Mother Jones has published a heart-breaking article about the bullying of LGBTQIA kids in the foster system. The article tells the story of a teenager named Kenneth and the struggle to find an accepting foster family. Kenneth has good grades, no criminal record, and is coping with the challenges in his life well. But when he brought home his first date, here’s what happened.
James, Kenneth’s foster father, returned to the apartment one night to find the boys talking and laughing in the front room. The introductions immediately turned into what Kenneth calls a “life-or-death situation.”
James wasn’t blind to his foster son’s sexuality. The young man was decidedly out—preaching tolerance at school assemblies, appearing on teen panels, and advocating gay pride in rainbow pamphlets. He even showed up to court hearings wearing lipstick. Privately, though, James dismissed all of it as a phase. And Kenneth, to avoid rocking the boat, had downplayed his sexuality at home—until now.
When James—a retired demolition worker with missing front teeth and a heavyweight’s body—saw Kenneth with his date, he grew livid. “What are you doing bringing a boy into my house?” he screamed, according to Kenneth. He ordered them out, but the boy stood his ground. James got up in his face. “I’ll kick your asses,” he threatened. Taking him at his word, the couple fled, with James chasing them down the stairs and out the door. The boyfriend called 911.
This night began Kenneth’s struggle to find a new foster family. I hope that you’ll read the rest of the article. If you do, you may notice something that I noticed. Through out the article, Kenneth’s gender expression is mentioned – Kenneth paints his nails and wears lipstick. Kenneth’s mannerisms are described as feminine. My ears perked up. Is Kenneth just a femme gay boy or is this an example of a transkid being assumed to be gay because too few people think that a teenager could be transgender? Of course, only Kenneth can clear up this question. But then I read the last line of the article: “After the New Year,[Kenneth] settled on the solution [for the state’s inability to find an appropriate foster family]—a sex change. He’d been considering it for a year and had enrolled in the required counseling sessions at a local clinic, but only now could he articulate his reason for wanting to reboot his identity: He would be safer as a woman. “I’m getting really tired,” Kenneth explains. “I don’t have no other options left.”
I’m not going to draw conclusions about someone else’s gender identity. But this article left me feeling sad for more than one reason. It’s clear that trans issues need to be in the consciousness of LGBTQIA folks advocating for teenagers in the foster system, journalists writing about queer issues, and everyone involved in the foster care system. The lives of young people like Kenneth depend on it. And making that change can start with us at the We Got Your Back Project.
When a youth-services nonprofit surveyed its 246 foster families, it found only 21 who were willing to accept a gay teenager. Imagine what the numbers might have been for trans-teenagers. I hope you’ll share your thoughts about this article and the larger issue here or on our facebook page.