Sense of Community: Basic Challenges Facing Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Youth in Foster Care

Dr. Ryan T. Anderson of The Heritage Foundation has made a career of late arguing that transgender people are merely making a choice regarding their identity and not affirming openly a fact that their gender identity fundamentally differs from their sex at birth. People like Dr. Anderson, PhD,  know, or believe they know, or think they know, what it means to be  transgender/gender nonconforming (TGNC). They believe it to be fundamentally an act of choice: to reject one sex and elect to be part of another.  They are partially correct; in some manner, there is a choice. But the choice isn’t between genders, or sexes, or sexuality, but rather a choice of whether to live life as one’s authentic self or to keep hidden from the world a basic internal truth of who one is as an individual.

Gender Identity [PDF Pg. 4], as defined by the American Psychological Association, is “[a] person’s deeply-felt-, inherent sense of being a boy, a man, or male; a girl, a woman, or female; or an alternative gender (e.g., genderqueer, gender nonconforming, gender neutral) that may or may not correspond to a person’s sex assigned at birth or to a persons’ primary or secondary sex characteristics. Since gender identity is internal, a person’s gender identity is not necessarily visible to others.” The same APA definition goes on to state that one’s “affirmed gender identity [. . . ] refers to a person’s gender identity after coming out as TGNC or undergoing social and//or medical transition process.”

In this post, I will discuss the issue of visibility and community for TGNC youth, I will talk about how TGNC foster youth have exceptionally bad outcomes even when compared to non-TGNC youth in foster care, and finally, I will briefly touch on the existing Foster Youth Bill of Rights in the California Welfare and Institutions Code.

Lack of Visibility

A big part of how homosexuality, be it same-sex attraction; or bisexuality, be it as a man or a woman, became understood and accepted by a great and growing number of people in this country and the world over when people came to know a non-heterosexual person. This was first famously demonstrated in the campaign by San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk to defeat the anti-gay Briggs Initiative in 1978. That campaign took form by cribbing the words of Glinda the Good Witch to the munchkins of Munchkin Land to “Come Out, Come Out, wherever you are.” What Milk and the other leaders of No on 6 hoped to do, and actually achieved with their campaign, was to make real to California voters that they knew a homosexual themselves and that the initiative would hurt a real person. This same principle was reflected more than twelve years later when, four years after casting what could be argued to be the deciding vote to uphold Georgia’s anti-sodomy law, Justice Lewis Powell intoned that his error in voting to uphold the law was of “one of little or no importance” because of the lack of prosecutions under the law. Stories abound of Powell’s comments during the conference on the case that he’d never met a homosexual. He is purported to have been told by Justice Blackmun to look around his own chambers. But as the above New York Times article notes, Powell had any number of gay clerks during his time on the bench. In fact, the article avers that Powell may well have known of the sexual orientation of at least one of his several gay clerks. Whether ignorance or something else precluded Justice Powell from acknowledging his gay clerks even privately or affirming their right to privacy in public will remain unknown. But increased visibility of homosexuality, at least in part, paved the way for successive Supreme Court affirmations of LGBT rights over the next thirty years.

So, what does all this have to do with Transgender and Gender Nonconforming youth in foster care? I’m glad that you asked. Most Americans will tell a pollster when asked that they know a gay person. Some polls put it at nearly 90%. Yet when asked the same question about whether they personally know a transgender person, that number is drastically lower, ranging from 19 to 40 per cent. This bolsters the problem of the initial fundamental understanding, that someone who is transgender or gender nonconforming has made a choice to be transgender or gender nonconforming.

Realities of Youth and TGNC Youth in and After Foster Care

For foster care generally, of the approximately 20,000 youth who age out of the system annually, within 18 months 40-50% become homeless. Nationally, half the homeless population spent time in foster care. Former foster youth are approximately three times more likely to have considered suicide than their non-foster youth counterparts. And by age 26 less than half of the former foster youth are employed. These numbers matter because they don’t account for the overrepresentation of LGBTQ youth in foster care, while they are a small percentage of the general population, in California alone, 30% of the youth who reported being in foster care between the ages of 10 and 18 self-identified as LGBTQ. This means their worse outcomes as demonstrated by the numbers above are likely greatly contributing to the total reported bad outcomes for foster youth. So once again what does this have to do with foster care? The simple answer is outcomes. A study conducted by the University of Texas found that compared with heterosexual youth in foster care and LGBTQ youth in stable housing, LGBTQ youth in foster care reported more fights in school, more victimization, and were more likely to have suffered from depression or contemplated suicide in the last year.

But these are just self-reported numbers from a survey of roughly 900,000 youth between the ages of 10 and 18 in California. The truly scary numbers come into play when you look at transgender adults generally and not controlling for whether they have been in foster care at any time in their life. 30% of transgender adults have experienced homelessness in their lives, 12% have experienced it in the last year. 20% report working in the underground economy, meaning drugs, commercialized sex, and other criminalized jobs. 41% of trans workers reported experiencing physical assault while working. Where they end up as commercial sex workers, they are three times more likely to be attacked than non-transgender sex workers. Transgender adults also self-reported worrying levels of issues with mental health. 39% reported “significant” mental or emotional distress in the previous month. And, alarmingly, 40% of transgender adults report having attempted suicide in their life. For comparison, the average for attempted suicide among the general population is drastically lower at 4.6%.

Existing California Law and What Lies Ahead

California Welfare and Institutions Code section 16001.9(a) guarantees foster youth a role in developing their plan for care, equal access to all available services, placement, care, treatment, and benefits regardless of their gender identity. But in this case, outcomes don’t match the aspirations of the legislature. As the information in this post demonstrates, LGBTQ youth represent a disproportionate number of youth in foster care, and for transgender and gender nonconforming youth in foster care more work is needed to address one thing that is lacking for them more than their heterosexual counterparts in foster care: a strong sense of community and acceptance. Indeed, as noted above Assemblyman Mike Gipson has introduced Assembly Bill 175 which will amend the existing Foster Youth Bill of Rights to include two items.

First, it mandates that youth in foster care be permitted to participate in school and other youth activities in a manner that is consistent with their gender identity. And second, it mandates that youth be referred to by preferred name and gender pronoun. This bill would, in effect, permit foster youth to participate in social activities in and out of school that match their gender identity. And it would take the crucial step of requiring those foster parents and indeed all people with authority over youth in foster care respect the decision of foster youth who are not cisgender to live as their true and authentic self in care. Indeed, as noted by the Christian Broadcasting Network in a recent handwringing article, a proposal to amend the existing Foster Youth Bill of Rights to mandate protections for transgender foster youth to live openly has been deemed an attack on the rights of Christians and religious foster parents. The article quotes Greg Burt, a representative of the California Family Council testifying regarding the proposal by forcing Christian foster parents to “affirm[…] the confused gender feelings of their foster care children. Why would the state want to push Christian foster parents out of the system, when foster parents are already in short supply?”

One thing that helps all youth as they transition to adulthood is the fact that they see other youth going through the same things. They can, if they want, commiserate about a difficult time in their lives. For transgender and gender nonconforming youth that option isn’t readily available and is exacerbated by the deleterious effect that foster care has on their outcomes relating to employment, mental health, and housing stability. That is not to say that foster care is the source of their ills, merely that as currently constituted it is serving transgender and gender nonconforming youth poorly. And their lack of ability to have a community among themselves and to have an understanding community at large preclude them from being able to enjoy the same intangible benefits of camaraderie available to heterosexual youth both in, and out of, foster care.

In my next post, I will examine first the importance to adolescent psychology of a sense of community or what psychologists would term peer influence, and the important benefits that can have for youth especially TGNC youth in foster care. I will then talk about the twin reforms at the state level in California in the form of “Continuum of Care” and federally with the Family First Prevention Services Act and the deleterious effect that may have on a care option for transgender youth that may enable them to gain that sorely needed sense of community. Finally, I will discuss briefly reforms targeting both group care and in-home placement for TGNC youth that may be beneficial to that community based on the current state of their experiences in foster care.