She tried for an entire month to sell off two eight balls’ worth of cocaine-converted crack, but her customers were always begging for a break, and her sympathy for them was too strong. “Some crackheads, I didn’t charge them ’cause I felt bad,” says Tray in the drawl distinct to Washington, D.C., where she was born and raised.
Her sympathy for crackheads is the last thing a stranger would suspect when meeting Tray. She towers at 5-11, and her 195-pound frame is topped by a four-inch, picked, blown-out Afro. Her regular wardrobe of XXXL black T-shirts, baggy blue jeans, and black Air Jordans tempts many to conclude that she’s a cute teenage boy. “I used to want to be a boy because I had a flat chest,” Tray says, “but now I know I am a girl and I am not into boys.”
Still, at 17, Tray is the mother of a nine-month-old girl, conceived after the one time she gave in to her curiosity about sex with a man. Tray dropped out of school two years ago, tried several times to attend GED programs, and even thought about joining the Job Corps. But all those ambitions required leaving the neighborhood, and selling drugs on the corner was just a three-minute walk from her home. The only thing that stopped Tray was her fear of being arrested. Now she depends on her mother, a cook at an area university, to support her and her baby.
Tray and her nine “dom” friends are inseparable. Every night they meet at a nearby convenience store, where they crowd the entrance and plan the rest of the evening. On weekends they attend go-gos, clubs that play the music native to Washington. Like young men in clubs, Tray’s crew often gets into brawls with other doms. Fighting, smoking, and selling weed are the group’s most popular topics. The more they chatter about which girl they are dating and who is beefing with whom, the less education and jobs are spoken about.
Tray and her crew are not alone. There are young black lesbians like them in every city in America. But other cities have a host of services geared toward gay youth, especially those who drop out of school and have a child. New York State funds programs ranging from the Hetrick-Martin Institute, which runs an all-gay high school, to the Greenwich Village Youth Council, which runs a drop-in center. Washington is a very different place. The district is not a state, so its major source of public funding is the federal government, which does not directly support any gay programs.
Wanda Alston runs the one-woman office that advises Mayor Anthony Williams on GLBT issues. She is single-handedly trying to change the city’s attitude, but she can’t expect to get any help from the feds. “Congress,” Alston notes, “doesn’t want any money in gay hands for any reason.”
Chances are that even if there were services offered to Tray she wouldn’t take advantage of them. Like most teenagers, Tray feels most comfortable around her peers, not outsiders. Like most poor, black lesbians, she barely exists on the social map. Even gay neighborhoods are uncomfortable for her. Dupont Circle is a hangout for middle-class gays and lesbians, not for people like Tray. “When we go there, a fight always happens,” says Tray’s best friend Lita, who decided not to attend the district’s Gay Pride parade because of the possibility of violence between groups of doms from different neighborhoods.
There is only one place in Washington where Tray might feel at home: Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League (SMYAL) is housed near Capitol Hill. It is the city’s only program geared toward GLBT youth, and it receives funding from private donors, along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to provide sex education information, and from American Legacy to offer anti-smoking material. “There’s not a lot of support for these young people in D.C.,” says Tracee Ford, interim executive director of SMYAL, who believes that the lack of services forces gay teens to hide their identities. “Every day is a battle to talk to them about how the world is hurting them.”
Tray has never been to SMYAL, but two of her friends spent a few hours there last year. After months of curiosity Tray decides to go because someone is driving to the house, which is across town. Black, a quiet girl with dark brown skin, leads Tray and Lita into the grayish-pink house filled with girls in baggy men’s clothes, boys in tight women’s clothes, and counselors in business clothes. Tray, the biggest of the three and usually the loudest of the group, suddenly becomes silent as a tall, blond, white male worker says hello. She walks behind her friends, twisting the ends of her cornrows.
Ford, a cinnamon-colored woman who has devoted her career to gay youth, asks to speak to Tray. She extends a welcome to all new visitors, describing the programs that the center offers. Selling points include group trips to amusement parks, chill time in the house’s common room, and a chance to mingle with other gay teens from across the city. But Tray’s interest fades after Ford mentions the requirement to volunteer time for keeping the house clean and working with event-planning committees.
Ford is not surprised. Teenagers, especially those like Tray, are hard to reach. Add the common obstacles, from pregnancy and drug use and/or dealing to the lack of acceptance for openly gay youth, and it’s no wonder that many teens like Tray quiet themselves around adults. “Our youth always have to be deceptive in who they are,” says Ford. “They even have to lie to their own God.”
Until Washington, D.C. catches up to other big cities in providing services to gay and lesbian youth, Thomas Vaughn, Tray’s honor student, college-bound cousin, wishes she would clean up her act. “I wish she could have someone to talk to,” he says. “Her friends are not enough.”