Imagine discovering a beautiful truth about yourself, only to lose everything. Your support network, some of your friends, maybe even your family and your home, all gone because you’ve embraced your identity.
That’s a reality that many LGBTQ youth face. And it’s what Laura Choate faced when she was only 11.
“After I came out, I was not welcome in my home,” Laura said. “I left an abusive home and ate out of trash cans. I begged for food.”
According to a University of Chicago study, before the pandemic, LGBTQ youth were 120 percent more likely to face homelessness than non-LGBTQ youth. Often, that’s because their family rejects them, but that’s not the only reason. Some have aged out of the foster care system and are too young to support themselves on their own.
After experiencing it herself, Laura has made it her mission to help the LGBTQ community facing hunger and homelessness, especially youth in need.
And, she’s doing that as the director of the Church of the Open Arms food pantry in Oklahoma City, a partner of the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma.
The church itself ministers primarily to the LGBTQ community in Oklahoma City, but everyone is welcome. About 25 percent of the neighbors who come to the pantry, Laura says, are LGBTQ – and many are youth without housing.
“There’s a big problem in Oklahoma where parents of kids who come out as LGBTQ, they disown them and kick them out, so they end up homeless,” she said.
The church – and the pantry – are a welcoming place for the LGBTQ community to come for support and to get food when needed, Laura says.
“People feel safe and comfortable coming to us. I’m glad we’ve created that environment. So many folks just say, ‘Thank you so much. I appreciate how nice you are to all of us.’”
Laura makes sure the pantry feels like family to everyone who visits. For her, it’s not just about providing food, it’s about making a connection and treating people with respect.
“I know what it feels like to be hungry,” she said. “So, the difference I’m making is that no one has to beg, they just show up and we treat them like human beings. It’s all about, ‘How’re you doing? How’s the family?’ And we make sure we smile as much as we can behind the masks.”
And Laura doesn’t plan to stop any time soon. Driven by her own experiences, Laura expects to keep brightening the lives of the people in her community through the pantry for as long as she can.
“It’s such a sense of satisfaction, serving the LGBTQ community, especially the youth, because I’ve been through it myself,” she said. “This is my way of giving back.”
While Laura continues her work with LGBTQ people in Oklahoma, hunger among this community is a nationwide issue. Across the country, 22 percent of LGBTQ adults were living in poverty before COVID. And, according to the Williams Institute, before COVID, LGBTQ people were 1.5 times more likely to face hunger than non-LGBTQ people. Contact your local food bank to learn how you can get involved in your community.