Growing up, Andrea Lamour-Harrington feared she would never have children.
But now she knows that being a trans woman is not a barrier to starting a family of her own. Instead, it’s been a spark that didn’t just change her life, but those of countless others in the LGBTQ community. How many children does she count? Eighty-seven.
Since the 1980s, she has opened her home to anyone struggling with coming of age who identifies as LGBTQ. She calls it the House of Lamour.
“The House of Lamour is a family of acceptance,” Lamour-Harrington, 53, said in her Brookhaven living room one recent day as she lounged in pink pajama pants and a Betty Boop shirt, her dark hair put back in a low ponytail.
“But you got to act right,” her fiancé, Doug Vanlue Jr., 50, chimed in, only half joking.
To him, acting right could mean no one bending his favorite deck of cards while playing Spades, a family favorite that they play after dinner with their children, whether it’s the two living with them now or the half-dozen or so who come and go regularly.
To Lamour-Harrington, it means showing unity in the household, especially against an outside world she views as hostile, particularly toward trans women of color.
“Our girls are turning up dead,” she said. “The world is challenging enough for us. The world is out here picking us off one by one.” At least 26 trans people were killed across the United States in 2018, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Most recently in Philadelphia, Michelle “Tamika” Washington, a black transgender woman, was shot on May 19. She was 40.
“I don’t claim to be everybody’s biological mother, but what I do claim is, I’m that spiritual mother that will give you a hug when you need it,” Lamour-Harrington said. “I’m that mother that will feed you when you’re hungry. I’m that mother that will clothe you when you don’t have clothes on your back, which is what we usually get from Mom and Dad at home. It is where you can get the love of Mom. It is where you can get the tough love of Dad when you know you’re not doing the right thing."
Milan Lamour, 29, and Saniya Lamour, 33, who’ve taken the family name, said that if it weren’t for the house, they’d probably be on the streets — or dead.
For Tiffany Lollis, 29, the newest sibling, the House of Lamour is where she learned the little things about transitioning that she couldn’t learn from her biological mother.
“Her blood mother can’t tell her what it’s like to have to use razors on her face to stay smooth to be able to put on makeup,” Lamour-Harrington said. “That’s totally challenging to a biological female, a cisgender female.”
Over the years, the couple’s relationships with their children’s biological parents have ranged from nonexistent to friendly enough to meet for dinner.
Lollis’ father met Lamour-Harrington through a group called the Colours Organization and suggested Lollis seek her out for guidance on the transition. Lollis said she appreciates how Lamour-Harrington “keeps it real” with her, showing tough love when necessary but never judging.
“The world is not going to be kind to you when it gives you its lesson,” Lamour-Harrington said. “So why should I sit here and sugarcoat it at home?”
On a recent Saturday summer evening, Lamour-Harrington prepared her small kitchen table for a feast for seven that she’d been cooking on the grill all day.
“C’mon, we got to pray,” she said, setting out the hot dogs, salmon, and shrimp salad.
Carlos Harcum, 38, noticed his brother, James Cosky, 35, was nowhere to be found. He opened the front door, letting in a waft of smoke from the neighbor’s grill, and called out to his brother. Cosky was on his phone, pacing up and down the block of rowhouses, which were bathed in golden-hour light.
Harcum returned to hold hands with his remaining four siblings over the round table.
“I don’t call them ‘chosen family,’ I don’t say ‘gay family,’” Milan Lamour explained. “I just say they’re my family.”
It was longtime friend Tina Montgomery who observed youngsters in the LGBTQ community gravitating toward Lamour-Harrington for advice and finally told her, “You might as well just be Mother of the Gays.”
And so that is what she became, adding the name “Lamour” after her favorite actress, Dorothy Lamour.
When Harcum had a severe asthma attack while he was alone and ended up on a respirator at Temple University Hospital, it was Lamour-Harrington whom he woke up to see at his bedside. Harcum grew up in a strict Christian household and said he never felt comfortable stepping into his own, which is why he finally called Lamour-Harrington and asked to move in with her.
His experience of feeling unwelcome and the urge to leave home is not uncommon among LGBTQ young people, especially in Philadelphia.
“Queer and trans youth are disproportionately vulnerable to housing due to family and community rejection,” said Kate Gormley, program manager for the young adult program at North Philadelphia’s Gloria Casarez Residence, which opened last month as the first LGBTQ-friendly permanent housing for young adults in Pennsylvania.
Gormley also said it’s not unusual for older LGBTQ folks to help take in younger ones, given their community’s history of disenfranchisement, or for LGBTQ people to build their own village for survival.
“Queer and trans communities have such a legacy of fighting for our own needs when governments and systems aren’t interested,” she said.
The lessons of the House of Lamour could be strict.
Saniya and Milan recall fondly the time Lamour-Harrington was there to scold them when they found themselves locked out after returning from a long night.
“Do y’all know what time it is?” she yelled down before letting them in.
Whose clothes could they wear and have a photo shoot with, if not Mom? And more important, who would give them makeup advice?
“You will not wear no blue eye shadow in front of me,” Lamour-Harrington said with a stern warning to Sage Pope, 40, after dinner that night. “It’s an abomination.”
It’s part of the charm only the House of Lamour could offer, especially for LGBTQ people who never felt comfortable being themselves with their blood family.
“We do normal, everyday things,” Vanlue said. “In the LGBTQ community, so many people are so into, ‘I have to show my colors all the time, I always have to be seen.’ You always have a better time just being yourself.”
While Lamour-Harrington and Vanlue now live in the Delaware County borough, they and their children have bounced around from Germantown to West Philly. Lamour-Harrington wears many hats, from Philadelphia Public Health Department field coordinator to beauty pageant winner to devout Catholic to minister at Whosoever Metropolitan Community Church of Philadelphia.
The Army helped sharpen her identity. “It took me, you know, to actually go where it’s supposed to make you a man. That’s what taught me I was a woman,” she said.
She’s met many of her children through her pageants and performances, as well as through her work with Philadelphia Fight and other organizations.
It’s only fitting that for now, she’s back at the same childhood home where she discovered who she was — that she was not a boy — and where she learned many tough lessons that she now passes on to her children as they grow into their own.
We asked two couples who have never met to get together and share their experiences of dating, coming of age, marriage, and the challenges of being queer or transgender.