I was 16 years old on that cold fall evening when Samantha* pulled me to the side in the group home we both lived in to have an important conversation. What happened next was such a whirlwind, I can’t remember all the fine details.
But I remember the important part: She was into me.
My life had just gone through a tumultuous change. We weren’t friends or classmates with some kind of history, but rather strangers of the same age. We lived at the local Lutheran Social Services (LSS) group home for teenage girls transitioning into the foster care system. After years of physical and emotional abuse, foster care seemed like the only solution for me.
Let me back up: I was raised by Hasidic Jewish parents in the Midwest. Where my values and faith were concerned, my parents taught me to be a strong advocate for myself and my people. But sexuality of any kind was shunned, not just by my immediate family but by our community at large. Growing up, my family had a gay couple living just a few blocks aways from us. My parents regularly made sure to clarify just how wrong and “not Jewish” their “lifestyle” was. While it never crossed my mind at the time that I was like them in that way, I was really uncomfortable with the us versus them mentality.
When Samantha told me she had feelings for me, I was flabbergasted. Quite honestly, I wouldn’t have known how to handle the situation even if it had been a boy, much less a girl. Though at least when it came to boys, I had years of knowledge grown from secretly reading Cosmopolitan magazines and those romance novels you used to be able to buy in any Walgreens.
I brought the topic up to a worker named Jessica in the group home, feeling bewildered with my feelings and thoughts on the subject. Jessica quickly shut me down. Sexuality wasn’t allowed there, either. She made sure I understood that having any kind of sexual relationship would cost me dearly in that group home, and consequently in my foster care life in general. It seemed pretty clear that she was frustrated that she had to engage in this conversation at all, and that she thought Samantha and I were intending to actually act on whatever was happening between us.
The thing is: I wasn’t asking for permission to engage in any kind of specific behavior. I wanted to understand my confusion and how people responded in situations like this one. But Jessica’s adamant response to shut the whole conversation down felt more bewildering than anything really, leaving me with more questions than answers.
To be honest, sexuality should have been one of the least complicated subjects for them to guide me through. When I came to the group home, I was going through some serious culture shock. Raised in the Hasidic community, I was suddenly confronted with so many things that had been shunned my whole life. I saw my first movie. I watched TV for the first time. I celebrated Halloween and Thanksgiving. I even wore pants.
The workers there were mostly quite patient with me as I took it all in. Which made it even more painful that there was no patience when it came to sexuality. What was it about my sexuality that I wasn’t allowed to question the staff about? Why couldn’t the people so instrumental in my cultural “awakening” offer me resources when it came to this?
My stay at the LSS group home was short-lived. Being a transitional home, it had a three-month cap before you had to move on. After leaving the group home, I was in a foster home with slightly fewer constraints (although I was still treated like some wild child for having the audacity to have been abused). There, I started asking lots and lots of questions, parsing through what felt like a mountain of complicated language surrounding LGBT identity.
Finally I was ready to accept my fate. Come what may, I came out to my first foster dad — an orthodox Jewish man. I told him I was bisexual. I protected myself by offering different ways the Jewish texts didn’t prevent women from engaging in same sex relationships. I tried to justify my existence using language he could understand.
It didn’t quite work. He made me promise I wouldn’t tell his wife, my foster mother. She wouldn’t even begin to understand, he said. Eventually, she did kick me out. Not for being gay — she wouldn’t find out about that until I was long gone — but for not magically accepting her as my mother. I packed my things into garbage bags and moved to the next home on my journey just a few days before my 17th birthday.
It was then that I fully embraced myself and decided it was time to do what my biological parents had always ingrained in me, though they had never intended for me to use it to this purpose: advocate. Preach my truth.
I restarted the GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance) at my high school and quickly became the “gay girl.” I loved being a leader and encouraging others to live their best lives loving the people they were always meant to love. It truly felt like a natural transition from being an advocate for my faith to becoming an advocate for my whole self.
In a strange twist of fate, a year or two after leaving my first group home, I bumped into Jessica. It was at a local pride parade where I learned that in fact, she was a lesbian and not allowed to talk about it at work. It was a bit painful to learn. If I had a queer role model, a woman I respected, walk me through that initial confusion and questioning, how different would my coming-out story be? How different would other foster youths’ stories be?
Today, I choose to live my life openly and proudly. I choose to be a go-to for my lesbian sisters, to be an example for anyone who might be challenging the status quo, and for other young people who might be in a position like I was.
But I had to fight my way to get there.
The foster care system owes queer youth like myself the very best resources. Sexuality isn’t a subject that should be off the table with teenagers. There should be resources and guidelines for how to discuss these subjects, because the foster care system took responsibility for young people like me. Life — childhood — demands more than just a roof over your head and food in your belly. The system owes us more.
*Name has been changed
Image by Carlos Ratti