Parenting Queer Youth–and Saving Their Lives

DeAnna Green turned to the Family Acceptance Project and discovered love's a lifesaver.

By Kyle Bella Dec 23, 2010

What do you do when your daughter decides to come out to you unexpectedly at 18? For DeAnna Green, a single African-American mother living in the San Francisco neighborhood known as Bayview-Hunter’s Point, this was what happened. At 18, her daughter Rosetta, now 22, introduced what Green describes as her "girlfriend girlfriend" and came out as a lesbian. Green didn’t know what to do or say, remembering moments where she was gripped by confusion and doubt.

As she said, "I had to take a moment to breathe. She had always dressed in a very girly girl way, with dresses and make-up, and now she was telling me about her girlfriend and wanting to wear boxers instead."

Though Green never felt Rosetta’s sexuality was a phase, she kept hoping that she would continue wearing the same clothes she used to and everything would be unchanged. She actively told her daughter to be discreet about her sexuality, commenting at one point that she shouldn’t march in the San Francisco Pride Parade because she could be on television and "give Grandma a heart attack." And her faith, as an active church-going Baptist, put into question her thoughts on her daughter’s sexuality as a sinful act.

But she began warming up to Rosetta’s sexuality over time. Slowly she made less of an effort to ask her to wear traditionally feminine clothes. (Green now buys her boxers on a regular basis.) And she came to actively accept her daughter, even if she didn’t agree with it from her religious teachings. The change, Green said, came in large part through the help of the Family Acceptance Project, a community-based research and policy initiative in California that’s developing the idea that family acceptance of LGBT youth is a proven way to combat challenges like depression and suicide attempts, both of which disproportionately plague queer youth.

The Family Acceptance Project was started in 2002 by Caitlin Ryan, a clinical social worker by trade who has worked with LGBT youth for almost 35 years, and Rafael Dìaz, a social worker and developmental psychologist who previously taught Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University.

In the initial phase of the project, researchers conducted a series of interviews, in both English and Spanish, with queer youth and their families from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds. Ryan stresses that they sought youth from across California and not just within urban communities. Immigrant youth from coastal communities were interviewed along with those who lived in San Francisco suburbs. They aimed to generate a wide range of data on specific actions families take in support or rejection of their child’s sexual orientation and gender identity.

With over 8,000 pages of interview transcriptions, researchers were able to show over 100 different specific actions that parents or guardians have taken toward the acceptance–or rejection–of their child.

While it is easy to think about physical abuse, kicking kids of homes and name-calling, the Family Acceptance Project showed that things like "excluding LGBT youth from family events," "blocking youth’s access to LGBT friends," or even choosing not to openly discuss sexuality or gender identity were just as detrimental to a child’s overall mental health and well-being. Conversely, the study demonstrated, for the first time in any study on LGBT youth, behaviors that improve a youth’s well being. These can be as simple as openly "talking with the youth about his or her LGBT identity" and as complex as working to make religious congregations supportive of them. Given the central role religious organizations play in many families of color, researchers were conscious of the ways in which race, religion, sexuality and gender identity can combine in a youth’s life.

Ryan says that since she came into the project as a clinician, she could not conceive of it as anything other than "research with impact." So in collaboration with San Francisco General Hospital, the Family Acceptance Project offers free family counseling in English, Spanish and Cantonese, providing information to families struggling to accept their queer youth’s sexuality or gender identity. The idea is to offer more than crisis intervention; the counseling is designed as a long-term program to support families as the concerns over accepting or rejecting identity shift.

Among the things the project discovered is a profound lack of broad, communal support for LGBT youth and their families in communities of color. Green’s Bayview neighborhood is located in southeastern San Francisco and is nearly 60 percent African American. "Gay and lesbian people are not thought to be in this neighborhood," said Green. "They are all supposed to be in the Castro."

This idea reflects a number of important points. The first is that especially in urban neighborhoods where there are large percentages of people of color, there are often few community resources available to LGBT young people. And that makes family support all the more crucial.

However, it also makes things more difficult for even parents and families who want to be supportive, because there are so few resources to help them figure out how to do so. Parents may love their children regardless of sexual and gender identity, but be unaware of how their actions are affecting their kids. Green and her daughter Rosetta offer an ideal example. Green wasn’t aware that her early reluctance to embrace Rosetta’s sexuality put her daughter at a nine times greater risk of committing suicide, and that actively accepting sexual orientation significantly decreases that risk. Given this year’s rash of LGBT youth suicides, this statistic couldn’t be more compelling.

"I can’t understand why my religion makes being gay the worst sin on Earth," Green says now. "We are all God’s children. If you don’t have accepting words for your child, you will make them feel inadequate."

The Family Acceptance Project realizes these stakes and is working with families across geographic regions to, in Caitlin Ryan’s words, dispel the "big myth that LGBT youth of color can’t be supported."

As Green bluntly sums up, "We have got to accept our children no matter what."