By Shannan Wilbur, Esq.

The launch of the National SOGIE Center (“Center”) is an important milestone in the movement to promote the health and well-being of LGBTQ+ children and youth who interact with public systems of care.

That there is enough momentum to support a national resource center reflects broad professional awareness and consensus, as well as growing demand for training and technical assistance. The Center’s launch coincides with my retirement after more than 3 decades of youth advocacy, and I appreciate the opportunity to share my reflections on the past, present, and future of our movement.

Until relatively recently, there was almost no professional acknowledgment of the presence of LGBTQ+ children and youth in government custody, much less their experiences or needs. Aside from the pioneering work of Dr. Gary Mallon, research, professional standards, and laws governing services to youth did not explicitly address SOGIE. At the same time, advocates and providers were increasingly aware of disproportionate numbers of LGBTQ+ youth in child welfare and youth justice systems and the harms to which they were subjected because of their SOGIE. Invisibility, professional inattention, and structural bias combined to jeopardize the health and safety of system-involved LGBTQ+ children and youth.

In the early 2000’s, a small group of advocates planted the seeds for a national movement. Our goals were focused on reform: to document the numbers of youth in child welfare and youth justice systems and their experiences and outcomes compared to that of their peers, to raise awareness among professionals, to adopt protections against SOGIE-based discrimination, and to create affirming professional standards. Early research confirmed that at least 20% of youth in foster care and youth detention self-identified as LGBTQ+ – numbers that far exceed their representation in the general population. Researchers also began to document the risk and protective factors specific to outcomes for LGBTQ+ youth. Groundbreaking research by the Family Acceptance Project showed that family support is closely correlated with positive health outcomes for LGBTQ+ youth, while family rejection contributes to higher rates of depression, suicide, substance abuse, and other health risks. Mainstream child welfare and youth justice organizations adopted professional standards and promoted best practices, many of which were created by the Center’s partners and are available on the website. Several states adopted protections against SOGIE-based discrimination, either in legislation or agency policy. Advocates developed curricula and delivered hundreds of trainings to youth serving professionals. Congress created protections for LGBTQ+ youth in confinement facilities, and federal agencies issued guidance on the harms of conversion therapy and the imperative to affirm all youth across the SOGIE spectrum. The movement made monumental gains in a short time, and the launch of the Center reflects that progress.

The movement made monumental gains in a short time, and the launch of the Center reflects that progress.

At this moment in history, however, we must assess these gains through the lens of the unprecedented devastation caused by a worldwide pandemic, a national reckoning with entrenched racism and white supremacy, global warming, and an orchestrated backlash against the LGBTQ+ community – particularly transgender and nonbinary youth. These existential threats disproportionately harm the same young people who are overrepresented in child welfare and youth justice systems: youth living in poverty, Black, Indigenous and Latinx youth, and LGBTQ+ youth. It is not a coincidence that most of the LGBTQ+ young people at the center of our movement live at the intersection of these and other marginalized identities.

Our movement cannot progress without confronting the ways in which public systems of care perpetuate structural racism and identity-based inequality. Despite increased awareness, legal protections, and myriad trainings on implicit bias, LGBTQ+ youth of color remain overrepresented among incarcerated youth, youth without stable housing, and youth without permanent families. At this moment, untold numbers of LGBTQ+ youth are in group care or secure detention solely because “we don’t have any families willing to care for LGBTQ+ youth.” That this explanation is both common and considered acceptable speaks to the resilience of bias and the inadequacy of piecemeal reform. 

The imperative to reimagine public systems has produced enormous anxiety as well as unprecedented opportunity. The Center and its partners can seize this opportunity by leading public systems to embrace a new vision: that all LGBTQ+ young people experience belonging and connectedness in their homes, schools, and communities. When I am overwhelmed by the scope of this aspiration, I am reminded of a young client in foster care who taught me a valuable lesson early in my career. I asked her how things were going, and she replied: “No one ever asks me what I need.” It rang true then and it rings now. In the face of broad systemic change, it is helpful to return to basics. Centering the articulated needs of LGBTQ+ youth should be our touchstone. “What do you need and how can we help?”

Categories: LGBTQ+ Youth


Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: