Queer Words: Reflections on Facilitating Writing Workshops with Homeless LGBTQ Youth
Sassafras Lowrey | June 2019
I started writing at seventeen when I became homeless. The first story I wrote and published was a story in a collaborative zine with other homeless youth at the Sexual Minority Youth Resource Center (SMYRC) in Portland, Oregon. I wrote about my love of macaroni and cheese, running away from home, and my mother’s abuse. It sounds random, but somehow it worked. Coming of age as an underground zinester/indie writer, I did not learn how to write from professors or in classrooms. I learned how to write from my peers, other queer punk kids who didn’t see our stories reflected anywhere in the books we had been fed or the books that we had found (even though 40% of all homeless youth in the United States identify as LGBTQ and the most recent numbers we have on the epidemic, from the Voices of Youth Count, show that LGBTQ youth are 120 times more likely to experience homelessness than straight/cis teens), so we wrote our own.
I became a writing facilitator in my early twenties in very much the same underground way that I began writing my own stories, self-taught and within community. I facilitated writing workshops with LGBTQ people experiencing homelessness, using the bits and pieces of how to facilitate that I had gleaned from other punk/zinester writers. I began facilitating groups regularly in connection with my first book, Kicked Out, an anthology of work by current and former homeless LGBTQ youth that was honored by the American Library Association and was a Lambda Literary Finalist. I facilitated workshops to create opportunities for homeless youth to write stories that could be published in the book; this practice became the core of the queer literary work that I do and have done over the years. My workshops have often been short/one-off touring workshops with queer youth in high schools, colleges, or shelters and drop-in centers from Detroit to San Francisco to Atlanta, but also more long-term programming with street homeless adults and youth in New York City and now Portland, Oregon.
My writing facilitation comes from a desire to create spaces and opportunities for marginalized writers to tell their stories. For me, this is particularly important when working with queer writers who have systematically been silenced in their lives and who feel absent or shut out from traditional literary spaces. The workshops I facilitate are not about teaching people how to write; rather, they are about building the confidence of queer people to tell our stories. These are writers who may have disrupted educational histories, and who have been told explicitly or more subtly that their stories don’t matter.
After ten years of professionally writing and facilitating, I ended up deciding that I needed an MFA, not to teach me to be a writer or writing facilitator—I knew how to do that—but to have the terminal degree that would mean I could be hired to teach college classes, not just be booked as a visiting guest artist by schools. As part of my second-year course requirements from Goddard College’s MFA (where I’m studying queer fiction), I needed to complete a teaching practicum. My partner and I had just moved back to Portland after nearly thirteen years in NYC. The opportunity presented itself to teach a ten-week writing course for the winter at SMYRC—the very same youth center I went to as a homeless teen, and where I developed my passion for writing.
I’m often asked what it’s like to facilitate writing workshops with homeless LGBTQ youth, and I like to say it’s a little bit like controlled chaos. As a facilitator, you have to always expect the unexpected and be ready and enthusiastic about adjusting and shifting a lesson plan in the moment to meet the mood/feel/needs of the writing group that day. On a concrete level, this means I almost always bring double the writing prompts/exercises that I think we will get through in a given session. I do this so that I can mix up the prompts depending on what the writers are bringing to the page that day. It gives me the in-the-moment freedom as a facilitator to make writing time shorter if writers are struggling with focus that day, or if the mood for the room needs to change.
My group took place wherever the writers and I could fit: generally in the corner of a large drop-in space, a room with an open kitchen and couches where many youth sleep during program hours because the youth center is one of the few places where it’s safe for them to do so. Queer and politicized art created by youth past and present hangs on the walls. There is a memorial for youth who have died, and a clothing closet where participants can get clothing. The space also has some computers that youth can use to access the internet, and we write while youth eat donated food and wait to take showers.
SMYRC is a youth-led, youth-directed space, so the success of any program involves buy-in from the youth (as it should). I have often heard from people that facilitating writing workshops with teens, especially homeless teens and in particular homeless LGBTQ youth, is really hard. I think that this is because a lot of adults do it wrong. They go into youth spaces and try to take charge, when in reality we are guests in their home. I take a very different and trauma-informed approach. I remind youth in every session that this is their group, and most importantly, this writing group is their space and so anything that I’m doing that isn’t working for them can be changed. This reinforces the power that youth have, and should have, over not only the programming in their space, but also the power they have over their story(ies) that will be written during the group.
The primary goal and objective that I set for myself with leading this workshop, as with any writing workshop I facilitate with homeless LGBTQ youth, was to meet the youth exactly where they were, to be welcomed into their space by the youth (not simply by the adult staff), and to create a writing group that was supportive and exciting to them. I also wanted to support the youth with creating something tangible, a zine. I like to structure writing groups around zine-making, especially for marginalized writers, because I have found there is something important about seeing your words in print, published, and out in the world. Even with the proliferation of the internet, there is something different about zines and the ability for zine creators to bring stories to life on the page.
Though I call the time that I spend with writers “workshop,” I do not include what I think of as traditional MFA-style “workshopping.” I believe that the traditional workshop model is a structure that mostly benefits writers with the most privilege. I believe deeply in the importance of enthusiastic consent for writers participating in any activity but especially for sharing or workshopping. Enthusiastic consent is (as it sounds) not coerced or forced. It is freely given. Enthusiastic consent is informed consent: someone knows what they are agreeing to, and it is reversible, meaning someone can change their mind at any time. What I have found is that when writers I am working with are given the opportunity to choose if and when they want to share their work, they are much more likely to do so. As a facilitator, I find this significantly more valuable than the coercive sharing of the traditional workshop model. My writing groups are places where we grapple with tough themes: trauma, abandonment, and abuse. But they are also places where we write silly stories or celebrate the strength and joy that comes from being a community of survivors. There is no hierarchy in the groups I facilitate between writers who choose to write fantasy or fanfic and writers who focus their work on traumatic experiences.
I have facilitated a lot of writing workshops over the last decade, but returning to SMYRC for ten weeks last winter felt like going home. While a lot has changed in the seventeen years since I walked through SMYRC’s doors searching for belonging (and, though I didn’t know it then, my voice), so much about the feel and values of the youth-led space remains. It was a tremendous honor to, in some small part, be able to give back to this community to whom I owe not just my literary career but also my life. The “Queer Words” zine the youth created in our class will always have a cherished place on my bookshelf.
Sassafras Lowrey is a straight-edge punk who grew up to become the 2013 winner of the Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Award. Sassafras' books (Kicked Out, Lost Boi, Roving Pack, Leather Ever After, and A Little Queermas Carol) have been honored by organizations ranging from the National Leather Association to the American Library Association. Sassafras’ hybrid memoir, Healing/Heeling, was released in 2019, and hir book Left Out: How Marriage Equality Abandoned Homeless LGBTQ Youth is forthcoming from The New Press in 2020. Sassafras lives and writes in Portland, Oregon, with hir partner and their menagerie of dogs and cats. Learn more at www.SassafrasLowrey.com