Aiyana used to come to our youth center, OUTreach, in Ogden, Utah, for food, but especially to dance. Aiyana was the most naturally talented dancer I’ve known, bending their lean frame to move in a blend of their Native American roots, as well as the latest moves on music videos. Everyone could tell Aiyana was special, with a shy smile that would light up a room and melt anyone’s heart.
One day, Aiyana came out to me as transgender. I had guessed as much. I’d noticed that when Aiyana changed into frilly clothes when arriving at the center and, later, experimenting with hair and makeup. When Aiyana asked us at the center to use female pronouns and refer to her now as Aiyana, we did. Aiyana, like her name, “little flower,” blossomed over the months into a more confident and happy version of herself. We celebrated her 15th birthday at the center with cake and dancing.
Aiyana lived in a foster home, her 18th foster home, since her parents died. I couldn’t help but think of her when I saw the Fulton case in the news, wondering what Aiyana would think about the Supreme Court’s ruling that did nothing to protect kids or LGBTQ+ parents.
Because Aiyana subverted gender norms, foster home after foster home rejected her. She was not alone; most of the LGBTQ+ foster care youth I knew at the center had each lived in dozens of homes. In Aiyana’s case, and others, there were stories of name calling and physical abuse, and more than one instance of sexual assault.
In Utah at that time, same-sex foster parents weren’t allowed, despite the hundreds of couples yearning to foster and adopt. The local foster care agency asked my help in changing the law, realizing that, despite their own feelings about same-sex couples, they wanted LGBTQ+ youth to be in loving, stable homes.
And so, Aiyana, bounced from home to home — and also to our youth center. I always worried about her, especially when the makeup couldn’t cover the bruises on her face.
I am in favor of passage of the Equality Act for so many reasons, but most importantly because of Aiyana and the thousands of LGBTQ+ youth I’ve worked with over the years. Every time there is a high profile case about religion and LGBTQ+ concerns in the news, the fallout lands squarely on the shoulders of youth like Aiyana.
LGBTQ+ young people hear the hateful rhetoric reflected in the media and in their schools, communities and homes. Too many LGBTQ+ youth then face fresh abuse as a result of these lawsuits and rulings, no matter who “won." So many LGBTQ+ youth in the foster care system who already face abuse are kicked out, become homeless, and too often attempt — and even complete — suicide. These young lives are destroyed because of high profile disagreements over policy and laws. The very people who should be helped by national attention end up being lost in the process of acrimonious debate, nonstop media coverage, and escalating emotions.
Passage of the Equality Act will not only help LGBTQ+ youth have more stable futures, it could also put an end to lawsuits that needlessly divide families and communities. Congress needs to act. The next election may change congress in unpredictable ways, and this once in a generation chance for equality legislation could slip away.
Tough choices will need to be made on both sides to find common ground, but what is at stake is beyond political party. It is about our care for each other and the very soul of our nation. We owe it to our children to consider measures to balance LGBTQ+ protections with important religious freedoms in equality legislation. For their sake, and the nation, we urgently need to win the votes in the U.S. Senate to pass an Equality Act that rests on common ground.
One day, Aiyana didn’t show up for dinner at the youth center. I asked her friends about her. I asked her case workers. I asked everyone. She just disappeared, without a trace. I think about her, and wonder if she is safe, somewhere, while knowing that possibly she isn’t. I pray that wherever she is, she is dancing, and lighting up the room with her shy smile.
Reverend Marian Edmonds-Allen is executive director of Parity, a New York City-based organization that affirms LGBTQ and religious identities.