On Being an “Ally” During Pride

By Jessie Petrow-Cohen


“Just this past month while taking AP exams at my high school I was filling out the student information section of the test when I came across a section with two boxes.  One said, “fathers information” and the other said “mother’s information”.  Used to this by now I crossed out the word father and wrote mother next to it.  The proctor of the test, while going around to check that everyone had completed the section made me erase the word mother I had written in because it was an “irregularity” on the paper.  

Now, the fact of the matter is, having two moms is irregular.  However, it is an irregularity that I could not possibly be more proud of.  It is not something that I want to erase or hide, it something I want to write everywhere in sharpie and let the world read.  That is really what this day is all about, not just looking for acceptance under the law but looking for Pride.” 

This is an excerpt from a speech I gave at North Jersey Pride as a senior in high school.  At the time my understanding of pride involved telling everyone I met that I had two moms.   It meant wearing “Love=Love” shirts and my personal favorite “Got Moms.” shirt to school without a second thought.  Pride meant never saying “my parents” but instead boldly stating “my moms” and then explaining to the questioning looks that sometimes followed.  

In essence, pride meant claiming my stake in the LGBT community out loud, for the world to hear, in sharpie. 

This past weekend was Pride in San Francisco.  Trans March, Dyke March, and the all famous San Francisco pride parade.  An entire weekend filled with people determined to graffiti the world in sharpie, claiming their pride for their sexual orientation, gender identity and allyship.  

I want to focus in on that last term.  Allyship.  Ally.  Me. 


You have to add a whole lot of letters to this acronym before you get to the A for “Ally”.  

(Fun fact: that last one stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, ally.) 

Since I began working at the center this summer I have felt myself reassessing my role as an ally.  I have tried to understand the nuanced situations in which I can and should use my privilege to advocate for the more oppressed, and the times in which I can and should step back, understand that this isn’t always about me.  

I’ve kept some notes on coworkers who have questioned my sexual orientation and gender identity, who have questioned my commitment to the LGBT community.  I have often felt as though those around me were determining if I was worthy.  If they were gonna take the time to write what has got to be the world’s longest acronym to get all the way to the A.  Deciding whether I was truly a part of the community, or instead an outsider looking in.  

“Jess, are you queer? I’m not judging I’m just asking. I have always assumed you have to be at least a little queer to work here…” 

“So are you yourself gay? Or would you say it’s more of a family affair?”

“Get ready Jess, coming out as straight to this office is like coming out as gay to your catholic grandfather.”

I used to be so sure that I was a part of the community.  So positive that because I cared so deeply, felt so strongly, and felt so closely tied, largely because of my moms, that there was no question as to whether or not I truly belonged.  Now, I’m not so sure. 

Last week I attended “Musical Mondays” at Edge, a gay bar here in San Francisco.  The Edge caters to an audience of older gay men.  Standing there, surrounded by my DukeEngage cohort of 8 other people my age, we stood out like a sore thumb.  There is no way that the men in the bar could’ve known we were in San Francisco working directly with the LGBT community.  No way they could’ve known that among us we had three gay men, a bisexual woman and several other “allies”.  No way they could’ve known that I have two lesbian moms.  That I work at the LGBT Center.  

No. To the men at The Edge, I was a straight, white, cis gendered girl infringing upon their territory.  And they let me know it. 

“You don’t belong here.  Just go home.”

One of my bosses owns a gay bar, not The Edge, but his bar services a similar clientele.  At lunch yesterday he told me that this weekend his bar was packed to the brim with young, white, straight girls, drunk of their asses and dressed in rainbow.  He seemed so frustrated, to the point of being disgusted that those who were not truly a part of the community were making the weekend about them. 

I told him about my experience at The Edge.  I could actually see the wheels in his head back pedaling. “Well, um, no, not you! You would’ve been welcome, of course!”

But just from looking at me, I don’t belong at a gay bar.  Just from looking at me, I could be a straight girl looking to be liberal and trendy, spend a night not getting hit on by sweaty strangers, and flaunting my rainbow colored spandex on Instagram with a caption titled “SF PRIDE!”

I have spent a large part of my life defining myself by my work with the LGBT community, my investment in the fight for same sex marriage and involvement with various pride festivals.  I am someone who defines myself largely by my passions and equality has been the pinnacle of my passions in life.  

It is a difficult position for me to be in.  Realizing that what I have defined myself by for so long may not be an identity that I can fully claim.  Because I am not gay, I have not experienced the oppression, discrimination, and harassment that accompanies such an identity.  Sure, I have had some second hand stuff. Peers who disapprove of me having two moms, and let me know it, but never have I faced the direct oppression that accompanies an LGBTQ identity.  Instead, I am privileged enough to receive only the second hand burns that come with an LGBTQQIA identity, emphasis on the “A”, and in truth, those don’t even compare.  

So I’ve realized that some spaces are not for me to occupy.  No matter how deeply invested I feel, or how passionate I am.  Some spaces are not for me.  As an ally, there are times where I can speak up, use my privilege to the advantage of the community I care so deeply about.  But there are other times, where I have to step back. 

This past Friday was Trans March, a day dedicated specifically to transgender pride.  I spent the day in Dolores Park, tabling for the Center’s Trans Employment Program.  I had my elevator pitch down pat and it was beautiful out, a perfect day to celebrate one of the most overtly marginalized communities that we serve here.  

About half way through the day a newscaster approached our table.  He held the microphone up to me and asked what we were here for.  “Hi! We’re here with the SF LGBT Center tabling for our Trans Employment Program,” I responded.  

I was surrounded by about 6 coworkers, at least 3 of whom were trans themselves.  

The newscaster pulled me aside, “I’d love to ask you a few more questions.” I told him my colleagues would be better equip to answer, I was just an intern.  

“Ah, but you’ll be the most digestible to our audience, people will want to hear from you more.” 

I declined to comment. 

I felt guilty as I walked back to my table, as if everyone else knew exactly why the 60 year old, white, male newscaster had chosen to speak to me.  

I look back at my speech from 2014 Pride. I see a me, wracked with anxiety about AP exams, brimming with excitement about prom and graduation.  I see a me, that was brazen, bold and proud.  Who would’ve jumped at the opportunity to speak to a newscaster.  I would’ve thought to myself “Hell yeah! We’re getting the word out, our message is going to reach more people… and if I get a little airtime while we’re at it no complaints there!” 

I wouldn’t have questioned the message that is being sent when in an entire park of transgender individuals of every age, race, and gender identity, the white, straight, cis girl is the one on the news.  It wouldn’t have even crossed my mind.  I would’ve been off, sharpie-ing the world with my Pride.  

But now, I think sometimes us “allies” have to know when put our sharpies away.  We have to know when it is no longer our time, or space, to be the ones writing.  


Hidden Gold at Larkin

It was at Duke Engage Academy when I first found out about my placement this summer at Larkin Street Youth Services off of Golden Gate Avenue. I could not have been more thrilled to be spending my summer in San Francisco on Golden Gate Avenue. I had it all already pictured in my head (with a little help from YouTube travel vlogs). The stunning view of the bridge. Exquisite shops on every corner. The smell of seafood blending in with the misty fog. I did not expect to be disturbed by San Francisco’s culture. I thought I would be in the comfort zone of the paradise that I envisioned.

Within the first week, it was clear that the image I drew up of San Francisco in my head was not at all what it was like on the streets. Men were shaking pill bottles and shooting up as I walked by. Urine trickled down the seams of the sidewalk and dominated the smell of fresh air. Numerous men and women slept near the entrances of abandoned buildings on just a single piece of cardboard. I have never come close to experiencing this way of living and it was clear that this lifestyle was not one made by choice. Coming from Matthews, North Carolina, where there is one homeless man that stands on the street corner with a sign, this new culture shook me. These were not the golden streets I had imagined.

Centered in the Tenderloin – notoriously the roughest neighborhood in SF – it was evident that we were in the right place for what we came here to do. Within the first days of our arrival, T, one of the front staff that works directly with the clients, greeted us with open arms and no hesitation, unlike many of the clients. It was very clear that the sooner he showed the clients that he was comfortable with us and that he could trust us then they could too. I could see in this man’s eyes that this is exactly what he wants to be doing. The clients recognize this and they can tell that he is definitely not working for the paycheck. He comes into work and immediately brightens everyone’s mood. Clients go to him all the time for any kind of support, from a quick chat to searching for permanent housing options. He once told me something that I would never forget during my stay this summer: everyone at Larkin is a family, and sometimes we are all the support and encouragement they need that will help them reach their goals.

Another staff member that inspires me is the strong woman who works alone in the kitchen. The chef, M, inspires me by working mercilessly in the kitchen serving two meals every day to any client that walks through the doors of Larkin Street. She once told me that if she wouldn’t feed it to her own kids, there is no way she would feed it to any of the clients. Larkin Street isn’t just another shelter for homeless youth, but rather it is a family built on love and respect. She ensures that every client has had a serving before even considering saving herself a plate. I try to model her selflessness into my experiences this summer and from here on out.

During training, I was told by a coworker that regardless of how bad of a day I am having, it is guaranteed that the clients have experienced worse. That message stuck with me every morning when I stepped through the bright yellow doors. I immediately try to imitate T’s energy, sometimes disguising how ridiculously tired I was. It did not take long for me to realize the true gold that hid in this neighborhood, the staff at Larkin. The staff at Larkin is incredible and truly inspirational. They care greatly for the youth, and they want to see each one of them move on and become successful. They are phenomenal, and have taught me so much during my time at Larkin. I hope I was a fraction of help to the clients as they were to me. Over the course of the summer, it then became apparent that sometimes all you have to do to get someone to succeed is to make them believe in themself. Keith from Almost Home – a book assigned to us during our time in San Francisco – said, ”I just wish everybody that was in my situation had somebody who said, ‘You can do this, and I’m going to believe with you.”

With Seven Days Left…

Jailene Vazquez

July 24, 2016

With seven days left in this wonderful city, I find myself wanting to go back to the beginning of the program. Back to when I still committed the faux pas of calling San Francisco “San Fran”, couldn’t figure out which side of the bus to get on, and had two months of adventure waiting for me. Some days I want to go back to the first time I walked through Larkin Street Youth’s doors, energized by first day jitters and the air of pleasant uncertainty. But when I reflect on the past seven weeks, I couldn’t go back and risk changing any part of this unforgettable, wild, and significant summer.

Before arriving in California, I was skeptical about the impact eight weeks could have on the clients at Larkin or on myself. How much could the clients benefit from another intern sharing their space? Could I really change my world in two months? Would my time at Larkin accomplish something meaningful or just be another line on my resume?

That skepticism was silenced when an autistic client I have tutored since the beginning of the program successfully completed 4-digit regrouping without needing me to walk him through the problem. Thinking back to when he couldn’t complete single-digit subtraction or addition on his own, I was forced to choke back tears as I congratulated him.

That skepticism was silenced when the clients began to look for me in the mornings, versus me forcing conversations with people who rightfully considered me a stranger. When conversations with them were just as natural and appreciated as conversations I have with old friends. When I, notoriously bad with names (for reference, there was a period in high school when I spelled my own last name wrong for two weeks), could look around the ECC floor and confidently remember each of the client’s names.

I look back to my first week at Larkin and remember a conversation when a supervisor told me that he didn’t like to use the word “clients” because he considered the people at Larkin family. I couldn’t relate or fully understand him then, but I do now. The staff at Larkin is a group of incredible humans who work through their lunch breaks, stay late, and come early every day with smiles on their faces. The work done at Larkin is tiring and can be physically and emotionally consuming, but the Larkin staff continue to seek out excellence in clients. That being said, Larkin is not just the staff and tutors and volunteers. The clients at Larkin are equally responsible and to thank for the center’s heart and spirit. The clients have gone through more struggles in their 18 to 24 years than most adults will ever know, but they persevere. They have not given up on themselves, and their participation in the Larkin program is testament to that. They come in for the meals, the showers, the educational programs. They come in so that their situation is not a permanent one. They come in to prove that hope can exist even in the darkest of situations.

It has been an honor to be able to spend my first summer in California with the Larkin Street Youth family. The people at 134 Golden Gate Ave. are incredibly strong and caring, and I am fortunate to have been able to teach just as much as I was taught among them. I will never forget the experiences, conversations, and happiness I was gifted at the center this summer. I don’t wish to go back to the beginning of the summer. I just wish to finish my last seven days with the Larkin family with as few tears as possible.

13 Things I’ve Learned in San Francisco

Kevin Mutchnick

July 11, 2016

  1. It is COLD in San Francisco. But sometimes it’s hot. But sometimes it goes from cold to hot in 15 minutes. Basically what I’m trying to say is that it’s a real challenge to know how to dress everyday.
  2. Speaking of the weather, Mark Twain never actually said, “The coldest winter I’ve ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” (But I sure did.)
  3. A homeless young person can beat you (me) in 4 moves despite them telling you (me) they’re “just okay” at chess. (I’ve thought a lot about why I initially expected to win and have realized that my preconceived notions about what it means to be homeless and what it means to go to Duke gave me a bit of a superiority complex. Losing that game so badly was a huge lesson in humility. Shoutout to Nick for starting an awesome chess club at Larkin Street.)
  4. Homeless youth CAN and WANT to learn to code. (As a student of engineering and computer science, it has been a blast supporting the Tech Learning Center’s Coding and Robotics classes at Larkin and finding a common language with youth whose circumstances are different from my own through technology. In a world where technology pervades and younger generations are so comfortable with it, I’m thrilled that Larkin realizes the importance of providing clients with education that is so relevant and interesting to them. This is a step in the right direction toward breaking the barrier between San Francisco’s homeless population, and even those with stable housing, with the “tech elite” who breed resentment among locals for gentrifying and pushing them out of their neighborhoods.)
  5. Every homeless person has a different story. (Working in the Community Center at Larkin has shown me that our clients are not their stereotypes. Everybody has arrived in the Center by such drastically different circumstances that it is honestly hard for me to tell you what they all have in common other than their current housing situation. It’s too easy to see a few homeless people, not talk to them but judge them for what you see at a glance, and through confirmation bias, push them into your often misinformed generalization of homelessness. These are people with stories and experiences we can all relate to. One non-trivial commonality I’ve found, though, is that every client I’ve met wants to be recognized as a person and as an equal.)
  6. The locals call it DP, not Dolores Park, as confirmed by many a client. (This has been a point of longstanding debate among the interns! Also, DP is my favorite place in the city.)
  7. The smallest, most hole-in-the-wall restaurants are where you get the best, most authentic food. (We’ve had some great Chinese and Mexican food in Chinatown and the Mission, respectively, for example.)
  8. About 33% of homeless youth identify somewhere on the LGBTQ spectrum, which is significantly higher than the 10% estimate for all Americans. (And based on my conversations with clients, being rejected by family for being open about a non-heterosexual or cisgender sexual orientation or gender identity is a real threat. It’s important to remember that LGBTQ individuals still have an uphill battle to face despite marriage equality being legalized last year.)
  9. People of color, especially Black and Latinx individuals, are disproportionately affected by homelessness as well. (This means, and I’ve witnessed it myself, that queer clients of color face compounding systems of oppression and are dishearteningly all too common among youth at Larkin Street.)
  10. Whether it’s singing along to Defying Gravity in the Castro, taking that cliché pic in front of the Golden Gate Bridge for Instragram or your next Facebook profile picture, voluntarily locking yourself in solitary confinement at Alcatraz, or just having a picnic and people watching in DP, there’s always something fun to do in San Francisco. (To be clear, I’ve done all of those things and more and would recommend them all!)
  11. My peers and fellow interns are some of the greatest and most supportive friends. (Thanks Jailene, Savanna, Nick, Nina, Claire, Julia, Jessie, Jasmine, Jeff, and our site coordinator, Sarah, for being so open and vulnerable at our weekly reflections, so inclusive on our excursions, so fun to be around, and such great coworkers.)
  12. I have to remind myself of my privilege every day and commit myself to using whatever advantages I have been afforded to advocating for and supporting marginalized communities. (Our clients navigate devastating realities including but not limited to familial rejection, severe mental illness, being HIV positive, sex work and survival sex, substance abuse, and far too often, not just one of these, on top of their homelessness. Even though I’ve been fortunate enough never to have to face them, I need to fully listen and support our clients who do daily. This can so easily translate into my life next semester and beyond—working with and listening more to cultural affinity student groups as a Senator for Equity and Outreach on student government, learning about the state of homelessness in Durham (something I’ve never considered before), and just sharing my experiences and the lessons I’ve learned with my peers who aren’t here in San Francisco this summer.)
  13. Although challenging, working with homeless youth is incredibly rewarding. (I’ve been completely shut down by clients and struggled with finding my place at Larkin. However, as time has passed, some of those same clients have approached me with crucial and deeply personal updates about their lives. For example, a client who recently began her medical transition was truly elated to tell me about starting her hormones and how they work. I love working regularly with a small group of clients as we, myself included, learn new programming languages together in Coding and I have to consciously refrain from intervening too much in Robotics because it’s so much fun to help build and control them. This summer has been a fantastic experience and my work has been so meaningful.)


Balancing Act

Julia Nicholas

July 7, 2016

Volunteering at Larkin Street Youth Services is a balancing act, and the seven of us interning there this summer are still finding our footing. As we interact with the Larkin Street youth, most of whom are older than us, we walk the line between professional and peer. We juggle openness and relatability with boundaries and humility. 

I find that most of these moment-to-moment balances align naturally with a little bit of practice. Yet, I continue to struggle with one of them. How do we encourage clients without getting too emotionally invested? How do we offer support without suffering from compassion fatigue? How do we cope with secondary trauma without becoming calloused? Our ability to serve hinges on the balance between helping and hoping. Unfortunately, detachment and realism have never been my natural tendencies. (Fun fact: my a cappella group gave me the superlative,“Most Optimistic.”) So, despite many warnings from past DukeEngage participants, professors, teachers, family, and friends, I dove into the summer with all of the optimism in the world.

During our first week here, I met several clients who were about to get housing in one of Larkin Street’s Transitional Living Programs. I was absolutely ecstatic about their progress and plans. I thought something was finally going to work out for them! Then, suddenly, the plans fell through. Some decided to leave for other cities. Others got in trouble and lost the progress they had made in the housing process. I was heartbroken that, yet again, things weren’t going to work out. Meanwhile, no one else seemed surprised. “It is what it is,” someone sighed when I expressed my disappointment. This frustrated me even more, as it reminded me of the apathy and cynicism Larkin Street strives to counteract — These kids never change. Helping them is a waste of time. 

I guess I reacted a bit prematurely. Ever since, I have come to appreciate Larkin Street’s philosophy that we cannot help people who do not want to help themselves. First, we have to show them that they can help themselves. I now focus on empowering, rather than guiding, the clients I meet in the community center. I asked myself, what empowers me? Well, my friends ask me for advice sometimes, and many of the people I admire treat my voice and opinions with value and respect. On the flip side, our clients have people telling them what to do all the time, and adults rarely ask for their opinions. How can you believe in yourself when no one else seems to care what you believe in?

So I started asking the clients for their opinions, on everything from coffee to GED tutoring to fashion to literature. Nothing seems to surprise them more than a staff member asking, “Hey, can I ask your advice?” or “So, what do you think about…” And, unsurprisingly, they have a lot to say! I cannot pretend that boosting clients’ self-confidence is The Solution to youth homelessness. But maybe these conversations help clients realize that they are worthy and capable of helping themselves. Then, Larkin Street can begin to help them with housing, education, employment, and health. 

My fellow interns and other Larkin Street staff empower client voices in other ways. For instance, not only does Jeff’s creative writing workshop give participants the opportunity to share their stories and ideas, but it also asks clients to offer constructive criticism on each other’s writing and performances, giving them a chance to lead. Likewise, over the past few weeks, Jasmine and I have been working on a health education project. With the help of some artistic clients, we created an anonymous Q&A box for the front desk, where clients can submit their health-related questions anonymously. The Larkin Street Academy health class researches and writes the answers to their peers’ questions, which we post in the community center every week. These students are applying their enthusiasm for health, their new knowledge, and their researching skills to improve health within their own community.

Many of the events in the community center also highlight youth voices. We have been lucky to attend two of the Larkin Street Academy programs’ graduation ceremonies, during which every graduate shared their personal story and their path to success. Others got to take the mic during a recent radio show, which featured interviews with several clients about their perspectives on San Francisco’s homeless crisis. Programs like these show clients that they have experience worth sharing, and that they can take part in changing their own lives and communities.

I know that we cannot expect to “save” anyone, let alone San Francisco’s entire youth homeless population, in the eight short weeks we are here. Still, if some of our clients have to move on to other programs, I hope each of them can walk away with a little bit more confidence in their ability to create the lives they deserve.

Over the past five weeks, I have learned that blind optimism and overflowing empathy will crush me — and our clients — just as much as cynicism would. Nevertheless, even if it is optimistic, I have to believe in our capacity to help. I’d like to revise the statement from earlier in this post, that we cannot help clients who do not believe they can help themselves. We have to believe we can help, too.