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Gay Youth: Rescued from Hell
Gary Mallen, Founder of New York's Green Chimneys, talks about the Only Residential Foster Program for Gay Youth on the East Coast

Interview by Perry Brass

gayyouth.gif - 15.73 K I first became acquainted with Green Chimneys, and its founder, Gary Mallen, through a recent article in The New York Times reporting that a Federal class-action lawsuit had been filed on behalf of gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth in foster care.

The suit charged that because of the sexual orientation of these kids, they were routinely subjected to physical violence and psychological abuse in the New York City's child welfare system, which is administered through New York's famously incompetent Administration for Children's Services. The suit ("Joel A. v. Guiliani") was brought about by six young people who described what it's like to spend their youths in hell: a constant regimen of harassment and abuse that ran from relentless name-calling all the way to broken bones and rape.

These offenses were allegedly done by their peers, foster parents, and even staff members of child welfare agencies. Joel A. the lead plaintiff, at 13, has been in the foster care system since the age of 9, when he already considered himself gay. Joel testified that at a series of group homes and large residential treatment centers, adults rarely intervened when other kids made him the target of constant harassment. Among other incidents, he was thrown down a flight of stairs, had his nose broken twice, was hit in the face with a broom, and had his shoulder blade broken.

Green Chimneys was mentioned in the Times piece as one of the few—very, very few—havens for young gay boys. There they can escape, in a protective environment, what is for many kids the inferno of gay childhood and adolescence.

Since I had lived through—and written about—this inferno myself, a situation that often mirrors the effects of children at war—I became instantly interested in Gary's work with Green Chimneys, and he was enthused and delighted to be a part of this interview.

Gary is now an assistant professor at the Hunter College School of Social Work, one of the top schools of social work in the country. There he teaches Human Behavior and the Social Environment, Child Welfare and Social Policy, and Administration. He is still the Associate Executive Director for Green Chimneys Children's Services in NYC and has been for the past 12 years.

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Perry Brass: Can you tell us something about yourself, and how you got interested in the issue of gay youth and teens? And, also, how did you come about founding Green Chimneys, and what is it?

Gary Mallen: I started the Green Chimneys program in 1987. After 12 years of working in child welfare—and seeing gay and lesbian kids hiding for their lives and being mistreated by the very systems that were designed to protect them—I decided to develop a program where they could live safely and be themselves.

Obviously I've always been gay and knew that since I was quite young. I am a native New Yorker, born in the Bronx; we moved to Rockland County (about 30 minutes outside NYC) when I was eight. I have four siblings, a sister two years older, and three younger brothers. We were your typical Irish Catholic, lower socio-economic-status family. My dad worked for the A&P supermarket chain; my mom, born in Ireland, stayed at home until my youngest brother went to grade school.

I always knew that I was different from my other siblings and from other kids. I didn't have a name for this difference, but I learned that when I spoke my mind about what I wanted (such as, a Barbie for Christmas) it greatly upset others.

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My uncle, my father's younger brother, seemed the most upset by this. He told me when I was five that I was "as queer as a three dollar bill." This puzzled me—I had no idea that they even made three dollar bills! My parents didn't seem to be too concerned, but my brothers did. I was not sports oriented and got ribbed a lot for not playing baseball and the like. But I was smart, so I found my strength in academics and being "helpful."

Rockland County was a lonely place for a gay kid. In the 9th grade, I joined the CYO, the Catholic Youth Organization. It was Post Vatican II and the Church was focused on issues of social justice and liberation theology. I quickly became the president of my group and being the overachiever that I am, rose up in the ranks of this very hierarchical structure. I also found that it was a safe place to hide and that a lot of the priests and nuns I worked with were hiding, too. I was never mistreated. In fact I attribute much of my organizational, leadership, and advocacy skills to this early influence.

I graduated high school in 1975 with a full, four-year, CYO scholarship to Dominican College in Blauvelt, NY. There I got a Bachelor of Science in Social Work degree. I loved school. Again, as an overachiever (another great way to hide is to be perfect, and I really mastered that one), I was on the dean's list all four years.

In 1976 I also started working full time (while at school full time) as a child care worker at the St. Dominic's Home for Children, my first child welfare job. At 22 I graduated magna cum laude from Dominican College and was recruited back to run a youth center in Harlem for the CYO. I was the director of Grace House for almost seven years. During this time I struggled secretly with my gay identity. I tried to date women, it didn't work; I lusted for men, but was terrified of them and never spoke to anyone about my feelings. Although I encouraged others who disclosed that they were gay or lesbian to me to be themselves, I could not follow my own advice.

During my first year at Grace House I attended Fordham University, and was awarded my MSW in the advanced standing program; again I was working full time and going to school full time.

When I came to Green Chimneys in 1987, I was married to a woman. Straight people are always worried that gays or lesbians might try to influence a young person to "become" gay or lesbian. But in my case, it was the complete opposite: the kids at Green Chimneys could see that I was gay; with their courage and strength in being themselves they helped me to realize that I didn't have to hide anymore.

So in a way the kids influenced me to be myself; it's a different twist to the story.

Since 1988, I have been out and completely open about my gay identity. I didn't come out of the closet, I crashed out of it. I had been in for 30 years and I was sick of hiding. I separated from Suzanne, my wife; it was painful and I was ashamed of myself for not being honest. But we worked through a lot. She has since remarried, and actually my partner, Mike, and our two boys and I regularly visit her.

pbrass.jpg - 40.73 K Perry Brass
Photo: Robert Giard
Perry Brass: I left home—Savannah, Georgia—at the age of seventeen, and spent my first year basically on the road, getting any kind of work I could. I did this because I was gay and had tried to kill myself at 15. I spent the first several weeks eating out of garbage cans and sleeping between parked cars. At that time, there was no kind of information at all available to me. I hitchhiked to San Francisco, because I had heard at a party that "San Francisco was full of queers." It was, and even at that time (in the mid 60's) there were a few places for gay teens, mostly gay coffee houses. Still, there was no way for gay teens to know about these except through word of mouth. (I became good at sneaking into dark bars and talking to people!)

I was, at that time, always broke and always afraid of being beaten up. I was raped by a man in Los Angeles who picked me up on the street and offered me a ride. Do you think this situation has changed much for gay teens, in that there is more information available to them? Is there some way you could characterize gay teens today? Or, are there many ways?

Gary Mallen: I am sorry to hear about your story, and sorrier still to say that things have not changed very much for today's gay and lesbian youth. Hundreds, many thousands of gay and lesbian kids leave home, are thrown out of their homes, or "runaway." Except for runaway and homeless shelters there is nothing for them. These shelters are in my experience—though not all of them, you understand—pretty affirming of kids who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered.

Approximately 54% of street youth identify as GLBTQ [Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered, or Questioning], so they see a lot of these kids in their shelters. Child welfare systems are far more ill-equipped to take care of GLBTQ youth and are far more judgmental and moral in their attitudes about homosexuality. The child welfare systems are much better funded than the shelters, but they are far behind the shelters in the way they respond to GLBTQ youths' needs.

Perry Brass: We now have the fairly new designation for young people being "Questioning." Can you explain who "Questioning youth" are and what is their relationship to other gay youth? Is this just a designation for "pre-coming out"?

Gary Mallen: "Questioning youth," by my definition, are three types of youth, and we see all three at Green Chimneys.

First they are the youth who is "going through a phase" trying on their sexuality with boys, girls, and ultimately coming to terms with where they fit best. This is a part of normal adolescence - trying on new behaviors, attitudes, hairstyles, clothes, etc.

The second group are youth who have been sexually abused as children usually by same-gendered adults. These children need treatment for sexual abuse, and usually have not received any treatment. I am not implying in any way that one can become gay or lesbian via sexual abuse, but the abuse causes confusion. It causes trauma and uncertainty about who they are. Many of these youth identify as questioning. Many still, once the sexual abuse issues are treated, are more comfortable coming to terms with who they really are, gay or straight.

The third group are children and adolescents who are psychiatrically disturbed, usually with character disorders. They just want to fit in, they call themselves gay or lesbian, but in reality, they are children with deep disturbances. Obviously, there are thousands of GLBTQ youth who are clear about who they are and self-identify as GLBTQ as early as 9 or 10 years old.

Perry Brass: Green Chimneys is the only facility of its type in the New York area—what kind of need do you think we really have here, or nationally, for protected living situations for gay teens?

Gary Mallen: Besides Green Chimneys in New York, there is GLASS (Gay and Lesbian Adolescent Social Services) in Los Angeles which has five group homes and many foster homes for gay and lesbian youths. Is there a greater need nationally? Absolutely. This past weekend I was in New Orleans and I dropped by the gay and lesbian center there and spoke to a young man who told me that there was also a great need in New Orleans. When I asked if they used Covenant House he said "Oh, no, I got beat up there. It's not safe for gay kids there."

This young man also gave me the name of a Board member at the center and suggested that I speak to him. I then left the center and as I was walking down Rampart Street, a man came up running behind me saying, "You have to come back to the Center, I need to speak to you." At first he scared the crap out of me for running up behind me like that, but he identified himself as the man the kid at the center told me I should speak to.

So back at the center we had a great discussion about the need for programs for gay and lesbian youth. When I speak, I meet people all over the country who tell me the same stories about gay and lesbian kids in group homes. There's a huge need. But we also have to train the staff in all of these programs about the need to develop gay-affirming programs. Whether they can identify them or not, or even whether or not the kids are out, there are gay and lesbian kids in every child welfare system in this country.

Perry Brass: Emotionally, gay youth is a huge issue for many people. The religious Right uses this as a weapon often against g/l/b/t people; but many adult gay men and lesbians are also frightened of getting involved with g/l/b/t young people. What do you think are the real emotional issues involved?

Gary Mallen: Gay and lesbian adults need to stop internalizing all the mess that they have been taught by straight people. That's the biggest reason why the gay and lesbian movement has been so slow about responding to the needs of "our" young people. African Americans have advocated for their youth, Latinos have advocated for their youth, gay and lesbian adults need to speak up and advocate for our youth.

Also, more of us need to be visible — come out, be proud of who you are, integrate your identity in every safe way that you can. Too many of us are still hiding and giving a whole bunch of fancy reasons about why we can't be out at work, or with our parents, or the community. Being out is very powerful. Hiding is very draining of energy. The more of us who are out, the more empowered we will be for ourselves and for our children.

I grow impatient with people who insist on hiding or who think that their careers will be destroyed if anyone finds out. In many cases I think it's just buying into the fear. And I'm not talking about people down in Alabama or in some rural area - I'm talking about adults who can and should be out, but they are afraid of losing what comes with hiding—their heterosexual privilege.

Perry Brass: What do you say to adult gay men who only see gay youth in sexual terms, and not in any other way? On the other hand, many gay kids (and myself included in those early days) desperately want love, attention, warmth, and tenderness. How do you deal with this?

Gary Mallen: Gay men, and probably some lesbians, too, although fewer I am sure, sexualize youth. This is a big problem in our community. We recently had a gay man call to ask if he could volunteer. As always we carefully screen our volunteers. We invited him to come and visit and within an hour, the kids were saying to us, this guy is weird. He was asking if they were tops or bottoms, did they have sex in the house, how many partners had they had, very inappropriate things. We asked him to leave and obviously, he will not be permitted to become a volunteer.

So yes, it's a problem for our community. Our kids need to see gay men and lesbians who are not checking them out sexually, but who are caring adults. They don't need to be sexualized; they need role models.

At the same time, you are right: our kids want love and care, and frequently confuse sex with care. When our kids date older adults, and they have on occasion, we do what any good parent would do and say, "We would love to meet the person you are dating. Could you please invite them for dinner?"

Many times they do and we all have a nice family conversation about dating and limit setting. You know, just like they used to do on "Happy Days." Sometimes the date refuses to come over and sometimes they drop out of sight. We try never to say "You are forbidden to date that older man," because it almost never works. But we have on occasion let the adult know exactly how old the youth is and remind them of the laws of consent.

Perry Brass: AIDS is a problem with gay street kids. How does Green Chimneys and other gay youth programs meet this problem?

Gary Mallen: AIDS continues to rear its ugly head in our community and has been since 1987 when I got there. We have had many HIV positive kids and several who have died from AIDS. We do prevention, education, give out thousands of condoms and we have a very open policy about talking about sexuality.

We also have a great gay doctor who is our physician and other wonderful health care practitioners. Kids can get tested, with results in 24 hours, at their request and we will accompany them if they want us to. Almost always, they want us to. So we continue to struggle on. Adolescents think they are immortal and irrespective of our efforts, kids still become infected.

Perry Brass: How do kids learn about Green Chimneys? Do you take kids directly from the streets, or must they be referred by a social service agency or school?

Gary Mallen: Gay kids have a great network, I think it is a wonderful strength of gay and lesbian youth that we rarely speak about. They tell each other about Green Chimneys. Word gets out that it's safe to live there - several youth oriented newspapers also advertise our program.

Increasingly, the more training that we do in child welfare agencies, the more social workers are informed about Green Chimneys, and they refer kids to us, too. Some kids come to us through Covenant House; all of our youth are kids in the foster care system.

In some cases kids from the street are directly admitted, we are looking into opening transitional living programs for street youth next year with special money from the Federal government. There is a desperate need for these programs in New York City.

Perry Brass: Do you have to exercise some sense of distance with your work, to keep from being overwhelmed by it? How do you do that?

Gary Mallen: That's a great question because this is a very exhausting job. I go on vacations every four months or so to revive myself, I try not to take work home with me, and I have a wonderful loving partner. We have two normal, healthy children ages 9 and 6. They remind me that life can be and is many times a beautiful thing.

Currently, my partner Mike and I have been together for five years. Mike and his former partner adopted two children with whom we share custody -- we have a great family. I also have a foster daughter who is now 31 years old and no longer lives with us, but lives on her own and visits us regularly.

I am still an overachiever (can't seem to give that up yet; it's a hold-over from the hiding days) so I am an assistant professor at the Hunter College School of Social Work and also still the Associate Executive Director for Green Chimneys Children's Services.

At home, I sometimes I tell the boys about what our kids at Green Chimneys have experienced, and they are, in their own way, very empathic about these kids. Our children have visited Green chimneys many times so they know what I do. It also helps that my partner, who is a warm and loving person, is not a social worker. He's a statistician and works for a major drug manufacturer.

Perry Brass: Can you give us some "success" stories for the young people you have worked with at Green Chimneys or in other situations? Any "failure" stories—kids who dropped out and then met a lot of trouble?

Gary Mallen: We have more successes than failures. One of our kids works as a caseworker at a large child welfare agency in New York. Another works for a major HIV/AIDS organization as a counselor. One is completing beautician school and is working full time in a salon. Another is employed in a major food store as a store manager.

Most of our youth—and we do a lot of life skills training for and with our youth—do very well when they leave. We see most of them regularly and they call us frequently. We like to say we provide lifetime aftercare for our young people who are discharged. Whenever they need us, we are there.

The young people who fail are those who refuse to buy into having a professional relationship with someone on our staff. Unfortunately, many of our transgendered young people find group home life too restrictive and leave the program prematurely.

Perry Brass: Why is that?

Gary Mallen: Transgendered kids follow their on beat. In our program we call our transgendered kids by their preferred name, using the female pronoun and they can dress as women (but not as prostitutes, and there is a huge difference). What makes things difficult is when they insist on prostituting, which I believe, at present, is a part of their transgendered development of their own sense of "realness." But it makes programming for them very difficult. They refuse to follow house rules, don't go to school, focus almost exclusively on "their look" and "being real," and everything else falls by the wayside.

We need to develop transgendered-affirming services for them, perhaps separate services to meet their needs. One other element that they bring is a huge sense of drama. On many occasions we need to call in the "Drama Police" to help control the situation. I am joking, of course, but as a group our transgendered youth do create a lot of drama, which is difficult to deal with when you have 25 kids.

Perry Brass: Drug and alcohol use is another problem you have to face with gay kids. How do you deal with this?

Gary Mallen: Drugs and alcohol are a big problem. Last year we were given a nice chuck of money from the City of New York to do drug evaluation, prevention, education and treatment. Since then I think we have done a wonderful job assessing and intervening with kids who have drug or alcohol issues.

Perry Brass: What has been Green Chimney's relationship with other gay youth programs, such as New York's Hetrick-Martin, a drop-in center for gay youth that also runs the Harvey Milk School here in New York?

Gary Mallen: We have historically had a positive relationship with other gay and lesbian youth serving agencies - especially those from the New York Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center. But our relationship with HMI has been stressful. Several years ago they felt that they could no longer educate our youth at the Harvey Milk School, and this caused us great tension.

As a result we went to the NYC Board of Education and asked if we could open our own school. To our surprise and pleasure, they allowed us to open the Audre Lorde School last year. I am proud to say that in the last year 9 of our young people took the GED test and 7 of them passed. The Audre Lorde School is the second school of gay and lesbian kids in New York, but we are very low key. We also have about five kids from the outside community who attend.

HMI has done wonderful things historically. I knew Damien Martin and Emery Hetrick, and their wonderful colleague and my close friend, Joyce Hunter. But it makes me sad to say that our relationship at present with HMI is not a very positive one. The scramble for money in the gay and lesbian youth world is certainly one reality that I think has made this so. But it is my opinion that they have also lost a spirit of collegiality that once existed there.

But we do have a wonderful relationship with YES, Safespace, Streetwork Project, and the Neutral Zone, all of which are GLBTQ programs.

Perry Brass: Has there been any involvement between gay religious groups and gay youth, or have gay religious groups been scared off from this?

Gary Mallen: We have had minimal involvement with gay religious groups. I'm not sure why, to be honest. I never really thought about it, but I will.

Perry Brass: The fact that gay kids are expressing their sexuality earlier—coming out earlier—sometimes as early as 11 or 12, has for many people, including parents, opened up another sensitive area. What can we do for very young gay kids to protect them from physical harassment, suicidal desperation, as well as a world that is not really ready for them?

Gary Mallen: GLBTQ kids are coming out earlier and earlier. I met a child of nine the other day in a counseling session. There is almost nothing for them. We have been fighting to open a very small, very nurturing program for these kids and I believe that within a year we will have one. Their needs are very different from teenagers and we really need to do something fast. School is also a huge problem for these children.

Perry Brass: There is now a real gay youth movement, with web sites, 'zines, and some organizations, clubs, and activities. Is there some way that gay adults who want to become involved with youth can do this in a nurturing, protective way? How do you feel about gay mentorship?

Gary Mallen: Gay adults can and should be involved. We have started a mentoring program at Green Chimneys. As I said, we are careful about references, interviews, and screening, but—yes—absolutely, there are many places for GLBT adults to be involved.

Perry Brass: Funding is, I'm sure, very important to a facility like Green Chimneys. Is there a way for us, as gay adults, to help you with this?

Gary Mallen: Yes, funding is essential. If you don't have funds, you don't have a program. We would like to hire a family therapist and do more outreach to GLBTQ families. We would also like to do more street outreach, sheltering more older and young kids in separate programs. This all costs a lot of money.

How can adults help? They can send checks. They can have a fund-raising event at their home, and connect us to foundations and others who would like to help. There are many ways even by volunteering and spending time with our young people. Green Chimneys is a nonprofit, tax exempt organization. Our address is: 327 East 22nd Street, New York, New York 10010. Our phone number is 212 677-7288, ext. 216. And my email address is

Perry Brass: Is there anything else you'd like to say about Green Chimneys and your involvement with it?

Gary Mallen: I think Green Chimneys is a wonderful, unique program. We are the only mainstream child welfare agency in the United States that has made this type of commitment to GLBTQ youth and families. Many more hands are needed to make this world a better place for these youth and their families, who also need a great deal of help.

Not all families are rejecting, so we need to develop services for them, too. I'd invite people to visit us at Green Chimneys to see what kind of safe haven we have developed for GLBTQ youth.

Perry Brass's newest book, How to Survive Your Own Gay Life, has just gone into its second printing, six weeks after appearing in bookstores. It can be obtained through gay and other bookstores nationally, or through and other online services. He can be reached through his website:

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