Conference Aims For Full LGBTQ Inclusion In Society

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Clinical social worker Caitlin Ryan, second from left, stands with LGBT youth and team members outside the office of the Family Acceptance Project in San Francisco's Mission District in 2008. Ryan will present at Time to THRIVE. Photo Courtesy Family Acceptance Project. 

LAS VEGAS — To bring best practice to social-service professionals who encounter LGBTQ teens, the Human Rights Campaign Foundation kicks off Time to THRIVE, a three-day conference in Las Vegas beginning today.

The legal campaign for gay rights unfolds mostly in the courthouse and statehouse. But the conference is designed to take the campaign for acceptance and wellbeing of young people who are LGBTQ into schools, churches, neighborhoods and families. 

Time to THRIVE has drawn about 600 attendees – from 38 states and Israel – who work in fields including education, health, law enforcement, counseling, youth recreation, ministry and community development. Gay youth, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are at significantly higher risk of disease, depression, dropping out of school and dangerous behaviors, in part because they are more apt to be rejected by relatives or stigmatized and bullied in public. The HRC foundation intends the event to become annual.

The conference goal, according to director Vinnie Pompei, is to go beyond merely protecting LGBTQ teens from physical harm and discrimination, so they can grow up feeling included and valued by society. “We want to bring together these various national experts and organizations, and (their) emerging best practices,” he explained. 

The CDC’s disproportionate data on the reduced health of LGBTQ youth demands an ethical response from all professionals serving teens, “whether you personally believe in equal rights or religious rights,” added Pompei, who has taught middle school, counseled students and in May, will receive a doctorate in educational leadership.

Pompei also asserts that some common forms of “protecting” gay youth are punitive – when law officers put a teen in solitary confinement to prevent attacks by other teens in detention, or when schools segregate him or her from all peers in the school lavatory or locker room. Or, negative family reaction can land the teen who is out, in foster care.

Conference presenters will share strategies to handle youth who are questioning their sexual orientation, families dealing with a child who has come out, and settings where bullying is taking place. Some workshops will address special factors including race and religion.

In addition to the array of adult presenters at Time to THRIVE, the HRC Foundation has deliberately incorporated teen speakers, both LGBTQ and straight. “It’s important that we amplify the voices of young people, because they have direct experience,” Pompei said.

Perhaps the “star” among the young speakers is Jack Andraka, a Maryland teen who invented a low-cost, quick-result test to help diagnose pancreatic, ovarian and lung cancers. The Vatican recently gave Andraka, who is gay, an award for positive leadership, but the young man told the Washington Post in December that he still yearns to identify and meet an adult gay scientist who is out.

Other young speakers include EJ Johnson – the gay teen-age son of Cookie and Magic Johnson, retired NBA standout – and Joey Kemmerling, a pre-law college student from Pennsylvania who came out at age 13 and successfully fought back against intolerance.

Presenters range from government agencies such as the CDC and the New York Police Department to professional organizations including the American Counseling Association (ACA) and the state education associations of Nevada and California. Non-profit groups on the schedule include The Trevor Project, the Dolores Huerta Foundation, and the Matthew Shepard Foundation.

According to Pompei, the ACA session will cover recent litigation in several states, in which courts have upheld the decisions of post-graduate counseling programs to require all candidates, regardless of religious belief, to work with clients who have self-identified as LGBT.

The Family Acceptance Project, an innovative program affiliated with San Francisco State University, operates on empirical data it has collected from more than a decade of extensive family interviewing. Its director, clinical social worker Dr. Caitlin Ryan, says outcomes for gay youth differ, depending on whether the family is accepting, ambivalent or rejecting.

If a family reacts supportively when a child identifies as LGBTQ, the outcomes are better across many indicators – including substance abuse, suicide attempts, sense of future and overall wellbeing – the project’s research shows. At the conference Ryan will explain strategies for a family to affirm a gay child even when the parents have religious or other objections to homosexuality.

“Did they throw their arms around that child and say, ‘Honey, I love you no matter what,’ ” Ryan said. “Or did they force them to attend a religious service and pray to be changed?” In extreme cases, some families had kicked their LGBT youngster out of the home, or the child ran away.

The Family Acceptance Project offers multiple ways that parents or caregivers, without giving up their personal convictions, can demonstrate support for a gay teen. Conversely, “as the number of rejecting behaviors go up, it corresponds with significant increases in negative health problems,” Ryan added.

She urged social workers, educators and counselors in non-LGBTQ organizations to get familiar with the project’s materials. Rejecting families are more apt to seek advice from their regular pastor or pediatrician than a pro-gay group, she noted. And a small or rural community may lack specialized LGBT resources.

Combining policy and practice with visual art, Time to THRIVE will screen the Family Acceptance Project’s award-winning documentary film about a California Mormon family on Saturday night. “Families are Forever” tells the story of a couple who had gone door to door to promote California’s Prop 8 ban against marriage, but then learned from their 13-year-old son’s journal that he was gay. The family members are expected to attend the screening.