Refuge, Comfort, and Feeling “Held”: What “Home” Means to LGBTQ Organizers

published Apr 25, 2021
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Feeling truly at home can mean so much more than having a roof over your head, and that fact is not lost on LGBTQ+ organizers. 

Although community organizing and legal advocacy are necessary to safeguard existing LGBTQ+ civil rights protections, this work can take a major psychological toll and often requires ample rest to do sustainably. It’s one thing to know that homophobia and transphobia exist; it’s another thing to witness bigotry and violence every day. “That proximity is really important to me in my work,” says Eliel Cruz, director of communications for New York City’s Anti-Violence Project (AVP), “but it’s also one of the hardest parts of my job.”

What kind of space do LGBTQ+ organizers want to come home to at the end of a long day? Better yet, what does “home” mean to them, especially as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic continues to alter how we view and engage with our physical surroundings? Apartment Therapy turned to queer-identified community organizers and advocates from some of the United States’ leading LGBTQ+ nonprofits to find out.

Many LGBTQ+ activists view home as a kind of refuge, and for some, pandemic living has “deepened” that understanding.

A longtime “nonprofit gay” who has experienced depression and anxiety for most of his life, Cruz views his New York City apartment, which he inhabits alone, as a safe space separate from the rest of the world. His relationship to home has historically been “complicated,” but as an adult, he values having the financial, mental, and emotional freedom to curate a space that is entirely his own. That can look like taking a soothing bath after a long day, reading a good book in his favorite spot on his couch — or hanging up the gayest art imaginable, a form of claiming space that feels especially powerful to Cruz, who grew up in a religious household where expressing his sexuality was discouraged. “That I’m able to have gay art and live a gay-ass life without feeling like I have to hide pieces of myself… that’s beautiful to me,” he says.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. last March, which forced Cruz and millions of other employed adults in America to switch to a fully remote work setup, only reinforced this. Raquel Willis, a writer, speaker, and veteran LGBTQ+ activist, echoes the sentiment as someone who now “lives, works, and plays” out of her small apartment. “I definitely think that I have deepened my understanding of what it means to have a refuge in the past year,” she tells Apartment Therapy.

A Brooklynite by way of Atlanta, Georgia, Willis’ apartment features a spot for house plants and ample natural light, which remind her of the South. “I believe in the power of transforming a space,” she adds, “but having limited means you have to get creative about making your space feel fresh.” She’s a staunch proponent of “taking breaks,” be it naps in bed or sojourns out of the house. (Pre-pandemic, this included travel.) Willis also enjoys unwinding with books about queer and trans history, which allow her to do some mental traveling from the safety of her own home. “It reminds me that there’s a long arc of this work,” she explains, and the moment we’re living in is “just a pit stop in the journey of trans liberation.” 

Casey J. Pick, an advocate for The Trevor Project, also opts for soothing vibes at home — think earth-toned furnishings and sentimental decor items. For her, being a professional LGBTQ+ advocate is the ultimate exercise in recognizing what she can control and letting go of what she can’t. While she has little say over what happens on the floor during a chaotic legislative session, she does have agency over herself and her space. “There’s a clear sense of rhythm in my home, which feels steadying and comforting to me,” she tells Apartment Therapy. That stability allows her to exhale at the end of the workday even if she’s had a particularly draining moment or is struggling to see any tangible change as a result of her work.

For other LGBTQ+ organizers, particularly those who work on a hyper-local level or do organizing on a volunteer basis, working from home isn’t a new thing. Chicago-based organizer H Kapp-Klote, a former nonprofit employee who has advocated for tenants’ rights and LGBTQ+ issues, was already well-acquainted with the WFH life before COVID-19 was a regular part of our vocabulary. 

“When the pandemic started, not a great deal changed in my day-to-day life,” they tell Apartment Therapy. “I had quit my job, and I didn’t have much of an income. I was living in a pretty transit-remote area of Chicago and already not seeing a lot of people.” Still, Kapp-Klote finds working remotely as an activist — the lack of structure, literally and figuratively; as well as the lack of built-in social interaction — uniquely challenging, and now they are issues that other people are navigating both for the first time, and in real time. “A lot of things that I used to beat myself up over,” they remember, “I started seeing other people go through.”

Shelter is a basic necessity, but for LGBTQ+ organizers who confront housing inequity each and every day, “home” can mean something very different.

Cruz makes a point to note that for the first time in his adult life, he can afford to live alone, something that he is “very, very grateful for” as a queer person who grew up in a low-income household. His gratitude underscores a harsh reality: For many LGBTQ+ people in the United States, safe and stable housing isn’t a given. 

Although the Biden-Harris administration recently bolstered federal nondiscrimination protections in areas like housing to include gender identity and sexual orientation, anti-LGBTQ+ housing discrimination is still a rampant issue. Factors like familial rejection, criminalization, or poverty — which are more common for LGBTQ+ people, particularly LGBTQ+ youth and queer people of color — also contribute to this. The National Center for Transgender Equality estimates that one in five transgender Americans has experienced homelessness at some point in their life.

It’s an upsetting truth that activists like Ceyenne Doroshow, who founded GLITS to provide free and safe housing to LGBTQ+ sex workers in New York City, confront every day. “I was literally answering cries for help in a crisis,” Doroshow tells Apartment Therapy. “Not when the crisis was over, not when someone was murdered — it was getting them out of harm’s way before someone was murdered, and that means relocating.” The COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated these inequities, especially for incarcerated LGBTQ+ people, who were and still are uniquely vulnerable to the coronavirus due to their literal proximity to others. This, of course, is on top of the unfair treatment or hate-motivated violence that so many LGBTQ+ people face while incarcerated.

After Doroshow spoke at a massive rally for Black trans lives last summer, she and her team raised more than $1 million in donations toward GLITS’ mission. It was a watershed moment that gave her the financial backing she needed to achieve her lifelong dream of purchasing a first-of-its-kind housing complex for LGBTQ+ sex workers that opened its doors in November 2020. GLITS also empowers clients through educational programs and leadership training, two tools that Doroshow believes are integral to establishing sustainable justice movements. “If you’re a leader,” she says, “you’re able to lead somebody else into leadership, into sustainability they would otherwise not see.”

As a Black trans woman who has personally experienced homelessness, Doroshow is intimately familiar with the role that safe housing plays in ensuring a person’s ability to survive. Having access to safe and reliable shelter is quite literally foundational. But in order to truly thrive and feel at home, a sense of belonging is crucial. “People take for granted something as simple as a hug or a ‘good morning, darling,’” Doroshow explains. “That sense of fellowship and family and love is usually out the window for our population.”

If a sense of belonging is what makes a space feel like home, then LGBTQ+ activists are in luck.

Fortunately, one of the things LGBTQ+ people are good at is “outsourcing” community. It’s no accident that celebrations of chosen families like Friendsgiving are so popular in queer circles. When being around biological family members is painful or alienating, many LGBTQ+ people turn to their friends or other loved ones who make up a chosen family. These tend to be the kinds of people that queer folks invite into their literal homes, too, and whose presence can feel like a kind of home if a physical, permanent address is currently beyond their reach. 

“Home is where you feel the most held and most appreciated,” Doroshow says. “When I was homeless, sometimes in the right places, I felt at home.”

Cruz agrees, although pandemic-related shutdowns and social-distancing mandates have certainly made feeling at home in community with others more complicated. Alongside his self-care practices, Cruz intentionally cultivates relationships with friends — often fellow organizers — who look out for each other. Before the pandemic, he’d gather regularly in person with his friends, sometimes at home, sometimes elsewhere. Now he has their addresses on hand so that he can periodically mail them care packages, which often include decor items like bath bombs or scented candles. It’s a simple but effective way of practicing community care during a time when so many people are more isolated or spread out than usual, Cruz says. 

“There’s a lot of emphasis placed on what we should do for ourselves, and it’s a very individualistic and capitalistic mindset,” he adds. “Realistically, you shouldn’t be the only one who looks out for yourself.”

Willis sums it up beautifully: “Home is really about the people.” She brings up long phone calls with her mom, who lives hundreds of miles away from her in Tennessee. “I think we create fleeting spaces of home when we’re on the phone with our loved ones, you know?” she says. “That love transcends beyond a physical space.”