Bringing Families into the Fold When Serving Homeless LGBT Youth

At age 17 Carla was forced to leave home after her mother found out she was dating a girl. She had kept the secret that she was a lesbian for as long as she could remember, because she knew her mom would not approve, but her mom overheard her on the phone one day. Her mother felt she had to tell Carla to leave so that Carla would understand how serious it was, thinking that if she showed some "tough love," Carla would change. Carla spent six months couch-surfing with friends until she ended up in a youth shelter. She became very depressed, dropped out of her senior year of high school, and began smoking marijuana to escape her fears of being homeless.

Carla's story is certainly not an isolated case. We have all seen the disproportionate numbers of homeless youth who identify as LGBTQ. A growing body of research coming out of San Francisco State University's Family Acceptance Project, led by Caitlin Ryan, Ph.D., has shown that by choosing to accept or reject their lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) children, families can make a profound difference -- whether for good or for ill -- in the lives of these youth This impact is one that cannot be ignored by youth service providers, government agencies, funders, and all those concerned with the well-being of youth -- or, of course, the parents themselves.

The Family Acceptance Project's gives us not only research demonstrating that family support can provide desperately needed protection for LGBT youth, but the intervention and education strategies and materials to design programs that work for the diverse populations we serve.

And the numbers are both hopeful and heartbreaking. For example, youth who experience greater family acceptance report lower levels of depression, and are far less likely to attempt suicide, use illegal drugs, or have unprotected sex. Conversely, LGBTQ youth rejected by their families were over eight times more likely to report having attempted suicide, nearly six times more likely to report high levels of depression, and over three times more likely to use illegal drugs or to report unprotected sexual intercourse. By identifying scores of specific accepting and rejecting behaviors, FAP found that when families accept and support their LGBT children for who they are, the results are higher self-esteem, social support, and overall health.

Most importantly, when an initially rejecting family chooses to open itself to an LGBT child and make even small behavioral changes, we can greatly reduce the risks associated with rejection. If more providers took this message to heart and put it into action, the impact on the young people we work with would be more than life-changing; it could be live-saving.

Family rejection and its tragic consequences are hardly new problems. But for many years, providers and advocates for these youth have, for many reasons, focused on the youth themselves, giving little attention to their families. Those who work with LGBT youth must confront some basic realities: short-term stays, limited resources, and reluctant clients make it difficult to make much headway in involving families when the focus on basic needs and reducing the risks these youth are exposed to on the streets is paramount. Youth who have been abused or even thrown out of their homes for their sexuality unsurprisingly tend to be less than enthusiastic about bringing their families back into the process.

Family, however, is not simply where we come from. Our families define our relationships with the world, and our relationships with our families shape other important relationships in our lives -- for all of our lives. Even rejecting families who cut themselves off or do not interact will continue to shape the lives of youth like Carla her entire life. Many rejected LGBT youth actually end up living with family again following stints of homelessness; they have nowhere else to turn, so they are forced to endure further abuse. Even when youth have no contact with family members, assisting them in making peace with family trauma is crucial to helping them become healthy adults. But the most important fact is this: families are in a unique position to protect their LGBT children from harm. We must do more to encourage them to accept their youth, and to bring them into their children's lives.

Last year, our two agencies, Green Chimneys-NYC and SCO Family of Services, were given grants by the city to fill this gap. Thanks to the work of the Family Acceptance Project and other leaders in the family therapy field, we are launching a Family Therapy Intervention Pilot, a groundbreaking program whose goal is to bring these families back into the lives of their LGBT children not only as sources of support but as advocates for their children in an often-hostile world.

Dr. Ryan's work makes clear our mandate: in order to improve the health of our next generation, a community shift toward supporting families, in all their forms, must happen. And that can only happen when we support LGBT youth, not just on their own, but as part of their families. This radically changes the frame in which many who work with young people operate, but our LGBT community has grown and matured, and it is time we accept our responsibility to include families as much as we can in our work with young people.