Growing up in the system since I was young, I was never given any insight as to what LGBTQ+ means. I was sheltered – backwards, I like to say. I may not have known of LGBTQ+ terms, but I was made very aware of how to self-harm and how to hide my emotions. I learned this from watching others self-harm and from figuring out what hurts enough to feel good. I had my first exposure to LGBTQ+ terminology when I was just 13 years old. It wasn’t from seeing two girls kiss or holding hands on TV or perhaps in public. It was from my own feelings towards another youth in the group home I was in. I didn’t know how to express my feelings, but I told my therapist about it. She seemed supportive at first. However, I soon saw that she didn’t know how to go about the situation. Her solution was to sit me down with this youth and just flat out tell her. Can you imagine that? Being forced to talk to your crush and having to live with them 24/7 even if they reject you? Let’s just say, it did not go well.
Fast forward to me being 15 years old in a residential treatment center with yet another crush, or two. This time, I held in my feelings as long as possible because of the trauma caused at the group home. I eventually wanted to face my fears, so I wrote about it in my journal. Then, one of the youths mistook my journal for theirs. The youth brought it to a staff member who brought it to my therapist and social worker. My therapist responded better than my social worker did, that’s for sure. My social worker’s solution was to either ignore me or tell me I was wrong for feeling this way. Because she didn’t respond well, I had it etched in my brain that I was in the wrong for feeling these types of feelings. It also made speaking to her very hard from then on. My therapist’s solution this time was not allowing me to talk to the people I had a crush on. Are either of these extremes the way you’d handle the situation?
So, I was living in a center, unable to speak to other youth because the staff didn’t know how to properly handle the situation. As for the youth, they began to pick on me and call me names. I heard the word “f——t” a lot, although I was unaware of what the word meant. I had no access to the internet, and no one bothered to clue me in. It wasn’t until I was 17 that I found out the meaning.
So, when I was 17 and in yet another new group home, I let my guard down a little too quickly. There was a younger female staff member that I was attracted to. I had decided enough was enough with hiding my emotions, and I wrote out my emotions once again in MY journal. But this time, it wasn’t discovered by a youth. The staff were “tipped off” by my therapist to look for such “obscenities.” Even though some of my entries were sexually graphic, how else was I supposed to know this was wrong? I also knew I was to never act upon such feelings, so why was it such a big deal? I once again was made a fool by being called names. This time, I heard the term “d—e.” I heard the staff discipline the youth who said it, but I still had no idea what it meant.
When I was 18 and in my last foster home, I was living with two elderly foster parents who also happened to be homophobic. I found that out when I found myself and came out as a lesbian to them, some friends and family. They hit me with the “We accept you but don’t support your lifestyle.” Well, good thing I’m living for me and not you! Up to this point, I had been discriminated against by group home staff, youth, and now, my foster parents.
One of my last placements in care after that foster home was at a center I had been at twice previously. Staff already knew me, and I was always a “star child” based on the center’s point system. On my third intake, there’s one question in particular that I answered differently this time: “What is your sexual orientation?” At previous places, I had always said “straight” despite feeling otherwise. This time, I was done hiding and decided to answer “lesbian.” Instead of being met with support and acknowledgement of my journey to find myself, I was put on two segregated “bed and bathroom” program plans. What does that mean, you may ask? Let me spell it out. Because I told my sexual orientation to a trusted staff member who already knew something vulnerable about me, I was no longer allowed to have a roommate and had to ask for permission to go to the bathroom. That meant if the rooms were full, I had to drag my mattress out to the day area every night in order to sleep. To go to the bathroom, I had to make sure a female staff member was present at all times and free from tasks to escort me while other female youth were in the bathroom. If the staff was busy, I had to hold it. None of this segregation was due to my behavior, and no other youth faced this segregation because of their straight identity.
Would it have been better to stay in the closet? Would it have been better that I hide away who I am for the sake of others? How are any of these stories fair or equitable? How do these practices protect me or affirm my identity? I wasn’t protected by the child welfare system. I was excluded, discriminated against, and outed without my consent. I invite you to think about what you’ve just read and really let it sink in that this is happening more than it should be. These placements have no right to discriminate against us just for being our authentic selves. Who is telling group homes that it is acceptable to segregate in this way? And what are group homes doing to provide affirming care and to make sure staff are not homophobic?
I should have been met with open arms about my identity, or at least open minds. I didn’t deserve to hear those nasty names other youth called across the halls. I didn’t deserve being forced to hold in my bowels just so other youth could feel “safe.” Safe from what? Safe from who? Why are LGBTQ+ youth seen as “different?” I should have been made to feel safe within these walls. I should have felt like I could tell these therapists anything since that is what they’re there for. Why was I treated so differently, especially in a place that already knew me?
Now, what are we going to do about it? If you care about youth in the child welfare system, then please care about us LGBTQ+ youth as well. We deserve the same affirming care that straight youth receive. We are all human. We all bleed red. How are we going to make sure these placements are following policies? How are we going to hold them accountable? How are we going to assure future youth will be safe from segregation and discrimination? I ask — no, I urge you to speak up about this. This isn’t new, and this isn’t going to go away on its own. It takes a village.
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