The holiday season can be one of the most exciting times of the year, with beautiful decorations, delicious home-cooked meals, and long-overdue family gatherings. But for foster youth—and others who might not have a “traditional” home to go to—the holidays can intensify feelings of isolation and may reignite trauma stemming from family loss or rejection. This can be especially true for LGBTQ youth who have aged out of foster care.
This was my personal experience. I aged out of foster care when I was 18—meaning I exited the system without being adopted or reunified with my family of origin. From ages 12 to 17, I spent five years in and out of behavioral health hospitals, group homes, and detention centers.
Before these placements, I was with a loving foster home that always made me feel loved and accepted. But I was hiding the one thing that could change my life forever—my queer identity. I grew up in Oklahoma, where you can find a church on every corner. This is why coming out was one of my biggest fears.
I vividly remember one Sunday, I sat in church with my foster family and the pastor preached about how everyone is deserving of love, and that we as disciples of Christ had no right to pass judgment on anyone else. Hearing this sermon, and seeing how my foster parents agreed with it, I felt this was the perfect time to unveil my true identity. When we got home that afternoon, after establishing that I was safe and loved in this home, and affirmed by the church, I came out as queer to my foster parents. I anticipated love and acceptance.
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The response was the opposite. My foster parents told me I was going to hell. They limited my time and interactions with other children and made me fight my foster siblings to “teach” me to be more masculine. Knowing that I was afraid of the dark, they would force me outside at night on the ranch. There, I would sit, crying and trembling with fear, for hours on end as they refused to let me come inside.
Coming out changed my foster parents’ perception of me; made me feel isolated, disgusting, and unloved; and subjected me to violence and discrimination for my next five years in the system.
When I left my last foster home at 18, I moved directly into my college dorm room where I would live for the next five years. The most challenging part of college for me was not the academics, or the finances, or even balancing the experiences that accompanied my intersectional identity. It was the holidays. While my peers would talk about how excited they were to be traveling home, I spent the holidays in my dorm room.
As I watched everyone pack, I reflected on my life and experiences in foster care. The system failed me—not only was I was left without a family, but I was also denied the support and connections young people need to thrive even when they’re living on their own. And for the longest time, I believed that it was my own fault because I chose to disclose my orientation. I questioned my self-worth because the one family I had known rejected me. Sadly, feelings of loneliness and rejection are not uncommon for young people like me who live at the intersections of multiple identities: young, African American, male, foster care alumnus, LGBTQ.
After coming to terms with my own depression and anxiety, I searched for ways to combat them. I founded a foster alumni organization on my campus. I started a toy drive for local shelters, circulated cards that would be signed by members of the university, and organized dinners for students who spent the holidays on campus. Helping others who were in similar situations allowed me to feel affirmed and helped me find my chosen family. I’ve learned that family has many different meanings, and for me, family is a collection of people who love and support you unconditionally. My experience—one of vivid rejection and, eventually, powerful acceptance—is just one of many.
LGBTQ youth that have experienced foster care, homelessness, or the juvenile justice system have a unique experience, which are exactly the kinds of stories the Biden Foundation is shining a light on through the As You Are family and community acceptance campaign.
This holiday season, please consider the major impacts acceptance or rejection can have on young people. I’m one of the lucky ones. I’ve found my chosen family, and I can now proudly say I have somewhere to call home for the holidays. Through greater acceptance and affirmation, I hope that more LGBTQ foster youth and alumni will be able to say the same.