~ By Colette
Families play a crucial role in the development of young children and adolescents. At the same time, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth are coming out to their parents at younger and younger ages. However, very little research has been conducted on how families respond to their LGBT children and the impact that families can have on these youth.
In a research article published today in the January issue of Pediatrics, Dr. Caitlin Ryan and colleagues of San Francisco State University’s “Family Acceptance Project” begin to show the impact that families and, more specifically, family rejection can have on young white and Latino LGB youth.
For this article, the researchers used a retrospective study design with 224 white and Latino LGB young adults ages 21 to 25 years. Participants were evenly distributed across gender and ethnicity, and all lived in California. The study measured how specific family behaviors that parents, caregivers, and guardians use to reject their adolescent’s LGB identity (between ages 13-19), relates to negative mental health, substance use and misuse, and risky sexual behavior in young adulthood.
Results of the study indicated that when compared to their peers from families with no or low levels of family rejection, the lesbian, gay, and bisexual young adults who reported high levels of family rejection during adolescence were:
- • 8.4 times more likely to report attempting suicide
• 5.9 times more likely to report high levels of depression
• 3.4 times more likely to report illegal drug use
• 3.4 times more likely to report having engaged in unprotected sexual intercourse
Additionally, when the sample was broken down by gender and ethnicity, young Latino gay and bisexual men reported higher levels of family rejection and higher rates of negative mental health and HIV risk outcomes than the other subgroups in the study.
The lead author of this article, Caitlin Ryan, co-authored two articles in our 2001 issue on lesbian and gay youth. I recently had the pleasure of talking with her about this current research and the Family Acceptance Project (FAP). Caitlin started the Family Acceptance Project in 2002 as a research, education, and intervention initiative to promote the well-being of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth in the family context. Beyond the research described above, other research methods include in-depth interviews with LGBT adolescents and members of their families; case studies; state services surveys; and a larger survey to determine the accuracy and predictability of FAP assessment materials. Additionally, FAP is also developing training and assessment materials for youth service workers, and resources to strengthen family’s support of LGBT children. A strength of the Family Acceptance Project is the diversity of the people they have worked with, including families of diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds, diverse family composition, and diverse socio-economic status.
When I read the Pediatrics article I was curious what family rejection looked like. According to Caitlin, besides the physical and verbal abuse or disparagement which many people would identify as rejecting, other behaviors can include such actions as blocking access to LGBT friends and resources, or excluding youth from family events because of the youth’s LGBT identity. She stressed that the measures of both family rejection and family acceptance were based on their in-depth interviews with LGBT youth and their families, conducted in English and Spanish. The Pediatrics article reports on family rejection and sexual orientation but other papers will include gender expression as well as gender identity and a wide range of issues.
As a clinical social worker, Caitlin identified clear implications from this research. She noted that, “providers typically don’t ask LGBT youth about family reactions to their LGBT identity – or engage families in the adolescent’s care – because they make assumptions about how families will react.” Therefore, it is important that providers ask youth about their families’ reactions: Don’t make assumptions.
She also stressed that it is important to identify resources that are available to LGBT young people in the provider’s own community as well as sources of supportive family counseling. It is also important to talk to the parent or guardian about their child’s sexual orientation or gender identity and behavior to address any myths or misconceptions they may have.
Parents also need to be advised that their negative reactions to their children’s LGBT identity can have a negative impact on their children’s health and mental health. In the interviews and follow up sessions with very ethnically diverse families, they found that “so many rejecting families were motivated by love and concern to try to change their children’s LGBT identity, to help their children be accepted by others and ‘fit’ in the world. Families thought that changing their children would help them. However, when they realized how these behaviors were actually hurting their LGBT children, they were motivated to become less rejecting and more supportive.” Once parents and caregivers were able to connect their words, actions, and behaviors with promoting their child’s wellbeing, they started to adjust their behaviors which opened up a dialogue and started to change the family dynamics.
Additionally, during their initial interviews they found that “families of LGBT youth, especially ethnically diverse families, are very isolated. They have no opportunities to share their story.” And, “even rejecting families felt a sense of relief after telling their story.”
Other exciting resources are going to become available from this project. Beyond an upcoming journal article on family acceptance, which is currently under review – and many other research papers related to families, schools and positive LGBT youth development – they have been developing a risk assessment tool which will help youth workers (including social workers, physicians, and others), quickly assess family rejection and related risk behaviors to make decisions about intervening and follow up care.
Later in 2009, their publications and tools for providers will become available on their web site. These tools will include family informational material and the aforementioned assessment tool. Additionally, they have been raising funds to start to make short video stories of ethnically diverse families to emphasize key findings from their research and to give youth and family members hope.
The Family Acceptance Project
The research and resource development for the Family Acceptance Project have primarily been funded by The California Endowment. Additionally, the Family Acceptance Project has recently received a matching grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to develop interventions based on their research to help ethnically diverse families decrease rejection and increase support to decrease their LGBT children’s risk and promote their well-being. The project is hiring bilingual, bicultural Spanish-speaking and Cantonese-speaking providers to help develop this new family-related approach to prevention, services and care. For more information on the project, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.