Laura Varlas

Family Acceptance Protects LGBTQ Youth

Today more lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth start the process of coming out in adolescence. These brave youngsters challenge us to build more inclusive, equitable societies, and many who provide services to LGBTQ youth still exclude a hugely influential basis for support: their families.

"Typically, we think of protecting LGBTQ youth from their families," said Caitlin Ryan, director of the Family Acceptance Project, speaking at a forum on the Critical Role of Family Support of LGBT Youth.

Instead of removing LGBTQ youth from their home environments, Ryan's organization looks for ways to keep these families together. Their strongest tool is information that appeals to a family's fundamental desire to protect their children from harm. Most families want to stay together and want their children to be happy, Ryan said. Often, families act in ways that they assume will benefit their children, help them better fit in, and help them lead healthy lives.

In a rigorously developed study, Ryan and her team of researchers identified more than 50 accepting and rejecting behaviors experienced by LGBTQ youth in adolescence and tied these behaviors to specific mental health and wellness outcomes for LGBTQ young adults.

Ryan's research shows that rejecting behaviors lead to outcomes like higher rates of depression, suicide, substance abuse, HIV infection, and homelessness. Conversely, LGBTQ youth who experienced accepting families showed higher rates of self-esteem, social support, and general health.

Engagement tools developed from Ryan's research can be used with all families, regardless of background. "We can't see families as the problem," Ryan said. The key is to approach families with respect and compassion and from their cultural experience. "If we don't see families as a potential ally to support the well-being of young people, we're not going to be able to create a bridge to help them," Ryan said.

Ryan spoke in particular about her work with Mormon families with LGBTQ children. How could she promote acceptance within a group that has so publicly shunned LGBTQ individuals?

Again, Ryan emphasized a harm-reduction approach: "The goal is not necessarily to make caregivers political allies for their LGBTQ children but to teach behaviors that will protect their children and help them lead healthy lives."

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