By Wilhelmina Perry

I became a caseworker with the New York City Department of Welfare in the early 1950s.  I had just graduated from Brooklyn College and was assigned to the 8-member unit responsible for “getting families over crises situations” in East Harlem, a historic neighborhood that, at the time and even today, consisted largely of Latino families.  We were a mix of recent college grads and seasoned professionals responsible for making sure these families had access to food, shelter and water, but a gap in the Department’s policy made it difficult for us to help many families.

We were experiencing an uptick in the number of families applying for benefits that included a child who had been either “adopted” or given to the family for care but according to the Department’s regulations, those children weren’t eligible for assistance. They weren’t “recognized” as part of the family unit.

Fortunately, dedicated caseworkers became the voices for those “unrelated” family members eventually urging the Department to grant caseworkers the ability to formally request a child’s admission into the family unit. Thereby, granting those families access to the much needed financial support to provide for their families.

But today we face a very similar crisis in which the children of same-sex partners remain excluded from the health resources, legal protections and rights that come automatically to children of heterosexual unions, because their families, like those in East Harlem, aren’t “recognized.”

It’s true that family compositions have significantly changed since the 1950s–today more children are being raised by their grandparents and other family members; single mothers and/or fathers, unmarried couples, step parents,  co-mingled families, and yes, same-sex parents–but does that mean we value our  children any less?

According to a recent report by the Movement Advancement Project (MAP), along with a host of other think tanks, entitled “All Children Matter: How Legal and Social Inequalities Hurt LGBT Families,” there are as many as two million children being raised in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) households and yet LGBT families are more inclined to be living in poverty.  According to the same report, children being raised in LGBT families of color are twice as likely to be living in poverty as their white-straight counterparts.

LGBT families continue to face archaic and discriminatory laws that create obstacles to their economic security.  With it being legal in 29 states to fire an employee based on sexual orientation and legal in 34 states to do so because of one’s gender identity—including New York– it’s harder for LGBT parents to take care of and provide for their families and this puts children in significant danger.

So what are we to do? How are we to respond? There are a variety of policy shifts, at local and federal levels, that must happen: federally banning  discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation; establishing universal health care protections for all families; revisions in tax codes  so that all families, not just heterosexual couples, can avail themselves of tax credits; making changes to custody and foster care policies so that they are inclusive and protective of all families; expanding governmental and employee benefits so that all families are equally protected; federally recognizing same-sex marriages and providing equal protections;  and most importantly, support cultural competency requirements for work places, schools , health facilities and other public spaces.

But there are also simple steps to take in our everyday lives; to change our thinking and behavior to ensure that all children are equally protected and valued.

It’s time to recognize and affirm all families whether you meet them in your workplace, houses of worship, schools or social settings.  Teach your children to refrain from bullying and harassing children who appear different because they have two mommies or two daddies. Keep an “active ear” and admonish those who use references like “sissy, fag, dyke, and bull dagger” or other derogatory terms.  You know the words that are used. Let us lift up and affirm all families who are striving for the same safety nets, protections and benefits that we all want for ourselves. Remove the “don’t ask, don’t tell” wall of silence that isolates these families and take the time to get to know who they are.

Our African-American communities have long standing histories and traditions of caring for the children in our families and our communities.  If our society is to grow and flourish, our communities must be strong and nurturing spaces for all our parents and their children.  We must care one for another with the social, legal and economic supports that promote families’ well being.   We are our brothers (and sisters) keepers!

Dr. Wilhelmina Perry, Convener, LGBT Faith Leaders of African Descent…LGBT Faith Leaders of African Descent is a membership organization formed to challenge discrimination and exclusionary practices and policies that affect the well-being of LGBT people.

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