Family acceptance and LGBTQ kids

November 3rd, 2014

Religiously conservative families can be accepting of their LGBTQ kids. In fact, their faith can help them to raise resilient children. That’s one of the findings of Dr. Caitlyn Ryan’s research with the Family Acceptance Project. Her work with Mormon families has received national attention, and more clergy need to be aware of her work. Soon a series of videos will be available as a resource for parents and faith communities.

She studied families in both conservative and liberal communities, urban and rural, white, black, Latino, and Chinese. In all of these communities, she found that rejection and acceptance are not tied to one ideology, ethnicity, or religion. Families that raised resilient kids could disagree about the morality of homosexuality and still display accepting behaviors.

Approximately 40 percent of homeless youth are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning (LGBTQ). But generally, even families who kick their LGBTQ children out of the house don’t hate their kids. They see their rejection as a form of “tough love” that may help change their child. They see rejection of their child’s sexual orientation as a necessary part of helping their child. They fear for their children: They fear that they will be hurt by the world, that they will be lonely, that they will fall into a life of sin and depravity.

Their rejecting behaviors may bring about the very situations they fear. Research from the Family Acceptance Project has demonstrated that LGTBQ youth who experience high levels of rejection from their families are eight times more likely to commit suicide. They are three times more likely to use illegal drugs and three times more likely to be at risk for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. Other family behaviors that increase risk for LGBTQ adolescents include:

• Physical abuse, verbal harassment or name-calling
• Blocking access to LGBTQ friends, events, and resources
• Pressuring a child to be more masculine or feminine
• Telling a child to pray to change or that God will punish them if they are gay

Again, most of these behaviors arise from parents’ anxiety for their child’s future, not from hatred. But anxiety keeps us from acting in rational ways. Trying to change a child with these tactics backfires.

Anxiety keeps many Christians from thinking rationally about LGBTQ issues, especially when it concerns children and teens. Many folks seem to have an idea that everyone is identical, but that at some point they “fall off the conveyer belt” and become gay, or that kids can become gay through social pressure. For this reason, some parents try to socially isolate their kids from sources they think will “encourage” their kids to be gay. These kids are at huge risk for depression later in life.

Dr. Ryan identified more than 100 family behaviors regarding LGBTQ kids, and classified family responses ranging from rejection, to ambivalent, to accepting, to celebrating. Some parents may initially respond with acceptance, but then remain silent and never talk with their son or daughter about their friends or their feelings. These ambivalent parents may be thinking that if they can “just get through high school,” everything will be okay. But silence is also a rejecting behavior, and leads to similar risk factors. Young adults who experienced family rejection as a teen are less resilient as adults, and have much greater risk of depression and suicide.

But only a slight move from “total rejection” of their child to “ambivalence” reduces suicide risk by more than half! Families don’t need to have a “coming out party” for their kids to have a significant impact on their child’s well-being (although celebrating families tend to have better outcomes.)

It is true that social media and information have led more kids to “come out” earlier, but this goes along with research on typical human development and does not indicate that more kids are LGBTQ. Children begin expressing gender identity around age three, and have some inkling of who they are attracted to by age 10. This supports the idea that gender identity and sexual orientation have little to do with what we think of as “sex.” (I remember that my 3rd grade crush on a brown-haired girl at church camp was a-sexual. It expressed itself as merciless teasing to get her attention.)

According to Dr. Ryan, families are an often-neglected source of support for kids who come out as LGBTQ. They have generally been seen as obstacles instead of allies. The other neglected source of support is faith communities.

What I find most hopeful about Dr. Ryan’s research is that it doesn’t dwell on issues of Scripture or doctrine, but on something common to all families and communities whether liberal or conservative, religious or secular: the well-being of kids. All parents want their kids and teenagers to be happy and healthy, to live lives of meaning and purpose, and to have the joy of connecting with people who will love and support them. As clergy and leaders of faith communities, we need to be proactive about helping parents learn what behaviors are going to help raise resilient kids.

Dave Barnhart is the pastor of Saint Junia UMC in Birmingham, Ala. He blogs at

comments powered by Disqus