Acknowledging and celebrating our own identity is everything.
But decades ago, if someone talked about identifying and tracking queer foster kids, it would undoubtedly have been to punish or convert them.
Not anymore. Social services now seek to identify LGBTQ+ foster kids so they can better serve their specific needs. But recently the Trump administration proposed dropping the federal mandate to ask questions regarding LGBTQ+ orientation, undermining the legal and moral responsibility of social services to protect such children in their care.
The irony is that now getting less information is what serves the anti-LGBTQ+ agenda. And I can speak to this from personal experience.
I volunteer as a CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) for foster kids in LA County. CASA kids typically have specialized needs—educational, social, psychological, physical, or anything else that requires someone who can focus on bridging the many services that can be utilized for a child, with an aim to making sure that child is getting everything they need.
We are assigned individually, usually with only one child at a time. In my five years as a volunteer, two of the kids I have worked with are trans. I’ll call them Kenny and Sophia.
Kenny suffered from years of emotional abuse from parents who refused to accept his gender, insisting that he wear frilly dresses and only participate in stereotypically female activities. Drug use and self-harm landed him in foster care. He is not quick to trust. He does not readily share his feelings. But he identified as transgender early in the process.
Because DCFS (the Department of Children and Family Services) knew his gender identity, it led to Kenny being assigned to me, a CASA who identifies as gay and who has been further identified as someone with a lot of experience with LGBTQ+ youth, and specifically, trans youth.
Kenny’s name is now correct at school. Faculty and administration are required to address him correctly. He is beginning to explore medical therapy to support his gender identity. Soon his name and gender will legally reflect his truth. He now lives with a family headed by a married couple who identifies as lesbian, one of whom has a family member who identifies as trans.
Two years ago, he was suicidal. He can see a future now. That might not have happened had questions gone unasked about his gender identity. He might never have been seen or counted.
When I started working with Sophia it was a week after a video surfaced at her high school of a group of boys holding her down, throwing her wig in a trash can, and peeing on her. In this case, information about her gender identity had been previously unknown to DCFS and to her school. Sophia didn’t publicly identify as transgender until then.
But because DCFS and CASA keep track of information about LGBTQ+ identity, she was then able to get specialized help, medically, psychologically, and scholastically. CASA and her dependency court judge (who identifies as gay) made case law by defending Sophia’s right to safeguard her ability to have children before beginning hormone therapy. (Hormone therapy affects reproductive organs. Sperm and eggs must be frozen and stored before treatment if the client intends to ever have biological children.)
A 2019 study found 30.4 percent of youth in foster care identify as LGBTQ and 5 percent as transgender, compared to 11.2 percent and 1.17 percent of youth not in foster care. Another study performed by the Williams Institute found that around 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ, and the U.S. National Alliance to End Homelessness reports that LGBTQ homeless youth are roughly 7.4 times more likely to suffer acts of sexual violence than heterosexual homeless youth.
LGBTQ young adults are also overrepresented in the juvenile justice system. While LGBTQ youth comprise only an estimated 5-7 percent of the overall youth population in the United States, they represent 13-15 percent of those currently in the juvenile justice system.
Protecting these youth from such consequences starts with properly identifying them within the system and offering the appropriate services. Identifying LGBTQ+ youth, caregivers, and volunteers is not only central to being able to serve the needs of LGBTQ+ foster youth, it can saves lives.
I suspect Trump’s proposed change will not affect the State of California’s or LA County’s commitment to identifying and serving LGBTQ+ youth in foster care. We are lucky to live in a state that values our civil liberties.
But tens of thousands of the most vulnerable of an already vulnerable foster youth population across the country will disappear, their identities unacknowledged and unknown. I’ve used some variation of the word “identity” twenty-two times in this piece.
That isn’t an accident. Identity is everything. I guess that makes it twenty-three.
Sam Garza Bernstein is a volunteer with CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) of Los Angeles.