There are parents who flat out disown their gay children, and there are parents who welcome them openly without question. But what about those in the middle, those who want to love and support their child but don’t want them to be gay?
Research from the Family Acceptance Project based in San Francisco, California shows there are more parents in the middle than one might expect. And when those parents are given tools to teach them how they can support their children without the caveat of accepting their sexuality or gender expression, it can make a monumental difference in their child’s life.
It’s an area of research that can be tough to talk about, the idea that society should expect anything less than full acceptance can be a hard pill to swallow. But ambivalence and mixed feelings are a fact of life for many families. For many, unconditional love and acceptance seem like an impossibility, but when presented with facts about how specific behaviors can affect a child, most parents agree they want to see more positive outcomes for their children.
Dr. Caitlin Ryan has spent the last 11 years looking at families with roadblocks to acceptance and documenting the effects of family-based intervention and counseling. With a conscious decision to focus on accepting and rejecting behaviors, problems like depression, drug use and suicide attempts can be significantly reduced.
“Most parents want the best for their children,” Ryan explained as she presented her research to an audience of social workers, teachers, parents, psychologists and activists at Affirmations on March 30.
“If we can take the emphasis off the overwhelming emotional barriers and put it on behaviors, we can help families.”
The FAP identifies behaviors as accepting and rejecting in the context of the parent/child relationship. Once parents understand the messages sent by their behavior, they can take care to choose behaviors that demonstrate an underlying support for their child.
Ellen Boen works in the Clinic for Child Studies in the Wayne County Juvenile Court and attended the presentation. “We want all children to be supported at home,” Boen said. “A lot of kids get into trouble because they feel like nobody understands them and they’re rebelling.” Boen attended the session in hopes of bringing back information that can help in the local juvenile justice system. She can also relate to families in strife. “When I found out my son was gay, I ignored it. He was fourteen. I told myself it was just a phase. I was scared. I wanted to shelter him from ridicule. Thankfully he found Affirmations and he’s grown up now, and he’s dedicated himself to helping with youth in Washtenaw County. I’m so proud of him. I wish I had been more accepting, but I’m glad he turned out as he did. I want other families to know they can show their kids love and support their kids no matter what.”
While there are some behaviors that are clearly accepting behaviors, such as taking the child to LGBT events and allowing them to have LGBT mentors, there are other ways a parent can provide some support. Listening to the child without interrupting, even if they don’t agree with what they say, is one way a parent can be supportive. Other accepting behaviors include giving their kid a hug, saying ‘I love you,’ and standing up for them when others tease them or are unfair.
Parents may not realize the drastic effects that rejecting behaviors can have on a young person. Examples of rejecting behaviors include being dismissive of the child’s identity, telling them God will punish them, barring them from having gay friends, interrupting them when talking, or making belittling comments.
Understanding behaviors can also help young people recognize when their parents are making an effort. “Those with teenagers know that when they tell you something it tends to not be the whole story,” Ryan said. “That’s why we also talked to parents for the study, so we could see things from their perspective.” Parents often fell in the middle, with a mix of accepting and rejecting behaviors. Once a young person understands that rejecting behaviors stem from concern, and that accepting behaviors are good signs that the parent loves them, it can help ease some of their anxiety over the strength of that relationship.
The FAP research shows that when the level of parental acceptance increases, the potential for negative consequences decreases. For example, 8 percent of LGBT youth in “extremely accepting” homes reported suicidal thoughts. It goes up to 10 percent if the family is “very accepting,” 15 percent if they are “somewhat accepting,” 25 percent at “a little accepting,” and 55 percent at “not accepting.” Thus if a parent can increase their accepting behavior even slightly, it can increase the child’s probability of surviving their coming out experience.
Suicide, school victimization, homelessness, juvenile justice cases, STDs, HIV/AIDS risk, drugs and depression are all impacted by parental behavior in a similar way.
“This is a whole family approach that isn’t always welcome in the LGBT community,” Ryan said. “It’s a real paradigm shift to include the context of family and not everyone is ready for that. We tend to think of families as adversaries, not as allies, but we forget that rejecting behavior is often motivated by care and concern.
“In the psychology world, most LGBT youth are served as individuals or in peer support, not in the context of families. Professionals that do family counseling may or may not know how to help when a youth is coming out. They many not know how to recognize it or how to deal with it. They may not ask the right questions to see if a child is struggling with this. Those that do see a youth struggling may be reluctant to talk about it in family therapy sessions because providers sill see families as rejecting.”
A way to reconnect
Ryan hopes that her research will help families to reconnect with the deeper feelings towards the children. With this in mind, the FAP has created a video and pamphlets in multiple languages that teach parents the importance of their role in keeping their child safe and secure. The video shows the way a “macho” straight dad learns to accept his gay son. The pamphlets use graphics to show how great an impact their behavior has on gay children.
Ryan said since revealing her research in 2009, she’s had a surprising number of people in the faith community approach her about her work.
“Families can have a lot of conflict, especially if their child’s sexuality or gender expression conflicts with their religion. With these tools, religious parents can still express love and support for their child while they come to terms with the conflicts in themselves,” said Ryan.
While groups like PFLAG have pushed for parents to accept their gay children, research was lacking on how strong their influence is, and how behavior-centered tools could impact the child’s life. Another concern for Ryan is how to get the information to all parents, before a crisis comes up.
“Kids start getting the message that gay is bad very early in life. For those that are driven to kill themselves, it’s often because they think their parents will reject them if they find out. Death is a better alternative to them than being rejected. Kids are coming out younger and younger, and their three pillars of support are their home, their school and often their faith community. We spend a lot of resources talking about what happens at school, but how can we reach the families themselves?”
The FAP has raised enough money to have the brochures designed and one outreach video produced. Ryan hopes that others will see the importance of her work and the simple ways it can reduce harm to young gay and transgender children. She hopes to attract enough funding to produce a series of videos and teach this type of outreach to care-providers throughout the country.