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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.