#SouthernStories: Ryan Peterson talks homelessness, recovery, and living with HIV

GLAAD met Ryan Peterson in Atlanta, Georgia, during GLAAD's Southern Stories Summer Tour. Ryan works for Lost-n-Found Youth (LNFY), an Atlanta-based nonprofit corporation "whose mission is to to take homeless lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youths to age 26 off the street and transition them into more permanent housing." According to nationwide statistics, approximately 40% of homeless teens identify as LGBT. In addition to running a fundraising thrift store, LNFY operates a Youth Center, 6-bed 90 day housing facility, 3-6 month host home program, and 24/7 hotline at 678-856-7825. LNFY helped Ryan, a gay man from rural Georgia, through drug addiction and homelessness. He is now on the road to recovery and in the process of helping fellow LGBT youth in need of love and support. GLAAD followed-up with Ryan via phone interview to learn more. This is his story.


GLAAD: What was it like to come out in Georgia?

RP: It was hard because when I came out, that was around the time there was the first gay guy on the Real World and the Dawson's Creek kiss. I came out when I was thirteen; it was eighth grade.

There weren't very many positive influences of being a gay man. And my mom got very worried since we lived in rural Georgia. So, her way of trying to protect me was, "No you can't wear tight clothes. You can't go to school wearing a rainbow outfit." I took it as she didn't like me for being gay. So we butted heads, and eventually got to the point where, I was about 16, we couldn't take it anymore. So, I moved to Atlanta on my own.

GLAAD: What was your journey to Lost-n-Found Youth (LNFY)?

RP: From living with my friend, I was trying to find a job, and I was a young gay boy in Atlanta. So, I found a job at a restaurant. I worked there for a while, and then I was fired for smoking. I'd already been living in Atlanta for a year and a half, so I was eighteen at the time, and so went off to Florida, [and then] went from Florida to California. [I] lived out there for about a year and a half. I wound up doing crystal meth for the first time.

And then it got so bad that I woke up one morning, and I couldn't move my whole body. I had Bell's Palsy, the whole right side of my face was paralyzed. So, at that point, I realized I needed to go home.

My mother didn't want me living with her, so I ended up living with her mother for about three months. And that's when I found out I was HIV-positive.

That was kind of a catalyst for me. I was really, really going off the deep-end because I have always wanted kids my whole life. I went back to Atlanta, and wound up meeting my boyfriend of two and a half years who was a dealer.

And, well, we were put in a raid. They came in after his roommate, and they were going to charge me and my boyfriend with intent to sell and possession of crystal meth and marijuana. My boyfriend took that charge, so that I didn't have to.

And, when you have somebody stand up and say they're willing to take another felony charge, third-strike, if it happens again you're going for 20 years, for you, you kind of just -- that's something that's just hard to grasp.

So that leads up to when he finally went to prison in January of 2014. I was couch surfing with friends then. And then it finally got to the point where they were like, "okay, you've gotten out of control." They dropped me off at detox, and I woke up and none of them were there. For two days, I was completely homeless. I was about to stay at Salvation Army, and then I contacted Lost-n-Found.

GLAAD: How did LNFY help you?

RP: They told me, if I stayed sober for seven days, that they would meet with me, and talk about getting me into the house. So, I sobered up, I stayed sober for seven days, I went to a crystal meth anonymous meeting each day. Laura Gentle was the house mother at the time, and I had known her since I'd originally moved to Atlanta when I was 16. So, that was very, very comforting.

And, I basically came, I said, look, I have no idea what to do with my life, will you help me?

And they accepted me in on the conditions that I go to CMA meetings weekly, I get a sponsor, I go to an intensive out-patient rehab program through the Mister Center and Positive Impact which I did for four months. I started volunteering at the Thrift store because I needed something to keep me busy, and I was there so much that they asked me to apply for a job as an employee there.

So, I put in an application, did an interview process with the manager, and I was hired at the thrift store.

GLAAD: How is your relationship with your parents now?

RP: Me and my mom are like best friends. We talk to each other every day. When I was starting to get sober, she was like, "All I've wanted for you was just for you to get on the right track and as long as you're doing good, we'll be in your life." So, my mom and my brother, they are in my life.

GLAAD: What do you hope people take away from others hearing your story?

RP: I want people to know that you can go through hell and back, and still come back and be okay. We all make mistakes.

Life is never as planned out. For youth especially, LGBT youth, to reach out, to not deal with things on your own or try to fix yourself on your own -- especially at 16 -- because there's still so much you need to learn.

GLAAD: In terms of the future, what are some things you want to work on, specifically with the LGBT community? What are the issues you are really passionate about changing?

RP: I want to open the new Lost-n-Found house one day. I want to be the house mother there. I want to live in a house with the youth, and the way that Laura ran the Lost-n-Found house, it was like having a parent again. And I think what kids and LGBT youth that have been on the streets, what they miss is just having a person, an adult figure, someone to care and go, "Hey, are you okay? What's going on? Can we work on this?" And using all the resources of this amazing Atlanta community has given Lost-n-Found to help these youth.

And, I desperately want to work on more awareness for mental health issues when it comes to LGBT youth because [...] I think if it was more offered for them to get a therapist for them to work through their issues, for them to be around people like in Lost-n-Found, it helps more than you can possibly imagine.

GLAAD: Why do you think the rates of substance abuse and mental health issues are so high for LGBT youth?

RP: My generation is the one where LGBT people first started really coming into the media and on the TV. We are the generation where it was kind of still -- it was becoming accepted, but our parents were not of that mindset generation.

And I think that it's hard for an LGBT youth, especially, with southern parents -- until you come across those parents, that when their child comes out, they are okay and they're supporting and they know how to help. Like, the knowledge of parents of how to talk about these issues with a gay son or daughter is something that not all parents have, and I think that being around and having a healthy, positive rolemodel of what being gay means, is what will greatly affect an LGBT youth and make them realize they are not some stereotype, because that's what the media says we are, when we're just who we love.

GLAAD: Anything else you'd like to add?
RP: I wanted to thank GLAAD because when I did see the documentary, I was blown away that finally an organization was able to capture the heart of what the South is.

If you are a member of the LGBT community in the Atlanta area and in need of emergency assistance, know you are not alone. There are people willing to listen and help. Call the Lost-n-Found Youth 24/7 hotline: 678-856-7825.