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Unfortunately, It Isn't Getting Better for Many LGBTQ Youth

Over 30 percent of youth living in foster care identify as LGBTQ, a study finds.

The University of Texas at Austin
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youths are more likely to end up in foster care or unstable housing and suffer negative outcomes, such as substance abuse or mental health issues, while living in the child welfare system, according to new research from The University of Texas at Austin.
Source: The University of Texas at Austin

Young people in grades 6-12 who identify as LGBTQ are significantly more likely to live in foster care or unstable housing, according to a first-of-its-kind new study of 895,218 students (10–18 years old) living in California. The findings of this report, “LGBTQ Youth in Unstable Housing and Foster Care,” were published February 11 in the journal Pediatrics.

The researchers found that although only one percent of California youth are living in foster care, over 30 percent of those living in foster care self-identified as LGBTQ. Additionally, 25 percent of those surveyed who were living at a friend’s house, shelter, motel, transitional housing or other so-called “unstable housing” identified as LGBTQ youth.

Notably, the researchers also found that LGBTQ youth living in unstable housing or foster care were more likely to experience victimization, higher levels of substance abuse, poorer mental health, and lower grades than LGBTQ youth living in stable housing or heterosexual youth in foster care.

As a member of the LGBTQ community, these statistics struck a personal chord and raw nerve. Anecdotally, my life experience as a gay teen corroborates the latest empirical evidence by first author Laura Baams et al. (2019).

Although I didn’t live in foster care during grades 6-12, I was sent off to a homophobic boarding school and separated from my family—which felt like unstable housing to me at the time. As an LGBTQ youth existing under these circumstances, I experienced all of the issues mentioned above (and others) such as bullying, clinical depression, suicidal ideation, substance abuse, binge drinking, low self-esteem, and poor grades.

“LGBTQ youths are probably ending up in the foster care system or unstable housing for several reasons, including rejection by their families or running away because they felt unsafe,” senior author Stephen Russell of the University of Texas at Austin said in a statement. "People have been concerned for some time that LGBTQ youth are over-represented in the child welfare system, but there has been little evidence—until now. We aren't investing enough in the systems and focusing enough on the distinct needs of some of the most vulnerable kids, including LGBTQ kids.”

I agree with the researchers: We need additional studies to fully understand why such a disproportionately large number of LGBTQ youth are ending up in the foster care system or unstable housing.

Baams and her co-authors also point out that only 13 states in the U.S.A. have laws on the books that protect LGBTQ youth from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

The authors conclude, "Disparities for LGBTQ youth are exacerbated when they live in foster care or unstable housing. This points to a need for protections for LGBTQ youth in care and care that is affirming of their sexual orientation and gender identity."

There’s no way to sugar-coat the latest statistics on LGBTQ youths being over-represented and having poorer outcomes in the welfare system. Nevertheless, as someone who has relied on the power of music to help me "fake it till you make it" and get through rough times since adolescence, I took solace in Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Michelle Obama sharing how the power of music helped each of them across a lifespan last night at the 2019 Grammy Awards.

Lady Gaga (founder of the Born This Way Foundation) also gave a poignant speech that addressed mental health struggles while accepting a Grammy for “Shallow” from A Star Is Born. She said:

“I just want to say I'm so proud to be part of a movie that addresses mental health issues, they're so important . . . So, if you see somebody that is hurting, don't look away. And if you're hurting, even though it might be hard, try to find that bravery within yourself to dive deep and go tell somebody and take them up in your head with you. I love you, thank you so much to the Grammys. Thank you."


Laura Baams, Bianca D.M. Wilson, and Stephen T. Russell. "LGBTQ Youth in Unstable Housing and Foster Care." Pediatrics (First published: February 11, 2019) DOI: 10.1542/peds.2017-4211

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