Parental Acceptance and Support of LGBTQIA+ Youth: Key Factors for LGBTQIA+ Youth to Live Quality Lives Through Adulthood
It’s important to allow youth to “live in their truths” to have optimal, quality lives as they grow into adulthood. It’s important for individuals and family members outside the home to respect and support LGBTQIA+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual) individuals’ gender identity and sexual orientation. More important, it’s essential that parents of LGBTQIA+ youth accept and support them when they feel comfortable enough to disclose their identities. Feeling comfortable enough to do so is not easy for many. As a lesbian, I didn’t come out until I was 20 years old. However, I remember knowing my sexual identity in early childhood.
I had no idea my feelings were not abnormal, and to dig deeper, growing up in the church, in a home with Baptist beliefs, a child of color, there were many stigmas related to beliefs other than those accepted in the home, as well as in the church home. Same-sex romances were never discussed. I didn’t know there were other types of romances besides between a man and a woman until one day, I met my Uncle Tyrone. He was my grandfather’s brother. I overheard the grownups talking and learned that Uncle Tyrone was gay. My grandfather’s brother was gay? I learned that gay meant he had a boyfriend. Wow! My parents welcomed him into their home. They loved him, but I couldn’t be sure they would love me if I introduced a female “pal” as my girlfriend. Uncle Tyrone would later pass away, and then there was no one else, that I knew of, who would come around again that was like me.
During my adolescent years, I lived an untruth. I met a guy the summer going into my 10th-grade year and dated him until my freshman year of college. I didn’t live a healthy, quality life as an adolescent. I went through so much pain while forcing myself to be “straight.” I experienced physical, emotional, and sexual abuse trying to maintain this guy as my boyfriend. I became pregnant by age 16, and a mother by age 17. I had to have a boyfriend—or so I thought. Our family church stared me down as a pregnant teenager. If I mentioned that I was attracted to girls, the church would have cast me out, and my parents would have stopped loving me. Those were my thoughts at the time. Truth is, I don’t know how my parents would have reacted had I come out sooner than I did. I didn’t know what coming out was back then, but I remember my parents’ not so subtle reaction when I finally did.
Acceptance and support of LGBTQIA+ youth are imperative for them to have a chance to be happy and feel free of judgment. Acceptance and support of LGBTQIA+ youth are imperative, so they don’t face some of the challenges many others and I have faced while living “closeted.” Acceptance and support must start at home with parents, because parents provide their children with many of the tools needed to live optimal lives. I am not insinuating that LGBTQIA+ individuals who come out don’t experience abuse like I did when I was living as a heterosexual female. That was my experience. However, research shows that LGBTQIA+ youth experience many risks when faced with parental rejection.
Rusow, Goldbach, Rhoades, Bond, Lanteigne, and Fulginiti recruited a nationwide sample of LGBTQ youth who had utilized an LGBTQ-focused crisis hotline to participate in a confidential survey. They reported the survey results in “Homelessness, Mental Health and Suicidality Among LGBTQ Youth Accessing Crisis Services” (2018). Almost one-third of the youth participating in the survey had experienced homelessness. Youths who had disclosed their LGBTQ identity to their parents and who had experienced subsequent parental rejection experienced higher rates of homelessness. Youth who reported homelessness experiences also reported higher rates of several mental health disorders and higher rates of suicidality.
Rusow and colleagues also found that homelessness among LGBTQ youth was 30% to 45% higher in 2017 than among heterosexual youth; suicide attempts or ideation among LGBTQ youth were four times higher than among heterosexual or cisgender youth; 40% of transgender youth had attempted suicide; and 64.3% of LGBTQ youth reported experiencing greater mental health distress than that reported by heterosexual homeless youth.
Housing instability is also an outcome of parental rejection. This can mean staying in a shelter, in an abandoned building, with a stranger, or with friends, extended family, or acquaintances. My experience at age 20 was housing instability. I left home and slept at a friend’s house for about a month before my parents asked me to come home. When I returned, they hugged me and told me they loved me no matter what. It felt like a ton of weight lifted from me. That’s the response LGBTQIA+ individuals want at first disclosure: acceptance and support. The feelings of love and acceptance from our parents reminds us that we matter. Love is love, no matter how cliché some people may think that slogan sounds.
As a CFLE with a nonprofit organization, a prelicensed mental health professional, a crisis clinician, and the mentor of a local high school gay–straight alliance (GSA) club in Delaware, I am deeply embedded in the planning and implementation of educational programming that assists LGBTQIA+ youth and parents in school settings, in the home, in outpatient settings, and through social media outlets. I also organize safe-space events for LGBTQIA+ youth to socialize freely, without judgment or fear. My time spent with youth who identify as LGBTQIA+ is spent assessing their needs and how they can be met. I have learned that many LGBTQIA+ youth have experienced suicidality due to parental rejection; are not comfortable disclosing their sexual or gender identity to their heterosexual, cisgender friends; and have questions about sex that they can’t get answered at home. I educate LGBTQIA+ youth in the Family Life Education (FLE) content area of Human Sexuality. I specifically relate the education to their sexual and gender identities. Many of the youth have questions related to identities that are discussed less frequently, such as questions about intersex and transgender identities.
Topics of discussion also include youth desiring to be called by their correct pronouns. Pronouns are important for gender expansive individuals (e.g., nonbinary, gender nonconforming, genderqueer). Pronouns include they/them/theirs, she/her/hers, and he/him/his. Referring to LGBTQIA+ youth by their correct pronouns displays respect for their gender identity. To receive this type of support from a parent can reduce the risk factors related to being gender-expansive individuals. Elise Mora, in her 2019 article “Keep Trans Youth Alive: Considerations for Suicide Prevention of Gender Expansive Youth,” revealed that suicide rates for gender-expansive youth is high in Delaware. Mora indicated that from 2015 to 2016, 7.2% of transgender youth in Delaware attempted suicide, and the rate of suicide attempts surged to 35% in 2018. Statistics such as these establish a need for CFLEs to step in and educate family, community, and school systems on the importance of acceptance and support of LGBTQIA+ youth.
Through my knowledge of family resource management, I connect LGBTQIA+ youth and parents to organizations that can further assist them in situations with which I am less familiar. Providing educational interventions that align with the content areas of Family Dynamics, Parent Education, Sexuality Education, and Families and Crisis are essential. These content areas in Family Life Education will give parents the tools they need to understand the family system as well as the family as an emotional unit. Key factors in preventing LGBTQIA+ youth from experiencing risk factors and crises include educating parents on how to determine and understand their child’s individual needs, how to establish parent–child connectedness, and how to discuss sexuality education tailored to prevent risky behavior among LGBTQIA+ youth.
Keonna Freeman, M.S., CFLE is the founder and president of Freeline Foundation, Inc., a nonprofit charity, advocacy, and FLE organization that supports underserved populations of women, people of color, and LGBTQIA+ individuals. She is also an outpatient therapist at Journey Wellness & Consulting Group, LLC, an intersectional therapy, education, training and support organization, and a youth crisis clinician at Delaware Guidance Services for Children & Youth, Inc., a Mental Health service provider for children and families. [email protected]