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Family Rejection a Health Risk for Lesbian, Gay and Transgender Youth

New America Media, News Report, Viji Sundaram Posted: Dec 29, 2008

Editor's Note: Early intervention and acceptance makes a critical difference in helping to maintain many LGBT adolescents in their homes and reduce their risk for mental and health problems. Viji Sundaram is health editor at New America Media.

SAN FRANCISCO--Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth whose families have rejected them because of their sexual orientation are at far greater risk for mental and physical health problems than those who come from families who have accepted them, according to a recent study.

For the first time in the world, research has established a predictive link between specific negative family reactions to their childs sexual orientation and serious health problems for these adolescents in young adulthood, such as depression, illegal drug use, risk for HIV infection and suicide attempts, said Caitlin Ryan, lead author and researcher of the study titled, Family Rejection as a Predictor of Negative Health Outcomes in White and Latino Gay and Bisexual Young Adults.

Ryan conducted the study, called the Family Acceptance Project, with a team of researchers at the Cesar E. Chavez Institute at San Francisco State University. Their findings will be published in the January 2009 issue of the journal Pediatrics.

One of the major findings of Ryans research is that Latino males reported the highest number of negative family reactions to their sexual orientation in adolescence. Such a response could take the form of religious beliefs that being gay is sinful, or a belief that their childs homosexuality is a medical or psychological condition that can be cured.

It was poignant to see how adolescents felt rejected when their parents tried to change the childrens sexual identity or gender expression, she said.

Ryan and her team worked closely with many community groups statewide that focused on adolescents, providers, families and youth.

We used a participatory family-based approach to study risk, resiliency and health outcomes, Ryan said. In many instances, she sat with family members at their dining table and talked to them, the conversations lasting anywhere between two and four hours. She interviewed the LGBT youngsters separately. Interviews were done in either English or Spanish.

Whites and Latinos were chosen for the research because they are the two largest populations in the United States. The projects co-investigator of is Rafael Diaz, who has worked for years with Latino and other gay men of color.

About 25 percent of the people she interviewed lived in rural areas. Some of the youngsters she interviewed had fled home following rejection and were living on the streets, in shelters or in juvenile hall.

It was clear that the parents were hurting for rejecting their children, as much as the children were hurting for being rejected, Ryan said. Some parents cried, she said, and longed to be reunited with their children.

One of the conclusions Ryan arrived at from her seven years of research is that acceptance, like rejection, cuts across all social classes and all races. She cited the case of a 12-year-old Latino transgender youth (male to female), the youngest of 11 children born to a poor, illiterate, undocumented woman living in Southern California. Because the child was frequently victimized by his peers at school and was getting in trouble with the law, the mother decided she had to help him at all costs. She moved with her two youngest children to a part of the state where she knew her transgender child would be better accepted by society, checking into a homeless shelter with the children.

It was great bravery on the part of the mother, who had very little resources, who had so many strikes against her, to take that step, said Ryan.

Ryan, who has been working as a clinical social worker for 35 years and is a founder and past president of the National Lesbian and Gay Health Foundation, said that one of the main factors that motivated her to do the family acceptance research was the fact that even though LGBT youth were coming out at younger ages on average, at age 13 or 14 -- compared with those from previous generations when society was less tolerant of them, few providers or community agencies offered any services or support for their families.

Ryan said she and her team are using their research to develop a family-related behavioral approach to care to prevent LGBT children from ending up on the street, in foster homes or in juvenile hall.

Early intervention makes a critical difference in helping to maintain many adolescents in their homes, she said.

Ryan raised $2.6 million for her research, $1.8 million of it provided by The California Endowment. The rest of the money came from other foundations and individual donors.

She has been able to secure a matching grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to develop new strategies to help ethnically diverse families decrease rejection and increase support for their LGBT children.

Even before the second grant came through, Ryan and her team started reaching out to Asian, Native American and African American communities all across California and shared their research findings with them.

Many families told us they need to have this information when their children are very young so that parents would know how to help them, Ryan said.

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