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Supporting Your LGBTQ Youth: A Guide for Foster Parents

There are approximately 175,000 youth ages 10–18 in foster care in the United States. Of these youth, an estimated 5–10 percent—and likely more—are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning (LGBTQ). Like all young people, LGBTQ youth in foster care need the support of a nurturing family to help them negotiate adolescence and grow into healthy adults. However, LGBTQ youth in foster care face additional challenges.

These include the losses that brought them into care in the first place, as well as traumas they may have suffered while in foster care. They also include stressors unique to LGBTQ youth, including homophobia or transphobia3 and the need to evaluate (often with little or no support) the safety of their communities, schools, social networks, and homes in order to decide whether to disclose their LGBTQ identity, when, and to whom.

Despite these challenges, LGBTQ youth— like all youth in the child welfare system— can heal and thrive when families commit to accepting, loving, and supporting them as they grow into their potential as adults. This factsheet was written to help families like yours understand what they need to know to provide a safe, supportive, and welcoming home for an LGBTQ youth in foster care.

In this factsheet, you will learn about LGBTQ youth in the child welfare system, the unique risks they face, and the important role that foster parents can play in reducing those risks. You will discover specific actions that you can take to create a welcoming home for all youth in your care and to promote your youth’s health and well-being in the community. At the end of this factsheet are links to many resources for more information and support.


Definitions
Lesbian, gay, and bisexual describe a person’s sexual orientation—emotional, romantic, or sexual feelings toward other people. Lesbian refers specifically to women who love women, while gay can refer to any person who is attracted to people of the same sex. (The term homosexual is considered outdated and offensive by many gay people.) Bisexual people are attracted to men or women regardless of their anatomy. People do not need to have any particular sexual experience (or any sexual experience at all) to identify as bisexual, gay, or lesbian, because sexual orientation and sexual behavior are not the same thing.

Transgender refers to a person’s gender identity—an internal understanding of one’s own gender. A transgender person’s gender
identity does not match the sex (a biological characteristic) assigned to him or her at birth. Many, but not all, transgender people choose to alter their bodies hormonally and/or surgically to match their gender identity. Some people’s experience, perception, or expression of their gender evolves and changes over time. Gender identity and sexual orientation are separate aspects of a person’s identity: A transgender person may be bisexual, gay, or straight (or may identify in some other way). 

Some youth (and adults) identify as questioning when they start to recognize that they may be part of the LGBT community. This does not mean that sexual orientation
or gender identity is a choice. These youth may need time to process what being LGBT means for them; to reconcile any anti-LGBT stereotypes they have internalized; and
to decide if, when, and how they should identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender to others.

Some people’s gender expression (meaning, the ways in which they express their gender identity to others) does not conform to society’s expectations for their sex. This might include choices in clothing, mannerisms, names, hairstyles, friends, and hobbies. It is important to understand that society’s gender expectations are cultural, not biological, and they change over time (for example, women used to be expected to wear only dresses; now teens of both genders wear jeans, sweatshirts, and tennis shoes). In any case, not all gender-variant (or gender nonconforming) youth will continue to express themselves this way into adulthood, and many will never identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. In other words, it is best not to make assumptions. Respecting your youth’s self-identification is very important. As youth grow to trust their foster families, many will eventually share their feelings about gender identity or sexuality more openly.

Taylor Pyles

Taylor Pyles is a child abuse survivor and the founder of The Blue Ribbon Project. He has been a police officer with Annapolis Police Department for over a decade and is assigned as a Detective in the Criminal Investigations Section.  When not working, you'll find him spending time with his family and out enjoying the countryside on two wheels. 

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