(FWD) The system is out of control! (VERY long)

Graeme Bacque (gbacque@arcos.org)
Thu, 30 Apr 1998 02:20:06 -0400

---------forwarded message---------

Bay Area Guardian April 8, 1998

Hiding out

San Francisco's underground railroad of illegal "safe houses" keeps
runaways off the street -- and out of the abusive psychiatric hospitals
many have escaped from.

By Thomas Mournian

Dear Marci --

Just got your letters today! I was so glad to hear from you! Marci, I
help and I need it fast. I'm still in the Central County's Youth Center.
one in my family wants me until I get "cured" from being gay. Please,
you do anything? Oh, and are you allowed to tell me your last name?

Love and thanks, Chad

BY THE TIME I READ Chad's letter, he has escaped to a Tenderloin safe
house. His bedroom, ironically, is the closet. "It's a lot better than
hospital," he says. "They took me into this room and strapped me into a
chair and then they'd put this little ring around my, you know. The
went from the ring to a computer. If I ever got a hard-on when they
me pictures of naked guys I'd get shocked."

The "little ring" Chad describes is a contraption called a penile
plesthysmograph, just one of several horrifying treatments that are
being used on gay, lesbian, and transgender teens as part of "reparative

therapy" or "conversion therapy." Other treatments include drugging,
hypnosis, and "counseling" in which kids are told their homosexuality is

abnormal and something they will outgrow. Some mental hospitals and
residential treatment centers (RTCs) use the therapies in an attempt to
make gay-identified teenagers straight.

Chad's ordeal began one night when he was brushing his teeth at home in
upstate New York. "My mom started pounding on the bathroom door. She was

screaming, 'Open the fucking door!' Then my dad says, 'We read your
journal. We know you're gay.' " In the morning Chad's parents called the

cops, who broke into his room, handcuffed him, and dragged him down the
front steps. Orderlies strapped him to a gurney and loaded him into an
ambulance while neighbors watched from their front lawns.

Although Chad's experience may sound like something out of the 1950s, it
a nightmare he shares with other residents of San Francisco's illegal
network of "safe houses" -- underground refuges for queer kids on the

Shannon Minter, an attorney with San Francisco's National Center for
Lesbian Rights (NCLR), estimates that 50,000 teenagers are locked up in
institutions every year and that more than 300,000 currently live in
institutional settings. Disproportionate numbers of them are gay,
and transgendered, he said.

Many are institutionalized on the recommendation of doctors who receive
kickbacks from the hospitals.

"Adolescent psychiatrists have very profitable relationships with these
facilities in terms of referring kids," Minter says. "The cash is

And the ugly truth is that it's perfectly legal. Since the U.S. Supreme
Court ruled in 1979 that forced institutionalization -- and even
therapy -- isn't cruel and unusual punishment, parents have had the
right to put their kids through some astonishing ordeals.

While many kids who escape these institutions simply end up on the
an increasing number are finding their way to safe houses in San
where many will spend their teens in hiding, using fake names, rarely
outside, until they reach 18 -- the age at which their parents can no
longer legally force them to undergo psychiatric torture.

It's not always a perfect option. "Safe houses take a variety of forms,"

says Terry de Crenzenza, director of Los Angeles-based GLASS (Gay and
Lesbian Adolescent Social Services). "One 15-year-old boy lived in an
apartment paid for by an adult. He said that it was strictly a rental
thing, that there was no sugar-daddy arrangement. Then there are
apartments where people literally move in and set up house. These places

operate as safe houses, but the question is how safe they are."

In San Francisco there's another sort of safe house -- a place where
who are willing to risk prosecution use their own money to help, and
escapees from institutions in an environment that's as supportive and
caring as limited funds allow.

The facilities get little help or support from mainstream organizations.

Louise Armstrong, author of ... And They Call It Help, a book about the
psychiatric policing of American children, remembers the late '80s, when

adolescent institutionalization "was a big issue."

"But what people don't realize," she told me, "is that nothing changed."

Marci's house

I walk down a dimly lit hallway in a Tenderloin tenement building. The
ratty carpet is littered with discarded needles and trash. Low-rent even
its heyday, the circa-'40s brick building's sole charm comes from its
having survived the wrecking ball.

Black and yellow police tape hangs off the doorway of Apartment 12-J. I
knock on its battered green door. When the door opens, I'm face to face
with Marci.

Marci's name has been changed, as have the names of the teenagers who
in the safe house. When kids arrive at the safe house they're given an
alias, which is how they're known while they're underground.

"C'mon in," she says. I'm surprised by the contrast between her
telephone voice and her appearance: a husky, five-foot-two 19-year-old
wears glasses thick as coke bottles.

Marci bolts the door while I look over the apartment. Among other items
crammed into the cream-colored, shoe-box-size space there are two bunk
beds, four soiled mattresses, half a dozen milk crates, and a
copy of Judy Blume's coming-of-age novel Are You There God? It's Me,
Margaret. The apartment smells like the halls of a junior high school:
unwashed, fetid, airless. It is a smell that I come to associate with
teenagers and poverty.

Marci gives me a tour: the bathroom ("someone slept in the bathtub"),
closet ("someone slept in there too"), and the kitchen. She tells me to
look out over the window ledge onto a square of enclosed roof: "When the

cops raided us, everyone jumped out and hid under there."

Marci says she has been operating safe houses in the Bay Area for the
four years. If caught, she could face charges of transporting minors
state lines or contributing to the delinquency of minors -- either of
could mean a lengthy prison term.

At an age when most people are spending their money on beer, it's
to fathom why Marci would risk arrest and spend nearly her entire weekly

paycheck and student loans to help other kids. Marci says she is driven
her own background. After escaping from an abusive psychiatric hospital,

she lived on the streets, working as a prostitute in Los Angeles before
finding refuge in a safe house.

Queer adolescents on the run are the latest riders on what Marci says is
American tradition of underground railroads. The slave-era railroad
reappeared during the '60s, when Vietnam War resisters went into hiding.

Then, in the mid-'70s, when the war ended and the resisters moved out,
battered women took their place. Marci and the other Sojourner Truths
running the '90s incarnation of the underground are the college-age
survivors of the late-1980s boom in institutionalization.

One of the most well-known victims of that boom is former Pasadena
Lyn Duff. Mythologized among safe-house kids, Duff went AWOL from a
legendary institution called Rivendell of Utah (which was renamed Copper

Hills Center in 1997) in 1992. After her escape Duff was mentioned in a
Francisco Chronicle article. Soon after the article's publication San
Francisco gay activists Ora Prochovnick and Rena Frantz found and
her. "There were safe houses, but it was very hard to find them," Duff

Duff says her reparative treatment at Rivendell included sedation,
isolation, physical restraints, and hypnosis. Two other Rivendell/Copper

Hills patients, Valerie Wittman and Paul Komiotis, have come forward
similar allegations; both have since committed suicide, Duff said.

Former Rivendell/Copper Hills administrator Jared Balmer denies these
charges. "Sexuality or lifestyle is not a recognized mental disorder,"
says. "Therefore you cannot treat it."

But a Copper Hills brochure sent to us describes a treatment program
Bridges in which "deviant patterns of sexual arousal can be eliminated
through planned cognitive behavioral interventions."

In the summer of 1992 Duff contacted Minter at the National Center for
Lesbian Rights. "I felt a tremendous amount of personal denial," Minter
says. "I thought, 'This cannot be happening.' " Minter, then on summer
break from law school at Cornell, recalls that his initial assumptions
that Duff's case was isolated or unique to conservative Utah -- were
upside down when he researched the topic in the law library.

"What became clear to me was that her experience was entirely typical of

what was happening to lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgendered youth in the
system," he says.

Minter's research also turned up an eye-opening piece of testimony given
psychiatrist Corydon Clark before the House Select Committee on
Youth, and Families in April 1992.

"Sixty-five percent of adolescent admissions [to mental institutions]
medically unnecessary," Clark said, adding that many were inspired by
profiteering. (Clark's testimony also contradicted the widely held
that the 1973 declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder
the end of psychiatry labeling gay people "sick.")

"It's not an accident that there are whole new categories of disorders
that the APA [American Psychiatric Association] states that one in five
adolescents has a mental or emotional disorder requiring intervention,"
Minter says.

In 1979 the Supreme Court removed some legal impediments to the
institutionalization of teenagers for profit. Until then, teenagers
appeal to the juvenile courts to review parents' decision to
institutionalize them. But Parham v. J.R. "made it constitutionally OK
states to rely on the parent's judgment," says former Stanford law
professor Lois Weithorn. "Now there were no legal safeguards for the
i.e., judges reviewing cases in a juvenile justice setting."

After they've been confined, minors placed in private California
can request a hearing from an "independent reviewer." Unfortunately, the

reviewer may be independent in name only.

According to Barbara Demming Lurie, director of the Patients' Rights
Advocacy Program for the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health,

"the so-called independent reviewer is a psychiatrist appointed by the
hospital where the kid is being held" -- a person whose livelihood may
depend on keeping administrators happy. And if a psychiatrist bucks the
hospital's wishes, Demming says, the facility simply appoints another --
changes the diagnosis. "We actually cited a facility for overusing
'oppositional behavior' diagnosis," she says. "When we came back, there
been a major outbreak of depression."

'I just ran'

The second safe house that I visit is located in the Mission on a
weed-choked street lined with abandoned cars. Dealers hanging out in the

late afternoon sunlight offer pot or crystal. I press the buzzer outside

the safe house's penitentiary-style gate.

"We just got a new kid," Marci says, giving me a tour of the spacious
house, which occupies two floors of adjoining apartments. "After the
raid, we merged with two other houses." I see the faces of some of the
who live in the house -- Carlos, Nancy, Jose, Susan, Natasha, Jeremy,
Paul -- quickly disappear behind their doors.

A boy, his face hidden by a cap, passes us and walks out the front door.

Marci lowers her voice and says, "That's Ed. Back home, he got caught
having sex with the boy across the street. His friend's mom got really
upset and called the police."

Like most minors who are convicted for consensual sex with other minors,
was sent to a sexual offenders program. In the program he was raped by
another kid, who was HIV-positive. Today is Ed's first doctor's
appointment. "I found him a doctor at a free clinic who's gonna see him
under a fake name," Marci says.

In the hallway, Peanuts -- 14, black, and boyish -- greets us with a big

"Hi!" Her story spills out in non sequiturs. "My mom's a prostitute and
drug dealer. My daddy got deported back to Haiti." She tells a story of
foster homes, girlfriends, and six months in a state-run mental health
unit. "They put me in there 'cause I'm butch," she says. "You know what
that is?"

Marci leads me down the hall and into the kitchen. "Chad just pulled out
abscessed molar," she says. A small blond boy looks up from a book.

"Hi," he says in a voice barely above a whisper.

I ask about his tooth. He adopts a matter-of-fact tone. "I did it
We got this oral anesthetic stuff and put it on my tooth. I wiggled it
around and used a string and slammed the door."

What I really want to know is how he got out of the hospital where he
been "placed" and ended up in this kitchen.

"My parents put me in the hospital for two days and that turned into
months," he says. "There was this one kid who'd been in six placements
this other one who'd been in three. People talk all the time in
-- 'Oh, have you ever run before? Did you ever AWOL? Where did you
stay?' I
heard this one kid in unit six knew about this place to go if you ran. I

went up to her and told her I was going to run. She didn't tell me it
was a
safe house or where I should go, she just gave me the phone number of
someone I should call."

When I ask Chad exactly how he escaped, Marci holds up a hand. "That
incriminate the kids who are still inside," she said.

The number Chad was given in the hospital had been disconnected. Hungry
living on the streets, he tried prostitution -- with disastrous results.

"This guy promised me money if I got in his car and had sex with him.
then he raped me and pushed me out."

Luckily a teenage prostitute stumbled on Chad, half-conscious in an
alleyway, and brought him to an SRO. She happened to know about the
underground and gave Chad another number. The next day he called it and
arranged a meeting. A two-hour interview was taped, transcribed, and
to a lawyer by certified mail. "We do that because sometimes the kids
change their story," Marci says. "It's their statement about what

Chad crashed on couches in countless short-term safe houses, a
trip that took him across the country. "One morning I was eating some
Cheerios," he says. "I looked at the milk carton and my picture was on
side of it."

A lawyer connected with the underground called Chad's parents on his
and asked if he could simply come home. They vowed to reinstitutionalize

him at any cost. It was then that he connected with Marci and was
into the San Francisco house.

Chad excuses himself and goes to take a nap. Marci tells me he's still
recovering from the hospital. "People sleep a lot when they come into
houses," she says. "They're coming off drugs or going through
or they're miserable."

Don't flush the toilet

Every week when Marci's meager paycheck comes in, the house sits down at

the kitchen table and divides the money into four stacks: rent, food,
electricity, and water.

Running a safe house costs between $700 and $1,000 a month, not
emergency expenses. "Maybe a kid in Iowa needs a bus ticket here and our

safe house has accepted him," Marci says. "We have to go spend $200 and
a ticket."

When Marci takes kids into hiding, she's responsible for everything from

altering their appearance to helping them detox from prescription drugs.
learned how to dye hair, give a home perm, and deal with medical
emergencies," she says. "We had one kid who was epileptic and who would
have seizures and we didn't know what to do. We had to go to a friend
knew somebody who talked to a friend who was a doctor and get a
prescription of what he needed to control the seizures."

Safe-house living revolves around security, Marci says. "My phone isn't
listed under my real name. I have an apartment and it's not under my
name. I don't use my real name for anything in connection to where I
She doesn't carry a phone book, and the numbers she does write down are

The first thing kids in the safe house reach for in the morning is their

bottle of pepper spray. "In case an escort from the hospital comes and
tries to pick them up or they get caught," Marci says. "Escorts are not
cops, so [the kids] have the right to physically defend themselves." She

smiles. "That includes the right to use pepper spray."

This particular safe house is, with a couple of exceptions, "closed."
runs down the rules: "Kids don't go near the windows, don't answer the
phone or the door. You don't wear shoes in case people hear you walking
around. You don't flush the toilet too much because then the landlord
start to realize there's a lot of people using the toilet. The radio or
is kept on so people don't hear you talking." Living underground almost
sounds more grueling than riding out a hospital stay.

Despite these security measures, houses are constantly raided and, Marci

says, "Tons of people have been caught. But sometimes when they're
the cops don't even know it's a safe house. They just know that a
kid was staying there."

The legal institutions that deal with runaway kids are, by and large,
humane ones. When aboveground shelters such as Huckleberry House pick up

kids they suspect have been abused or neglected, staff refer the
to the Department of Human Services. Becky George of Huckleberry House
she's never seen a kid on the run from a psychiatric hospital but that
she'd certainly refer such a case to the DHS.

If an escapee made it to the DHS, he or she wouldn't be shipped straight

back to the hospital. "I would certainly see [institutionalization] as
abuse," says Bill Bettencourt, deputy director of the department's
and Children's Services division. "The fact that the parents put the
in that situation is an abusive act that constitutes failure to protect
children from harm. That would give us the authority to provide services
get placement for them."

For safe-house residents, the real threat is being caught by private
investigators or the cops. As Marci says, the police department targets
individual kids rather than safe houses: they need probable cause to
suspect a specific runaway is living in an apartment before they can go
And if the police get hold of a runaway -- or an apartment full of them
they might not be scrupulous about referring possible abuse victims to

Even if she's caught, it's unlikely Marci will face prosecution. "The
question we would have to ask in such a case is, What is a jury going to

feel is a crime?" San Francisco District Attorney Terrence Hallinan
"If a person was running away to avoid deprogramming, we'd take that
consideration. This outfit would be providing people with food and a
to sleep. That's not a criminal offense even if you know they're a

Marci is constantly on the lookout for people who might be willing to
new safe houses, but she screens them carefully. "You don't do it
immediately. You do a lot of talking back and forth," Marci says. "If
seem too perfect, they usually are."

As she says this, I feel like I'm being sized up. Like anyone who's
sympathetic to her cause, I eventually hear the gentle pitch: "Maybe
like to host a kid?"

Later, I reread my transcript of Marci's description of hospital life.

By the time you've been locked up a month, you've been through so much
just don't feel anymore. You wait and wait and wait. Every hour seems
long. You look at the clock and 10 minutes have passed but it feels like

hours. You don't care enough to rebel. You have no more hope, no more
All you think about is death. But you don't care enough to try and kill
yourself so you let them kill you.

I dreamed of running. Not running away from the place -- that was too
to think about, 'cause they could have asked if you had thought about
and if you were really doped up, it was hard to think fast enough to
No, I thought about just running down my street, through the streets of
town I lived in before. I could feel my sneakers hitting the pavement.

I dreamed of going back once I'd escaped and freeing everyone.

Rules, no rules

A joint makes its way around the living room. Marci passes along the
but doesn't partake. "We're very clear about the fact that there are no
drugs," she had told me earlier. That policy is not, apparently, in

"Everything done in safe houses is done collectively," Susan says. She's
years old, but she looks at least 20.

This comment sparks a heated discussion about politics -- the first time

I've heard teenagers debate the merits of Maoism versus those of

I expect to get embarrassed giggles when I ask if this collectivity
includes sex. Rather, I get cool, straightforward answers.

"There no rules about sex."

"We can do what we want with our bodies."

"There's always condoms laying around."

The conversation takes a sudden turn for the confrontational.

"It gets complicated if there's a friendship between two people and one
them starts having a relationship with somebody else," says Paul,
at Carlos.

"People call each other on their shit, so if somebody's having a
relationship or having sex because they're lonely and bored, that's
definitely out in the open," says Carlos, glaring at Paul.

"People talk about it," Natasha says.

"Yeah, and I know you're just fucking him because you're bored shitless
you don't know what else to do," says Paul, glaring even harder at Jose.

Marci breaks in, cutting short the escalating fight. "I don't
think that's bad, and neither do the kids. Everybody knows what's going
If they're going to have sex, there's the bathroom, the closet, after
everybody else is asleep."

This brings the conversation around to the hospitals and RTCs from which

they've escaped. Their stories involve being tied up, held down, and
tranquilized; being unable to "look up or to the side"; wearing orange
clothes" if the facility believes a kid might try to escape.

"You have to kneel all day, 24 hours a day. You could only get up to use

the bathroom once every four hours and then only for five minutes,"
says of the California institution where he was placed. "You got bag
lunches of, like, pimento loaf on white bread and warm whole milk. It
disgusting. Everyone lost weight. I went from 180 to 120 in six months.
if they think you're lying, they'll make you carry phone books to feel
weight of your lies."

He talks about punishments. "The first one was that you had to walk
with a sign for a week. Second was restriction. Third was being

"What did the signs say?" I ask.

"Stuff like, 'I am overcoming my sexually violent behaviors.' And 'I act

out sexually.' "

"That was if you were gay?"

"Yeah, you didn't have to act out or be violent. Being gay already
you that way."

One kid who was in a Utah facility remembers "just standing there facing

the wall for hours, days, maybe even months. They let you sleep about
hours a night."

One of the most curious therapies allegedly exists at a Texas facility
where, one kid claims, " 'paperwork' is really big. I spent my whole
there writing essays on how good American capitalism was."

Diet coke and a dentist


To: --

From: Marci

Re: JL (D.O.B. 10/31/85)

Please destroy this memo after reading it. Thank you.

JL will be driven down and arrive in the early evening on Saturday, June

10. He'll be at your place for approximately one month, and then at
safe house in the Bay Area for an undetermined length of time directly
after he stays with you. I will call you to arrange transportation from
your place to the other.

By the time JL arrives, all you need to do is have bought pepper spray.
is not illegal to use on cops, but I wouldn't recommend doing that.

You asked about food. He can't stand and refuses to eat: mayo, yogurt,
milk, tuna, bananas, apples, cottage cheese, and sandwiches. I know
get along real good because his favorite thing to drink is Diet Coke.

One thing he does need to do while with you is get a medical checkup and

see a dentist. If you have any problems making this happen or paying for

it, please let me know.

Also, JL is Jewish and would probably very much enjoy going to services.

That's about it. I think you'll really enjoy JL. He's very mature for
age and makes good company. If you have any more questions, feel free to

call, day or night.



Not all the kids are stuck inside the safe house. Jeremy comes from a
distant state, and his parents don't have the resources to hire private
investigators, so he's allowed to come and go, usually at night.

He calls out of the blue, wanting to go nightclubbing. He's only 15, but

I'm not worried he's going to get carded. Big and bulky, with a buzz
Jeremy works the G.I. Joe look.

"Let's hang," he says, inviting me into the bedroom he shares with Chad.

Chad has a huge unrequited crush on Jeremy. Wisely, Jeremy encourages a
"sister" relationship: they spend a lot of time arguing about the
of TV icons ("Mary Tyler Moore or Marlo Thomas ... you decide!") and

We go to a club's Monday "alternative night." It could be a junior-high
dance. In the dark, the young crowd looks virtually adolescent.

Jeremy works the crowd, at ease in an environment that I still haven't
mastered after a decade of practice.

"Who are these people?" I ask.

"They're all from the suburbs," he says dismissively. "Big-night-out
of thing." The difference between Jeremy and these kids is that they
presumably, families and homes.

Our night winds down at Cafe Flore, sitting on the patio drinking
He tells me how he ended up in the safe house. It started when his
discovered porno magazines stowed in his luggage.

"My parents, they're divorced. But my mom got so flipped out that she
called my dad and they got back together," he says. The purpose of their

reunion was to "straighten me out."

Inside the hospital, his psychiatrist kept asking him, "Are you sure
homosexual?" "I was like, 'Yeah, people've been calling me a faggot
since I
was 10.' I wanted to know why I was locked up.

"He says to me, 'Are you ever depressed?' I just shrugged my shoulders
said, 'Sometimes.' He smiled, and he wrote it down in my chart."

A few days later Jeremy was pulled out of his hospital bed in the early
morning. He was stripped and strapped to a steel examination table,
his right arm was shot full of a drug that made him feel "like I was

The doctor entered the room with a nurse and two interns. Hands sheathed
plastic gloves, the group prodded Jeremy's body. "It was like something
of Alien Encounter," Jeremy says, his voice flat. "They're looking me
going, 'Is he sexually active?' "

At the end of the week Jeremy was taken to the hospital's intensive care

unit, a small suite of rooms that housed 12 patients and six nurses. Its

doors were locked at all times. "In the middle of the night the nurses
would point a flashlight at your face to make sure you hadn't killed
yourself. I was there three months."

Meds were served in Dixie cups before meals and included Halcion,
Elavil, Thorazine, Valium, Ritalin, and lithium.

"Everyone was on meds," Jeremy says. "More than you could believe. The
first thing you did was get Thorazine. It makes you tired, you can't
and you get night sweats." He claims that many kids got addicted to
and Ritalin -- downers and uppers on the street.
Jeremy's roommate in the ICU was Bart, a ruddy-faced older teen whose
words to Jeremy were, "Hi, I'm Bart and I'm a manic depressive."

Although Bart kept Jeremy awake at night with his nightmares, he also
taught his roommate how to pick and choose. "He said, 'See, you keep it
under your tongue, like this,' and then he showed me all these white
in the back of his mouth. I spit out the meds I didn't like --
but the Valium -- after the med nurse left the room."

But Jeremy is more interested in his present than his past. As we drink
coffees he tells me that he digs hard-core gay bars like Detour over the

mainstream scene. He confides vague S-M fantasies. Ready to sleep, I
exhaustion. Jeremy has become very quiet.

"My mom's cancer came back."

I ask him if he'll go home.

"I can't," he says. "If it means them putting me back in the hospital,
no, I can't."

We stop at a pay phone between a liquor store and a Laundromat. I give
a phone card and tell him to call his mother. Their conversation is
strained and artificial. When it's over, he says nothing.

A raid

The phone keeps ringing until I fumble to answer it. The digital clock
the nightstand reads 3 a.m. Marci's voice is tight and low. "They raided


The next morning I meet Marci and some kids in a filthy squat where
camped out.

"I heard this banging on the door," Jose says. "I thought it was
'cause he'd gone out to buy groceries." The kids lied and duped the
who left -- but not for long. One cop recognized Jose's picture in the
station's missing persons photo album and returned the next day.

"They broke down the door," Jose says. "A bunch of us climbed down the

Chad was trapped inside a closet. "I hid under dirty clothes," he says.
called Marci and whispered, 'The cops are back.' I was so scared I
to cry."

Marci says, "We waited till it was safe, went back to the house, and got

Chad. We got him and ran to a car that was running and drove off. I
we were being followed, but then we got onto the freeway and managed to
lose them."

"I wasn't nearly as stressed as he was," she says, glancing at Chad. "If
get put in jail, I'm somewhere I can use the phone and post bail. If
catch him, he's sent back to the hospital. No phone. No bail."

Marci opens another safe house -- a railroad flat. It's here that I see
that the safe house runs as much on Marci's humor and optimism as it
on her paycheck.

"We celebrate every holiday possible," she says. Months before Oct. 31
kids are preoccupied with creating their Halloween costumes. Halloween
the only time, Marci says, when "you can walk around with a bag on your
head and nobody will think anything of it."

My last visit to the safe house comes on Christmas Eve. Marci is
in preparations. Christmas is different from Halloween because, as Marci

puts it, "The kids forget the bad Christmases."

"I remember the year before I was locked up," Chad says. "And I started
thinking, 'Maybe if I went back home ...' "

"But you can't," Marci gently reminds him.

"Yeah," he says. "I guess it wouldn't be the same, huh?"

Merry Christmas

Two a.m., Christmas Day: Marci sits at the kitchen table, surrounded by
dozens of presents, a mass of wrapping paper, and ribbon. She is writing

Chad and Jeremy's real names -- the ones that are never used in the safe

house -- on the front of stockings.

"They forget they have a name and a history separate from being locked
she says. "It's hard because you are separate from the other kids on the

outs. You can't tell people who you are. Writing down your real name is
big deal because it identifies you as who you are."

In the morning, after the presents are opened, Marci will destroy the
stockings. She doesn't know if the kids remember Christmases in the safe

house, fondly or otherwise. Once they "age out" (turn 18) and leave, the

majority vanish. "I hear from time to time that they're OK, but having
spent all that time thinking and dealing with being locked up, they
want to [talk about it] anymore."

Burned out from years of scrambling -- to make ends meet and escape the
police -- Marci's house is going short-term. "I won't take anybody
long-term anymore because you have to commit to them until they turn 18.

I'll switch to short-term -- for emergencies only. Which is fine,
that's always going to happen."

Jeremy goes home. At first his mother doesn't recognize him when he
into the house. He stays a month and, sensing another incarceration
brewing, splits with the computer.

Chad turns up after stealing an older man's credit card and car and
a born-again Christian. "He is," Marci says, without irony, "really

Shannon Minter says his efforts to involve other national legal groups
the issue have fallen on deaf ears.

David Smith of the Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign, which
lobbies for gay and lesbian rights, says his group has never been
about the institutionalization of queer teenagers. "If we were
about this issue, we would give it our full attention," he said.

Minter calls the institutionalization of queer kids the most important
civil rights issue of the decade. "If it were OK to be a gay or lesbian
youth in this country, a whole lot of things would shift," he says.
them access to social services, information about themselves in school,
placements for abused lesbian and gay youth in gay foster homes, and it
would be a very different country."

When adult gay people have stepped in to help gay youth, it's generally
some risk to themselves. When Ken McPherson, host of Hibernia Beach, a
radio show on Live 105, tried to intercede on Lyn Duff's behalf, "the
churches wouldn't touch it with a 10-foot pole. Why? The gay community
hysterically afraid of dealing with young people because of that fucking

pedophile image that we have accepted them putting on us."

Marci says her generation's experience with institutionalization
people her age from older queer activists. "We don't have the illusion
a lot of older gay people do that things are 'better,' she tells me.
either been in hospitals or seen the effects [institutionalization] has
on other kids." And she doesn't hold out much hope for improvement.
"They'll just keep finding other ways of locking people up," she says.

Thomas Mournian is a freelance writer. He lives in Los Angeles.