For some, learning that a family member is lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning (LGBTQ) can be difficult. For others, this information is welcomed and recognized as a sign of trust. How a parent responds to their LGBTQ child will have an enormous impact on the child’s development and on the quality of the parent-child relationship.
You are not alone.
Upon learning that your family member is LGBTQ, you may feel a variety of emotions ranging from relief and acceptance to shock, denial, guilt and anger. Approximately one in every four families in this country has a family member who is LGBTQ. Many families struggle in isolation, unaware of community resources to help them. You owe it to your child and to yourself to find the resources, support and education you may need to move toward understanding and acceptance.
One of the most valuable resources is Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. PFLAG offers a volunteer-based network of peer support chapters around the country (see www.pflag.org to find the chapter nearest you). Most importantly, reassure your child of your unconditional love.
Show appreciation for the strength and courage it takes to come out.
If your family member has come out to you, it’s likely that it took a lot of strength and courage to make that disclosure. It’s now up to you to match this with your own courage, commitment, love and support. Your expression of your love and acceptance is extremely important for your child’s well-being.
If you learned that your child is LGBTQ from another source, avoid confronting your child, and instead model strength, courage and respect so that your child will feel more comfortable confiding in you. Do your best to embrace your child, his or her identity and his or her decision to be open or not with you.
Expand your knowledge of LGBTQ issues
Don’t rely on unfounded myths and stereotypes about LGBTQ people. Supportive literature specifically intended for parents of LGBTQ youth can help you develop a better understanding of these issues and a better relationship with your child. Such resources can be obtained through PFLAG, your local library or bookstore, an LGBT community center (to locate the one nearest you, see the National Association of LGBT Community Centers at www.lgbtcenters.org), or the Family Acceptance Project™ (http://familyproject.sfsu.edu).
Understand the importance of your support
Be mindful that your reaction to your child’s sexual orientation or gender identity will have a major impact on his or her life. LGBTQ children and youth who are rejected by their parents face a significantly higher risk of depression, substance abuse and suicide compared with LGBTQ youth from accepting families. Once they understand the importance of their support, many parents of LGBTQ youth find that they eventually develop a stronger, closer relationship with their child.
Don’t try to change your family member’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
While young people may go through a process to come to understand what their sexual orientation or gender identity may be, it’s important to understand that these traits are a part of each person’s identity and can no more be changed for an LGBT person than they can for anyone else. Be suspicious of organizations that promote “freedom from homosexuality” through “conversion” or “reparative” therapy. Such assertions are based upon the misguided belief that there is something wrong with LGBTQ people. Leading professional organizations such as the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Medical Association have issued warnings against such therapies and the harmful effects they have on those subjected to them. Conversion therapies are regarded by mental health experts as ineffective, unethical and the cause of increased risk of depression, anxiety and self-destructive behaviors. Instead of trying to change your LGBTQ child, give him or her support.
Stand up for your family member if he or she is being picked on or harassed outside your home.
As a family member, you should protect your LGBTQ family member from harm and harassment—in school, your neighborhood and in the community—just as you would for any family member. This is particularly important if your family member recently made the decision to come out at school or to friends. Research consistently shows that LGBTQ youth face far greater risks of harassment and violence from their peers than non-LGBTQ youth. Assure your child that you are on his or her side.
Reconcile this new information with your religious beliefs.
Learning that your family member is LGBTQ can be especially challenging if you feel your faith or religion opposes homosexuality. Being LGBTQ does not impact a person’s ability to be spiritual or religious any more than being heterosexual does. While some religious denominations continue to condemn lesbian, gay and bisexual sexual orientation, transgender identity and gender-nonconforming expression, others publicly support gay rights and LGBTQ individuals. In fact, within many religious communities there are support groups for LGBTQ members and their families, including Dignity for Catholics (www.dignityusa.org) and Affirmation for Mormons (www.affirmation.org). You can seek supportive resources and counsel to help reconcile your religious beliefs with your commitment to your LGBTQ family member.
Adapted from Getting Down to Basics: Tools to Support LGBTQ Youth in Care, Child Welfare League of Am. & Lambda Legal (2006, revised 2012), available at www.lambdalegal.org/publications/getting-down-to-basics
Sources included in this article include:
Caitlin Ryan, David Huebner, Rafael M. Diaz & Jorge Sanchez, Family Rejection as a Predictor of Negative Health Outcomes in White and Latino Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Young Adults, 123 Pediatrics 346, 346 (2009).
Caitlin Ryan, Stephen T. Russell, David Huebner, Rafael Diaz & Jorge Sanchez, Family Acceptance in Adolescence and the Health of LGBT Young Adults, 23 J. Child & Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing 205, 210 (2010).
Am. Psychiatric Ass’n, APA Document Reference No. 200001, Therapies Focused on Attempts to Change Sexual Orientation (Reparative or Conversion Therapies) (2000).
Am. Psychological Assoc., Report of the American Psychological Association Task Force on Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation (2009) at 86-87, available at www.apa.org/pi/lgbt/resources/therapeutic-response.pdf.
Am. Med. Ass’n, AMA Policies on GLBT Issues, Patient-Centered Policy H-160.991, Health Care Needs of the Homosexual Population (2005), available at http://www.ama-assn.org/ama/pub/about-ama/our-people/member-groups-sections/glbt-advisory-committee/ama-policy-regarding-sexual-orientation.page.