The Untold Story of Queer Foster Families

The Untold Story of Queer Foster Families

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When Don Ward was a child, in Seattle, in the nineteen-sixties, his mother, each December, would hand him the Sears catalogue and ask him to pick Christmas gifts. By the time his parents filed for divorce, the catalogue had become a refuge, for Ward, from their shouting matches. Eventually, instead of looking at toys, he began turning to the men’s underwear section, fascinated by the bodies for reasons he didn’t really understand. Soon, he started noticing the tirades that his father occasionally launched into about gay people. “I think all those queers ought to be lined up and shot,” Ward remembers his father saying.

“It was a bit of a lonely childhood,” Ward told me. After the divorce went through, he saw his parents under the same roof only twice. The first time was in court, when they fought over custody of Ward and his two brothers. (Ward’s mother won.) The second time was at a youth services facility, after a close acquaintance outed Ward to his parents, and, unable to tolerate a gay son, they mutually signed him over to the state of Washington. Ward was barely fifteen.

It was 1971, and the state of Washington didn’t know how to handle an openly gay teen-ager, either. The Department of Social and Health Services tried sending Ward to an all-male group home run by Pentecostals who were committed to exorcising the “demon of homosexuality” out of him. Ward didn’t get along with his roommates. The state placed him with a religious couple, who gave him a basement room that had only three walls; the lack of privacy, the parents said, would help keep his homosexuality in check. Ward left that home six months later, after a fight with his foster mom about chores. Then he was placed with a childless married couple, who seemed perfect, and who accepted his sexuality. Within a few months, they began to physically abuse him, Ward told me.

At Christmas, Ward would call his father. Every time, after recognizing his son’s voice, Ward’s father would hang up. Ward spoke with his mother from time to time, and he began visiting the Seattle Counseling Service, which had been established to “assist young homosexuals in meeting their personal, medical and social problems.” There, Ward met Randy, a volunteer counsellor with a distaste for gender conventions—Ward remembered him pairing red lipstick with combat boots. (Randy is a pseudonym, to protect his identity, as he never came out to his family.) Randy had a close friend, Robert, a more strait-laced gay man who was in his twenties and a reverend. Robert, who asked me not to include his last name, had been on good terms with many local church leaders until the spring of 1972, when he came out. “The situation is enough to gag a maggot,” a member of one church group then told a local newspaper. Robert moved to the Metropolitan Community Church, a network of gay-friendly churches that was founded in 1968, and he became prominent in Seattle’s gay-rights movement.

In May, 1973, Ward, Robert, and a hundred activists picketed the home of Seattle’s police chief. The Seattle Police Department had been arresting queer men for months. “Are Homosexuals Revolting? You bet your sweet ass we are!” one of the signs at the protest read. Ward, who was wearing a hot-pink button-up shirt and six-inch platform heels, ducked away, at one point, to catch his breath and apply some purple lipstick. When he looked up, he saw news cameras trained on him. “There were thirty-second spots of me on all three major channels for the evening news,” Ward told me. “That was accidentally my social coming out,” he said. He became the only openly gay student at his high school. He ended up transferring, following his junior year, after a string of death threats.

Later that year, his third foster home, in as many years, turned abusive. Each time a home turned bad, his state-licensed social worker, a woman named Marion, helped Ward start over. He told her about attending protests with Robert, and she arranged to meet Robert in a hospital cafeteria across from his church. She asked Robert what he would think if the state of Washington licensed him as a foster parent for Ward. The Washington State Department of Social and Health Services had, it turned out, been quietly placing gay adolescents in gay homes for several years. Many of those teen-agers had, like Ward, been kicked out of one foster home after another. A Seattle organization called Youth Advocates, which was founded in 1970, had successfully placed about fifteen queer adolescents with queer foster parents. Youth Advocates was privately run, but all of its placements were state-sanctioned, paid for with government subsidies. The organization ran advertisements in gay newspapers. Some included a poem, which read, in part, “Don’t matter if you’re straight or gay, / All you need to get a start, / An empty room, an honest heart.”

Although few people were aware of it at the time, other states had also begun matching queer children with queer foster parents. A year before Marion licensed Robert, a gay social worker in Chicago named David Sindt had piloted a similar experiment. Later, at a conference, Sindt said that he’d licensed three queer foster families, including a gay man and a lesbian woman who were married to each other. The couple took in a child whom Sindt described as “virtually unplaceable in a traditional foster home due to his routine practice of transvestism as well as several emotional problems.” The couple told him, “We’re raising enough straight kids already,” Sindt said.

Around the same time, the Monroe County Social Service Department, in western New York, contacted the editors of The Empty Closet, a hand-stapled newsletter put out by a local offshoot of the Gay Liberation Front, a decentralized activist organization that was formed after the Stonewall riots. The ad explained that someone was needed to foster a fifteen-year-old trans girl—a “male transvestite,” the ad called her—named Vera. “It is felt that the best placement would be in a gay home,” the ad said. Vera had been shuttled in and out of a series of unsupportive foster homes. “People just couldn’t deal with the fact that she was a trans kid,” Karen Hagberg, then a graduate student at the University of Rochester and a contributor to The Empty Closet, told me. Hagberg was living with her partner, Kate Duroux, and a group of gay and lesbian friends in an old Victorian house. She and Duroux decided to take Vera in. “It just seemed impossible to say no, because what they were doing was so groundbreaking,” Hagberg told me. She and Duroux received official foster-parent licenses, along with a county subsidy for food, clothes, and medical expenses. The forms that they filled out assumed they were a married husband and wife; Hagberg and Duroux had to delegate gender roles. (At one point, Hagberg crossed out the words “husband” and “wife,” and wrote “lovers.”) At the time, New York State still criminalized homosexuality through its sodomy laws.

In the fall of 1973, New York began placing queer children with queer parents with the aid of the National Gay Task Force, a new gay-rights organization based in Manhattan. The group’s head of community services, who had begun receiving panicked calls from agencies representing gay runaways, started coördinating with foster-care agencies in Delaware and Connecticut. Other Task Force members worked with officials in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. A little more than a year later, a twenty-six-year-old gay social worker named Michael Weltmann took up the cause on behalf of a lesbian couple who were seeking to serve as foster parents for a gay boy who had run away from home. The boy “wanted to live with her, and our office approved it,” Weltmann later explained to the Philadelphia Gay News. In the following years, Weltmann registered two other queer foster parents: a man who had befriended a gay teen-ager while working at a psychiatric hospital and a woman who had raised other foster kids for the department before coming out as lesbian.

Determining the number of such placements from this era is next to impossible. At least thirty-five took place in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. There were at least three in Illinois and sixteen in Washington State. I’ve found references to others in California, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C. The story of these placements, which happened without national coördination, has never been fully told. Parts of it emerged in a handful of newspapers; “Radical Relations,” a history of the queer family by the scholar Daniel Winunwe Rivers, published in 2013, briefly notes the existence of “tacit programs” to match gay youth with gay couples in Illinois and New Jersey. Social workers were wrestling with the sheer number of kids in the foster system; gay and trans kids, who were often rejected by prospective foster parents, were especially difficult to place. Finding gay foster parents just seemed like a natural solution. But these social workers, in some cases inadvertently, were creating something radical: state-supported queer families in an era of intense discrimination. “My caseworker put her job on the line to help me,” Ward told me. “I cared deeply for that woman.” I’ve tried to track down that caseworker, Marion, but have been unable to locate her. It is quite possible that she died in the years since she made a dramatic difference in Ward’s life. People like her helped to author an essential chapter in the story of queer families and their acknowledgment by the state.

Robert took better care of Ward than Ward’s previous foster parents had, but it was not an easy time. Robert “was not prepared or equipped to be a parent,” Ward told me. Robert went away for days at a time to attend conferences and give interviews; he forbade Ward from bringing home partners or drinking alcohol, and, though Ward was seventeen, he was rarely allowed to stay at home unsupervised. But Robert was, for the most part, in Ward’s corner. Ward had been wearing makeup to school—only touches, mostly of eyeshadow—and Robert received a phone call from an administrator, threatening to place Ward on probation if he didn’t change how he dressed. “It creates disruptions in our school,” the administrator said. Robert replied, “Listen, you’re either going to just drop all this or I will create disruptions in your school because I will bring twenty drag queens to picket outside.” The school didn’t call again.

Ward had another parent of sorts in Robert’s friend Randy. “We used to joke and say he was Don’s mother and I was Don’s father,” Robert told me. Ward said, “Randy did not actually live with us but might just as well have.” When Randy wasn’t working or volunteering at the counselling center, he made it his mission to introduce Ward to Seattle’s gay scene. Ward called him “Mama Randy,” and together they went to events such as the University of Washington’s weekly “gay skate.” Randy also supported Ward’s love of theatre. During his senior year, Ward played Ebenezer in “A Christmas Carol” and had a part in the spring musical “No, No, Nanette.” When the curtain fell at the end of one spring show, another student nudged Ward. “There’s someone at the stage door and I think they’re here for you,” the student said. Ward walked out to find a bearded man dressed in a nineteen-twenties evening gown, a fascinator with netting that hung above his eyes, and bright red lipstick: Randy. Ward beamed.

Karen Hagberg and Kate Duroux also struggled to be good parents, Hagberg told me. Like Robert, when she wasn’t working, Hagberg was often attending protests and demonstrations. Duroux had a young son to look after. Both women were cisgender and possessed only a basic understanding of what it meant to be trans. But they were open to who Vera was. She “opened my eyes to that whole segment of the queer community,” Hagberg said. Vera’s friends came and hung out at the old Victorian house—Hagberg remembers coming home one day to find Vera hosting a tea party in the living room. “She was happiest with these peers,” Hagberg said.


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