The Fosters Explores the Fear and Possibility of Queer Childhood

Maia Mitchell (Callie) and Hayden Byerly (Jude) on The Fosters

Photo by Tony Rivetti/ABC Family

In the Feb. 9 episode of ABC Family’s The Fosters, 13-year-old Jude goes to the movies on a double date with Connor, his best friend, and Daria and Taylor, two girls from school. It seems Connor and Daria are there to make out, and they have brought Jude and Taylor along as cover. When Jude takes his seat, Connor pointedly lowers the armrest between them. But after the lights go down, their pinkies touch and then cross. The camera cuts back and forth between their flushed faces, their eyes wide with nervous excitement and surprise at the intensity, while Daria and Taylor absently watch the “chick flick” they’ve supposedly come to see. The scene is unexpectedly and palpably erotic—a feat that speaks to the richness and complexity with which the show has developed Jude’s storyline over its first two seasons. And yet it is clear that this touch will not provide a neat resolution to the questions about Jude and Connor’s relationship or sexuality, but, rather, will only deepen the exploration.

Jude is not the first queer teenager on television, but he is among the youngest—and he is the first to be raised by queer parents. The Fosters, which airs Mondays at 8 p.m., follows a modern family of a kind rarely seen on television—an interracial lesbian couple, Lena and Stef Adams-Foster, and their five racially diverse children: one biological; three adopted, including Jude; and one whose adoption has been repeatedly stalled—Jude’s sister Callie. It’s a sentimental teen drama that manages at moments to show foster care and LGBTQ parenting with sensitivity and texture. But its most radical move may be in its depiction of Jude, played with thoughtful nuance by Hayden Byerly.

Almost from the beginning, the show has presented Jude as exploring his gender and sexuality, and his new foster, later adoptive, parents as unusually conscientious not to rush him.. Early on, we learn that a former foster parent hit Jude when he discovered him trying on a dress. Once Jude arrives at the Adams-Foster house, he paints his fingernails blue. Callie warns him not to wear nail polish to school, and when he does, a group of boys shoves him into the lockers. His new friend Connor (Gavin MacIntosh) watches from a few feet away and seems unable to decide whether or how to stop the bullying. Jude might be too ashamed to want his help. Jude and Connor are already developing a range of codes and unspoken strategies for navigating queer adolescence and bullying. A few days later, Connor paints his nails blue in solidarity with Jude—without saying a word about it.

At the end of the first season, Jude asks Lena (Sherri Saum) when she knew she was gay after he feels a pang of jealousy when Connor expresses interest in a girl. Lena stumbles at first—“Oh, honey. That’s totally normal. Not normal, that’s not what I mean. You know, let’s not use the word normal at all”—but she quickly tries again. “Honey, everybody gets jealous when their friend gets a boyfriend or girlfriend,” she tells him. “Everybody. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re gay or that you’re not. And if you are or you’re not, it really doesn’t matter to us either way. We love you no matter what because you’re you.” Her gentle, if awkward, response conveys, at the very least, that she does not believe Jude needs to be fixed—either in the sense of changing his desires and gender, or pushing him to simplify them. That stance stems from the show’s creators: As Peter Paige told Outward’s June Thomas in January 2014, “I don’t think that we’ve decided anything definitive about Jude. Jude is curious, and we’re exploring that.”

That model of open and accepting parenting is a sharp contrast to the other portrayal of foster care and adoption currently on television: This season on Two and a Half Men, as the show moves toward a Feb. 19 series finale, straight odd couple Walden and Alan decide to marry in order to adopt a child—under the logic that adoption would be easier for a gay couple than for a single man. They soon decide to foster 6-year-old Louis—and they assume his heterosexuality from the start. In one episode, Walden asks Louis whether he’s excited to have a friend over: “You got a cute girl coming over here, you should be popping in the KIDZ BOP slow jams and putting the SunnyD on ice.” This depiction, though perhaps exaggerated, undoubtedly resembles scenes in many American households—even those where parents would never consider themselves homophobic or heterosexist. In most homes, and in American culture, children are presumed straight until proved otherwise.

This assumption that children are straight has long underlied debates around LGBT parenting, especially fears of “queer contagion”—the possibility that same-gender parents will “teach,” or “convert” their children to homosexuality. In 1984, for example, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis placed a ban on gay and lesbian foster parenting, because, as he explained, “a home with a father and a mother and other children, or prior parenting experience, all things being equal, is the best placement.” What Dukakis was getting at was that children were expected to become unambiguously heterosexual, which could only happen, presumably, through the modeling of heterosexual parenting.

That idea has its roots in a particularly conservative interpretation of Freudian theory that became popular in the United States in the 1950s and ’60s, and also in a brand of right-wing “family values” that emerged in the late 1970s and ’80s. Homosexuality was considered a developmental arrest and moral failing. An especially common trope in the literature on adolescent psychosexual development and psychotherapy has been that of “bisexual panic,” when a supposedly straight teen develops a regressive attraction to a same-gender friend. This idea was first popularized by psychoanalyst Peter Blos, who described resolution of “identity confusion” as being key for healthy development into adulthood. Prolonged adolescence—narcissistic refusal to consolidate a fixed identity—was understood to be a consequence of absent or impinging parents.

Early advocacy for gay and lesbian foster and adoptive care, as it first emerged among queer activists and child-welfare agencies in the 1970s, ironically tended to make similarly essentialist claims. They framed the “best interests of the child” a little differently when they suggested that only gay and lesbian parents could understand the struggles gay and lesbian youth encountered. In 1974, for example, the Gay Task Force of New York actively sought gay foster parents for runaway and throwaway gay youth. As the director of community services for the Gay Task Force told the New York Times, gay foster parents “want to help the child face the same kind of agonizing problems of discrimination and self-image which they had to face.” With “paternal love,” the young runaway would ideally grow more self-accepting, “convinced that he is not a freak of nature, but just an ordinary person.”

The Fosters offers an alternative to both views, a model of queer parenting that neither assumes the heterosexuality and gender normativity of any child, nor waits for children to “come out” before showing acceptance. Stef and Lena seek to encourage reflection and curiosity rather than provide a direct model of the adults their children will grow up to be. You don’t have to be queer to be a queer parent, but you do need to affirm possibilities and exploration,  guiding children to embrace the pleasures of an open-ended journey and providing safety, support, and care through its challenges.

What’s so resonant, about Jude is his inscrutability, to his parents, to himself, and to the viewer. Throughout the show, the writers frequently use narrative fake-outs: hinting that the story is going one way before taking it in a different direction. It is a dramatic device used to great effect with all the kids to give a sense of the unpredictability of parenting.  Earlier this season, a cliffhanger hinged on Jude’s confession that he and Connor had done something “wrong, I guess” in a tent during a school camping trip—outraging Connor’s father, who had already tried to keep them apart because he believed Jude to be gay. But when the show returned from hiatus, Jude claimed that they had invited two girls into the tent to make out.

The writers seem to be playing with more conventional portrayals of adolescence, where a kiss or a first date represents a dramatic awakening. In the Feb. 9 episode, Jude’s adoptive brother Jesus prepared him for the double date by spraying him with a blast of cologne and offering tips for getting girls, a striking assumption for a teenager with two moms. Jude responded with silence—his typical tactic. Earlier in the season, Jude worried his teachers and family when he suddenly stopped speaking for several weeks. He had just learned that he and Callie did not share a biological father and that Connor’s father had forbidden them from being friends. Like many of the “sad young men” of 1950s and ’60s popular culture analyzed by queer studies scholar Richard Dyer, Jude “comes out by going in,” retreating into himself. Although Stef and Lena constantly reassure their kids that they can share anything with them, at critical moments, Jude and his siblings inevitably begin to keep secrets.

There is no knowing where Jude’s storyline will go in the episodes ahead: Connor might compartmentalize and deny their moment at the movies, and Jude is as likely to tell his parents about the pinkie touch as keep quiet. That uncertainty is fundamental to the show, pushing viewers to question the messages educators, clinicians, and parents send to children about “normal” sexual development and modeling hope for an alternative—listening attentively, avoiding shame, and presuming nothing.