Research Shows Supporting Families so They Can Better Support LGBT Youth is Key

Feature image via Shutterstock

A family’s acceptance, or not, of LGBT and gender non-conforming youth more directly influences that young person’s well-being and adjustment than even peer and community support, new research from the Family Acceptance Project shows.

That’s why the organization focuses its research and intervention work on supporting parents and families of LGBT youth with programs and materials in English, Spanish and Chinese, said Dr. Caitlin Ryan, the project’s director. Historically, social services programs, community organizations and other institutions working with queer youth have seen families as an adversary and leave them out of the equation for supporting youth, she explained. That’s a paradigm she works to change with a small team of dedicated individuals at the San Francisco State University-housed project. The project has worked to create what Ryan calls a “culturally grounded family support approach.”

In previous research, the project has worked to identify accepting and rejecting behaviors that are common among parents who have an LGBT and/or gender non-conforming child. Parents who see sexuality and gender variations as contrary to their cultural values often sincerely do not realize that behaviors like refusing to allow their child to have an LGBT friend or denying their identity to other family members put their child at greater risk for depression, suicide attempts, alcohol use, and other destructive behavior.

“We showed that those rejecting behaviors had very bad outcomes, and they were shocked,” Ryan said. “Then we showed them supporting and accepting behaviors that would help their child. We can teach a cluster of accepting behaviors we’ve measured that can reduce risk and increase connectedness.”

The method has been effective, especially because the project aims to investigate specific strategies for different families with varying needs, such as rural families, families of different ethnic and religious backgrounds, and families where the primary language is not English. Ryan said the methods give families tools to support their child even when the parents may not yet be ready to affirm that child’s identity.

There was one dad in a really rural community, he was a tradesman, former military. He had a very gender diverse son who was 16 and expressing his gender in a way that felt appropriate to him. He wore eye makeup and was dressing in a feminine manner. And he was very tall and it made him stand out. One day the father got a call that his son had been thrown down the stairs. He raced down and into the principal’s office. He said to the principal, ‘we have to know who these boys are, we have to stop this, this will not happen to my son. They have to treat my son with respect.’ He didn’t really understand what was happening with his son’s gender and he was embarrassed by it, but he also loved his son and stood up for him. That gave his son a sense of self-worth.

The organization hopes to see changes across disciplines and systems of care so that families become a more prominent part of care and intervention models. The narrative that parents aren’t able to support their LGBT kids needs to change because it is leading to worse outcomes for youth, she said.

The new report, to be published in July in Family Relations, looks at the various support models identified for youth: families, peers and LGBT communities.

“Families are the most predictive of well-being, but families are still not seen as important as peers and community support services,” Ryan said. “Many people think it’s too hard to work with families. But we have developed tools over the years to help providers.”

The organization has video, print and other materials to help get information about supporting LGBT youth in front of people in different communities. They work with clergy and other organizations where parents are likely to turn for help to provide them with resources. It’s key to show parents and guardians the negative impacts of rejection, then teach give them action steps to be more accepting, said Ryan, who has been working in LGBT health and mental health for 40 years. In the long term, she hopes their work will continue to affect public policy, as it did in shaping California’s anti-conversion therapy law.

Before you go! Autostraddle runs on the reader support of our AF+ Members. If this article meant something to you today — if it informed you or made you smile or feel seen, will you consider joining AF and supporting the people who make this queer media site possible?

Join AF+!


Adrian is a writer, a Texan and a Presbyterian pastor. They write about bisexuality, gender, religion, politics, music and a whole lot of feelings at Autostraddle and wherever fine words are sold. They have a dog named after Alison Bechdel. Follow Adrian on Twitter @adrianwhitetx.

Adrian has written 153 articles for us.


  1. it’s surprising to me that parents were shocked that their behavior toward their children was contributing to depression, etc. especially when parents think they’re doing the right thing, it makes me wonder what they think is contributing to those feelings in their child or if they just don’t see them…

    also, it’s exciting to see these resources available in so many different languages/being tailored to families that often are ignored!

  2. Families of LGBT youth (and I’m going to especially single out parents of trans kids) need a lot of support because they are a key focus of haters and reactionaries. The June 18th edition of the NY Times published what I consider a disgusting op-ed by Mark/Maritza Cummings, a person who formerly ID’d as a trans man but is now connected to TERFs and other transphobes (and has also been identified as a domestic abuser by his ex-fiancee, a trans woman). It shamefully blamed the parents of trans kids for who their children were and how they identified and characterized getting services for their kids as child abuse (he’s also described them as having Munchhausen by Proxy and being homophobic). He stated the opinion that no one should be able to physically transition until 25 years old. That a major publication would feature a hate piece on the parents of trans kids by someone like Cummings shows how far we still have to go. I’m hoping a more objective piece will be the PBS Frontline film on trans kids and their families showing on 6/30.

    • How old was Cummings when this person transitioned? Also, i’ve noticed that many de-trans men align with terf and claim that trans community coerced them to do it. Like I don’t get this odd link that some trans men have with space for women, specially ones that are not accepting of trans women. Also, if he is linked to terf, why is a trans woman in a relationship with them and why is Cummings not in jail for abuse? Like did Cathy use her pull to some how make Cummings the victim? Fuck, now I am bummed, angry, and frustrated over Cummings, and the NYT for posting such a shitty op-ed piece.

      Thank you, I will take a look at that Frontline piece when it comes out.

      • I can’t give you all the information about Cummings, but they originally transitioned in their late-30s and went on a lot of tv shows (like Maury Povich) where they seemed to develop a real taste for being on media. Increasingly in the past 3-4 years, they’ve had connections to TERFs like Lierre Keith, Sheila Jennings, Cathy Brennan, and trans hater Dirt. He was, in the 2003-2008 era, a very well known member of the trans men’s community. My biggest concern right now is why the NY TImes Op Ed editor chose to run his poorly written, badly documented and abusive hit piece.

        This is a link to the post about Cummings as a domestic abuser: Why is he not in jail… the vast majority of abusers aren’t in jail, much less abusers of trans women.

        • Come to think about it, I think I may have seen him on Maury(not sure about him personally, but his show is fucking transmisogynistic, really guess who the trans person is?) as my grandmother gets a kick out of all the lie detector episodes. I do remember seeing a trans dude on there who was in trouble for lying to his partner, could it have been him?

          I hate to find out, but who is Dirt if you don’t mind me asking. Maybe we should just mass mail the times about their horrible trans reporting. I am sure Cathy had some hand in there, cause she’s fucking everywhere when it comes to de-transtioned men. Life at her house must be awful.

  3. Thanks for sharing this information. The Family Acceptance Project seems like a helpful resource!

  4. This is so important! It reminds me of two things I’ve been thinking about lately:

    “Healing is the revolution; healing is not something that happens after the revolution.” a quote from another fabulous article on this very fabulous website.

    The fabulous work of our friends Kristin & Dannielle, especially:

  5. I just realized I want to work at the Family Acceptance Project when I grow up. Thanks, Autostraddle!

Comments are closed.