The first major study of how families respond and adapt when LGBT youth come out during adolescence was hailed this week by an Obama administration official for its recommendations on how to stem what he called “the tragic rash of suicide and bullying” in which targeted LGBT young people are victimized.
The official, David Hansell, who is gay, is acting assistant secretary for the Administration for Children and Families (ACF). He spoke before a gathering to discuss “The Critical Role of Family Support of LGBT Youth,” where the report was the centerpiece — at an event hosted by the Center for American Progress.
Hansell pledged a major push for a “cross-departmental and united effort” by all federal agencies, including the Defense Department, as well as the private sector, “to combat bullying and give support to at-risk LGBT youth.” A work-group is being created, Hansell said, to design this effort, which he called “a great example of bringing together the main organizations that can affect their lives.”
He also pointed to a recent action by HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to form a high-level, departmental coordinating committee on LGBT services “across the entire spectrum of services” that he said would be supported by “an unprecedented devotion of resources.”
Speaking of findings from the report — titled “Supportive Families, Healthy Children: Helping Families with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Children,” authored by Dr. Caitlin Ryan, director of the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University — Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) declared, “I come here with a message of hope.”
“Dr. Ryan and her team have generated a wealth of new data over the past decade on the impact of family acceptance and rejection on LGBT children and youth,” said Minter, who is also lead counsel for same-sex couples in the landmark California marriage equality case. “The findings of this research are dramatic, clear, and, above all, surprisingly hopeful,” Minter added. “They have profound implications for virtually every public policy issue affecting LGBT youth and their families, and call for a revolution in the way public and private agencies serve this population.”
Writing in the report about recommendations for what Minter termed “a new family-based approach” by the nation’s schools, family courts, and child welfare and juvenile justice systems,” Ryan wrote that “families love their children and want the best for them,” but that “when parents hold their newborn infant, few of them think their child might be gay or transgender,” but dream instead of their wedding to a heterosexual partner and offspring.
However, Ryan said, “many young people and adults are not heterosexual,” pointing to research showing that between two and seven percent of adults are lesbian, gay or bisexual, and that young people — both gay and straight — first become aware of being attracted sexually to someone at around age 10. According to her report, “the average age that youth realized they were gay was a little over 13,” but “many knew they were gay at even younger ages — such as age 7 or 9.”
“But many of them didn’t tell anyone,” according to the report’s findings based on empirical research, “because by then most had learned that being gay was shameful and wrong,” according to dominant and homophobic social mores. “They learned that gay people were called names, could be discriminated against and hurt by others, and they could embarrass and shame their families” and so, “from an early age, many gay children and adolescents learn how to hide their deepest feelings from people they love.”
Ryan, a clinical social worker who has worked on LGBT health and mental health for 35 years, began work on services to care for LGBT youth in the early 1990s and developed the Family Acceptance Project (FAP) at the Marian Wright Edelman Institute at SFSU in 2002.
Speaking at Monday’s event, Ryan stressed that, “we need a systems perspective” to mobilize families to help, not hinder, the human developmental needs of LGBT youth. “Every family has the potential to support the LGBT youngster,” she asserted, as she recited examples of what she called “journeys, from conflict and exclusion, to acceptance and hope” for “these young people, many of whom see no hope for the future,” and so become vulnerable at much increased risk to depression and suicide.
“This is the most hopeful work I have ever done,” Ryan said. “The gay and transgender youth can have a wonderful life and so can their families for a healthy, happy future.”
Ryan spelled out what she said should be “take-away messages” from the report’s findings, including a fundamental “paradigm shift” to serve LGBT young people “in the context of their families,” which she said can “have a compelling impact” for good or for ill. The key variable, she said, is whether the family accepts or rejects the LGBT youth once they come out. Rejection greatly heightens the risks of depression, suicide attempts, substance abuse, as well as exposure to HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
For example, Ryan said that LGBT youth are three and a half times more likely to be at risk for HIV infection as young adults when they experience “high levels of family rejection.” Lifetime suicide attempts are also much increased, making them eight and half times more likely to attempt suicide, she said, when rejection is high. She said she is hopeful, however, because of the fact that “LGBT people have been coming out at a younger age for some time now, “which provides increased risk but also greater opportunities,” when families become engaged in supportive ways and public and private agencies work to raise awareness and mobilize action.