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Helping Religious Families Support Their LGBT Children

by Caitlin Ryan

Profiling the Family Acceptance Project

Until the Family Acceptance Project (FAP) was launched in 2002, little was known about how families adapt to their children’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) identity and how this affects their health and well-being. No one had studied the effect families have on their LGBT children, including how families respond and adjust when adolescents are found to be gay or transgender.

Historically, families were seen as rejecting and incapable of supporting their LGBT children. As a result, services emerged over several decades to serve LGBT adolescents either individually – like adults – or through peer support, but not in the context of their families. Families and caregivers had little information or support to deal with sexual orientation and gender identity issues when young people came out during childhood and adolescence, as was becoming increasingly common. And without a research or practice base, providers knew little about how to interact with or provide education and support services for ethnically and religiously diverse families with LGBT children.

Yet access to accurate information is essential since young people have increasingly been coming out or self-identifying as lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) during adolescence over the past three decades, and studies during the past 20 years show that young people become aware of sexual attraction, on average, at about age 10.

Launching the Family Acceptance Project

Family Acceptance Project participants. - Photo: FAPThe need to understand how families respond to their LGBT children and how this contributes to risk and well-being prompted the development of the Family Acceptance Project nearly 12 years ago by Dr. Caitlin Ryan and Dr. Rafael Diaz at San Francisco State University. They started FAP as the first research, education, intervention, and policy project to study the effect of family acceptance and rejection on the health and well-being of LGBT youth; and to develop a new family model of wellness, prevention, and care. In all, the aim is to decrease risk and promote well-being for LGBT young people in the context of family, culture, and faith traditions.

Dr. Ryan and her team conducted extensive interviews in English and Spanish with LGBT adolescents and families that were accepting, ambivalent, and rejecting of their LGBT adolescents. In addition to documenting key aspects of their lives, including LGBT identity development and cultural and religious values and beliefs, the FAP team identified more than 100 specific behaviors that families and caregivers use to express acceptance and rejection of their LGBT children.

These include family reactions such as connecting the child with an LGBT role model to show him or her options for the future versus trying to change the adolescent’s gender expression or using religion to condemn his or her sexual orientation. Each of these behaviors was then measured in a follow-up study to assess the relationship between family acceptance and rejection during adolescence with risk and well-being in young adulthood.

Effect of Family Acceptance and Rejection

This research showed that parents, foster parents, and caregivers have a compelling effect on their LGBT children’s health and well-being. In short, the team found that family rejection of LGBT youth is related to serious health problems, including risk for suicide and HIV, and family acceptance helps protect against risk and promote well-being in young adulthood.

In their study of family rejection (published in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics), FAP found that LGBT young adults with high levels of family rejection during adolescence were 8.4 times more likely to report having attempted suicide, 5.9 times more likely to report high levels of depression, 3.4 times more likely to use illegal drugs, and 3.4 times more likely to report having engaged in risky sexual behavior, compared with peers from families that reported no or low levels of family rejection. Conversely, they found that LGBT young people whose parents supported them showed much higher rates of good self-esteem and better overall health and lower rates of physical and mental health problems, including attempted suicide.

Since 2007, the Family Acceptance Project has been generating the first research-based family education materials to help ethnically and religiously diverse families support their LGBT children, part of the new family model the project has been developing to support LGBT children and adolescents in the context of their families.

Need for Accurate Information

An important part of FAP’s family education work involves providing basic education on sexual orientation and gender identity. A primary source of misconceptions about sexual orientation is rooted in the word itself: many people believe erroneously that sexual orientation is only about sex, sexual practices or sexual behavior.  I also involves emotional relatedness and the deep need that humans beings have for the intimacy of connecting with others.

In fact, sexual behavior is just one part of a person’s sexual orientation. FAP found that this misconception was especially widespread among the many socially and religiously conservative families and groups with which they worked. Moreover, FAP researchers found that denying an adolescent’s LGBT identity, telling him or her that “it’s just a phase” or that he or she will “grow out of it” is a rejecting behavior that is related to increased risk for depression and suicide.

Supporting an LGBT Child

The team found that many religious families feel they have to choose between their LGBT child and their religious beliefs. But one of FAP’s basic tenets is that families don’t have to choose between their child and their faith: they can maintain religious values and beliefs while they love and support their LGBT child. Many parents who believe that homosexuality is against their religion have been reluctant or unwilling to express affection toward or interact positively with their gay adolescent or adult child because to them, affection or encouragement connote acceptance of an identity they believe is wrong. At the same time, however, they are shocked to learn that family rejection contributes to serious health risks, and few parents want to contribute to their child’s risk for suicide, substance abuse, or HIV.

FAP research shows that a little change – being a little less rejecting – is related to decreased risk for serious negative health concerns. Reducing family rejection can improve relationships and keep families from fracturing. Parents and caregivers who believe that homosexuality and gender non-conformity are wrong can supporttheir gay or transgender child without accepting an identity they think is wrong or against God’s will by modifying or changing rejecting behaviors that increase their LGBT child’s risk.

FAP research has identified a range of supportive behaviors that help decrease risk for LGBT young people and enable families to uphold their deeply-held values and beliefs. These include talking with the child about his or her sexual orientation or gender identity, even when this feels uncomfortable; requiring that other family members treat the child with respect, even when they disagree or believe that being gay or transgender is wrong; and standing up for the child when others mistreat him or her because of who he or she is.

Research-Based Resources

Recognizing the importance of helping parents and caregivers understand sexual orientation and gender identity in the context of their religious values and beliefs, FAP has been developing specific faith-based versions of its research-based multicultural family education booklets. The first faith-based version was written for Mormon families with LGBT children, and versions for families of other religions are forthcoming.

All of FAP’s family education booklets – including generic versions in English, Spanish and Chinese – have been designated as “Best Practice” resources for suicide prevention for LGBT people by the Best Practices Registry for Suicide Prevention. FAP family education booklets are available for order in print copy or online.

Family Bible study at the Mongomery family, a still-shot from the documentary “Families are Forever.”The Family Acceptance Project has also been developing a series of short, powerful documentary films that show the journey of ethnically and religiously diverse families from struggle to support of their LGBT children. These films are designed to address key needs that FAP has identified.  These include giving LGBT youth and families hope; showing the process that helps diverse parents and caregivers learn to nurture, support and accept their LGBT children; and humanizing the lives of ethnically and religiously diverse LGBT young people and their families.

Funds are currently being sought to complete this compelling film series. Click on the video here to see the trailer from the latest film, “Families Are Forever,” about the Montgomerys, a Mormon family with a gay son. (This issue of TIO includes Joanna Brooks’s interview with Wendy Montgomery.)  

Approach to Integrating Faith and Family Values

FAP’s approach offers a middle ground to provide accurate, research-informed information for diverse families that respects their values and beliefs. It shows how many of the ways they thought they would help their LGBT children – trying to change who they are, isolating or excluding them and preventing them from learning who they are, expressing shame and requiring silence and secrecy – though offered with love, significantly increase their LGBT children’s risk for serious health problems including high risk for suicide. Our approach offers a new culturally-grounded way for families to love their child, to decrease serious health and social risks including homelessness, and to keep their families together.