From Oppression to Opportunity: Disrupting Social Stigma and Affirming LGBTQ Families

Bethany Novotny, Ph.D., and Tiffany Angaran
/ CFLE Network, Winter 2020

LGBT families face challenges that are distinct from the general population of heterosexual families. Several researchers have found that even the demographic components of sexual minority families are unique, with more families being formed through the process of adoption or fostering. This, in turn, diversifies the racial composition of these families. Studies have also shown that same-sex parents are more likely to be working class and are typically from a racial minority group. Intersectionality is defined as overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage. From an intersectional perspective, LGBTQ families have many complex elements that must be considered. Research shows that even in the early stages of prospective family planning, LGBTQ couples navigate anticipated stigma. This added stress of planning for the discrimination that will be faced does not exist within most heterosexual families, but it is deeply ingrained in the composition of LGBTQ families. Many aspects of family functioning, such as the process of having children, navigating coming out, and even the last name given to the children, are influenced by the fear of rejection and harassment. Studies have shown that sexual minority families use methods to manage the effects of anticipated stigma. One of the most common of these is social avoidance of situations where their identities may be exposed. Concealment of identity status then leads to isolation to avoid discrimination. Several researchers have found that anticipated stigma, regardless of whether the stigma occurs, has a severe negative impact on physical wellness and mental health functioning.

Sexual minority families also face unique obstacles regarding the social and legal functioning of their families. The very recognition of LGBTQ families as legitimate is a source of distress. Sexual orientation is disclosed on a continuum after deliberate consideration of the context in which disclosure is taking place. In areas where fear of retaliation or sexual prejudice are expected, individuals often feel conflicted between expressing the true nature of their relationship or hiding it to avoid discrimination. In Misty Wall’s 2013 article, “Working With Lesbian-Headed Families: What Social Workers Need to Know,” she discussed how LGBTQ families are consistently unrecognized by those around them. Lesbian couples find their relationships invalidated or made invisible by assuming their partner is a sister or friend. The dynamic of their love is then changed to fit into a normative structure. The definition of family has largely remained intertwined within heteronormativity, so it has been difficult for sexual minority partners to receive the same rights and recognition as heterosexual couples. Having their roles questioned and their relationships unrecognized, LGBTQ families are often made to feel like their family units are inferior. This distress results in higher levels of anxiety and depression and lower levels of self-esteem in sexual minority populations.

One area of research that has received much attention is the children in LGBTQ families. Many studies have found that these children face discrimination from their peers for being different. Research conducted by Caroline Robitaille and Marie-Christine Saint-Jacques, in their 2009 article “Social Stigma and the Situation of Young People in Lesbian and Gay Stepfamilies,” found that children often feel uncomfortable when discussions of same-sex relationships are addressed—for instance, in a school setting—usually initiated by an authority figure. The children of LGBTQ parents are subjected to heteronormative standards and are frequently told that their parents’ relationship is wrong or unnatural. Despite these instances of stigmatization, many studies have explored the mechanisms that sexual minority families form as a way of navigating these barriers. Open communication with children and education settings about their family dynamics are ways in which LGBTQ families equip their children with adequate skills to confront discrimination. It is also important to note that while children in sexual minority families face stigma from others, research findings suggest that they are as well adjusted and successful as their peers in heterosexual families.

The challenges mentioned previously have an impact on the physical, mental, and social functioning of sexual minority family systems. The results of many studies have shown that individuals often have the legitimacy of their families called into question, even by their own relatives. When rejection of their marriage or children is initiated by members of one’s own family, the family suffers. In many instances, LGBTQ individuals will form a chosen family of people who, although not related biologically, provide the level of support and love that they need. The family of origin is fragmented by the lack of acceptance of their sexual orientation and family unit.

Minority stress is the unique type of stress that is experienced by members of minority groups. It is a chronic condition that increases the likelihood of certain types of diseases, social isolation, and several mental illnesses, such as posttraumatic stress disorder and panic disorder. Therese Harrison, in the 2009 article “Adolescent Homosexuality and Concerns Regarding Disclosure,” compiled an extensive list of stressors that affect LGBTQ individuals disproportionately. These include low self-esteem, family harassment, lack of appropriate social network, self-hatred, and feelings of inferiority. These stressors negatively influence the quality of life of sexual minorities and their families. However, Harrison also stated that these negative outcomes only occur within the context of a hostile and heterosexist environment and that LGBTQ individuals are not more prone by nature to these effects. This means that in the absence of discrimination and harassment, sexual minority families would not experience such consequences.

To create a more supportive environment and advocate for LGBTQ families, Family Life Educators could use the following list of affirming practices compiled from many researchers. The use of inclusive language, paperwork forms that include LGBTQ identities, a clearly stated nondiscrimination policy, and pictures of sexual minority families represented in the offices of those who are working with these individuals or families foster a sense of belonging in the space. With the application of this list, as well as a commitment to continued education and exploration of current literature, Family Life Educators can be at the forefront of reducing stigma and creating more inclusivity for LGBTQ communities and their families.



Bethany Novotny, Ph.D. is an assistant professor in the Department of Counseling and Human Services at East Tennessee State University. Her specialized counseling practice and research focus on sexuality and gender identity. For questions or additional information please contact [email protected]

Tiffany Angaran is a master’s student in East Tennessee State University’s counseling program. She is most interested in working with LGBTQ+ individuals and is the current intern at The Journey Center for Healing Arts. [email protected]