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Michigan LGBT Youth Center Does Outreach With A Dance 'Hook'

The Ruth Ellis Center helps about 5,000 young people each year.
Mercedes Mejia
Michigan Radio
The Ruth Ellis Center helps about 5,000 young people each year.

If you're a homeless young adult, chances are good that you're gay, bisexual or transgender. And if you live in the Detroit area, the Ruth Ellis Center is trying to reach you. The center, based in Highland Park, Mich., has taken an unorthodox approach to helping homeless LGBT youth — and it starts on the dance floor, specifically with the dance form known as "vogue."

"It's all about your wrists and your imagination," says 21-year-old dancer Donnie Dawson. "You just have to make sure your hands are coordinated with your imagination."

Donnie, a regular at the Ruth Ellis Center, advises that you pretend you're holding a basketball, then mime with your hands the circular shape of the ball. Vogue dancing is sort of like break dancing meets ballet. But if you need a quick reference, think of Madonna's 1990 hit "Vogue" in which she sings about a dance form created by poor and working-class blacks and Latinos in New York City's gay community in the '60s and '70s. Today, vogue is still all about flipping, dipping and catwalking; it's acrobatic, sexual and at times very feminine in its movements.

In a big upstairs room at the Ruth Ellis Center, the floor is vibrating — that's how loud the house music is. Matthew Dawson, 22, is wearing sunglasses inside and dancing by himself in a corner.

"One of the emotions that I say I put into my vogue would maybe be anger," he says. "I feel like I put it into vogue so I won't have to put it into other things that are not very constructive."

Matthew says that it wouldn't be safe for him to dance like this in the outside world. And the same goes for the mostly black and LGBT kids dancing in this room with him.

LGBT Youth Fall Through The Cracks

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, about half a million youth and young adults under 24 have at one point been homeless for more than one week; and multiple sources, including The Williams Institute, report that between 40 and 60 percent of them are LGBT. Once a homeless kid hits the streets, he is at risk of getting involved with all kinds of bad things, regardless of whether he is gay or straight. That includes violence, sexual assault and being propositioned for prostitution, says Jessie Fullenkamp, director of drop-in services at the Ruth Ellis Center.

According to Fullenkamp, homeless LGBT kids have often been kicked out by their birth families and they sometimes face discrimination and hostility when they try to get help from formal organizations. That's why a group of professionals created the Ruth Ellis Center.

"Attorneys, teachers, social workers ... saw LGBTQ youth falling through cracks in all these systems — in our families, in our schools and job opportunities — and realized that we really needed to pay special attention to this community," Fullenkamp says.

So the drop-in center always makes a space available for dancing.

"And then that's kind of the hook that gets a lot of the youth in the door initially," Fullenkamp says.

After that, the center can connect them with counseling, health services, tutoring and clean clothes. And these kids need the help: According to Fullenkamp, 65 percent of them have traded sex for money or drugs or food.

The Vogue Family Extends 'Beyond Any Ballroom'

Vogue dancing isn't just something that gets kids into the Ruth Ellis Center; it's also its own complex world. In it, people form teams known as "houses."

"And when that relationship is really close and really tight, it turns into a family ... [that] extends far beyond any ballroom," says Donnie Dawson. "If I'm stranded somewhere and I need some help, I can call you and you'll be there."

Donnie considers Lakyra Dawson, a 24-year-old transgender woman, his adopted gay mom. (Similarly, Lakyra and Matthew Dawson consider themselves adopted siblings.) Both Lakyra and Donnie are regulars at the center and he has taken her last name as his own. She has pushed Donnie and his adopted siblings to pursue their educations, in part because Lakyra dropped out of high school, ran away from home at 13 and spent 10 years on the streets.

"That's a lot of things to know and see and do and experience," Lakyra says. "So my mistakes, I use that as, you know, the rule book. Like don't do this, stay away from that."

Donnie says Lakyra has given him a lot of guidance about his education and life choices. "I call her Mama," he says, "because the knowledge that I get from her is way far beyond gay life."

The relationship is incredibly meaningful to Donnie because last year, his birth mother died.

About 4,600 young people came to the Ruth Ellis Center during its drop-in hours last year. Its staff says that providing a safe place to dance is a very intentional part of their strategy: The idea is that through dance, they can meet kids where they are, which is on the dance floor.

Copyright 2021 Michigan Radio. To see more, visit Michigan Radio.

Kyle Norris got her start in radio as a Michigan Radio intern. Her features have appeared on The Environment Report, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The Splendid Table, World Vision Report, Justice Talking, and The Health Show.