Experts Weigh In On Importance of Family Acceptance in Lives of LGBT Youth

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“Families’ and caregivers’ words, actions and behaviors have a physical and emotional impact on their LGBT children,” said Dr. Caitlin Ryan, project director of San Francisco State University’s Family Acceptance Project, (FAP) at a Webinar sponsored by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) this week. 

teenage Girls holding handsDr. Ryan was one of three panelists that presented research findings and showcased methods and strategies for improving the mental and physical well-being of LGBT youth at the online presentation, titled The Critical Role of Families in Reducing Risk and Promoting Well-Being for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning and Intersex (LGBTQI) Youth. The Webinar emphasized the influence family behaviors have on LGBT teens, specifically the link between familial rejection and increased health risks, such as suicide attempts, illegal drug use and unprotected sexual activities.

 “Family rejection is linked with serious health and mental health problems for LGBT young people,” Dr. Ryan said. She presented research findings that indicated that teens that experienced high levels of family rejection based on sexual or gender identity were eight times likelier to attempt suicide than LGBT youth with more accepting families, as well as three times likelier to contract HIV or use illegal drugs than LGBT youth whose families exhibited low or no rejecting behaviors. 

Additionally, she said that teens that are pressured into “gender conformity” by their parents were at greater risk for several health and mental well-being issues, including being five times likelier to suffer from depression and almost four times likelier to attempt suicide than teens that are not pressed into exhibiting heteronormative behaviors.

 Dr. Ryan said that FAP research indicates that youth are “coming out” to their parents earlier, with the aggregate LGBT teen self-identifying as lesbian, gay or bisexual around the age of 13, with their families becoming aware of their sexuality a year later. She said that the average LGBT youth first becomes aware of same-sex attraction around the age of 10, and that many exhibit so-called non-heteronormative traits - such as a rejection of gender performativity - as early as kindergarten.

 She said that many LGBT youth programs are focused on individual-level solutions, without an emphasis on families. Oftentimes, she said that such programs completely omit the possibility of reunification for LGBT teens and their parents.

 “FAP is generating a paradigm shift to serve LGBBT young people in the context of their families,” Dr. Ryan said. She promotes the development of new, evidence-based programs that entail “family models” of wellness, prevention and care to promote the mental and physical well-being of LGBT teens.

 Dr. Ryan stressed the importance of identifying “supportive” and “rejecting” family behaviors, stating that positive communication and dialoguing was essential for healthy relationships between LGBT youth and their parents.

 “A little change in how families respond to their LGBT children can make a difference in their children’s health, mental health and well-being,” she said.

 Theresa Nolan, division director of Green Chimneys NYC, spoke about the importance of family acceptance in regards to foster care and homeless youth. 

Although emotionally painful, she said that it’s important that youth service providers acknowledge the role of families for runaway and marginally-housed teens.

 “There’s a lot of pain we’re talking about, [including] literal abuse,” she said. “[But] it’s really important to acknowledge that vital connection.”

 Nolan promotes a model centered on increasing family acceptance for LGBT teens, with an emphasis on keeping or returning youth to their homes. She spoke about the programs implemented by Green Chimneys NYC, which were developed by clinical teams from several agencies, whom she said has “decades of experience with queer youth and family therapy.”

 She said that LGBT youth required special needs in discussing matters with their parents, describing the experience as a “coming out process” for families just as much as teenagers. She emphasized the need for introducing family and/or other support networks to LGBT topics, and the identification of “support people,” such as mentors, friends or extended family members, for LGBT youth. 

“Reaching out to family does not require a young person to live with family,” she said. “Reaching out to family does assist youth in beginning to make peace with their past.”

 Stanley Griffith, president emeritus at Greater Boston Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, (PFLAG) Inc. said that a “heavy focus on family-acceptance programs” was a necessity for LGBT youth.

 He presented findings from the 2011 Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), a biennial survey conducted by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary & Secondary Education.

 According to the findings, approximately 7 percent of the state’s students identify themselves as gay, lesbian or bisexual, with the percentages leaping to 9.7 percent when factoring in students that reported engaging in same-sex sexual conduct over a specified timeframe.

 The latest data indicates that LGBT students in Massachusetts are seven times likelier to attempt suicide than their heterosexual classmates, and twice as likely to skip school because of feeling unsafe. While 17 percent of heterosexual students reported being bullied at school, an estimated 33.5 percent of the state’s LGBT students reported being harassed, taunted or intimidated by peers. Roughly 15 percent of LGBT students in Massachusetts reported being threatened or injured on school grounds over the course of a year, whereas only six percent of non-LGBT students reported such events.

 He was especially critical of mandatory notification policies, which alert teens’ families when they are victims of sexual-orientation-based bullying at school. As a large majority of LGBT teens are not “out” to their parents, he believes this could result in potential “adverse consequences” for youth and their families. Instead, he promoted more careful handling of anti-gay bullying instances, with materials that “tap into natural parental instincts” as well as address religious and societal values that may prevent parents from accepting their children based on sexual identities. 

“We want to provide every parent and caregiver with accurate information,” he said. “All parents and families need accurate information about sexual orientation and gender identity.”

Photo from Nicubunu.