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Helping Evangelical Christians Support Their LGBT Children

by Katie Abate
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Oct 26, 2012

In religious families, a child coming out as LGBT can rock the foundation, causing a rejection that can lead the child to higher instances of substance abuse, unsafe sex, depression and suicide. On Oct. 29, Dr. Caitlin Ryan, director and co-founder of the Family Acceptance Project will speak to Evangelical Christians about ways to support their LGBT child.

"The families recognize that we're not there to change their beliefs, we're there to help them help their children," said Ryan in an October 19 interview. She said that the families are appreciative of the respect they receive and are open to listen to the research and guidance on keeping their families together.

As a trained social worker, Ryan meets people where they are. She has encountered a very wide range of cultural and faith beliefs in her work and her research and so they have learned how to present the research to different groups of people. When speaking with families who use their faith as a reason to not support their LGBT children, she meets them at their beliefs and explains her research from there.

Often times families are misinformed in regards to homosexuality and gender identity and the exposure to the material is shocking because things they do that they believe to be helpful are actually rejecting behaviors.

Ryan has spent 40 years researching the effects "coming out" has on youths and their families. She has found that rejecting behaviors on the part of the parents can lead to higher instances of substance abuse, unsafe sex, depression, and suicide in LGBT youths.

In 2002 she co-founded FAP with Dr. Rafael Diaz, to research the outcome of family acceptance/rejection in LGBT youths and develop family intervention models to help families from ethnically and religiously diverse backgrounds support their LGBT children.

Ryan offers a middle ground for many families who do not particularly understand their child's sexuality and gender identity, to tell their child that they are loved no matter what.

"We're seen as a trusted source of information for these families," said Ryan. "Part of our work is bringing accurate information about LGBT and gender identities to these families in the context of their culture, values and beliefs."."

Families receive their information from the systems that most shape their lives, such as faith communities, school, work and doctors, so it is important for FAP to get their information out to those systems. The Family Acceptance Project is creating strategies that all sorts of people (doctors, parents, teachers, faith leaders) can use in a variety of situations where a child is developing low self-worth.

Many parents believe that the best way to handle their child's sexual identity is to inundate them with heterosexual messages and help them try to fit in with heterosexual peers. What these parents do not realize is that this behavior sends messages of rejection to their child. The more these children are forced into heterosexual norms, the less educated they are about homosexuality or transgender lifestyles.

When children have to hide, they develop a negative sense of self and grow to be ashamed of their sexual identity. Being supported and valued by their parents helps children learn to value their own senses of self. This leads to children learning to care for and respect themselves in a way that prevents damaging behaviors such as unsafe sex, substance abuse, and suicide attempts.

"The families recognize that we’re not there to change their beliefs, we’re there to help them help their children," said Dr. Caitlin Ryan.

"Parents think they're doing things to protect their children that are actually rejecting behaviors," said Cathy Renna of Renna Communications.

A negative reception of a child's coming out is often detrimental to his or her physical and mental health. But there are many ways in which parents can be supportive of their children, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Often parents react negatively because they do not understand their child's identity, so asking about it is often helpful behavior. When children have parents who support their gender or sexual identities and who believe that their children can have a happy and healthy future as an LGBT adult, they grow to embrace their identity and believe that they deserve all the rights of their heterosexual peers. Parents should be open with their children about their feelings of confusion and to promote openness, but should always tell their children that they are loved.

There is no one way that people learn information, so FAP uses different forms of media and integrate information into already existing information systems.

"We are using multiple ways to integrate our findings and what we've learned from our research, including mixed media to tell the story of our research," said Ryan.

They have gone back to many of the original participants in their research and to many other diverse families, youth and providers and asked what the research meant to them and how to talk about their finding with other families from their background. There are families who are still unable to support their LGBT children after learning how rejection affects their LGBT children's health and well-being. "But," assured Ryan, "those families are in the minority."

Ryan continues to work with families and youth about accepting and rejecting behaviors in regard to sexuality and gender identity.

"She is changing the paradigm of how we work with LGBT youths," said Renna.

Dr. Caitlin Ryan will present "The Church That Saves Lives" from 6:45-9:30 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 29 at Metro-West Boston. To attend and obtain location info, email For more info, visit

Dr. Ryan will also speak at PFLAG's Pastoral Counseling for LGBT Youth and Their Families from 8:30 a.m.-4:15 p.m. on Oct. 30 at Bentley University in Waltham, MA. For info, visit

"FAP Family Intervention Video"


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