This is Justin Mitchell, a growth and social media editor at the Sun Herald in Biloxi, Mississippi — and this is “Out Here in America,” a podcast by the Sun Herald and McClatchy that explores what it’s like being LGBTQ in the Deep South and in other rural areas across the country.
This week, we’re in our studio in the Sun Herald newsroom with Daniel Garcia, a former Gulfport High salutatorian and Pomona College sophomore who tells us about the long road he’s traveled to a better place — and an epidemic that’s happening across the country every single day.
Three years ago, Daniel’s best friend, Brailey Penny, was worried because she hadn’t heard from Daniel all summer. So she went on a mission to find him.
Brailey and another friend hopped in the car and went to Daniel’s foster parents’ home in Gulfport. Daniel, then 16, was at a neighbor’s house doing yard work.
“We literally drive over there to see what’s going on ... and all of a sudden he just breaks down,” Brailey said.
If he wanted to live under the roof of his foster parents, Daniel had to work. He had to work to eat, too, he said.
“They were abusive, they were entirely anti-queer. I was starved, beaten ... that’s just the worst part of my life,” Daniel said.
Brailey was concerned and noticed Daniel had lost a substantial amount of weight. She decided she wasn’t leaving without him.
“I told him, ‘You’re never going back to that place again,’” she said.
Daniel, who was born in Picayune and lived in the New Orleans area and in California, was placed into the foster care system when he was 15. He said his foster family did not approve of him being gay.
Daniel had not really found home since the death of his father when he was 7. His mother died when he was just a toddler.
He lived with family in Louisiana and other states for years before being placed into foster care in Mississippi.
According to a UCLA study, 40 percent of the 1.5 million homeless youth in the U.S. are LGBTQ. Many of them were forced out by their parents or ran away. The Human Rights Campaign has shown LGBTQ youth are over-represented in foster care and often face disparities in the treatment they receive from the system.
What makes Daniel’s experience unique is the love he’s found from an unexpected place: Brailey and her family — with whom he lived for two years before heading out West for a college education in California. Daniel says Brailey and her mom, Victoria, helped put him on a path for a bright future.
Brailey wasn’t kidding when she said Daniel would never go back. Her mom and dad turned their den into his bedroom.
Victoria Penny said the decision to bring a new son into her home was a no-brainer.
“If people that were within his own family did him wrong, what’s a stranger going to do to him?” Penny said. “He just needed to stay with us.”
Garcia said living with the Pennys felt like home for the first time in three years.
“Being in a house where I’m accepted has made it easier to walk out of the house and be OK with myself,” Garcia said.
It’s not always easy being gay in South Mississippi. Daniel handles the criticism with stride.
“I have my family, I have my school, y’all can buzz off.”
To listen to the rest of Daniel’s story, click here.
Here’s where you can listen to more episodes of “Out Here in America.”