Surviving life on the streets

Posted on 25 Mar 2010 at 4:14pm
By Renee Baker | Contributing Writer renee@renee-baker.com

Trans youth Shawn Tripp wants to find a way to help other LGBT youth who are, as he was, homeless

BRIDGE SWEET HOME | Shawn Tripp lived under the Harry Hines Boulevard bridge over Inwood Road after his parents kicked him out of the house at age 17. (Renee Baker/Dallas Voice)

Shawn Tripp is a lucky man. He says so himself. He says he’s a survivor and it’s a miracle that he’s still alive. And you have to believe him.

Tripp is one of those people who seems to turn every curse into a blessing and unknowingly inspire everyone else.

"It’s no big deal," he says. "It is just life."

Tripp, born on Independence Day in 1988, is now 21. Four years ago, his parents kicked him out of their home in Hurst for being a lesbian. He now identifies as a transgender man.

With no money and just the shirt on his back, Tripp, like his grandfather before him, set out by train to find a new home. That new home turned out to be the "Harry Hines Bridge" — right next to the Salvation Army on Inwood Road in Dallas, where he might have gotten some help. 

Today, Tripp pokes fun at his earlier naivety. "I thought it had something to do with the military, so I never went in there," he says of the Salvation Army.

The first night Tripp slept under the bridge, he woke up with cold feet. Someone had stolen his shoes and left him theirs. He values shoes so much today that he’s "hoarded" more than 20 pairs of sneakers.

Tripp’s life on the streets began on a cold, rainy September night when his strict father, a rabbi, told him to leave. 

His story is not unique. A 2007 report from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found that between 20 and 40 percent of all homeless youth identify as LGBT.

In 2008, a Youth First Texas survey found that 26 percent of youth served by the local agency had been kicked out of their homes due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. 

Tripp says he grew up thinking he was a butch lesbian. He was kicked out of school for kissing girls.

When his parents intercepted a text message from Tripp’s girlfriend, it was the last straw. There would be no lesbians living under the family roof.

He remembers his father screaming, "No child of mine, no child of mine!"

"I was booted out at 17," Tripp says, "which was actually three years more than my grandfather got" at home. He says his grandfather "got the boot" and was told to "go work like a man" during the Great Depression. He hitched on trains and picked oranges for a living.

When Tripp got kicked out, he walked to Hurst Bell Station and then headed to Dallas by train.

He would be homeless for a year and says he went hungry a lot.

Tripp acknowledges that at 17, he was angry at the world, and too stubborn to admit when he was wrong. But a year on the streets taught him some humility. 
"I used to bathe in the creeks," he says, "and when it rains today, I feel like I’m getting a free shower."

Tripp lost his mother to a drug overdose when he was just 12, after she’d lost custody of him. It’s still too hard for him to talk about, but he misses her. 

When he was 11, the last time he saw her, he recalls that she told him, "Honey, you may not see me for a long time."  He didn’t know it would be the last time he would see her.

He says she also once told him, "If you were going to be a boy, I was going to name you Shawn." And so when the time came, he named himself Shawn.

Tripp says he didn’t realize he was transgender until just a few years ago. He had never been exposed to transgenderism until he watched an episode of "The L-Word." 

He says, "When Max came on — a trans guy — this bell goes off in my head, and then, click, ‘Damn, that is me.’"

Tripp spent years beating himself up about being queer. He says his disapproving stepmother called him "stupid, messed up and weird."
 
He says his parents tried to give him flowery dresses and makeup to wear, but he refused. Instead, he discovered his dad’s old clothes from the 1980s and wore them instead.

When he was 11, his parents took him to a psychotherapist for being a tomboy. He says he was confused and angry and hated it when people objected to the way he dressed and reprimanded him for not being "girly."

While he was living on the streets, he was grazed by a stray bullet, and saw it as a result of refusing to fit in. He told himself, "This is what I get for not listening to Mom and Dad."

Tripp eventually got help from an old family friend, whom he calls "Aunt Sue." He says she told him he’s a good person and deserves to be loved.

She gave him a fresh start, and he stayed with her in Hurst until he could get a job and pay his own rent.

Other friends pointed Tripp to Youth First Texas, which is situated just down the street from where he once slept. So he bought a bicycle and took the train from Hurst to Dallas, traveling for three hours until he found the LGBT youth center. He is well known now as "that bike-riding guy."

When Tripp visited the YFT center for the first time, he says he was shocked to find so many outwardly expressing gay youth. He became active in the center’s gender identity group and its writing group. Two of his poems have been published in the YFT Second Anthology Collection.

"I love writing," he says. "It lets my emotions come out." 

Tripp has bigger dreams now. His year-long experience living on the streets of Dallas has given him a sense of drive and meaning for his life. He now wants to find a way to open a homeless shelter for LGBT youth, so they don’t have go through what we went through.

But that’s not all. With the support of YFT, Tripp completed his GED and is now enrolled at Richland College.

"I want to major in English so I can teach," he says, "and also minor in small business so I can pursue my dream of starting a homeless shelter."

Tripp says he wants to fundamentally change "the way people think."

"We get so caught up in our lives," he says, "that we don’t appreciate what we have."

Tripp appreciates the outdoors now. "It brings me back, to remember," he says, "and I never want to forget where I came from." He’s a humble young man who feels blessed and grateful because, he says, he knows "what happens to most people" who live on the streets. 

Now he just wants to help others find a home and give them the second chance he has found. 

Renee Baker is a transgender diversity consultant and can be found online at GenderPower.com.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 26, 2010.

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