training program.
â€śWorking with LGBT youth - specifically within the homeless youth continuumâ€¦was very much a learning experience.â€ť
A year and a half later, Joo has settled into his Outside In position, but SMYRCâ€™s youth-empowerment model continues to inform his work.
â€śWorking with any kind of youths, whether itâ€™s ethnic minorities or whatever, the best way is to just ask themâ€¦theyâ€™re the experts.â€ť
Approximately 60 percent of homeless youth in Portland identify as LGBT, and Joo says resolving the problem wonâ€™t be easy because there are complex reasons for homelessness among teens. â€śSome youth are so immersed in the street culture that being part of mainstream society isnâ€™t an option.
Then you have the youth that get kicked out [because theyâ€™re LGBT]. And you have youth that are queer but the reason why theyâ€™re homeless isnâ€™t because their queer identity, itâ€™s really because of abusive household or whatever.â€ť
Thereâ€™s no easy answer, Joo contends. â€śI donâ€™t think thereâ€™s one solution to really alleviating or minimizing queer youth and trans youth from being on the streets. We can focus our energy into supporting youth who got kicked out, because that really almost never happens with straight youthâ€¦but if weâ€™re focusing on that effort weâ€™re neglecting maybe 35, 40 percent of the queer youth that are on the street.â€ť
Happy that there are adult queers who - remembering the struggles they once faced - are trying to give back to the younger generation, Joo argues that well-meaning adults often â€śoffer advice and thatâ€™s not always the most helpful thing.â€ť Especially, he says, when the advice is about dealing with issues no longer relevant to the younger generation.
To become useful allies, Joo suggests â€śjust being openâ€¦building that rapport with them and eventually theyâ€™ll open up - and when they do, just listen. Often times, they donâ€™t get a chance to talk about their identities or struggles.â€ť
For Korean American Joo, working in a predominantly white city has its drawbacks.
â€śPortland is such a predominantly white place and Iâ€™m working with mostly white queer and trans youth, but I think, proportionately, there are more youth of color among the homeless than in the rest of the population, so in that sense, Iâ€™m working more with people color, but itâ€™s still a very small percentage.â€™â€™
Those youth who are from ethnic minorities feel another level of discrimination, Joo claims. â€ś[It] forces them to put the queer part aside and really deal with the race issues first. Because they face more slursâ€¦regarding their racial backgroundâ€¦thatâ€™s the primary struggle, even though Iâ€™m working with them in a queer venue.â€ť
Trans writer Jacob Anderson-Minshall co-authors the Blind Eye detective series. He has an essay in the new anthology, Trans People in Love.