From the outside, says Charlotte Smith, “We were a normal, average working class family.”
Inside their south-London home, however, things were far more complex.
“I knew from the age of eight or nine, there was something different about me,” says Charlotte – not her real name.
But, admitting that was difficult in her family. Her Nigerian parents, she says, were conservative churchgoers.
“My extended family was even more conservative. Four out of five of my uncles were pastors, or training to be pastors.”
So when she found herself attracted to girls, “I denied it, even to myself.”
Until she realised the struggle was futile.
“I needed to be who I am,” she explains.
Just before she turned 16, she came out to her parents. “Dad thought it was a phase. Mum thought it was a joke.”
But the following summer her mother had no choice but to face the reality. She came home early to find Charlotte kissing another girl.
“Mum started sort of smacking me,” says Charlotte, “saying ‘Not in my house, not in my house’. I had to leave and spend the night with my aunt. When I came back home, it was tense. Mum wouldn’t speak to me”.
A couple of weeks later, says Charlotte, she came home to find her key no longer worked: “My mum had changed the locks.”
Initially, Charlotte’s 14-year-old brother would let her in and she would go to her room.
“But after a while, it became unbearable. One night no one came to the door. My brother told me ‘I can’t do this anymore’. He would get in trouble with Mum if he let me in.”
Charlotte had effectively been kicked out of the family home and made homeless aged 16, just because she was gay – one of what charities the Albert Kennedy Trust and Stonewall Housing say is an increasing number of young LGBT people being forced from the family home because of their sexuality.
At first she “sofa surfed” at a friend’s house. Then she sought help from her local authority.
“Initially the council didn’t want to take me on,” says Charlotte. “They just told me ‘Go back home’, not understanding that was no longer an option.”
It took the intervention of the gay rights charity Stonewall to stop Charlotte joining the up to one in three young people who are estimated to be turned away by English councils when they seek help with homelessness.
Even then the council only found her “temporary accommodation, a bedsit on a sink estate, with a shared toilet with faeces all over it”.
And there, finally settled in safe, clean accommodation, Charlotte could reflect on what had happened to her.
Now, aged 24, she is out and proud. But back then, “I was grieving the loss of my family. I felt isolated, like the black sheep of the family, the cause of all problems. It was hurtful.”
And yet Charlotte considers herself one of the lucky ones.
“At least my mum isn’t violent,” she says.
“There are a lot of horror stories. I have got about five close, close friends who have been kicked out of the house because of their sexuality. One or two were beaten out of the house.
“I know people where their family tried to send them to Africa to ‘fix’ them.”
Her experiences, and those of her friends, have led Charlotte to a grim conclusion: we shouldn’t be fooled by equality laws and gay marriage into thinking that we now live in a blissfully enlightened, tolerant society.
“It’s not the case,” says Charlotte. “I might be out and proud, but I am not singing it or holding banners – because I know a lot of people only tolerate us because of the legislation.
“People will never call me anything to my face in the workplace, because they know they are governed by legislation. That doesn’t change how they truly feel, though.
“They won’t say anything in public, but they will at the dinner table, behind closed doors.
“A lot of people are still homophobic – in my everyday disagreements, the first thing they pick on is ‘You look like a boy’.
“And when it comes to their kids being gay, they don’t take it well.”
Although Centrepoint did help her achieve a reconciliation with her own family.
“Mum and I are OK,” she says philosophically. “She loves me, but she is still praying that I will one day marry a man, not a girl. I kind of take it light-heartedly.”
Helped by the charity, Charlotte has moved into a one-bedroom housing association flat, and found work as an administrator for a construction company.
If now she is happy, she is also adamant about the need for a homeless helpline of the kind being campaigned for by The Independent and Centrepoint – not least for the young LGBT people who are still, despite all the talk of progress, being kicked out of the family home.
“The majority of my advice came from my friends,” Charlotte admits. “We were all young and foolish together. When it came to where to go, what to do … We didn’t know any of the answers.
“If this helpline had been there then, it would have been a lot easier for me.”
*Charlotte Smith’s name has been changed to protect her identity
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