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Surprise—Families Matter

Parents' support is crucial to gay teens.

A new study reports that young gay people whose parents or guardians responded negatively when they revealed their sexual orientation were more likely to attempt suicide, experience severe depression and use drugs than those whose families accepted the news. The results were published in the current issue of the journal Pediatrics by Caitlin Ryan and her team at the SFSU's Family Acceptance Project. Specifically, the study showed that teens that experienced negative feedback had more than eight times the odds of attempting suicide, nearly six times the odds of severe depression and more than three times the odds of drug use. My research team recently published converging findings that family support and acceptance significantly reduced the chance that a young gay or bisexual man would have HIV. Our study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, found that higher family support resulted in a 30% reduction in the odds that a gay or bisexual teen would be HIV positive.

What's surprising about these findings is that they are surprising to people. We have known for decades that positive family relationships have profoundly positive impacts on the health and development of youth. Strong family ties have been shown to reduce drug and alcohol use, risky sexual behavior, improve mental health, self-esteem, school achievement, and the list of positive effects goes on. Why would we expect that it would be any different for gay youth? Unfortunately, not much research on family relationships among gay youth has been conducted because of the misperception that parents are not involved in the lives of their gay youth, unaware of their child's sexual orientation, or universally rejecting. It's time to update our thinking.

As Ritch Savin-William documents in his book, The New Gay Teenager, the lives of gay youth have changed dramatically in recent years. In our article in the Journal of Adolescent Health, we found that among 16-24 year old gay and bisexual men, 83% reported their mother knew they were gay or bi and 70% reported their father knew. 83% of these mothers were accepting or tolerant, as were 74% of the fathers. While these statistics are promising, unfortunately not 100% of parents are accepting of their gay youth.

Our research, and the research of Ryan, suggests it is time to take seriously the role of parents in the lives of gay youth. Import efforts to support families have been going on for years by organizations such as Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), but no systematic research has been conducted to develop proven ways to improve acceptance. The payoff will be big for a program that can successfully documents greater parental acceptance in terms of less suicide attempts and HIV risk in their kids. In their hearts, parents want the best for their children, and research is now catching up and showing that accepting gay kids is the best thing for them.


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Garofalo, R., Mustanski, B., & Donenberg, G. (2008).  Parents know and parents matter; is it time to develop family-based HIV prevention programs for young men who have sex with men? Journal of Adolescent Health, 43, 201-204.  

Ryan C, Huebner D, Diaz RM, Sanchez J. (2009).  Family rejection as a predictor of negative health outcomes in white and Latino lesbian, gay, and bisexual young adults.   Pediatrics, 123, 346-352.

Photo credit: W. Rumfelt