New Resource for LDS Families with Gay Children Links Acceptance and Health

Last week, the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University released new materials designed to provide LDS families with a clear picture of the connections between family acceptance or rejection of gay young people and the kinds of health outcomes and life chances those young people will experience.

The booklet has been designated as a “Best Practice” resource for suicide prevention—the only one of its kind for LDS people—by the Suicide Prevention Resource Center and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. I spoke with Dr. Caitlin Ryan of the Family Acceptance Project at SFSU about the research and the reasoning behind this groundbreaking resource.

I noticed that in the booklet you characterize homosexuality as an “identity.” That remains a controversial concept among conservative Latter-day Saints, who prefer the term “same-sex attracted” as an adjective, rather than a noun indicating a permanent identity. Still, you address identity. Why?

The reason I wrote this the way that I did, with intentionality, was because I had to represent the real science—findings show that families matter, families make a profound difference, and that serious health risks are related to common rejecting behaviors. Forty years of research finds three components of human sexual orientation: attraction, behavior, and identity. Conservative perspectives tend to fixate only on the behavior: the sex act. But that’s an inappropriate framework to apply to children and adolescents who, contemporary research on both straight and gay people finds, tend to first became aware of their own sexuality around the magic age of ten, long before sexual activity. Refusing to acknowledge that this sense of identification is real to gay and straight young people compounds the problem. 

What does this pamphlet offer LDS families?

This pamphlet offers rigorously tested information on how family attitudes and behaviors toward gay young people impact their life chances and health. I’ve worked on human sexuality for nearly forty years. I’ve worked as a clinician with children, youth, and families. And throughout my decades of experience, as a practitioner, in policy, working with youth, in the field, including fieldwork with homeless LGBT youth—including homeless gay Mormon youth—I have seen enormous suffering and pain on the part of young people and their families. We’ve sat in kitchens of families who threw kids out because they thought it was what God wanted, and we’ve seen the heartbreak.

I’ve tried to use rigorous research in a broad cross-section of communities—including immigrant and monolingual, rural and farmworker, religious—to outline how family acceptance or rejection impacts gay young people’s health. Our first paper was published in Pediatrics, a top-tier science journal. The booklet released last week has been designated as “best practices” for suicide prevention.

There is a very robust (if muted) conversation among LDS families about how faith obliges them to react to gay children. All the time, I hear from gay Mormons—adults—that their families do or do not permit them to participate in family activities, or to even talk about their orientation, or to bring their partners home. What does science have to contribute to this conversation?

All of the studies I’ve conducted assume that family and faith can be strengths for LGBT people. But we have also seen how families motivated to give kids a better life sort through a range of individual perspectives and experiences trying to figure out how to help their kids. Ask a PFLAG parent and a religiously conservative parent, and they’d both say, “I love my child and I’m doing what I can to give them a good life,” with no objective information to show outcomes. Our findings are based on science. We know what kind of accepting or rejecting behaviors on the part of families correlate with better and worse health outcomes for LGBT youth. If families want to consult the science on this issue, they now have a resource.

I hope too that our findings will change the way services for LGBT youth conceive of families. We’ve trained 30,000 service providers and families since 2005. When we have visited LGBT youth service centers, we’ve found that the model that emerged in the 1970s was to not engage families, or even to position families as adversarial. Some say, “We don’t talk about families. It’s too painful” for the adolescents. We’ve done surveys hat found a dearth of resources and activities for families with LGBT children. But families are changing, and it is increasingly important to serve LGBT young people in the context of their families. We hope to contribute to that. This work is about supporting families with science that can help them understand the kinds of health outcomes that are likely when they practice accepting and rejecting behaviors. Families play a crucial role in protecting LGBT young people against major health risks.

How did you come to develop materials for LDS families specifically?

I’ve been working with LDS communities since the mid-1990s. Five or six years ago I put together an LDS advisory group. I wanted experts who were active in the LDS Church and would understand how my research related to the lives of Mormons. And in discussion with them, I knew I could make a difference. I asked Bob Rees [an LDS former bishop with extensive experience serving LGBT Mormons] to collaborate in writing this booklet. And I funded it out of pocket.

You funded this out of pocket?

I’ve never been able to get any funding for faith-based work. So I do it late at night. On my own dime. I’ve worked 18 hours a day, 7 days a week, for 5 years. I’m working with evangelicals. I’m working with Catholics. There is a deep hunger across faiths to keep families together, but no objective information to support them. Until now.

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Joanna Brooks is the author of The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith (Free Press / Simon & Schuster, 2012) and a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches.