It was spring semester of his junior year when Michael Waters ’20 got into the habit of searching for different, random phrases in The New York Times online archive. As a budding journalist, he says he became quite obsessed with looking for story ideas on his own. The practice paid off when he pulled an article from the 1970s on foster care placements of gay youth in New York City.
The single article became the spark for what would turn into a Summer Undergraduate Research Project (SURP) the summer before his senior year. That research formed the backbone of his senior thesis in history. On February 28, 2021, almost nine months after graduating, The New Yorker published a web feature titled “The Untold Story of Queer Foster Families”—a condensed but faithful version of his thesis.
“I’ve always been—since I was a kid—really fascinated with stories as a general abstract concept. I wrote and still write a little bit of fiction—I sort of loved getting to envision these wild things that could happen in the world,” says Waters.
“The thing that drew me to history is that a lot of really wild crazy things that you could dream up happening in fiction, a lot of times, versions of these things have already happened in the past,” says Waters. “If you dig through archives and history, you find fascinating stories that a lot of people don’t know exist. That satisfied my itch for fiction. Instead of making up a story, you can find equally fantastic and surprising stories in history.”
Waters says he chose to major in history not to just learn names and dates—which he admits to being terrible at—but to uncover people’s stories that haven’t gotten the attention they deserve. He adds, “Especially the stories of marginalized communities. Their stories are not seen in the historical text that is being taught at the same degree as other stories.”
For his senior thesis, Waters says “I sort of assumed that I would cover something with respect to queer history.” To prepare early on, he enrolled in LGBTQ History of the U.S. at Claremont McKenna College taught by Professor of History Diana Selig.
“I already knew I was interested in queer history and she solidified that for me. She gave me more of a grounding in U.S. history,” says Waters of the pivotal course.
Prof. Selig went on to become one of Waters’ thesis advisors and she shares that from the start, she was impressed with the originality and ambition of his thesis project. “The research that he did for the thesis was quite remarkable. He showed great creativity and persistence in his detective work, digging through archival material and tracking down people for oral history interviews.”
She adds that in the process, Waters uncovered a little-known story that makes a significant contribution to LGBTQ history: social workers placing queer teenagers with queer foster parents, an act that Waters describes in his New Yorker article as “radical even by the standards of today.”
When Waters was inputting keywords and phrases to search in The New York Times online archive, he would usually start with the term “homosexual” and see what entries came up.
“At some point I pulled this article from the 1970s of foster care placements that happened in New York City. This city agency would work with a gay agency in order to license gay foster parents—that was, perhaps, the earliest coverage and only mainstream article about this at the time. I didn’t know anything about it, so I started Googling it to see how widely it was known,” says Waters.
He found out that it was not known at all. Coming up empty was the spark he needed, and he became obsessed, he says. “There are a few references of this in some academic books and papers, but no one had devoted a lot of space to these placements specifically. That’s how I knew I had something that I was excited about.”
Backed by SURP funding, Waters devoted his summer before senior year to uncovering as much as he could on the topic. His SURP research took him to the archives at the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, Cornell University and The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in New York.
Searching the key term “foster care” and every adjacent phrase he could think of, Waters would find an article with a name and begin cold calling—reaching out to anyone mentioned who could remember anything or share more.
“It was a shot in the dark,” he says. Some of the newspaper articles were nearly 50 years old. But he got a lucky break when he found Karen Hagberd from Rochester, who had written a short op-ed in The Empty Closet, one of the oldest LGBTQ publications in the U.S. Hagberd had written about fostering a girl and then being asked to take in another foster child. “I remember getting so giddy to find a name of a foster parent,” says Waters, adding that Hagberd was easy to find online.
Waters says he was surprised this story hadn’t been told. Having already published a few articles with Atlas Obscura, Waters was no stranger to making cold pitches—sending out emails to editors to see if they would be interested in running his stories. He planned to do the same with his thesis project.
“I first pitched it September 2019. Because I spent so much doing research, I had this idea to aim high so that I wouldn’t regret not pitching it,” says Waters. “I didn’t think anything would happen, but I just needed to check off that box.”
For Waters, “aiming high” meant pitching to The New Yorker. He began by researching various editors for the publication and finding their Twitter accounts to see what type of articles they worked on. “I was trying to figure out who might be responsive to a random email from a college student,” says Waters. “I sent in a cold pitch. Two weeks later, I got a response.”
“It’s no surprise to that Michael found a place like The New Yorker for his story,” says Professor of History Tomás Summers Sandoval, who was also one of Waters’ thesis readers. “The very first time we met, he talked about how he saw his topic like a long-form journalistic piece. I agreed it was that kind of story, and it’s a testament to his skills and dedication to the topic that he convinced the folks at The New Yorker of the same.”
Selig adds, “This work is innovative and important, marked by new discoveries, compelling analytical insights, great storytelling, and vivid, eloquent prose. It’s an outstanding project.”
Now that the story has run, Waters has been surprised by the reception. “I didn’t really think anyone would read it. It’s only a web feature and I didn’t expect anyone beyond my friends and the family members my dad sent it to would read it. It’s been exciting that it struck a chord with people,” says Waters.
Waters wants to continue writing long-form magazine features that allow him to “write more in-depth but less frequently… and tell a story that doesn’t get the amount of attention it deserves.”
Waters is currently a staff reporter at Digiday’s Modern Retail where he writes about Amazon, TikTok and the e-commerce and retail worlds. He also has written for The New York Times, The Economist, The Atlantic, Columbia Journalism Review, WIRED, the website Vox and other outlets.
He has a few parting words of advice for students interested in writing and history. “What was really helpful for me was realizing that even in college, you have a lot of stories that have value and your perspective on them has value. Be willing to cold-pitch an editor. Most of the time they don’t answer but once in a while they will.”