There are approximately 175,000 youth ages 10–18 in foster care
in the United States. Of these youth, an estimated 5–10 percent—and likely more—are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning (LGBTQ).
Like all young people, LGBTQ youth in foster care need the support of a nurturing family to help them negotiate adolescence and grow into healthy adults. However, LGBTQ youth in foster care face additional challenges. Despite these challenges, LGBTQ youth— like all youth in the child welfare system— can heal and thrive when families commit to accepting, loving, and supporting them as they grow into their potential as adults.
Addressing Common Misconceptions
There is a lot of misinformation about sexual orientation and gender identity. Here are some things that are important for you to know about LGBTQ youth in your home:
- LGBTQ youth are a lot like other youth. In fact, the similarities that LGBTQ youth in foster care share with other youth in care far outweigh their differences. Most, if not all, youth in foster care have been affected by trauma and loss; they require acceptance and understanding. Making sure your home is welcoming to all differences, including race, ethnicity, disability, religion, gender, and sexual orientation, will help ensure that all youth in your home feel safe and that the youth in your care grow into adults who embrace diversity in all of its forms.
- This is not “just a phase.” LGBTQ people are coming out (acknowledging their sexual orientation/gender identity to themselves and others) at younger and younger ages. Studies by the Family Acceptance Project have found that most people report being attracted to another person around age 10 and identifying as lesbian, gay, or bisexual (on average) at age 13. Gender identity may begin to form as early as ages 2 to 4. Someone who has reached the point of telling a foster parent that he or she is LGBTQ has likely given a great deal of thought to his or her own identity and the decision to share it.
- No one caused your youth’s LGBTQ identity. Sexual orientation and gender identity are the result of complex genetic, biological, and environmental factors. Your youth’s LGBTQ identity is not the result of anything you (or a birth parent, or any other person) did. LGBTQ people come from families of all religious, political, ethnic, and economic backgrounds. Experiencing childhood trauma or reading about, hearing about, or being friends with other LGBTQ people did not “make” the youth become LGBTQ.
- LGBTQ youth are no more likely than other youth to be mentally ill or dangerous. These unfortunate myths and stereotypes have no basis in truth. Gay or transgender people are not more likely than heterosexuals or gender-conforming people to molest or otherwise pose a threat to children. And although it is true that LGBTQ people experience higher rates of anxiety, depression, and related behaviors (including alcohol and drug abuse) than the general population, studies show that this is a result of the stress of being LGBTQ in an often-hostile environment, rather than a factor of a person’s LGBTQ identity itself. Professional mental health organizations agree that homosexuality is not a mental disorder and is a natural part of the human condition.
- Your youth’s LGBTQ identity cannot be changed. Medical and psychological experts agree that attempting to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity does not work and often causes harm.
- Many religious groups embrace LGBTQ people. Some people fear that they will have to choose between their faith and supporting their youth’s LGBTQ identity—but this is not always the case. Many religious communities welcome LGBTQ youth, adults, and their families. It may be important to know that there are other options if your family does not feel welcomed or comfortable at your place of worship.
Creating a Welcoming Home for LGBTQ Youth in Foster Care
All youth in care need nurturing homes that provide them with a safe place to process their feelings of grief and loss, freedom to express who they are, and structure to support them in becoming responsible, healthy adults. Creating a welcoming foster home for LGBTQ youth is not much different from creating a safe and supportive home for any youth.
In fact, youth in care may have difficulty trusting adults (many with good reason), so you may not know a youth’s gender identity or sexual orientation until he or she has spent some time in your home and has grown to trust you. Avoid making assumptions about gender identity or sexual orientation. Any steps you take to make your home welcoming to LGBTQ youth will benefit all children and youth in your care— both by giving LGBTQ youth the freedom to express themselves and by helping heterosexual and gender-conforming youth learn to respect and embrace diversity.
Behaviors that openly reject a youth’s LGBTQ identity must be avoided and not tolerated. This includes slurs or jokes about gender or sexuality and forcing youth to attend activities (including religious activities)
that are openly hostile or unsupportive of LGBTQ people. Well-meaning attempts to protect youth from potential harassment, such as “steering” them toward hobbies more typical for their sex (football for boys, for example)
or isolating them for the sake of safety, also are experienced as rejection by LGBTQ youth and can have devastating consequences for their self-esteem and well-being.
Consider the following suggestions to make your home a welcoming one, whether or not a youth in your care openly identifies as LGBTQ:
- Make it clear that slurs or jokes based on gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation are not tolerated in your house. Express your disapproval of these types of jokes or slurs when you encounter them in the community or media.
- Display “hate-free zone” signs or other symbols indicating an LGBTQ-friendly environment (pink triangle, rainbow flag).
- Use gender-neutral language when asking about relationships. For example, instead of, “Do you have a girlfriend?” ask, “Is there anyone special in your life?”
- Celebrate diversity in all forms. Provide access to a variety of books, movies, and materials—including those that positively represent same-sex relationships. Point out LGBTQ celebrities, role models who stand up for the LGBTQ community, and people who demonstrate bravery in the face of social stigma.
- Let youth in your care know that you are willing to listen and talk about anything.
- Support your youth’s self-expression through choices of clothing, jewelry, hairstyle, friends, and room decoration.
- Insist that other family members include and respect all youth in your home.
- Allow youth to participate in activities that interest them, regardless of whether these activities are stereotypically male or female.
- Educate yourself about LGBTQ history, issues, and resources.
If a youth in your care discloses his or her LGBTQ identity, you can show your support in the following ways:
- When a youth discloses his or her LGBTQ identity to you, respond in an affirming, supportive way.
- Understand that the way people identify their sexual orientation or gender identity may change over time.
- Use the name and pronoun (he/she) your youth prefers. (If unclear, ask how he or she prefers to be addressed.)
- Respect your youth’s privacy. Allow him or her to decide when to come out and to whom.
- Avoid double standards: Allow your LGBTQ youth to discuss feelings of attraction and engage in age-appropriate romantic relationships, just as you would a heterosexual youth.
- Welcome your youth’s LGBTQ friends or partner at family get-togethers.
- Connect your youth with LGBTQ organizations, resources, and events. Consider seeking an LGBTQ adult role model for your youth, if possible.
- Reach out for education, resources, and support if you feel the need to deepen your understanding of LGBTQ youth experiences.
- Stand up for your youth when he or she is mistreated.
LGBTQ youth in foster care need permanent homes; they do not need additional disrupted placements. If you are being asked to consider providing foster care to an LGBTQ youth and you feel—for any reason—that you are not able to provide a safe and supportive environment, be honest with your child welfare worker for the sake of both the youth and your family. If you are able to provide an affirming environment, remember that you can talk with your child welfare worker about any questions you may have or support you may need.
Additional Resources for Foster Parents of LGBTQ Children