Researcher Connects Family Behavior to Gay Children’s Health

A researcher and social worker known for her contributions to the area of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people’s mental health issues recently visited Utah to discuss her latest project, which examines the contributions families make to the mental and physical health of their gay, lesbian and bisexual children.

In August, Dr. Caitlin Ryan presented her research, called the Family Acceptance Project, at the Sunstone Symposium, an annual conference addressing issues of LDS scholarship, history and culture. In a later interview with QSaltLake, Ryan described the project, which she developed with Rafael Dìaz in 2002. The project, she explained, was designed not only to help families support their gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender children, and to show how love and support can positively impact their children’s health. The results of her seven years of research, while obvious to many gay, lesbian and bisexual who lived with unsupportive families, have been received as groundbreaking in the scientific community, in which no study of the correlation between familial rejection of gay and transgender children and the health risks faced by those children later in life had ever been attempted.

“For example, we always suspected that physically beating a child because of their identity would be harmful,” she said. “That’s what we found, but what we didn’t know until we did research and extended analysis.” Additionally, Ryan said she and her research team at the César E. Chávez Institute of San Francisco State University (the project’s home base) made some findings that surprised them and the families with whom they work. Their findings were published in the January issue of the medical journal Pediatrics.

“Blocking children from friends who are GLBT increase suicide risk by nine to ten times, and is the same as being them in terms of damage done,” said Ryan. “Parents are very shocked to learn that.”

The paper mentioned other shocking findings, including that gay, lesbian and bisexual young adults who reported high levels of family rejection during childhood were 8.4 percent more likely than to have attempted suicide, 5.9 times more likely to report experiencing debilitating depression, and 3.4 times more likely to use illegal drugs and engage in unprotected sex than their counterparts who reported little or no family rejection.

The research was conducted in California between 2002 and 2004 and involved a sample of 224 gay, lesbian and bisexual Latino and non-Latino white young adults aged 21-25, who were open to at least one caregiver during adolescence. Interviewees came from all economic backgrounds, as well as from immigrant and non-immigrant families. While Ryan said she wants to conduct similar research into all U.S. ethnic groups, she and her staff picked the largest such groups in the country to most effectively use the funds they had received for the first study. In keeping with the idea of reaching as many people as possible, the first wave of the family intervention materials developed from this research will also be released in the country’s three predominant languages: Chinese, English and Spanish. And while the first phase of this research was limited to sexual orientation, Ryan said that she will focus on transgender children and adolescents in future studies.

Using this research, Ryan and her research team then set down with volunteer families from a number of ethnic, cultural, economic and religious backgrounds — including Latter-day Saints. Here they staged what Ryan called intervention work — explaining how their rejecting behaviors can put their children at risk.

“We take a non-judgmental approach where we accept families,” she said. “[For example, we say] we respect your beliefs, and that you believe this is wrong and you don’t want your son to be gay. But many times they are not as clear with their children as they are with themselves. In other words, they don’t talk openly about these things because they’re very uncomfortable about it, so they are harboring anger or uncomfortable feelings and these get communicated behaviorally in other ways.”

“What I recommend to families is that they are honest about how they feel with their children and that they tell their children that they love them, because underneath it all they do. What I’ve found is when parents are uncomfortable and conflicted, that’s the part that gets communicated to the child, not that they love them.”

Ryan said she has also found that parents often do damaging things to their children unintentionally — not because they hate their gay offspring, but because they are concerned about how they will fit into an anti-gay world. With this in mind, Ryan said she and her staff tell the families they council the more than 100 rejecting behaviors parents do which can put their gay children at greater risk for “HIV infection, substance abuse and mental illnesses,” and then discuss with them how to modify their behavior to communicate a clear message of love and support to their children.

To explain how this process works, Ryan gave one example of a father who frequently made negative comments about gay men in front of his son, referring to them as “faggots” or “fairies.”

“He said, ‘I wish I’d never made those comments, but I did and I know it makes my son think I disapprove of who he is. But that’s in the past and I can only change it now,’” she said.

Ryan said she came to Utah in August because she has worked extensively with LDS families, whom she describes as, overall, “very responsive to the project and our findings.”

“I think it’s because families are important [in LDS culture] and our approach is respectful,” she said.

Ultimately, Ryan said the Family Research Project has several goals. Along with conducting studies on other populations (such as black and Asian-American families) and continuing with the interventions, the project is developing materials for social service agencies, pediatricians and other offices that regularly work with families and their children.

“One of the very interesting responses we had regardless of education level or ethnic group was that all families should have this information, but they didn’t get it anywhere,” she said. “They felt it was really important that the information from this research be available to pediatricians, in prenatal classes.”

She said she will also spread the project’s findings through future academic papers, policy and practice related materials for child welfare agencies who work with homeless gay and transgender youth, and even family education materials such as videos and booklets geared towards families of all religions and ethnicities.

And while families who participate in the project may not alter their behavior overnight, Ryan said she is hopeful that the Family Acceptance Project can help parents and other caregivers do the right thing for the gay and transgender children in their care.

“My aim is to empower family members with this information so they can do what they need to do to help their children,” she said. “The word I use is support. I tell them that they can still support their child while decreasing some of those behaviors that put their child at a very high risk.”

To learn more about the Family Acceptance Project, visit familyproject.sfsu.edu.

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