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 As a macho Latino Marine, his father wasn’t thrilled that his withdrawn son, who even as a child preferred playing with a Dora the Explorer doll rather than a football, was gay.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."