Carl Siciliano is the founder and Executive Director of the Ali Forney Center, New York City’s only shelter for homeless LGBTQ youth. There are an estimated 3,000 homeless youth in New York City alone, and 40% of them identify as LGBTQ. Yet there are only 200 beds in the entire US designated for LGBTQ youth, and 57 of them are at the Ali Forney Center.
Siciliano is an impassioned advocate for the young people he works with and, as I definitely saw in his answer to my last question, just an incredibly kind, sweet person.
And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Carl Siciliano.
Jos Truitt: How did you come to found the Ali Forney Center, and where does the name come from?
Carl Siciliano: I’d been working with homeless people in New York since 1985 and in 1994 I started to run a drop in center for homeless teenagers – that was my first experience working with homeless youth. When I did that I was really shocked by how bad things were for them. I was used to the notion that a homeless person had a right to shelter and that had certainly been my experience working with adults. But when I started working with youth I realized that there were way more homeless kids out there then there were shelter beds for them and most of these kids were stranded out on the streets. And I saw that the LGBT youth, who make up something like 40% of the homeless youth population in New York, had it the worst. There was only one shelter in town, Covenant House, for youth, which was run by the Catholic Church. Gay kids would get gay bashed when they tried to stay there by the other kids. Staff would frequently tell them that they were going to hell or act like it was there problem, that they were too flamboyant, or if they would just be more normal they wouldn’t get beaten up. So most of the gay kids were just stranded out on the streets and suffering really badly, living in kind of third world conditions and surviving through prostitution and getting real involved with drugs, getting infected with HIV at enormous rates and being subjected to an enormous amount of violence and even murder. I knew seven kids that were murdered on the streets back in the 90s, all of them LGBT, most of them trans. It was horrifying to me to see kids suffer so badly. It really bothered me that in a city with as strong and visible gay community as New York that there were so many hundreds of kids stranded out on the streets with nowhere to go. So in 2002 I decided to start a new organization that was dedicated to sheltering and housing those kids.
Ali Forney was somebody that I met the first day that I started working with homeless youth back in 1994. He had been homeless since the time that he was 13. He was a very effeminate gay boy as he was growing up. He grew up in a really rough housing project in east New York. I think as he was just hitting puberty it was really obvious to everybody how femme he was. The other kids in the housing project would just beat him up all the time. He actually had this dent in his head which happened because kids were trying to beat him up and he ran out into the street to get away from them and got hit by a car. His mother just didn’t know how to cope with the situation and ended up putting him out. He was in and out of the foster care system, I think he was in 16 different placements. At that time in New York City they didn’t have foster care homes for gay youth. So he would just get beaten up and terrorized in all these places. By the time he was 16 he was just really abjectly homeless on the streets.
Sometimes in the day time Ali would be dressed up like a boy and sometimes, more often at night, she would be dressed as a girl. His boy persona was Ali, her girl persona was Luscious. When I founded the Ali Forney Center I struggled a little bit with should I call it the Ali Forney Center or should I call it the House of Luscious or something like that. We used to put on these shows at this drop in center that I worked at every year and Ali would always become the star of the show. He would close the show singing these gospel hymns and then would launch into this sanctified preaching about how God loved him for who he was and people shouldn’t be judging other people, stuff like that. Whenever we’d do the show I’d say, “Well, do you want me to put you in the program as Luscious or Ali?” And he would always be like, “Put me in as Ali.” So I felt that since that was his instruction to me about his public presentation that was probably what I should do. There’s ambiguity there because I just know that so many times trans people are disrespected by not being called by their chosen name and gender, and that’s not something I want to have with Ali. But since he had said that he wanted to be represented as Ali, that’s how I do that.
Ali was really noteworthy for being very caring and loving. A lot of kids when they’re on the streets they’re hurt and abused and they kind of build this wall around them and it’s hard for them to be open and vulnerable with other people. And Ali just didn’t have that in him at all. He was always very naked with how he cared about his friends and how he cared about the people that provided care to him. Something that really demonstrated his caring to me was that when the murders started happening two of his close friends were murdered, somebody named Dionne Webster who was a trans girl was murdered in October of 96 and then another close friend of his, another trans girl named Kiki Freeman was murdered in the spring of 1997. When these kids would get murdered it would be like nothing. You wouldn’t see anything in the papers, the police wouldn’t do any investigations, it was like they were just these worthless people that nobody paid attention to. And Ali would go to the police precincts in the areas where they were killed and demand that the murders be investigated and bring in clues about what cars he’d seen them get into and stuff like that. Ali would be showing up in these police precincts wearing thigh high leather boots, a blond wig, supermodel sunglasses and a three day growth of beard. I was just so struck by the courage that he would show and the caring that he showed.
When Ali was murdered in December of 97 I couldn’t bare for him to vanish, for his name to vanish, for his memory to vanish. He was a symbol for me, in a way, of somebody who showed that these kids mattered, who showed that their lives had some kind of value by the caring that he showed and the courage that he showed. So that’s why I chose to name the program after Ali. And also I feel like Ali and the other kids are symbols of what happens when we as a society and a community don’t protect our youth.
JT: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who is your heroine in real life?
CS: Alice in Wonderland. I like creativity, I like fantasy, I like imagining something and then making it come to be. That’s actually something that inspires me a lot, just the notion of being able to have a dream and make it come true.
My biggest heroine is probably St. Therese of Lisieux. She’s my soul sister in Heaven. I was a Catholic child growing up and was actually a monk in a monastery and I had a real devotion to St. Therese. She was this nun, who died of tuberculous at the age of 24, who wrote an autobiography as she was dying in her convent in the late 19th century. She had this spirituality that had a lot to do with loving God by showing love in your day to day interactions with everybody. That just always inspired me. And then, on a very personal level, she had this event that happened to her when she was a teenager, it happened on Christmas eve of 1886, where she went from being this spoiled neurotic child to this very centered and holy person overnight. She experienced it as this great miracle and grace in her life. I was actually in the monastery at Christmas of 1986. I felt like since she was my soul sister that I would have some kind of extraordinary experience as well. I expected some kind of spiritual, I don’t know what, that I would become much more holy or something. So that night I went to bed thinking wow, my big 100 year grace is about to happen. And that night I had a wet dream about this guy that I had a crush on and I woke up with this utter conviction that I had to leave the monastery and stop all this Catholic madness and come out of the closet and that God would lead me from there. I just feel like she’s the patroness of my sexual liberation.
JT: What recent news story made you want to scream?
CS: I just feel like the political climate in our culture right now is incredibly morally corrupt. There’s this general expectation that the way you deal with budget crises is by cutting vital and necessary services from the poor, but it’s absolutely forbidden to expect the rich to kick in in any way. I don’t know how that’s happened in our culture. I don’t feel like I’ve ever seen something like this in my lifetime, where there’s just such a general expectation that the poor should have to pay and solve our budget problems and that the wealthy should be completely left off the hook. It feels profoundly wrong and cruel and unfair. I think that we’re like a human community and we’re all supposed to share and do this together. The ways in which the poor, the weak, the vulnerable, elderly, children are just being cast aside all over our country while the richest and most powerful are able to do just whatever the hell they want is profoundly disturbing.
And then on a local level what really crystallizes that for me right now, obviously, is the fact that Governor Cuomo is proposing to cut all of New York State’s support for homeless youth shelter, which is going to result in shelters all across the state being shut down and all those kids being put out onto the street. I find that unfathomable. I find it morally reprehensible. I’m shocked, I’m beyond words for how to talk about how I feel about that. Just as an idea, just the notion that something like that could be acceptable in our society is really really disturbing to me.
I feel like we’re in this kind of Dickens universe right now, but it’s even worse because in Dickens people were poor but at least they were in orphanages. Now the orphanages would be shut down and the kids would be thrown out into the streets. I’ve never seen anything like this. And I don’t even feel like it’s the politicians per se. We live in a democracy so they have to be governed by the will of the people. It really troubles me, what this says about our collective morality as a people. Politicians couldn’t throw homeless kids out of shelter beds and into the street if people didn’t let them, if they didn’t feel like they could, if they didn’t feel like they would have to pay more politically by taxing a rich person than throwing a homeless kid into the street. So what does that say about where we are right now as a people, what’s our moral code as a people? It troubles me. And I’m really really hoping that a really strong voice can rise up against these cuts and against so many of the ways in which poor people are being made to pay for the recession right now. Poor people did not cause this reception. They did nothing to cause this recession. There are a lot of entities and individuals in this country who profited in enormous ways because of corrupt practices in the banking industry and Wall Street and they’re not being expected to pay – it’s homeless people. I find that incredible.
JT: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?
CS: I feel like there has been a cultural backlash against feminism. I see in our popular culture a lot of glorification of traditional male stuff. There’s this whole thing about manning up, these commercials that I see on TV where they are making fun of men who don’t conform with gendered male roles. I feel like there’s this cultural push back right now where men have to be men. I think that a lot of that has to do with a reaction against women having more power in our society. I’m hoping that that’s a temporary thing, that this is just kind of a natural reaction to the fact that women have gained a fair amount in the past 40 years. But obviously women still have an awful lot more to gain to be in a place of equality. I wish that that was more celebrated in our culture.
JT: You’re going to a desert island, and you’re allowed to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you pick?
CS: Sounds like quite an experience! I’m an Italian boy so I’m just going to say pasta. I try to be healthy so maybe I’d bring my carrots and my juicer, although I guess there might not be electricity on this dessert island so in that case maybe I’d bring pomegranates. And you’d be my feminist.