Michael Waters PO ’20 molds senior thesis on queer foster families into New Yorker feature

A person with short black hair wears a pink jacket and smiles at the camera.
Michael Waters PO ’20 wrote his senior thesis about the history of queer foster families in the United States. (Courtesy: Michael Waters)

Outside the confines of the common school and workday, 6 a.m. can feel like a time of opportunities and possibilities, a time when anything can happen as the sun crosses the horizon. For Michael Waters PO ’20, 6 a.m. brought an equally opportune phone call that delivered big news: His paper had just been approved to be published by The New Yorker. 

The Untold Story of Queer Foster Families,” published on The New Yorker’s website on Feb. 28, is a feature article about the history of queer youth and queer foster parents. It is also, however, the culmination of an arduous year-long process to bring these stories to light.

The feature is Waters’ adaptation of his Pomona College senior thesis. Both the article and the thesis trace the interwoven history between queer children, queer families and state foster care programs. Waters highlights the stories of different teenagers, adults and foster care workers involved in the subtle placing of queer children with queer foster families in the 1970s — behaviors the feature describes as “discrete acts of quiet radicalism.”

When deciding what to research for his senior thesis, Waters, a history major, went into the process drawn to events he termed “hidden history.”

“That’s the thing that gets me excited about history — to be able to untangle and uncover a story that already happened that most people have forgotten about or didn’t know about in the first place, and use that to complicate how we see things in the present, like how we see queer history or queer families,” Waters said.

To narrow down his topic, Waters explored different historical databases and archives, including scouring LGBTQIA+ history-specific databases and searching for different queer-related topics in newspaper archives. When he came across an article in The New York Times about queer foster placements in the 1970s, he found himself intrigued by the lack of other coverage and decided to further research the topic. 

Eventually, Waters began to feel strongly that the story was an important one to tell — both to shed light on the hidden history and because of the implications it had for understandings of modern queer family configurations and recognitions.

“I do really want to complicate people’s timeline and notion of queer history.” — Michael Waters PO ’20

“I think it complicates this idea of queer history as this story of linear progress,” Waters said. “I felt like it was this small pocket of radicalism that happened in this time period in the early 70s when most people wouldn’t have expected that bureaucrats [and] government officials literally placed ads in gay newspapers.”

As Waters worked on his thesis, he began to wonder if he could find a way to expand the reach of its message. Since he had periodically freelanced as a writer throughout school, he started looking at various publications to do so.

“I do really want to complicate people’s timeline and notion of queer history, and so the idea that I could package it in a way that is a little bit more friendly to readers than a very long thesis was really appealing,” Waters said.

As he explored the possibility of pitching his thesis as a story, he started to turn his sights to The New Yorker. The publication’s popularity and high readership — in January 2021 the magazine’s website alone received over 22 million visitors — made it an ideal but intimidating platform. However, he decided that if there was ever a time to go for it, it was at that moment.

“I guess [The New Yorker] was sort of the highest to aim for in my mind, so they were the first place that I pitched, but I truly had no expectation it was going to happen,” Waters said. “It was that thing where you’re like, ‘I’m just going to do this because I’m going to regret it if I don’t.’”

After researching The New Yorker’s editors, he ended up pitching it to the features editor of the New Yorker site. While he hoped he would get a response, his expectations weren’t particularly high.

“I just literally cold pitched it to him and expected nothing of it,” Waters said. “A couple weeks later he replied and asked a question, and I remember just being so dumbfounded that anyone replied.”

After Waters’ pitch got the necessary approval, the process of turning the thesis into the feature was relatively simple. Since he had already written most of his thesis, with the assistance of his editor, Waters mainly focused on making cuts and style edits in order to transform his 25,000-word thesis into an almost 4,000-word feature article. 

At the end of February, the article went up on The New Yorker’s website under the U.S. Journal section of the site and on the publication’s Instagram, where the post currently has almost 58,000 likes and 400 comments. 

Ultimately, Waters hopes that the feature will help accomplish among a wider audience exactly what he set out to do with his thesis.

“I do think that there are these little moments and glimmers of more radical ideas and more radical moments in queer history that are just sort of forgotten about,” Waters said. “This just felt like a story that could add something to our sense of history and our sense of queer history.”

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