In the Face of Bigoted “Religious Freedom” Laws, Queer Families Are Still Fighting for LGBTQ Youth

Two women holding hands, trans flag color motif in background.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

Of all the responses straight people have when I tell them that my family is hoping to become foster parents to a gender nonconforming teenager between 15 and 17 years old, one reaction that I’ve quickly learned not to expect is joy. Concern, yes. Confusion, definitely. Something like pity mixed with fear or contempt, perhaps. But not joy. For the three of us (my polyamorous family includes three loving adults), the idea of providing a safe, affirming place where a young member of our community can grow is an exciting and joyful challenge, one we dearly hope we’ll be approved to take on. We conceive of our commitment to an older teen, one who may be the cusp of aging out of foster care, as an open-ended and potentially lifelong family bond, and we welcome this potential with open arms. But to most outsiders, at-risk queer youth are a problem to be tutted over from a distance—that is, if their needs are even considered at all. Meanwhile, some of the very organizations charged with helping connect youth to foster and adoptive homes have made it clear that they put religious strictures above the needs of children with so-called religious-freedom laws that enshrine their right to discriminate against queer folks.

By now it’s well-established that LGBTQ youth are at a much higher risk of homelessness, and that this risk is primarily due to family rejection. One national survey conducted in 2012 of agencies that work with homeless and runaway youth found that 30 percent of the young people these agencies serve identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, and further found that 68 percent of such youth had experienced family rejection. A more recent study, which appeared in the Journal of Adolescent Health, found that LGBTQ-identified youth were 120 percent more likely to experience homelessness compared to others. These numbers are much more than abstractions for my family—two of us are transgender adults who experienced homelessness at an earlier point in our lives. We share this life experience with nearly one-third of trans adults, according to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality.

Another large, well-known risk factor for homelessness is aging out of foster care. Examining data on youth in foster care in the Midwest in 2013, researchers found that between 31 and 46 percent of these youths experienced homelessness at least once by the age of 26. Finding stable foster homes for young LGBTQ folks, particularly ones with families who are willing to help these youth in their transitions to adulthood past the age of 18, is an urgent and pressing need. Often it is queer people who step up to try to stem the tide of LGBTQ youth homelessness when others can’t or won’t open their hearts and homes.

One such individual is Traci Bayless, whose family hosted one queer youth in foster care. Bayless’ expertise goes far beyond the personal: She’s long been working to address the needs of queer youth in Cincinnati for years by chairing the greater Cincinnati chapter of the youth-centered advocacy group GLSEN and serving as the case manager for the Host Home program, which matches youth in need of housing with supportive adults in the community. Traci and her wife hosted a transgender boy in the foster-care system for six months after they learned he had been placed in a home where his gender identity was not affirmed.

“My wife came to me and she was so upset,” Bayless told me, “because she’d reached out to this boy to tell him about one of our youth events, and he said he was in foster care. We found out the home he was in wasn’t using his name or gendering him correctly, and he had to share a room with girls.”

To provide this youth with the supportive environment he needed, Bayless and her wife worked with his caseworker and agency to have him placed in their home. They were able to do this in an expedited fashion because, having known him prior to placement, their family was eligible to be considered a “kinship home” and didn’t have to go through the full process to become certified as a foster home.

“They said he’s struggling in school, he’s angry, he’s having this problem or that, and I kept telling his caseworker, ‘Just bring him to me,’ ” Bayless said. “Of course he’s angry—he’s fighting for his life! Coming into a home where he was respected, where we supported his identity, where we were able to get him into our local trans clinic and get him the care he needed, we saw a complete turnaround. Every time we went to court and he was doing well, every time he got an A in school instead of a D, I was just so, so proud.”

Bayless also talked with me about some of the significant challenges that can come up in caring for a youth who has been shuffled around from place to place. Youths may find it difficult to trust adults; they may have difficulty being honest; they may test boundaries or even engage in behaviors like stealing that have helped them survive in the past. But for Traci’s family, the most significant challenge came when the young man’s caseworker found a foster family who shared his cultural background and had experience caring for transgender youth; the hardest thing was letting him move on to a permanent home after they’d grown to love him and think of him as their own.

Recent laws that protect religious organizations’ ability to discriminate against these families will only exacerbate the challenges faced by young people in need of affirming and supportive homes. While the conversation about these laws often focuses on the families who will be unfairly turned away, it’s just as important to remember the LGBTQ youth who are abused, kicked out, or driven out of homes where they are not allowed to be themselves.

Although Christian organizations pushing these laws may prefer to ignore these children’s needs, it is incumbent on the rest of us not to forget that they exist. That’s why, in spite of everything conservative Christian organizations are doing to exacerbate and intensify the crisis of LGBTQ youth homelessness by barring queer families from adopting, queer families are still here fighting for our youth. Talking with Traci, and learning more about the need for queer and queer-friendly foster families, has only reinforced my excitement and hope for the prospect that my own family could soon be joining in this fight.