By Lynsey Clark
During National Pride Month, The Imprint will be profiling LGBT youth who have experience with the foster care system.
Conleysha Gaston is a former foster youth who is currently an AmeriCorps volunteer. She is employed as an Educational Specialist at the Independent Skills Living Program of San Francisco, which offers a full range of services designed to assist and support emancipating foster care and probation-involved youth in their transition to independent living.
She shares her “coming out” experience, and what advice she has for other queer youth in foster care, and foster parents.
How old are you and where do you live?
I’m 23 years old and I currently live in Oakland, California. But I grew up in South San Francisco and Antioch.
When did you enter the foster care system?
Well, technically I entered the foster care system when I was five. But I have been living with my great aunt since I was two weeks old. So my whole life. I emancipated out and everything.
Is that kinship care?
Yeah, that’s kinship.
How old were you when you knew you were gay?
I was seventeen. My nephew’s mother had been to prison a couple times. And when she came home she was gay. And we started hanging out. I never had a boyfriend. I was never interested in dating. It wasn’t in my day-to-day life. I was young just hanging out with my friends, so it wasn’t until I was 17 when I was exposed to it and started going to the clubs that I realized ‘I kind of like this.’ And then I realized. It was all down hill from there. [Laughs].
When did you start coming out to your family?
Eighteen and a half I started telling close friends. I didn’t tell my mom until…Well, honestly, I never told my mom.
Do you mean your foster mom?
Yeah. I think my [foster] mom heard from other people. She was in denial for a really long time. I was her only girl. She raised me to be a wonderful housewife, I can tell you that. And she didn’t really accept that about me. And there were incidents when we would argue that she would throw that in my face. But now she’s a lot better with it. We’ve grown and she’s accepted it.
What was challenging about being gay and how did it affect your relationship with your foster mom?
There was a time when she would come home and look at me with disgust. All I wanted to do was be myself and be who I felt like I was inside. It was difficult. So my biological mom is gay. And its crazy that I am too because I never lived with her.
But my foster mom would ask, “You wanna be some kind of dyke like your mother?” Prior to even coming out, I went through emotional abuse so that just added to it. It was crazy because she had gay friends so I didn’t understand it why it was such an issue that I was who I was.
Were you able to speak to your social worker about your sexuality?
My social workers throughout my whole life were very absent. From ages sixteen to eighteen, I had three social workers and they were never around. They weren’t present. So no I couldn’t talk to any social worker because we didn’t have that relationship.
What’s your advice for future foster parents with gay foster kids?
Be open. No matter how uncomfortable it might make you feel. No matter how much you might not want it for them. It’s part of who they need to be so help them be their own person. Just support them and if it is unfamiliar or uncomfortable for you, maybe do your own research. Ask a social worker if there is any kind of training to learn how to have an open relationship. Just to educate themselves.
What’s your advice for future foster kids who are coming out?
Don’t be afraid to be yourself. Once I started being myself I was the happiest. It will save a lot of pain I think in the future if you can just be you. And if people don’t like it then so be it.
I feel like I get discriminated against. In the back of my mind I know its because I’m gay and I dress like this. But you can’t let that get to you. Be comfortable with who you are, and be happy with who you are. And don’t let other peoples’ judgments of you get to you. Cause it will break you. Be strong.
What improvements would you suggest to improve the foster care system for gay teens?
Educating them. Educating them about everything about sex and sexuality. Just educating and empowering these young people to come out and talk ‘bout it. And making sure that when they are screening foster parents who are going to be taking care of these young people…Make sure that they aren’t homophobic.