Supporting LGBT Youth and Their Families: The Family Acceptance Project

New research findings by Caitlin Ryan of the Family Acceptance Project show that 30% of families rejected their child when they learned of their sexual orientation. Many of these youth are at high risk for becoming homeless. Among youth who are homeless, roughly 20% identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT). These youth are at a disproportionately high risk of physical assault and sexual exploitation. Interventions offered by the Family Acceptance Project seek to encourage family acceptance and prevent homelessness among LGBT youth.

In the United States, over 2 million young people experience one night of homelessness every year. Over 100,000 live on the streets long-term. According to the National Alliance To End Homelessness (NAEH), roughly 1 in 5 youth who are homeless self-identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT). Compared to heterosexual youth, rates of homelessness for LGBT youth are alarmingly high. LGBT youth are more likely to run away from home or be rejected by their families if family members have difficulty accepting their sexual orientation. Once homeless, LGBT youth face disturbingly high rates of physical assault, sexual exploitation, and mental health problems.

How do we prevent homelessness among LGBT youth?  One approach is to start with families. Researcher Caitlin Ryan and the Family Acceptance Project of the César E. Chávez Institute at San Francisco State University recently completed the first empirical study of how families respond and adapt when LGBT youth come out during adolescence.

Qualitative studies done by the Family Acceptance Project showed that 30% of families rejected their child when they learned of their sexual orientation. “While we don’t have a large study of how many young people become homeless, we have thousands of pages of interview transcripts with youth and their family members. Reading them, I saw so many opportunities that were missed where someone could have made an extraordinary difference to have prevented the youth from ending up out-of-home,” says Ryan.

The Family Acceptance Project identified 106 behaviors that parents use to either accept or reject their LGBT youth. Rejecting behaviors that have an impact include physical or verbal abuse, excluding the child from family events, blocking access to friends and resources, and blaming the child when attacked for his or her sexual identification. Rejecting behaviors in parents and caregivers lead to high rates of depression, substance use, attempted suicide, and high risk for HIV infection.

In contrast, LGBT youth who are accepted by their families demonstrate higher rates of self-esteem and greater well-being. They also have lower rates of physical and mental health problems. Family behaviors that promote well-being include advocating for the child when he or she is discriminated against because of his or her LGBT identity, expressing affection, and requiring that other family members respect the LGBT child.

Ryan believes that without access to educational materials and services that support LGBT youth and their families, many families will lack understanding. This can result in rejection of the LGBT youth, sometimes leading to homelessness or family violence.

Homelessness programs that serve LGBT youth tend to focus on protecting them from their families. Family anger and violence often lead to the young person running away or leaving home. The intervention goal is to reach parents before this happens.  Many parents, who believed they were acting out of concern and love for their child, have tried to change their child’s sexual orientation.

Ryan shares an example of a fifteen-year old Latino girl with a younger sister at home, who came out to her mother as a lesbian. The mother did not want to have a daughter who is a lesbian. She tried to force her daughter to date a boy in the neighborhood, and later sent her to live with her grandmother. The Family Acceptance Project team was able to work with the mother in Spanish. When she realized that her daughter was depressed, isolated, and withdrawn and that her rejecting behaviors put her daughter at a nine times greater risk of suicide, she was in tears. The mother was deeply affected by this new information, and changed her behavior towards her daughter. A week later, the girl talked with the Family Acceptance Project team and said, “I don’t know what you told my mother, but she’s totally different. She stopped making me date the boy in the neighborhood, she calls me everyday and is asking me about my girlfriend.”

“We can make a difference tomorrow by getting accurate information out. Parents are operating in the dark and many healthcare providers are sadly uninformed,” says Ryan. “We often [assume] malice, but we saw that parents are acting out of love and concern and are shocked when they learn how their behaviors impact their children.”
Many parents involved in the project have said that they wished they learned this information when their children were young. When parents are hurt by their children’s non-conformity to gender roles, this hurt often comes in the form of shame.

The Family Acceptance Project works with families to teach new communication skills. The Project also connects them with other families who are facing the same issues, providing families of LGBT youth an opportunity to talk about shared concerns. “We don’t try to change the family, but we are giving them tools to change their behaviors, to empower them. All of the behaviors that we identified came from youth and families themselves,” explains Ryan.

The Family Acceptance Project is in the process of creating an outreach network to reach all of the systems of care and entry points where children are served to increase support and reduce rejection. By treating families as allies, young people and their families are better able to receive the support they need. This is an important step in reversing the rising trend of LGBT youth who become homeless.

Click here to learn more about the Family Acceptance Project.

Publication Date: 
Rockville, MD, USA