In the six months since marriage equality became the law of the land, the anti-gay backlash has arrived on cue. In 2015, social conservatives introduced a record number of harmful bills in statehouses across America, parenting rights have been attacked despite the resolution of marriage equality, GOP candidates have vowed to roll back executive and judicial progress on equality, and religious conservatives have settled on a strategy of claiming special exemptions from the law based on radical interpretations of their faith.
In other words, the culture wars continue. What’s getting lost in the shuffle is the actual impact of this battle’s rhetoric and policies on children and families, who are repeatedly used as pawns in the larger debate. In the name of “protecting children,” the Family Research Council touts fake research to support yanking children out of stable, loving homes just because their parents are gay or lesbian. In the name of helping set young people free, religious zealots press upon them discredited “conversion therapy” that’s known to be useless at best and harmful at worst. These efforts are particularly troubling because they cause damage even if they fail: Research shows that simply having public conversations about whether to protect or thwart gay rights can have a harmful effect on LGBTQ people.
One of the many reasons public attitudes about homosexuality remain critically important, regardless of what law and policy may say, is that LGBTQ kids usually grow up in families headed by straight people. Having the right to marry or become a soldier can seem insignificant to a child whose parents think his very essence is disgusting or tell him he’s bound for hell.
But there’s a bright spot in all this. Despite the high temperature of so much culture war rhetoric, it turns out that careful deployment of the facts and a dose of open-mindedness by people of good faith (yes, millions still exist) can create win-win results even in families with LGBTQ kids whose parents view homosexuality or gender nonconformity warily.
My research team at Columbia Law School’s What We Know Project recently conducted a research review of an emerging body of literature that shows how this can work. In a literature search, we identified 42 peer-reviewed studies that found links between family support and positive health and wellbeing outcomes among LGBTQ young people. Dozens of these studies found links between family acceptance, specifically, and LGBTQ wellbeing, meaning that when parents exhibit accepting behaviors toward their children’s sexual orientation or gender identity, they increase the odds that those children will fare better—be less likely to experience suicidality, depression, or anxiety; engage in substance abuse; or contract HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases. The results show that sexuality-specific support (that is, expressing acceptance of a child’s orientation or identity) makes a bigger positive difference than simply being supportive parents in general (i.e., without acknowledging the child’s sexual minority status) and that parental support matters even more than peer support.
It may seem unsurprising that positive family reactions would contribute to children’s wellbeing. But for many years—and for many reasons—this has not been an obvious conclusion, and it has not formed the basis of best practices for LGBTQ youth.
For one thing, many in the LGBTQ community viewed family as the problem, not the solution. Swayed in some instances by their own troubling experiences with rejecting families, in an era when the religious right’s anti-gay rhetoric was ascendant, many LGBTQ Americans fled rejecting families and created a strong peer network in their place. Community advocates, quite understandably for the time, educated the wider world of providers, caregivers, and researchers in a model that valued peer over family support. In this context, research was not expected to find that parental acceptance mattered greatly to psychological wellbeing. Similarly, service agencies often treated LGBTQ youth differently than other children and adolescents. “Historically, youth service providers saw their role as protecting these kids from harm,” says Dr. Caitlin Ryan, a top researcher in the field and director of the Family Acceptance Project, a research and training center at San Francisco State University. “In their view, that included protecting LGBT youth from their parents and families.”
But Ryan’s research, now echoed by numerous other studies, found something that shouldn’t be surprising but was to many people. Families with LGBTQ kids—even fiercely anti-gay, religious conservative families—loved their kids, too, and could and should (whenever possible) be part of the solution. “Both accepting and rejecting parents loved their LGBT children and thought that how they responded to them was helping them,” she says. “But how they responded differed dramatically from shaming and excluding them from family events to helping them come out to others and requiring that family members treat them with respect. These very different reactions contributed to very different results in terms of their health risks and wellbeing.” Some anti-gay parents would mortgage their house to pay for conversion therapy, so badly did they want to help their kids fit in and thrive.
These parents were shocked to learn that they were not, in fact, helping their kids by trying to suppress or change their difference, by telling them they could end up unhappy and alone, rejected not only by society but also by God. They actually thought they were helping their children by discouraging them from taking a risky path. Yet by simply obtaining information from trusted sources in nonjudgmental contexts—and by learning from research that their rejecting behaviors were actually increasing rather than mitigating their children’s risk of harm—they were able to take steps to reduce harm.
Importantly, the parents did not have to give up their cherished beliefs or values in order to behave in less damaging ways, something that creates a window for religious conservatives to play a new role in mitigating harm to LGBTQ people. Welcoming your child’s other LGBTQ friends into the home or defending her when she’s attacked for her identity does not require abandoning a belief that homosexuality is wrong. The juxtaposition may be uneasy, to be sure, and it may compel some soul-searching or probing of one’s values. But what the Family Acceptance Project was able to do with its research and training was to give these families new tools of understanding and behavior that changed the conversation from one of morality and values to one of heath and wellbeing.
As policies and attitudes on LGBTQ equality continue to evolve—and in the wake of securing marriage equality—new opportunities arise, but also new threats. Not only is the political and social backlash fierce; LGBTQ youth are responding to a more positive climate by coming out at younger ages. This can mean spending more time as out youth with parents who may be as rejecting as ever—regardless of what the law says.
The family acceptance research shows that these families can be part of the solution. It also contains recommendations about how practitioners and policymakers whose work affects LGBTQ youth can be most responsive to their needs: The era of “don’t ask, don’t tell” is over, and the American Medical Association recommends that all health care providers who see youth should ask adolescents about their sexual orientation, as uncomfortable as that may make them; groups that serve LGBTQ youth should provide a way for families to participate in their programming; and families should take them up on it. These are common-sense measures—now backed by research—that people on both sides of the continuing gay divide should be able to embrace. There’s enough division in our world. Let’s let kids be kids.