Gay and searching for family: from Indonesia to foster care

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Foster mom, Leigh, and Frank. (Alex Stern/for WHYY)

Foster mom, Leigh, and Frank. (Alex Stern/for WHYY)

A few years ago, Frank fell in love.

When he talks about his old boyfriend, he breaks into a big smile.

“He can be so diplomatic, but he can be so funny, too, at the same time. When I see people have that kind of personality, it’s like melt my heart,” Frank says. (The young man we’re calling Frank is worried this story could hurt his immigration case and preferred to remain anonymous. We’re using his nickname.)

Frank and his boyfriend went to high school in a small town in the Yogyakarta Sultanate in Indonesia. They spent all their time together, doing homework and going to the mall.

“He was just my world,” Frank says. “He was like my partner.”  

But most people thought Frank and his boyfriend were just close friends.

While they were falling in love, Frank says their hometown was growing increasingly anti-gay. A vigilante extremist group called the Islamic Defenders Front (also known as Front Pembela Islam, or FPI) started enforcing Sharia law. They demanded all the women in the town wear hijab, regardless of whether or not they were Muslim.

There was also mounting intolerance and violence toward LGBTQ people, Frank says. Members of the Islamic Defenders Front were creating fake social media accounts to out people in the gay community.

Only Frank’s mom knew about his sexuality, but he didn’t feel safe. He began saving up money to come to the United States, where he could be openly gay. A month before he planned to leave, he was discovered on a secret Facebook group for LGBTQ kids in the area.

“So, I left my home country,” Frank says. “I was crying on the airplane, like, I’m relieved that I can get out of there safely.”

Frank landed in Philadelphia, by himself. He was 16 years old.  

He had a visa to take English classes here, and he hoped he could get another, later, to go to college. He got his own apartment. He started working under the table — at a factory, at a gas station — but eventually he ran out of money.

He couldn’t afford classes anymore, which meant he needed a different way to stay in the U.S. Young, new to the country, and desperate to avoid going home, Frank found a pro bono lawyer and learned that, to get his new visa, he’d have to go into foster care.

Foster care

Frank was disappointed with his first foster home as soon as he got there. He’d been hoping for a family, but he and his three foster brothers weren’t even allowed to sit on the furniture.

It became clear early on that this new home was pretty anti-gay, too. Frank’s foster mother told him not to act like a girl. That infuriated Frank.

“Do you think all gay [people] are feminine? Not all of them! Gay is broad. Sexuality is broad,” he says.

His foster brothers called him ‘fag’ and stole his money and his clothes. They complained when he talked to his new boyfriend on the phone. Frank says that, one night, they covered his lips with toothpaste while he slept. When he woke, the paste had dried. Frank had to peel away white flakes — and, along with them, chunks of skin. He’d later talk about these experiences at a city-sponsored event.  

Caitlyn Ryan, the director of the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University, says that families like this can be seriously unhealthy. She’s studied how LGBTQ kids do based on how supportive their families are of their sexual and gender identities.

“In highly rejecting families, LGBT young people as young adults are more than eight times as likely to have attempted suicide, six times as likely to report depression, more than three times as likely to use illegal drugs,” Ryan says, referencing a study of 224 LGBT young adults that she conducted in 2008.   

She also says they’re also more likely to be homeless, and to end up in foster care.

It’s not clear exactly how many children in the foster care system across the nation are gay or non-binary — right now, the federal government doesn’t collect that data — but studies in select cities report about one in five foster kids identify as LGBTQ.

The Williams Institute, a think tank out of the University of California, Los Angeles, studied LA’s foster care system. They found that LGBTQ kids in foster care are twice as likely to say they are being treated poorly, and that they had to change foster families more often.

Remembering his first foster home, his intolerant foster mother and his bullying foster brothers, Frank says, “I feel like a stranger in a family. So what does it mean? It’s worse than having no family.”

A new home

Frank and his caseworker were trying to make other arrangements for him when he was invited to speak at an event.

In October, Philadelphia officials and some local advocates organized a panel encouraging LGBTQ adults to become foster parents for kids like Frank. It seemed like one solution to some of the problems LGBTQ kids face in foster care: the idea that somebody who shares your identity will be supportive of it.

Frank told the story of his most recent foster home.

“And after I’m done speaking, I met Leigh,” he says.

Leigh, who is a social worker, was attending the event professionally. (We aren’t using her last name, either, to protect Frank’s anonymity.) She and her wife weren’t looking to become foster parents, but then she heard Frank’s story.

“[He] really did something to my heart that I just felt like a kindred spirit to him, like he looked familiar or something,” she says. “And I just knew we were the family he needed.”

Leigh became Frank’s foster mom. He moved in with her, her wife, and their eight-year-old son, in a suburb of Philadelphia. He painted the walls of his new bedroom blue and brown. He settled into teenage life — he’s learning to drive and applying for college.

“When you grow up with a gay parent, you have a lot of things in common and you can be completely open for who you are,” Frank says. “You don’t have any feels like, ‘Oh I’m worried that it’s going to be offensive, I’m worried that it’s going to be inappropriate, I’m worried that it’s going to be, like, not right or disappointing for my parents.’”

“So, it’s just something, like a bonus that I have for being in a family, a gay family,” he tells Leigh, across from him at the table in their family room.

“Well, I’m glad that what feels obvious to me is experienced, that you feel like you’re in a home where your sexuality is supported and understood,” Leigh says. “I think that, for us, we just see you as a kid, like as a kid that we love and are taking care of.” 

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