Alex Blaze

Who cares about queer youth?

Filed By Alex Blaze | October 19, 2010 10:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Living

It's important to remember that it's not just in school that LGBT teens are bullied homeless-youth.jpgand made to feel that there's something wrong with them because of their sexuality or gender, but everywhere, including other social services for youth. Mother Jones profiled a DC teen who was constantly kicked out of foster homes because of her gender performance and perceived sexual orientation. Here's part of one confrontation (Mother Jones uses male pronouns; it's unclear what Kenneth prefers):

James wasn't blind to his foster son's sexuality. The young man was decidedly out--preaching tolerance at school assemblies, appearing on teen panels, and advocating gay pride in rainbow pamphlets. He even showed up to court hearings wearing lipstick. Privately, though, James dismissed all of it as a phase. And Kenneth, to avoid rocking the boat, had downplayed his sexuality at home--until now.

When James--a retired demolition worker with missing front teeth and a heavyweight's body--saw Kenneth with his date, he grew livid. "What are you doing bringing a boy into my house?" he screamed, according to Kenneth. He ordered them out, but the boy stood his ground. James got up in his face. "I'll kick your asses," he threatened. Taking him at his word, the couple fled, with James chasing them down the stairs and out the door. The boyfriend called 911.

One of the responding police officers wrote up the incident as a "family disturbance" related to Kenneth's sexual orientation. James evicted him then and there. With the cops in tow, Kenneth stuffed some clothes into a bag and split. For a few nights, he squatted at his godmother's apartment, but it wasn't a permanent option. "I just thought, 'God, I really fucked up,'" he recalls. "It felt like I lost everything."

And this isn't one isolated case:

Across the nation, social workers and children's advocates have their own Kenneth stories--the gay youth in Jacksonville, Florida, who tore through 48 placements in four years; the lesbian teen in Connecticut who made a pinky promise with her social worker to "not be gay." The changes in mainstream attitudes that have made life easier for gay adults in recent years have also made it easier for gay teens to come out of the closet. But that doesn't mean foster parents and child-welfare agencies have kept pace with the times. Kids "question their sexual orientation more" nowadays, says Cindy Watson, who directs a center for gay youth in Jacksonville. "That's a dangerous place to be. And the system is not a safe place."

According to the American Bar Association's 2008 guidebook (PDF) for child-welfare lawyers and judges, virtually all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning kids in group homes had reported verbal harassment; 70 percent had been subjected to violence; and 78 percent had either run away or been removed from a foster placement for reasons related to their sexuality. "They are the one population thrown out of their home because of who they are," says Gerald P. Mallon, a professor at New York's Hunter College School of Social Work.[...]

The crisis facing gay foster kids hasn't gone entirely unnoticed. The Child Welfare League of America publishes guidelines on the subject for social workers, and several states have taken baby steps: California passed a foster-care nondiscrimination law (PDF); New Jersey has established "safe zones" for gay youth; and Illinois, Connecticut, and New York have hired dedicated staffers to help them. But child-welfare agencies are only as good as their foster families--and many foster families refuse to take a gay child. Jerry Walters, vice president for foster-care services with the Jacksonville-based Boys' Home Association, says his organization recently surveyed its 246 families and found only 21 who were willing to accept a gay teenager. Attorneys Linda Diaz and Kristin Kimmel (PDF)--who run a project focusing on gay issues for the nonprofit Lawyers for Children Inc.--told me that openly gay kids in New York are typically put into group homes instead of foster care. In New Orleans, gay teenagers deemed "ungovernable" by their biological families sometimes end up in juvenile hall.

The the youth isn't being hurt by one family they'll be hurt by another, and if they aren't being harassed at school they'll be harassed at their foster home or shelter. This is why we need resources specifically for queer youth - straight people can't be counted on to take these kids in and treat them decently.

And we ought to stop turning our backs on them. When we talk about how LGBTQ youth has three to four times the suicide rate of the general population, we can't just focus on bullying in schools and homophobic preachers in churches making kids feel bad - that's only part of the problem. The other part is our youth's sky-high homelessness, exacerbated by the lack of safety net, violence, and discrimination, which can lead to depression and hopelessness as well.

The problem is that we, as LGBTQ adults, generally don't come into contact with queer youth, have built little bubbles to protect ourselves from homophobia that usually exclude youth, and have been told and accepted the idea that we should stay away from youth lest we be thought of as child molesters.

It's entirely understandable that we wouldn't want to work in this area, but it just means that we have to find ways to get the community to engage in the subject again.

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Left on it's own, things don't necessarily "Get Better" for LGBT youth facing bullying. The point is to fight to Make it Better and Stop Homophobia.

Paige Listerud | October 19, 2010 11:49 AM

This is heartbreaking. It's clear that high suicide rates and high homeless rates correlate. We must take action on the scale that we did for the AIDS crisis in the 80s.

To me, this is the highest priority for the GLBT community, support of youth, esp youth in crisis. Marriage and military service of course can be important, and even critical (health care, immigration), but many of the things that queer youth face are literally life-or-death. In the first place, it's wrong to ignore them just on a human basis. The other thing is that these kids will be the next generation of adults, not just in the GLBT community, but in society.

Everyone deserves a chance and support in life, and as a society we need all the well-adjusted ppl we can get.

I've been pondering this a while too, Alex. I was kicked out of the house when I was 16 because Mom caught me in bed with a boy. Even when I was homeless, going "home" was never an option.

Sometimes families can be as bad as school.

After years of legal battles, gay couples finally have won adoption rights in Florida. Hopefully, this will help gay kids in foster care in Jacksonville and elsewhere find supportive parents. Thank you to the judges who struck down the adoption ban, and shame on the Legislature who let the law fester for decades after Anita Bryant had come and gone.