Angel Lopez, 20, spent his life bouncing in and out of 15 foster homes, locking away a secret he was too afraid to tell.
“They would talk about their family members who were gay and say bad things about them. I knew they didn’t like gay people so I had to stay quiet about it,” Lopez said.
Lopez is gay. Studies show 1 in 5 children in foster care in Riverside County identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning or intersex. Court Appointed Special Advocate Gordon Elkins, of Palm Springs, said nearly all of them reported being bullied and more than half were sexually or physically abused.
“To be in foster care to begin with is hard enough. To be LGBTQI in the system, you don’t have any allies,” Elkins said. “You have to keep your head down and hope no one finds out you’re gay because of the backlash you might receive.”
Lopez said he stayed in the closet until four years ago, when he was matched with Elkins. The CASA volunteer is also gay. He’s an activist for LGBT youth and dedicated to giving neglected children in the foster care system a voice.
“I found out within the first two weeks of our match, he was in a homophobic home,” said Elkins said.
Elkins stepped in, and two weeks later, Lopez was placed into a new, accepting and more positive home. Elkins said his mission is to protect children and prevent hate crimes and discrimination in their own homes, in what should be the child’s safe haven.
Elkins said his match with Lopez is historic. They’re the first openly gay volunteer and foster youth pairing in the program’s history. The CASA volunteer said that for years CASAs faced disparities when dealing with LGBTQ youth rights until he launched the first LGBTQ training of its kind called Advocate Pride, initiated in the Coachella Valley and now mandated for CASA volunteers across California. The training is designed to create an understanding of issues faced by LGBTQ youth in foster care, support them and find them the right resources, care and safe homes.
You may remember Juan Ceballos, 20, shot and killed last August allegedly by a co-worker because of his sexuality. And 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez who was tortured and beaten to death by his mother and her boyfriend for playing with dolls and being considered “gay.”
“I hate it when I hear it, but it’s happened in my lifetime where people are killed because of their gender identity and sexual orientation. We just have to do a better job of educating people,” Elkins said.
Similar to connecting foster children with their own racial and ethnic communities, it translates to connecting youth like Lopez with the gay community.
“When I didn’t have Gordon, I would just be stuck at home. I didn’t know there was a gay community,” Lopez said.
“To see once they’re in a safe environment and to know that someone like myself has their back, how much they just blossom and their personality comes out. They’re just happier people,” Elkins said.
Elkins won a volunteer of the year award during Palms Springs Pride in November. As for Lopez, he’s the first in his family to graduate from high school and go to college.
“Just be strong and be yourself. Don’t let the negativity get to you,” Lopez said.