The Obama Adminstration’s War On Gay Teen Homelessness

As the 2012 election gets ever closer, the back-and-forth on Obama in the gay community gets more and more intense. Has he done enough? Has he done anything at all? Everyone has very different answers to those questions, but if you’re looking for something to add to your “things Obama has done for us” column, this might work. The federal government is putting pressure on the child welfare and foster system to live up to its promise to gay kids, something that could finally make a difference for thousands of children and teens who are otherwise powerless.


Anyone with any experience with foster care or the adoption system knows that there are major gaps – all kids are at risk for unsafe homes, endless bouncing around from placement to placement, and lack of adequate attention or understanding from social workers. Frequently these kids are left without any resources or support once they reach the legal age of adulthood and are no longer supported by the state – they’re suddenly homeless adults instead of orphaned kids, and have no options besides the street or a shelter. Clearly this should matter to everyone who cares about kids or other human beings, but why is this an issue for the gay community in particular? Because an overwhelmingly disproportionate number of kids in the foster system are queer or trans.

[ACF Commissioner Bryan Samuels] cited a numbing list of statistics showing just how vulnerable LGBTQ youth are in the system. Although five to 10 percent of the general population is estimated to be gay, anywhere between 20 and 40 percent of homeless youth are gay, according to the National Network of Runaway and Youth services. They are also far more likely to age out of the child welfare system without finding an adoptive family.

Horrifyingly, these numbers are made up of all the children and teens thrown out of their homes or disowned by their biological families for their sexual orientation or gender identity, or who have run away themselves to escape the abuse or anger they face. They have no other support system or family to turn to, and in an unconscionable echo of their first abandonment, their experiences in foster care are often very similar. There are countless stories of teens abused repeatedly by foster families in an attempt to punish or change their sexual orientations or gender identities, or who are given up by families who don’t want to care for a gay kid. While the statistics that show kids are coming out at a younger age than ever may be good news in terms of our culture’s increasing awareness of queer identity and its normalization among the next generation, it also means that more and younger kids are experiencing abuse and abandonment in the foster care system because of it. Shockingly, experts say that some gay kids abandoned by both biological and foster families end up at least temporarily behind bars in juvenile detention, just because there’s nowhere else for them to go.

So what is the administration doing? Well, like everything else in the government, it starts with a memo. It has some standard and unsurprising language about making the safety of LGBTQ kids a priority, and acknowledging the fact that those kids face a compounded level of crisis. But it also mentions something more unexpected: it explicitly states that LGBTQ foster and adoptive parents should be considered as placements. This is huge news, and could be instrumental in the fight to reverse situations like that in Florida, where gay and lesbian families are completely banned from adoption. But aside from being the ethical and American thing to do, it would also be the most obvious way to ensure that queer kids had at least one option where if the placement didn’t work out, they could be sure it wasn’t because of their sexual orientation. Which really doesn’t seem like that much to ask.

What’s more, the administration is putting millions into a five-year pilot program in LA County which is aimed at aiding and providing support to queer youth in the foster system. Programs that are supported by federal dollars are under great pressure from the government to provide quantifiable results; hopefully LA County will develop policies and strategies that can then be implemented across the country. And if the administration’s support for queer adoptive and foster families remains this strong, it could have repercussions for families all across the country as well.

Without overstating the issue, it may not be too much to say that this is one of the most important things the Obama administration has ever done for us. It remains to be seen how effective it will be, but the choice of issues to take up represents an understanding of the issues that the queer community really faces that previous Presidents haven’t been willing to pursue. Marriage equality will be an important milestone, but in truth it’s largely symbolic, and there are those in the queer community for whom it represents assimilation, not progress. An effective repeal of DADT will be momentous if it ever really goes through, but it affects only those and their families in the armed forces – who are courageous and admirable and who deserve our thanks and respect, but whom are also there by choice. Homelessness, especially for kids and teens who have no power or agency on their own, is a hugely pressing issue for the gay and especially trans communities. It’s not a very cool or sexy cause to get behind, but it’s an epidemic, and it hits those who are the absolute most helpless members of our society. And for decades, there’s been virtually zero interest from any previous administration in improving their lot – until now.

Under the previous administration, advocates couldn’t recall the phrase LGBTQ being uttered once. It was as if those kids just didn’t exist.
“Literally in the last administration you were not allowed to talk about this,” explained Gerald P. Mallon, a professor at New York’s Hunter College School of Social Work who began researching LGBTQ kids in the mid-’90s. “If you put ‘lesbian’ or ‘gay’ in a workshop, you were guaranteed it wasn’t going to be approved. It’s night and day.”

If Obama does manage to repeal DOMA or DADT while he’s in office, that may be what he’s remembered for in the history books. But if his initiatives to support queer teens in the child welfare system are effective, that’s what he’ll be remembered for by generations of one-time teen child welfare recipients for, as a hero.

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Rachel is Autostraddle's Managing Editor and the editor who presides over books and news & politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy."

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22 Comments

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    This is so great! The foster/placement system is a rough course to handle as a hetero teen, I could only imagine what it is like for young people who are “out” & forced to be independent. Unfortunately there is criteria that needs to be met to even live in a foster home or group home & being homeless because of your sexual orientation doesn’t usually qualify. Often these kids don’t really have anyone to advocate for them which is so necessary & I’m so glad that Obama has stepped up to the plate. I’ve always wanted to pay it forward after leaving the foster care/state system & this gives me hope that I will finally be able to.

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    WOW it’s an obvious and significant thing to suggest and implement. I don’t know much about foster care but for example developmentally challenged kids go best with adoptive parents with clincal/psychological backgrounds. Same for mentoring between people of similar backgrounds I suppose. It makes sense: understanding.

    For kids, it’s a simple solution to implement for their well-being, like healthy school breakfast/lunches, after-school activities, etc.

    How much more would be accomplished if discriminatory laws and regulations didn’t blind us… Sky’s the limit.

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      This is what hits me the most. That this even needs to be a thing sucks. Midway through the post, I found myself imagining a fantastic speech Obama would give completely debasing homophobia & associated irrationalities from any arguable position… something you would be laughed out of the town square for even suggesting. And then when I popped back into the reality of the article, I got really fuckin’ sad.

      brb becoming Obama speechwriter

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    I am extremely impressed. This is an issue that is near and dear to my heart. I will be beyond ecstatic if this doesn’t fall through.

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    This hit me hard in the gut this morning, especially as I was reading the LA Times article about CA’s prisons overcrowding. I really really really hope this works out and funding doesn’t get cut for it years down the line, a la Planned Parenthood.

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    That’s hard to read and process what these kids are going through- the fact that their families would kick them out for this. I know it’s not rare. I know it’s not new news. But to be faced with the facts is sickening. I’m proud that he’s taking a stand, especially since this isn’t a popular stand to take (outside of the LGBT* community).

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    I’m currently one of those. I’ve been relatively homeless (nomadic, really, hopping from friends’ house to friends’ house) and I cannot file as an independent student for some reason or other, though I am independent in nearly every sense of the word. I work, I bust my ass, and I am taking out loans (unsubsidized because my lovely parents make just enough for that that to happen, and they saved all of like $35.17 my whole life for school).

    Anyway, I’m just. I’m stuck. Resources are few and far-between, and a lot of them are religiously affiliated, and I have been turned down from several of those groups because of my orientation.

    First-world problems aside, I think it is my right as a HUMAN BEING to have food and shelter at the very least. All of the stress of trying to STAY ALIVE can be kind of distracting from my ultimate education goals.

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    Yeah, those statistics are alarmingly high and really just…not okay, at all. It’s great to hear that it’s finally being recognized.

    This reminds me of a Washington Post article from a couple weeks ago The Wanda Alston House, a nonprofit transitioning space for LGBT individuals who are 16-24. http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/gay-and-transgender-teens-find-refuge-at-home-created-for-them/2011/05/11/AFir1k8G_story.html

    Especially what you said, re:”Programs that are supported by federal dollars are under great pressure from the government to provide quantifiable results”-

    The Post article doesn’t mention how much it costs, but I’d imagine that, aside from being so much better for their well-being, it’s far more cost-effective than leaving young people vulnerable to becoming homeless or ending up in prison. It would be great if similar programs could expand with government support.

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    I am really happy that this is finally becoming policy (in the bureaucratic world, memos can often be more powerful than legislation), and especially happy that queer adoption is included. In Chicago there’s a fledgling LGBTQ host home program where queer adults can sign up and train to host homeless LGBTQ youth in their homes, serving as mentors and housemates and helping young people get on their feet. It’s a pretty neat model, and I hope this policy change might encourage similar projects in other areas to help provide queer youth with safe places to live.

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    this makes me just want to buy a big ranch and let all of the gays live there and we will learn life lessons and friendship and how to milk cows and stuff.

    or we could go with my idea to use texas’s ability to turn into a country and gay take over it and all of the gays will have a place to live and be happy.

    :(

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    If the Gay community is so righteous, then why doesn’t it take in these homeless kids? I mean, most gays, have no children and therefore enjoy excess income. Surely, all the
    progressive, humanitarian queers could provide adequate resources for those youngsters who follow in their lifestyle footsteps.

    The answer is: The gay community
    DOES take these kids in… For sex, and then it dumps them right back onto the streets.

    Right?

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      Thanks for your comment, Timo! A cursory look at the article you just responded to will reveal the answer to your question: gay families are discouraged, if not outright banned, from adoption of any children. That is in fact part of why this initiative was created! Here, let me quote again from the article that you are commenting on, so you can read it again:

      “…it explicitly states that LGBTQ foster and adoptive parents should be considered as placements. This is huge news, and could be instrumental in the fight to reverse situations like that in Florida, where gay and lesbian families are completely banned from adoption.”

      Thanks for your participation, and I hope that helps answer your questions about the details and logistics of adopting and/or preying on children for sex.

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        I’m afraid Timo has a point in refering to some homeless teens who turn to working the street – and their gay johns who “use their services” a.k.a. don’t give a fuck why they’re on the streets prostituting themselves but just take advantage of their situation. :( >:(

        Btw I strongly disagree that being gay = having excess income, automatically.
        I’d bet that for example gay adults who had been homeless teens are at a higher risk of being poor than their peers.

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