If you ask Cherish Blackmon about her gender, you won’t get a simple answer.
“Well, on the inside, I definitely identify my masculinity, but I also acknowledge my feminine on the outside because I know that God has given me the privilege to experience the opposite body of what I originally am in this lifetime," she said. "I feel like I’m both, but it feels like one.”
As for her sexual orientation, Blackmon says early on she knew she was attracted to women.
“I wanted to hang out with the boys and I felt like the boys was my friends, and when they be like, talking about who’s cute and do you like this person, I was more interested in conversating with them about the females than being on the female side and conversating about the boys,” she recalled.
From a young age, something told her to keep this from her parents. Still, there were problems, especially with her dad.
“He said if I didn’t dress like a female then he wouldn’t be in my life because he felt embarrassed, like if he go out in public, and somebody point at me or call me a name, he felt like he would start to fight and be embarrassed at the same time,” said Blackmon.
Blackmon's mom also had a lot to say about the way her daughter dressed, and their disagreements would often end in huge blowouts when they went shopping for clothes.
“Here’d come Cherish with a pair of guy jeans and a shirt and a belt, and the boy gym shoes," recalled Barbara McCowin, Blackmon’s mom. "And I’m like, 'No, I’m not buying that. I’m the person spending my money. You go there and get what I want you to get.'"
A paradigm shift
It's precisely these kinds of situations a new program in Wayne County hopes to address.
Near the end of 2015, Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services started a pilot project with the Ruth Ellis Center, an organization based in Highland Park.
Since then it’s trained more than 300 Child Protective Service Investigators, social workers and educators to help families with kids in the state’s child welfare system.
“This training, it covered things such as building safety with youth and families, recognizing and affirming sexual orientation, gender identity and expression,” explained Annie Ray, the Wayne County child welfare director for DHHS.
The Ruth Ellis Center is one of the only organizations in the country that has a residential program for LGBTQ youth. They also have a colorful drop-in center with showers, computers, hot meals and free clothes. It’s a place Cherish Blackmon spent a lot of time when she was younger.
It was founded 15 years ago, after its organizers saw a lot of young LGBTQ people hanging around the area after having been kicked out of their home, or having run away from families who rejected them. About 40 percent of the youth homeless population in this country is LGBTQ.
The idea behind the program is to keep more families intact, so that fewer gay and transgender young people wound up on the streets. So, for example, if a social worker or teacher sees a child being rejected by their family, they can refer the family to the Ruth Ellis Center for intensive support services. The pilot project is the first of its kind in the country.
It’s based on the work of Dr. Caitlin Ryan, who has spent years interviewing families of LGBTQ children. Ryan says youth whose families don’t accept them for who they are face serious negative health outcomes.
“For example, a more than eight-times greater likelihood of attempted suicide or a six-times greater likelihood of high levels of depression or a more than three-times greater likelihood of illegal drug use, or putting oneself at high risk for HIV,” explained Ryan.
And Ryan says it’s possible for parents and caregivers to support their LGBTQ children even if being gay or transgender goes against their religious values.
You're going to hell
Over the years, Barbara McCowin has been a member at a handful of Christian churches. And at every one of them, she’s heard the same basic message about homosexuality:
“Basically that it’s an abomination, that you’ve been turned over to reprobate mind and that you’re going to hell. That’s what it always ends in. You’re going to hell if you practice those types of behaviors is what they would call it.”
Growing up, McCowin’s daughter, Cherish Blackmon, would be right there with her mom, every Sunday.
“That was very frightening for me,” Blackmon recalled, “because I was young and when somebody says you going to hell for what you’re doing, you get all types things going on in your head.”
Blackmon says she figured if she was going to hell anyway, she’d act out. Growing up, she says she had a lot of sexual partners. Then, at age 12, things came to a head.
“In middle school, I led 250 kids to pick on this one teacher, because deep down inside I had a crush on her, and I knew that I couldn’t have her in that way,” Blackmon said. “I picked on her and I said that – at the time I knew that a lot of kids’ parents taught them to be against homosexuality and stuff like that. So I used that as a weapon, so to speak, against her so the kids could attack her. And I convinced the kids that she had a penis.”
Then, early one morning, Blackmon threw a brick through that teacher’s car window.
“I don’t know (why),” Blackmon said. “I was young, I thought that was me stepping up as the man and letting her know if I can’t have you, no one else can, and I’m gonna tear up everything. I wanted to control everything, because my thoughts on the inside were so out of control.”
Unsafe and unaccepted
Blackmon was already on probation when she hurled that brick through her teacher’s car window. She was taken out of her home and away from her family, and put in a juvenile detention facility in Detroit, where she says she felt voiceless.
“Instead of encouraging my uniqueness, they tried to take it from me,” she explained.
For the next few years, she bounced between foster homes and semi-independent living facilities, and the problems just got worse.
At one point, Blackmon recalls being at the mall with her social worker.
“And this girl was walking past and she looked at me, like, ‘What’s up,’ and my social worker had saw it, so she grabbed me by my mouth and was like, ‘You going to hell. That’s not right. You’re a girl.’”
Researchers have found that gay and transgender youth move around in the child welfare system a lot more than non-LGBTQ youth. Sarah Mountz, a professor at California State University, Northridge, has studied LGBTQ youth in the foster care and juvenile justice systems. She says often they feel unsafe or unaccepted.
“My theory is that there are all these systems in which these (LGBTQ) youth are over represented, and yet they're among the most hostile places for these young people to be, and so I feel like there's just a lot of what I can only think to call a revolving door as youth are looking for just a place to be,” she said.
The program at the Ruth Ellis Center aims to slow that revolving door a bit, and help families better understand their gay and transgender children. But it’s also training its own staff to better understand the needs of those youth, so they fare better when they do wind up in the system.
Every week, a group known as Out in the System, made up primarily of young adults who have had some experience in the child welfare system, meets to talk about who they are, and what they need.
“If we know that youth's needs aren't getting met and that the goals of foster care and child protective services is to make sure youth are healthy or safe,” explained Tom Molina-Duarte of the Ruth Ellis Center, “How do we bridge that gap? Sometimes it's a literal suggestion of youth saying to workers, ‘Use my correct pronouns when you engage with me in conversation.”
She'll grow out of it
Cherish Blackmon spent her longest stretch in the system at Boys and Girls Republic, a group home in suburban Detroit. When she was 16, she earned a weekend home pass for good behavior.
That Saturday night, she took her mom’s car without permission and went to pick up some friends. Heading back home at the end of the night, she crashed her mom’s car. She was driving without a license and landed back in a juvenile detention facility.
At that point, Cherish thought she’d never get back home. She thought her mom would be so fed up that she might just sign her parental rights over to the state.
Barbara McCowin said she never considered that. But when Cherish finally returned home, she still wouldn’t accept her daughter for who she was.
“I’m like,’ absolutely not, it’s a phase, she’ll grow out of it,’” McCowin recalled.
Blackmon’s troubles with the law continued. She got kicked out of school almost constantly. Her mom just couldn’t deal with it. Blackmon went back into the child welfare system, but ran away.
She slept in abandoned houses, at parks, friend’s houses, bus stop benches, bathroom stalls. She would even break into cars and sleep in the backseat.
“At Hart Plaza (in downtown Detroit), there’s a place you can go at the lower level in there, and the homeless people, they show me the places that they sleep at night, and that you would never have no idea people sleeping there, and I cozied up with them. I met mothers and daughters that was homeless out there. The thing about it was, homeless people showed me love.”
To survive, Cherish began selling drugs.
Then, when she was 20, one of her best friends died of an overdose.
“That’s what really made like, you know what? I gotta do something different. I can’t be doing this. I can give somebody a bad batch of drugs, and they die, and that’ll be on my hands.”
So Cherish returned home. She pleaded with her mom to give her another chance.
“I was on the front porch. And I was crying, crying, crying. I was like, ‘Mom, I don’t have nowhere to go! I want to come back home. I want to do right. I don’t know what to do. I just want another chance.’ And my momma gave me another chance. She just believed in me.”
A new beginning
It’s been over four years since McCowin and Blackmon worked things out.
Cherish Blackmon has come a long way from the brick-throwing days of her youth. She’s now living in Texas with her sister, and pursuing an associate’s degree. And although she spent many years in conflict with her mom over her identity, Blackmon says she is “one of the most understanding, open-minded, loving people that you can ever have.”
In fact, McCowin is hoping her experience can be a lesson in acceptance for other parents. She’s a parent support partner with the Ruth Ellis Center, where she uses her own story as a tool to help other families learn about, and accept their LGBTQ kids.
“So my job is to be an information tool,” explained Barbara. “I don’t know everything, but I can guide you. All humans deserve to be treated right. Because none of us are better than the other person. It’s just a mindset.”
The pilot project will run for two years, and if it's successful, they hope to continue and expand it. Right now, about a dozen families are being counseled through the program.
“I do think that it’s truly a blessing that the people that do get the privilege to experience her in action,” said Blackmon. “She can really help a lot of parents that’s still stuck on the old terms of how life should be.”