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The Untold Story of Queer Foster Families

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. 

Read entire article at The New Yorker