BY RYAN HOWE | Doniqua stood outside the Times Square Museum on the evening of June 9, eyes focused on the billboard above the flashing marquee. She gazed up at her photo, a portrait of her straightening her bowtie while displaying a toothy smile. “It feels good to be a star,” she said.
Doniqua is a 19-year-old foster child, who has lived in a group home in Yonkers since she was 10 years old. This month she is featured, along with 35 other foster children, in a pride photography exhibit showcasing LGBTQ youth living in the foster care system. The exhibit, put together by the Heart Gallery NYC and You Gotta Believe, which works to find permanent — or “forever” — families for foster care youth, will be on display at the Times Square Museum and Visitors Center, 1560 Broadway at 46th Street, through June 20.
Heart Gallery NYC utilizes volunteer celebrity photographers to shoot portraits of children and teens in the foster care system. Such photographic exhibits began in New Mexico in 2001 and have since spread to gallery efforts in nearly 100 locations across the nation. This is the first-ever pride gallery.
Doniqua has been featured in the Heart Gallery before, but this time it’s different, she said. This time she was more open to being herself. “The first time I dressed like a girl, and I was really nervous,” she explained. “This time I put on what I felt comfortable in, and now that I’m older I have a better head space going into it.”
Most of the youths photographed are pre-teens or older, and there is no age limit on when someone can be adopted. In New York, kids age out of the foster care system at 21.
Laurie Sherman Graff, executive director of Heart Gallery NYC, recognized the large number of LGBTQ children in foster care and wanted to raise awareness about the issue. And although not every child whose picture hangs on the walls of the gallery identifies as LGBTQ, the spotlight of this exhibit is focused on those who do.
“This is the first gallery in any of our locations that has done something like this,” Graff said. “We want this to be an ongoing event every year, and hope that the Heart Galleries in less liberal places will follow suit.”
The photos, which are displayed as giant posters in the gallery, offer more than just a chance to get adopted. The mission of the gallery is to make a positive difference in the children’s lives. Even if they don’t get adopted, those featured often times gain mentors.
“We know that every kid won’t find a forever family, but the only thing we can do is try and try our hardest,” Graff said. “What we can do is raise awareness that there are kids in our own backyard that need families, and that people don’t need to go overseas to adopt.”
For Thalia, the pressure of finding her “forever family” washed away when she stepped into the studio to have her portrait taken. As with many of the youths photographed, this is the first time Thalia experienced anything like this. The children get to be models for a day, including getting their hair and make-up done. “It was fun, a lot of [the kids] knew each other, and we all just hung out and got all fixed up,” she said. “My photo came out great, and I really loved my dress.”
The photographers volunteer their time in support of the project. For photographer Gabrielle Revere, the opportunity to be a part of Heart Gallery came at a time when she was freshly experiencing what life is like without a parent. The fashion photographer’s father died one week earlier. Revere explained she was feeling the effects of losing someone who stood by her unconditionally for her entire life. The person who taught her to not be afraid, or give up, or let anyone bring her down, but instead to keep standing up and moving forward, she said.
“It is so important to have someone in your life that is always on your side, someone who is there to say ‘yes’ when 20 people have told you ‘no,’” Revere said, as she held back tears. “That’s what the Heart Gallery is doing — they are finding these kids that person... The person to help them celebrate life.”
Revere, along with 18 other photographers including Amy Arbus, Deborah Feingold, Martin Schoeller, and Michael Sharkey, spent a day meeting with these kids and snapping their pictures. The time with the kids was limited, and Revere kept things simple and light, while she let each do what they felt comfortable with. She treated it as a conversation, she explained, where they speak through expressions and body language and she speaks through the camera.
“First impressions are the most important,” Revere said. “These kids come with so much excitement and I have this sixth sense to hone in and capture their emotion very quickly. I use that to really show these kids through their pictures.”
In her work at You Gotta Believe, Mary Keane is also well aware of the disproportionate number of LGBTQ children in the foster care system. Whether it is because their birth parents don’t accept them or prospective adoptive families feel they are unequipped or unprepared for a queer child, these children are still searching for their forever families, Keane said. You Gotta Believe, she explained, is the only organization in New York City that limits its practice to finding permanent parents and families for young adults, teens, and pre-teens in the foster care system.
“There isn’t an exact tally of LGBT youth in the foster care system but we see more and more of these kids coming out,” she said. “We need to make people aware of this issue.”
The gallery in Times Square is not the only event Heart Gallery and You Gotta Believe are doing to raise awareness. Throughout the month they will be travelling to LGBT-friendly churches with a smaller gallery. If the congregation seems interested in adoption, You Gotta Believe is willing to offer classes on adoption at the church.
“These kids are very brave and daring,” Keane said. “The foster care system is not a safe place to be gay, but they are putting up these pictures and saying, ‘I’m gay and I’m proud.’”