Family Acceptance Project Seeks to Help LGBT Youth
When E.J. told his parents he wanted to attend a school dance, they were surprised, but pleased. As a macho Latino Marine, his father wasn’t thrilled that his withdrawn son, who even as a child preferred playing with a Dora the Explorer doll rather than a football, was gay. But when E.J.’s father found his inebriated son slumped over outside a school dance, he realized that he didn’t want his boy to become another statistic. Partnering with the Family Acceptance Project, E.J.’s family learned how to keep their son safe and happy.
A group of about 100 people-many of them social workers-gathered at New York City’s LGBT Community Center on Jan. 10 for "Families: The Missing Link in Reducing Risk and Promoting Well-Being of LGBTQ Youth," a forum highlighting the importance of working with families of LGBT youth to keep them safe.
The forum, which featured a keynote address from Dr. Caitlin Ryan, director of the FAP at San Francisco State University, brought together a variety of LGBT youth advocates. These include Jenni Gunnell, director of Social Services at SCO Family of Services and Theresa Nolan, director of New York City Division/LGBTQ Youth Programs at Green Chimneys, to discuss the issues that they are tackling with a similar model called the Family Therapy Intervention Pilot.
The premise of both FAP and FTIP is that families have a compelling impact on the health and well-being of LGBT youth, and there are ways to modify behaviors to balance parents’ deeply held religious and cultural beliefs with their love for their children.
"It used to be the case that when young people came to the Center, they were coming to get away from their families," said Glennda Testone, executive director of the Center. "I’m happy to say that now, many are actually brought here by their parents or siblings. There’s the beginning of a shift that is going on."
Family Paradigms Shift As Children Come Out Younger
As children come out at an earlier age, people are beginning to address the lack of services for LGBT children and families. The shift from seeing the families of LGBT youth as toxic at worst, unsupportive at best and in general, as the "enemy," is slowly changing across the country.
It began two years ago in New York City when Nolan began working with the Mayor’s Commission on LGBT Runaway and Homeless Youth to reduce homelessness. FTIP was spawned from that program, and has since received support from the MAC AIDS Fund, Lady Gaga and other private funders.
"The final report... included a recommendation to launch a pilot intervention project to address rejection of LGBTQ youth by their families," said Nolan. "Based on the findings of the Family Acceptance Project, which clearly show the benefits of increasing family acceptance, Green Chimneys and SCO Family of Services developed our family therapy project and we are bringing Dr. Ryan to New York City for this forum to inform and engage our providers and advocates in a community response to the negative effects of family rejection."
FTIP and FAP stakeholders decided to do their training and outreach together, and invite Ryan to New York City to train their staff. Their goal is that by getting parents to be just a bit more accepting, they can reduce high rates of LGBT teen suicide, depression, illegal drug use and risk of STDs or HIV.
Ryan is using her research to help ethnically and religiously diverse families support their LGBT children by switching the paradigm from an adversarial approach to an engagement network. Her methods further stress that all families are potential allies with the capacity to grow and change to support their children.
"This is the most hopeful thing that I’ve ever done, and it’s an extraordinary experience to be hearing about those connections when there are so many negative messages that LGBT kids get from their families," said Ryan. "One of the things we really work to do is to help conservative families find a way to connect with their LGBT child, and really give people a reason to change or modify their behavior."
Some parents, in a mistaken attempt to try to socialize their LGBT child to live in a world they believe won’t accept them, engage in behaviors that adversely affect their children. These include verbal or physical harassment; blocking access to LGBT activities, events and resources; blaming children when they are discriminated against, pressuring them to be more (or less) masculine or feminine, telling them that God will punish them or forcing them keep their LGBT identity a secret.
Even excluding LGBT children from family activities can have the same impact as physical or verbal abuse. And LGBT youth are already five times more likely to face depression, four times more likely to use drugs, and twice as likely to attempt suicide.
"Parents don’t want to hurt their children, they don’t want to punish their children," said Ryan. "Many are actually trying to protect them from harm, to give them a good life, to help them fit in and be respected by others."
Parents can learn, despite their personal discomfort, through FTIP and FAP how to support and talk to their child about their identity, connect their child to LGBT resources, advocate for their child when they are being discriminated against, welcome their friends, offer positive comments about LGBT people and believe that child can have a happy future.
Research shows that even moderate support from families can have a drastic improvement in a child’s health and well-being. Unfortunately, there are few programs in place to provide this connection.
"What has been so interesting is that we haven’t seen the emergence of family-based LGBT services coming from this," said Ryan. "There is a dearth of activities-not even services, just activities-for LGBT children and adolescents. Just start with recreational activities and you can show that you can have supportive relationships and begin to create a connection to model positive images that we rarely see."
Ryan said that she uses E.J.’s father and other stories as the first bridge to make this connection. E.J.’s story, shown in a video, allows parents to see how other families with LGBT youth have learned to accept their child’s sexual orientation or gender identity and expression and how to keep them safe.
By using the lived experiences of LGBT youth, FAP tries to frame the messages appropriately for that audience. It created the first rapid risk-assessment tool for primary caregivers, social workers and school counselors. FAP even makes sure their materials are available in English, Spanish and Chinese and are sensitive to cultural issues.
"What we’re doing tonight is part of this community engagement. It’s a low-cost, low-tech, culturally congruent approach to changing the future," said Ryan, noting that they are still in the pilot and testing phases of the project.
Families can make an important difference in a child’s health and well-being if providers remember these key issues: don’t assume that families don’t want a connection, realize that they need basic education, see that religious and strong values around families are strengths and balance these beliefs with connections and realize that families are not the enemies.
Ryan said FAP has been tested from Louisiana to China, and implemented through PFLAG and other groups through meetings with Mormons in Utah. The pilot project is free, offers 10-14 sessions of intensive family therapy, and is meant to increase family acceptance and decrease negative outcomes for LGBT youth.
For E.J., that meant a move from isolation and drug abuse to a supportive family who now holds bi-monthly LGBT youth outreach meetings in their home. His father, a swarthy Marine, now welcomes E.J.’s boyfriend into his home, and advocates for his child to have a healthy life and believes that he will have a happy future.
More Funding to Support New York’s Homeless LGBT Youth
In New York City, the outlook of LGBT youth has begun to brighten thanks to a $500,000 grant from the Calumus Foundation to the Ali Forney Center that will allow it to open the country’s first 24-hour drop-in youth service center.
The facility will offer homeless LGBT youth crisis and suicide intervention, appointments with medical and mental health professionals, substance abuse counseling and other services. Career and education counseling with the goal of helping youth reclaim their lives will also be offered.
The drop-in center will also provide food, water, access to showers, laundry, new clothes and other basic needs. The Ali Forney Center hopes to have the program operational by the end of the year.
The news came as a relief to Ali Forney Center Executive Director Carl Siciliano, who has held numerous rallies over the last year to demand more funding for programs for homeless LGBT youth.
"This summer, when our waiting list reached 200 names, I became increasingly concerned about the limited number of shelter beds and drop-in service hours available. For many years we recognized the need for 24-hour services, but due to limited funding and to prioritizing funding shelter beds, we could never build this on our own," said Siciliano. "Thanks to the generosity of the Calamus Foundation, we will be able to offer LGBT young people a reprieve from the streets through a supportive, safe, and nurturing environment."