Race, Foster Care, and Queer Kinship
Although foster parents’ racialized, gendered, and classed depictions of carework won them political success, they have had lasting ramifications for American families who are not white, not affluent, or not cisgender. In 2024, what little protections American families have are eroding rapidly.
In 1990, Thomas and Kirk’s life settled into a routine. Each morning, Thomas woke up with his two children and got them ready for their days. He changed the toddler’s diaper and made oatmeal for everyone. Then he turned his attention to his eleven-year-old son, Teddy. Thomas took out Teddy’s feeding tube, gave him medication and his daily shots, and sent him out the door to walk to the school a block away. By this point, Kirk was up, and Thomas headed to his job in health care while Kirk stayed home to take care of the toddler, handle the housework, and manage communication with the kids’ social workers. Once Thomas came home in the evening, everyone ate dinner together and played games or watched TV. Teddy, who was a bit of a smart-aleck, usually whined about having to play or gave his dads crap about one thing or another right until bedtime.
While this routine felt normal to Thomas and Kirk, it likely would have felt strange to most other parents in the U.S. in 1990. Thomas and Kirk’s family was unusual in many ways. Thomas and Kirk were a gay couple in a period when gay men had limited access to parenthood, they were foster parents, and they were caring for children with HIV-AIDS. As HIV-AIDS infected parents and children across the U.S., foster care systems began turning to affluent, white gay people like Thomas and Kirk, authorizing them to serve as foster parents for children with HIV and AIDS Previously, gay people had been able to foster only in limited circumstances, primarily caring for gay teenagers. Fostering children with HIV-AIDS opened the door to more widespread gay parenting. Although the number of gay foster parents caring for children with HIV-AIDS was never large (I have identified roughly three dozen gay foster parents in the pediatric HIV-AIDS hotspots of Southern Florida and Northern New Jersey), these foster parents had an outsized influence on U.S. family policy. Not only did they establish a policy precedent that gay people could care for young children, they led campaigns to enshrine their access to parenthood through adoption.
Carework was central to gay foster parents’ success in expanding access to adoption. Through highly publicized displays of their ability to care for young children, gay foster parents like Thomas and Kirk sought to convince the public that they were the “best possible” caregivers for their foster children. Whiteness, affluence, and masculine gender presentations were central to gay foster parents’ image. By displaying their conformity to white social norms, using carefully-coded masculine dress, and displaying their economic stability, gay foster parents emphasized that—while gay—they did not threaten dominant white American familial norms. Lawyers who worked with gay foster parents knew that their conformity was crucial to their political success, describing them as “pure as snow” or “like the Cleavers.”
Although foster parents’ racialized, gendered, and classed depictions of carework won them political success, they have had lasting ramifications for American families who are not white, not affluent, or not cisgender. In 2024, what little protections American families have are eroding rapidly. The 2021 Supreme Court case Lofton v. Kearney allowed religiously-affiliated foster care agencies to refuse to place children with queer foster parents like Thomas and Kirk. Meanwhile, caseloads are rising foster care—which has been used for over 60 years to surveil and dismantle families—and Black, Latine, and Indigenous children continue to be more likely than their white peers to experience child welfare investigations and removals from their families. Rather than continuing to seek protection from the state through displays of whiteness and affluence, then, it is crucial that queer families build what Cathy Cohen called in 1997 a politics of “punks, bulldaggers, and welfare queens,” a coalition built upon multiple, different experiences of marginality, a refusal to conform, and a knowledge that our liberation is bound together.
Cover image by Steven Damron, licensed under creative commons