When many LGBTQ people look back on their childhood, we remember a mixture of confusingly feeling different; being harassed for our sexual identities; and realizing how important our parents, teachers and other authority figures were in either helping us through those years — or making our lives worse.
Experts say research shows that how parents respond can be fundamental to their children’s mental health and well-being, now and in the future. “Family matters most,” says Joe Kort, a clinical psychotherapist and author of “LGBTQ Clients in Therapy.” “If you’re a high rejecting family, you’re going to put that child in harm’s way. Suicidality will increase the more rejecting the family is.”
Numerous studies have documented that LGBTQ youth report significantly higher rates of having seriously considered, made a plan or attempted suicide, compared with young people who are heterosexual and cisgender, meaning their gender identity matches the sex on their birth certificate, according to Trevor Project, an organization dedicated to suicide prevention efforts for LGBTQ and questioning youth.
Thane Holiday, 17, a rising senior in high school in North Carolina, used to be among them. He identifies as “queer,” an umbrella term that conflates different kinds of sexual and gender identities, and as “a trans guy,” he says, meaning transgender, someone whose sense of personal identity and gender does not correspond with their birth sex. At the start of middle school, he said, “it was just absolute hell. I was just bullied relentlessly” for being open about his identity, “and my mental health took a plunge to the point where I was pretty suicidal in seventh grade.”
Fortunately, he says, he has “very accepting and open parents.” When he first came out to them in middle school at age 11, he says, “my parents were like, ‘We accept you.’ ” Their response was key, he says, giving him emotional security and the knowledge he wouldn’t be rejected, along with making home a safe place.
Kort, who practices in Royal Oak, Mich., says you don’t need to understand someone to accept them — or love them. Expressing your love is key, he says: “Start by saying, ‘I love you no matter what and I’ll be here with you as you work this out and think this through.’ ” Or: “I’m not sure I completely agree or am open to this, but I’m willing to listen to you.”
Caitlin Ryan, director of the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University, a research education and policy group that helps ethnically, racially and religiously diverse families support their LGBTQ children, is a proponent of the importance of family acceptance to the well-being of their children.
Her research, done over two decades, also delineates how “rejecting behaviors” will harm young people. Those behaviors (often from parents but also from teachers, religious leaders and other adults) include preventing young people from having LGBTQ friends, telling them God will punish them because of their identity, and not standing up for them when others mistreat or denigrate them.
Ryan says her research has made clear how important it is to help families of LGBTQ kids change their harmful behaviors, regardless of their religious or other belief systems.
As for Thane, he has some advice for other LGBTQ kids: “You’ve just got to have patience with [your parents] because they’re trying, trying so hard. Especially since most of them grew up not seeing LGBT people or with a negative viewpoint of LGBT kids.”
Still, Thane’s own patience goes only so far. “With kids who have parents who are just not supportive and can be pretty cold . . . you shouldn’t have to forgive them over and over again. They’re choosing not to [accept you].”
Indeed, many kids today remain frightened about coming out.
“There are a million reasons they give why they don’t feel safe,” Joe Kort says. Parents can change that.
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