NEW YORK– Years ago, before the pilings had gone rotten and jagged like a row of rotten teeth, the piers were still lined with abandoned houseboats. At a time when gay sex was illegal, this was a busy pick-up spot. The empty homes gave cover from the elements and a semblance of privacy. Sometimes a boat’s floor gave way, and its occupants would drown in the Hudson River. Still, for gay men and trans teens, the block at the end of the West Village was a refuge from a hostile culture.
The piers have undergone an almost unrecognizable transformation from just 10 years ago, when the city began renovating the stretch of waterfront that runs parallel to the historic West Village, let alone 50 years ago, when the bodies of young gay and transgender men would be fished out of the river. Today, luxury condominiums line the highway, and the crumbling waterfront has been transformed into a park frequented by tourists and locals.
“Kids are arriving every day,” said Kate Barnhart, executive director of New Alternatives, an organization that helps homeless LGBTQ teens and young adults. “They’re coming from places that are not trans-safe, like the south and the midwest, and they know that New York is a cool place to be gay. They’re constantly arriving.”
Numbers on trans teens in New York City are largely anecdotal, because there is no system in place by the city or state to formally track the population. But nationally, the outlook for trans teens is grim, according to a survey of 6,450 transgender and gender non-conforming study participants conducted by the the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality. Many of the respondents lived, like the pier teens on Christopher Street, in poverty, with participants four times more likely to have a household income of less than $10,000 per, year compared to the general population.
Climbing out of that poverty is nearly insurmountable. Survey participants reported unemployment at twice the rate of the general population. Rates for trans people of color were four times the national unemployment rate. Unable to find a job, 16 percent of survey respondents said they turned to the underground economy to survive, mostly turning to prostitution. The trans kids on Christopher Street say that number is much higher for them, and that prostitution is almost a rite of passage for many.
Many trans youth don’t finish school. Those who expressed a transgender identity or gender non-conformity during school reported high rates of harassment, physical assault and sexual violence. Harassment was so severe that it led almost one-sixth to leave a school, according to the survey.
On a recent Saturday evening, a lean folk singer serenaded a group of white diners at a newly opened cafe. His strumming was within earshot of a group of black homeless teens, all of them either gay or transgender, bearing out the stats — dropouts and looking for work, scraping by hustling to make enough money to eat.
Despite the stunning changes that have occurred here, one thing remains the same — they flock here, like an Ellis Island for queer youth. They come, said Elegance Bratton, like he did when he was a teen, often banished from the family after being caught living a double life at, and are desperate for a haven. Christopher Street and the piers in the West Village still remain a refuge, even as their presence becomes more incongruous as the piers have been converted into a gentrified wonderland.
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