By the time she was 13, Robin McHaelen knew she was a lesbian, but she didn’t come out until she was in her early 30s. In the meantime she attempted suicide more than once, used drugs heavily through high school and college and felt continually depressed.
Now the executive director of True Colors Inc. in Hartford, the Connecticut native has dedicated the past 22 years to meeting the needs of sexual and gender minority youth in the Department of Children and Families (DCF) system and in the community in Connecticut. About one third of these children came into foster care explicitly because of their gender and sexuality identity, and the percentage of young people who identify as LGBT is about 20 percent, well more than double the highest estimate for the total population.
True Colors began as a field project for McHaelen when she was in social work school. At the time, she just wanted to help LGBT children realize that they weren’t alone, as she had felt growing up. She wanted to bring awareness to adults such as teachers who worked with them on a daily basis. She wasn’t planning to spend her life working in the field, but after that first conference, when she saw both the excitement and the need of the community, that all changed.
The program now offers training, a mentoring program through DCF, LGBT social nights, Queer Academy summer camp and a yearly conference,
Wanting to do this work was not wanting other kids to experience the same thing. At the conference the first year, which was back in ’94, there were about 90 kids and watching their faces over the course of the day was just transformational for me.
And then there was a kid who I saw all day long who was like grinning and just shining everywhere. That night we had a dance. He told me that at the dance he had experienced a lifelong dream, that he got to dance with another boy and nobody laughed at him. I was really touched, and I said, “A lot of times when you have an experience like this and you go home, you want to talk about it. Do you have someone to talk to when you get there?” And it was like the air drained out of his tires, that I just watched the joy leak out of this kid.
He said, “Yeah my dad already told me if I was a faggot he’d get his shotgun and kill me.” He started to cry. I started to cry, and I thought this is not, we’re not doing this, this is not right…I think that was a transformational moment for me because I realized that I might be somebody that could make a difference for kids like him and kids like me. I didn’t know it was my life’s work in that moment. But it’s turned out to be something that has really fit my soul.
So, what are the needs that you are targeting exactly?
The number one indicator of outcome for queer youth is the response of their families. Family support is a core process. The research says that the level of risk when families are rejecting is huge. For example, with gay, lesbian and bisexual youth without family support, the suicide attempt rates are in the low 30s. With family support that drops to 8 percent. About 4 percent is normal. So, it is still higher, but it’s not as crazy higher as it is without support. So, family support really matters.
School support really matters because LGBT youth, if they don’t feel safe in school, they’re not going to go, they have lower GPAs, they have lower attendance rates, higher rates of truancy. They have higher rates of substance use as a self-medicating kind of thing. LGBT youth cut and self-harm more often than their straight peers. They smoke cigarettes at significantly higher rates than their straight peers.
Youth are at high risk and what they need is supportive families, safe and equitable school systems and communities. They don’t need everyone to love them, but they need to not be harassed. Everybody deserves to just live their lives being themselves. As long as you’re not hurting anybody else, everybody else should just shut the hell up.
One of the other problems, one of the things that’s really an issue right now is the vitriol that is happening in the culture and the community. There are groups that are targeted and scapegoated, and when that happens there is all this stuff in the media and you can’t escape it. It’s in the grocery line; it’s in the media; it’s at the dinner table; it’s on every social media. Every one of those things lands like a little assault and people begin to develop PTSD-like symptoms.
Right now that’s what’s happening for trans folks. Adults may have resources to care for themselves, I don’t want to infantilize the trans community, but I want to say that kids, especially young ones that may or may not be out and are just early on their journey, this could be really devastating. There have been nine youth suicides in Connecticut so far this year. Of the nine, three were explicitly LGBT.
Do you think it is getting worse?
I do. There were only eight suicides all year last year. I don’t mean to say it like that, but we are just over halfway through the year and we already exceeded what we had for last year. One of the things that the suicide prevention people noted is that there were three or four suicides in January and that never happens.
Now that you’re seeing an increase in attacks on mostly trans, what are your new goals or efforts?
We’re mostly upping what we do. We are making sure that we are sending messages out to the adults that we work with to pay attention to the youth in their lives. One of our kids, he is very invested in the military. In fact he’s in boot camp this week, so we reached out to his foster mom and said, “Okay, he may know something about what’s happening, he may not know. The military is a huge source of support for him, and nothing’s going to happen right now, but it may raise his level of fear, so here are some things to look out for.”
The day that it happened [Trump’s announcement on twitter banning transgender individuals from the military], I went down and spent an hour with the youth at Queer Academy — a number of them are non-binary or trans — and to just talk about feelings about that, and one young person said, “Yeah there’s nothing like waking up in the morning and finding your rights have been taken away.”
Are there more children who are LGBT in foster care?
Depending upon what study you look at, the number of LGBT folks ranges from 2 to 9 percent. If you ask about identity, the numbers are lower than if you ask about behavior, and the numbers for behavior are lower than if you ask about attractions. But in child welfare, it’s about 20 percent. It’s about 40 percent in homeless youth. In the juvenile justice system, 40 percent of girls are lesbian, bi or trans.
Do you know why?
My guess around why is that LGBT status, and T is under 1 percent, but they – trans, non-conforming and non-binary kids – are significantly over-represented in the numbers of child welfare and everything.
It’s family rejection. A lot of time gender stuff begins to manifest by 2 or 3. Kids know what gender they are by 3. We have kids who came into care as 2- or 3- or 4-year-olds because their families were trying to beat the girl out of the boy.
For girls, for kids who are assigned female at birth, a lot of times the messages for gender don’t start until about puberty, so then if they’re not feminizing at that point they start getting a lot of pushback from their peers, from their schools, families and the level of discord can kind of increase. I think family violence, family stress and school stress.
What happens lots of time to LGBT youth is they’re being targeted, and they take it and they take it and the straw hits the camel’s back and they have a very intense reaction, and people see that as them being the aggressor when in fact they are just simply responding to the level of aggression that they have experienced.
But I’ve seen so many times that it’s the gay kid or the queer kid that gets suspended and the kid who’s been targeting him right along gets an in-school detention. I see that all the time.
How is it to work with a family who is going through a transition?
We have a situation going on right now where we’ve got a transgender girl who is moving into puberty. Her body is beginning to masculinize and she is very distressed about it, and her bio parents still have some legal rights around her, although they abused her pretty substantially and that’s what brought her into care.
She’s been in care for about two or three years, and a lot of it has been about how she expresses her gender. I think they thought she was gay, and so we’ve been working with DCF, we’ve been working with the social workers because this child needs to be on puberty blockers. What the puberty blockers do is prevent puberty from continuing for now, and that will give her and the family more time to wrap their minds around what is going on because DCFs ultimate goal is reunification.
I don’t know if that’s possible based on my experience with the family, but at least that’s the goal. The family needs more time to accept this child…
Then yesterday the family said, no, we’ve decided no hormones. So, I responded to DCF saying that I think this is an example of medical neglect…The DCF workers that are involved want to do the right thing for this kid. They aren’t resistant to doing the right thing, it’s that they are between a rock and a hard place. The parents have some rights, but what’s in the best interest of this kid?
And there is no down side to the puberty blockers. All it is, is a time out. There are no permanent changes. If you remove the puberty blockers, puberty just progresses, so all it is, is a time out. If we don’t do it, time is not on this kid’s side.
If we don’t do it the changes that are going to happen to that child’s body are not going to be reversible with hormones or surgery later on. There are things that you can’t change. The size of your hands and feet. I mean if you have a lot of money you could get vocal cord surgery or facial reconstruction surgery or thousands of dollars of electrolysis, but why make a kid go through that if that’s not who they are?
When you say there is no down side, is there any evidence behind that or is there a possibility of a downside?
I overstated the case originally. It is not fully clear yet and seems to depend upon the amount of time that a kid is on blockers and the addition of cross-gender hormones. There is always the possibility of side effects with any drug. The consensus is that the benefits far outweigh the risks.
How do you think the climate has changed for LGBT people since the mentors in your program were coming of age?
I think there are a lot of differences. I don’t think it’s necessarily easier, but for some people it is easier. Sometimes a kid comes out and everyone is like “cool to you.” Their friends are fine, their families are fine, their schools are fine.
But sometimes a kid comes out and their entire world implodes. Both of those things continue to be true. I do think to a certain lesser extent, especially for LGB kids, culturally there has been a big change in that. But there is a little bit of a backlash on that. We’ve had gay and lesbian kids say, “I don’t know why I’m having such a hard time. I’m just gay, it’s not like I’m trans or anything.”
And then we have one little girl who identifies as lesbian and she is like, “Where are all the lesbians? It’s all trans boys! Where’s my tribe?” And it’s challenging. I think that there is a pressure to come out earlier now. That if you’re not dating or expressing interest in a different gender by the time you’re 11 or 12, people are going “What’s up?”
When I was coming out, if I wasn’t dating, people were just thinking I was bookish or I was a spinster. I think the advantages are there are more words to describe people’s experiences so people are able to find their niche, their tribe now. I’ve met older gay and lesbian folks, like one person I worked with a long time ago, who’s now in her 60s or early 70s, and it was maybe 10 or 15 years ago that she first learned the word for transgender.
All her life she only had lesbian butch, dyke to associate with, cause that was the only label that existed for her, and it never fit right, but she didn’t know anything else. Once she learned the word transgender and started doing some looking around that, she was like “Oh, that’s really who I am.” She decided that at this point in her life she didn’t want to go through any sort of a transition, she was just going to let it be, but it made sense to her for the first time.
Do you think that is why people who aren’t as directly involved are wondering why there seem to be more trans people now?
Right. I don’t think there are more trans people. I just think there’s more language, and that people are able to figure out who they are and express who they are at a much earlier age.
About 15 years ago or so, I went to my first transgender conference in Philadelphia. I was amazed. The average age of the people at that conference was well into their 60s. What people seem to have in common was they were predominantly transwomen. I don’t think it’s more common, but I think that at the time transmen could just pass as butch, dykes and so it looked different.
But what happened was people knew, may have known forever, that they were really a woman, but had no access to information or resources around that. So, they married, most often, they had children, then their children launched or their spouse died and they decided that they couldn’t spend the rest of their remaining years in the wrong identity, and so they transitioned very late in life.
Now it is much more common for kids to begin to identify at 4, 5, 6, by puberty certainly. People will identify across the lifespan when they come into an awareness of what they’re feeling, but it’s definitely skewing younger.
Do you ever see people at 4, 5, 6 say they are a trans girl or boy and then later go back to their original gender?
Yeah, so that’s called desisting. There’s persist, who is a kid who identifies other than the sex they were assigned at birth, and continues to do so into and beyond puberty. A certain percentage of kids desist, and what happens is, what they think is happening, because little children are pretty concrete, that sometimes children will think about things that they like to do and conflate that with an identity.
A little boy might think, “You know I really like pretty things and I don’t want to be wrestling, I want to paint my nails, wear dresses, girls like those things, so I must be a girl.” Then as they get a little bit older, they realize it isn’t that they’re a girl, it’s that they just like things that are more common for girls. So, they revert back to an association with their birth sex.
There is emerging research that clinicians can differentiate between the kids who are likely to persist and the kids who are likely to desist because persisters are saying things like, “You know, I really am a boy, right?” or, “You know, I really am a girl, right?” or, “I am a girl,” or “I am a boy.”
Desisters are saying things like, “I wish I was a girl,” or, “When I grow up I want to get breasts like mommy.” There’s this wishing, rather than being. And that’s certainly not 100 percent true, but here’s the thing, there’s no medical intervention until puberty.
What’s the hardest part for you?
That you can’t fix everything.
One of our kids I remember one time, she’d been in the system since she was about 2 and just had all kinds of terrible experiences in the system, and she was transitioning from DCF to DMHAS (Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services) and part of that is that she gets her own apartment, so she came in with the paperwork that she had to fill out and one of the questions was “next of kin,” and she had nobody to write in there and she sank to the floor and began to sob and said, “All I ever wanted was a mom.”
And that was one of the hardest moments cause there was nothing I could say. That same kid is now doing sex work for survival and she said to me, “You know, I couldn’t hold a job at Burger King, but even if I worked there 40 hours a week I couldn’t survive. I do this, I go on a circuit for a month, and I can live for seven months. What the hell do you want me to do?” Those stories are the really hard ones. Where you know there is nothing you can say, nothing you can do, you can just walk on the road with them and witness.
This interview was edited for length, clarity, continuity and to protect privacy.