Identity Crisis for LGBT Group Homes

For 19-year-old Qydell Jackson, Gramercy Residence was his last option. He was being beaten at home and was in dire need of a safe place to live. “I would get thrown down the stairs, just because I was homosexual,” he said. “If I hadn’t [run away] when I did, I’d probably be dead by now.”

One month after finally fleeing home four years ago, he was admitted to the residence, a 25-bed facility devoted to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) foster children.

In a child welfare system where homophobic bullying is commonplace, Jackson was fortunate to be placed in Gramercy Residence’s specialized setting, one where he could express his sexuality without fearing for his wellbeing.

But group homes like Gramercy Residence exist in an unusual paradox. From the standpoint of the Administration of Children’s Services (ACS), which oversees the care of foster children, placing a child in a stable home environment is considered the best possible outcome. Still, prospective foster parents are frequently unwilling to a accept gay, lesbian or transgender child as their dependant, said Jody Marksamer, Director of Youth Programs for the National Center for Lesbian Rights. “Group care is often treated as the only option for LGBT young people,” he added.

Though being entirely surrounded by one’s peers might be construed as an ideal scenario, residents of LGBT-friendly group homes often grapple with the experience of being surrounded by their homosexual peers for the first time. “I’m [only just] becoming used to being around all homosexuals at one time, explained Jackson, in his fourth year at Gramercy Residence, “it’s been an ongoing thing.”

Few Options for LGBT Foster Children

Jackson’s story is not uncommon. Today, an increasing number of adolescents are coming out of the closet in high school and middle school, resulting in greater numbers of teens forced out of their homes by parents or guardians who refuse to accept their sexuality. A survey conducted by the National Alliance to End Homelessness found that an estimated 320 to 400 thousand young LGBT Americans face homelessness each year.

Group homes geared towards LGBT foster children are few and far between. Besides the 25-bed Gramercy Residence, the only other comparable home in the Tri-State area is a six-bed facility also run by the same organization, Green Chimneys Children’s Services. Gramercy Residence is twice the size of other LGBT-friendly group homes or shelters in the Northeast, such as Massachusetts’ Waltham House, which can house 12.

Confusion out of the Closet

For those traumatized by bullying and abuse, moving to an environment where they are surrounded by their LGBT peers can be an ironically disorienting experience. An “all gay, all the time” setting is not necessarily what an LGBT young person is looking for, said Marksamer, of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. “There are so many intersectional identities [in adolescence], that [young people] may not necessarily identify with others of the same sexual orientation in the way that they would with peers from the same racial background,” he explained.

Jackson, had come out as gay before moving into the group home four years ago. Still, having never really been exposed to gay culture before, he couldn’t have anticipated the atmosphere when he arrived. “[There were] guys with wigs on, and dresses, and [high-heeled] shoes,” he said. “At first I was very uncomfortable with it.”

Some young residents simply don’t want to associate themselves with the LGBT group home or assert their sexuality publicly. Nolan recalled a resident recently telling her, “I’m not one of those gays. I don’t want people to know right away.”

Such is the dilemma for Gramercy Residence and its inhabitants. Though the shock of being placed among peers can be disorienting or provoke rebelliousness among the foster children there, it also affirms their identity and value. For LGBT foster children in New York, Gramercy Residence might be a last resort, but it’s also the safest bet.

“If I had gone to another residence, it probably wouldn’t have been the same [experience],” concluded Jackson. “Not all group homes are gay-friendly. I would have definitely been fighting for dear life!”