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Despite being a star student, Mia Tu Mutch is amazed she survived high school.
Facing bullying from her classmates, constant thoughts of suicide, rejection from her Southern Baptist parents, and the very real prospect of ending up permanently homeless, she clung to any reason to keep living.
"Every day I would say, 'I'm not going to kill myself today. I have a test tomorrow,' " Mia says.
Mia is transgender. She became homeless at a young age, but unlike most teens in her position, she was able to pull herself out of it.
Considering that she spent the better part of two years without reliable shelter, 20-year-old Mia has built a resume to make any trust-funded Ivy Leaguer blush.
She has toured the country to raise awareness of homophobic policies on college campuses. After being severely beaten near the 16th Street BART Station, she spearheaded a rally to reclaim the area as safe space for transgender people.
Now that she has secured an apartment, a steady income and a seat on the San Francisco Youth Commission, she is redoubling her efforts to battle the issue that affected her so deeply - LGBT youth homelessness.
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Before stepping onto a public stage, Mia led a stifled existence in a small Southern town.
She began coming out as queer to close friends during her freshman year of high school. While she's been wearing women's clothing since junior high, she didn't begin identifying as transgender until after high school. "I feel like I've always been Mia Tu Mutch, even if I didn't have the name and the wig," she says. "Basically, the whole time that I was getting harassed it was because of my gender, not necessarily who I was having sex with."
She never intended to come out to her parents as queer, but their badgering made silence impossible. "My parents forced me out of the closet when I was 17," Mia says. "It was very confrontational, very dramatic and very scary."
Mia's parents enrolled her in their church's reparative therapy program. Mia cooperated, but chafed at the "pray-the-gay-away" sessions.
"The main reason I was staying was because they were holding college over my head," Mia says. With her solid grade-point average and high-ranking Key Club position, Mia would've been a shoo-in with college admissions officers.
"Then they told me, 'We're not giving you any money unless you act straight and act like a man.' So I was like, 'OK, well, I guess that means that I have to leave.' "
Mia lived at a friend's place an hour and a half away from school while completing her senior year. She hasn't spoken with her parents since.
A staggering number of LGBT youths share Mia's plight. As many as 40 percent of homeless youths identify as LGBT, according to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
These youths experience a much higher rate of drug addiction, mental illness and sexual abuse than their heterosexual homeless peers.
Mia never succumbed to such lows, but when she came to San Francisco at 19 in search of a more accepting environment, she didn't quite find the sanctuary she was looking for. The stigma of her gender identity might have fallen away, but the pressure to conceal her homelessness took its place.
Mia made a point of looking as presentable as possible while attending classes at City College, fearing that her classmates might wonder where she had spent the previous night.
"I'm sure they had no idea that I was carrying a really big purse because all of my clothes were in there," she says. Hiding in plain sight, queer homeless youths often look just as fashionably put together as any yuppie loft dweller.
"It's hard to come out to friends as homeless," Mia says.
Finding work proved incredibly difficult during her transitioning process. After six months of job hunting, Mia finally found employment at a Goodwill pop-up in the Castro, the first store of its kind to be staffed entirely by transgender employees.
Through this position and persistent volunteering, Mia forged connections within San Francisco's LGBT service provider community. She then landed a job as a program assistant at the San Francisco LGBT Center, where she organized a weekly meal night for local homeless people age 24 and under. Now she works at Lyric, a queer youth center in the Castro.
Mia credits Larkin Street Youth Services for helping her when she was struggling to find housing.
Larkin is one of the few organizations that cater to the LGBT community. Queer youths are routinely mistreated at most shelters, where gender-segregated dorms and bathrooms can cause confusion. Shelter staffers, many of them religiously affiliated, often aren't prepared or willing to address the needs of transgender youths.
As a youth commissioner, Mia wants to make sure the city enforces LGBT sensitivity training at the shelters.
Sometimes Mia gets frustrated when important youth issues get drowned out by the storm of debate over hot-button topics like gay marriage.
"I get really annoyed by the hundreds of millions of dollars that both sides of Prop. 8 have spent," she says. "Trying to pass it, trying to repeal it, trying to get it unre-pealed. I think that everyone should be able to show their love in a way that's equitable, but when we have so many queer homeless youth, I don't think our highest priority should be a piece of paper from the government."
Mia thinks that the ultimate responsibility rests with the family when it comes to preventing queer youths from ending up on the streets. "There's still a lot of education that needs to be done working with parents," Mia says. "They need to know that kicking their child out because they're queer or trans should not be an option."
E-mail the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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