Research: How to help gay youth

Posted by Rebecca Jones on


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Written by Rebecca Jones on Apr 5th, 2011. | Copyright ©

LONGMONT – Well-meaning parents may think they have their children’s best interests at heart when they do what they can to discourage them from appearing gay or developing a same-sex romantic relationship.

But recent research indicates that such pressure – even when it’s subtle – can be just as harmful as physically beating a gay or transgender child.

“It’s shocking for parents to see that blocking their kids’ access to gay friends puts their children at risk just as much as physical or verbal abuse does,” said Caitlin Ryan, director of the Family Acceptance Project, a research initiative based at San Francisco State University.

“It puts them at very high risk for suicide, depression and other health problems.”

Ryan has been in Colorado for the past three days giving presentations to parent groups on her research into how family acceptance and rejection impacts the lives of young people. On Monday evening, she spoke to a group of nearly 30 parents, teachers and students at Skyline High School in Longmont.

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Sociologists have long known that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people often confront physical and mental health problems at higher rates than their straight peers. Depression, suicide and substance abuse stalk the young gay community, often linked to the bullying these young people endure at school.

But Ryan is engaged in innovative research to quantify just what role family acceptance or rejection plays in the lives of LGBT adolescents. She has identified more than 100 behaviors that can be categorized as “rejecting,” “ambivalent” or “accepting,” and has determined just which parental behaviors can increase a child’s risk for suicide, drug abuse or HIV.

She’s also found that families have largely gotten an undeserved rap. Most families, she said, are far more willing to accept and even celebrate a gay child than schools, counselors, doctors and others involved in child protection think.

“Prior to this research, there were just a lot of misconceptions about how families might react to a gay, lesbian or transgendered child,” Ryan said. “Those misconceptions are based on how families might have reacted 10 to 20 years ago. But just as society has been changing, families have been changing as well.”

Only one in five families ‘fully accepting’ of LGBT youth

She said that recent research indicates that while only about one in five families is fully accepting of LGBT youth, about half are at least ambivalent, and only one in three is rejecting – at least at first.

She has also found that while many families will continue to struggle to accept a child’s sexual orientation, even becoming just a little less rejecting can have profound consequences.

Ryan’s research shows that young adults from “highly rejecting” families are more than eight times as likely to have attempted suicide, nearly six times as likely to be deeply depressed, more than three times as likely to use illegal drugs and more than three times as likely to be at high risk for HIV and sexually transmitted diseases than are gay and transgender young adults whose families were only a “little rejecting.”

“Look at the drop in the suicide rate with just a little bit of acceptance,” she said. “It’s like a Colorado ski slope. It’s important for families to see what can happen with just a little bit of acceptance.”

A parent’s question
“How do I help him find people with the same likes and interests he has? A lot of his friends are female. But they go off and do girl things together and he can’t join them.”
Michele, whose son is 16

Michele, the mother of a 16-year-old gay son, drove a long way into Longmont to hear Ryan speak. She asked that her last name not be used because, while she and her husband are supportive of their son, they live in a small town and she fears he could be at risk.

“My question is, how do I help him find people with the same likes and interests he has?” she asked. “A lot of his friends are female. But they go off and do girl things together and he can’t join them. He can’t go to sleepovers with them. And he can’t have a sleepover with a boy.”

Ryan advised her to do all she can to help her son connect with other LGBT youth, even if it means driving him into Boulder or Longmont, or making arrangements for other LGBT young people to drive out to visit him.

Parents ‘clueless’ about helping LGBT students in school

Church has proved a stumbling block for Longmont mother Shelley Ibarra, who wants her 21-year-old gay son to find a spiritual home that is accepting of his orientation.

Family behaviors that help
  • Talk with your child about their LGBT identity, and express affection.
  • Advocate for your child when he or she is mistreated.
  • Require other family members to respect your LGBT child.
  • Bring your child to LGBT organizations or events.
  • Welcome your child’s LGBT friends to your home.

Family behaviors to avoid

  • Excluding LGBT youth from family and family activities.
  • Blocking access to LGBT friends, events and resources.
  • Pressuring your child to be more – or less – masculine or feminine.
  • Making your child keep their LGBT identity a secret.

“It’s hard to find a church where gays are not just tolerated but truly accepted,” she said. “It’s sad for me that my son has turned away from the church because so many people told him he’s a sinner.”

Schools continue to be the focal point for much of the bullying that LGBT young people endure, and Ryan’s research shows that parents typically are clueless about how best to support their children while they’re in school.

“Parents tend to be unaware if children are being harassed in school or they’re unaware of the level or extent of the harassment,” she said. “Health and mental health providers don’t screen for harassment at school, and most parents don’t understand about the long-term impact of LGBT victimization at school.”

Adam Kohn, a counselor at Frederick High School, says he’s committed to making families aware of the critical role they play in helping LGBT children.

“Parents come in and talk to me all the time, saying they don’t know what to do about this,” he said. “I’ll share this information.”

But Kohn fears that waiting until students are in high school is too late to start having frank conversations with their parents.

“I have a first-grade daughter, and God forbid you bring up sexual orientation in middle school, let alone elementary school,” he said.

“If our kids are starting to feel things, developing that first crush in third or fourth grade, and we’re not giving this information to parents until high school, that’s just ridiculous.”

Rebecca Jones can be reached at

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