Taliah, a 14-year-old transgender girl, looks and acts like any teenager growing up in Chesterfield County.
She loves YouTube and TikTok and texting her friends. She listens to Cardi B, Doja Cat and Beyoncé “of course,” she said. She loves to roller skate at Skate Away and can dance hip-hop, jazz and ballet. She likes to style hair and taught herself how to braid her own long, black locks.
She is pretty and young, smiling easily with warmth and laughter — even when she tells the nightmarish story of how her father beat her, horrifically, when she started coming out as gay at 12 years old.
“He punched me in the face four times, twice on either side,” said Taliah, looking down at the beloved iPhone in her hands. “Then he got the belt and beat me until I bled.”
When the police arrived to her father’s home in Hopewell, she was taken to a hospital, where a woman from foster care told her, “You’re going to be all right. We’re going to put you in a different home.”
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There are over 5,400 children in the Virginia foster care system, according to the state Department of Social Services’ website. Roughly 30% of children in foster care nationally identify as LGBTQ and are often kicked out of their biological homes, ending up in foster care because their biological parents didn’t accept their sexual identity.
“LGBTQ+ youth face housing instability at disproportional rates. These young people cannot thrive if they do not have access to a safe, affirming and stable environment,” said Jamie Nolan, co-executive director of Side by Side, a local group dedicated to supporting LGBTQ+ youth. “Unfortunately, too often, we see families who turn away from their children when they choose to come out because of a lack of information and understanding about who their child is.”
That’s what happened to Taliah when she was a 12-year-old boy and her name was Torron.
But life didn’t get easier once foster care stepped in. Taliah went to one foster family and then another. She didn’t get along with her foster siblings. She acted out and got into fights. Tensions kept building.
Nothing felt like home. Everything was temporary.
“LGBTQ youth need ally-ship and support from their parents, especially for youth in foster care. If they are coming into a foster home that is not affirming, that’s an added trauma,” said Jess Mendez, an advocate for He She Ze and We, a local group serving families with transgender loved ones.
Taliah felt alone, angry and isolated until she met Randy and Lanette Hall, a foster family from Henrico County.
She met them at a restaurant and remembers seeing Lanette’s purple hair. Taliah thought, “I like this family. They seem cool.”
The Halls moved Taliah into their home one day in March 2020, just before the world went into lockdown due to the coronavirus. Living with the Halls, Taliah began to blossom. She did virtual school, and her grades improved. When the world opened up again, she ran track and began to dance with the Regency Dance Academy.
At age 13, she began to watch trans videos on YouTube and read articles about being trans. Her foster mom, Lanette, asked, “Do you want to transition?”
Taliah said yes and started crying.
“I feel like that’s who I am. I’m trans,” Taliah, now 14, said from the Halls’ new home in Chesterfield. Taliah began dressing as a girl, slowly at first. Only at home. Then she began branching out, choosing the name Taliah, and dressing as a girl on outings with her friends to the roller rink.
But it wasn’t easy.
Some of her friends bullied her. Rumors were spread about her behind her back. She was allowed to practice track at school, but she wasn’t allowed to compete as a girl.
Even though it was difficult at first, Randy and Lanette supported her.
“For me, what’s hardest wasn’t Taliah being trans. It’s how people treat her. You want to protect her from the world. But there’s only so much you can do,” Lanette said.
“Having foster families and caregivers that are affirming and willing to seek outside additional supports are huge [for LGBTQ youth],” Mendez said. “Finding support for the child, to help connect them to people who identify with them, can be a big help. As well as seeking support for the caregiver who is more than likely walking this path for the first time.”
The Halls were connected to Taliah through enCircle, a local treatment foster care program that aims to be more inclusive, serving kids who might face more challenges due to medical issues or who identify as LGBTQ.
“The kids we serve need a special family — those who are open and flexible — to provide a loving home in foster care,” said Ray Ratke, CEO of enCircle, which has been around for 133 years. It opened first as an orphanage outside of Roanoke, transitioning to a foster care model, as well as other services, over the years.
“We’re always in urgent need of more foster parents,” Ratke said.
“You have to be open, going into foster care. You never know what kind of issues the child might be facing,” Lanette said. In August, the Halls adopted Taliah, making their new family official.
This year, Taliah started hormone suppression. Next year, she can start hormone therapy. As for the future, the family is going to wait and see what Taliah wants to do next. After so much trauma and upheaval, Taliah said it’s hard to see herself in the future. All she knows is how she feels right now.
“I’m comfortable being trans. I don’t want to hide who I am anymore.”