I started having panic attacks when I was 9 years old. I didn’t discover what they were for years, so I was simply convinced that I was about to die with every panic attack. Before I was placed into foster care, my mom would sometimes lie next to where I slept on the floor of our one-bedroom apartment in hopes of comforting me during one of my panic attacks, but after I entered foster care I quickly discovered I was going to have to find different ways to cope with my anxieties and heartache.
Upon moving into my third foster home, without even a hello, the first thing my foster mom told me was, “No, get rid of those tears. There’s no crying in this home. If you keep that up, I’ll send you off to a group home immediately!” So I found out rather quickly that I was going to have to suppress my strong emotions in this home. That changed when my older foster sister moved into the home a few months later. She and I became very close. She was five years older than me, and acted very motherly and comforting towards me when I had my panic attacks.
So what does this have to do with the LGBTQ+ community?
My anxieties often appeared at night, when my heart most wanted peace. One night, I couldn’t stop myself from having a panic attack, and ran to my foster sister’s room crying. She let me lie in her bed with her, saying I could spend the night in her room if it would help me sleep.
Not very long afterwards, her bedroom door slammed open, putting a crack in the wall that it hit. It was my foster mom. She stomped over to where I lay, grabbed my elbow, dragged me over my foster sister’s body and threw me to the floor. “You disgusting lesbian!” she screamed. When I tried to get up, she used her foot to keep me down, and continued to yell at me in Spanish. My foster sister explained the situation over and over, but my foster mom wouldn’t hear it.
The next morning, when I was getting ready for school, my foster mom grabbed me and pulled me into her bathroom, locking the door behind her.
“You’re a disgusting, stupid girl, a disgusting lesbian and I won’t have it in this house,” she hissed at me, spitting with each angry syllable. She hit me in the head, grabbing my hair and tugging it downwards.
“Stop it!” I cried. “I was just in her room because I was scared!”
“Scared!” she scoffed. “You act like you’re this good, perfect girl, going to church and getting good grades, but you’re really a disgusting lesbian.” She hit me upside the head once more. “I could get rid of you for this!” she continued.
“Please, I’m sorry, I won’t do it again. Just leave me alone,” I pleaded.
She tilted her head, glaring down at me like a bug she was debating stepping on. Without a word, she unlocked the bathroom door, and I ran out to the car where my other foster sisters sat waiting.
I think back on this day often for many reasons. I wasn’t thinking about my sexuality or dating when I was in foster care—the only thing on my mind was reunification with my mother. If I had discovered that I was a part of the LGBTQ+ community, what horrors would have awaited me in this home if I had been transparent about that part of who I was?
According to ChildrensRights.org, 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. If I experienced what I did as a youth who had no real thoughts on the topic of gender or sexuality, then it’s an undeniable truth that youth who are discovering these things about themselves are experiencing turmoil in the homes where they’re supposed to feel the safest.
There are numerous youths involved in the foster care system who won’t be able to work through their traumas adequately because of their need to suppress who they truly are.
So what can be done about this? Foster parents need to be trained to be loving and welcoming to youth of all genders and sexualities, regardless of the foster parents’ personal beliefs. If a foster child feels that in order to feel safe in their placements they need to suppress a part of who they are, then that placement needs to be re-evaluated and there needs to be a training added to that particular foster parent’s to-do list.
There needs to be accountability, because youth in foster care should be healing from their traumas, not adding to the ones that already exist.