One of the most vulnerable populations among youth today are LGBTQ teens. This is especially true when lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) teens are not supported by their family. When families divide over a teen’s sexual orientation or when a teen is ostracized for being gay, they have a hard time with suicide, self-harm, substance use, and mental illness.
However, when family members are willing to accept their child for who they are, even if they don’t agree with their sexual orientation, teens tend to be happier and healthier. This is according to the Family Acceptance Project, a research initiative in San Francisco. Caitlin Ryan, director of the project and a faculty member at San Francisco State University, said the following in this interview:
LGBT young people whose parents and caregivers reject them or try to change them are at high risk for depression, substance abuse, suicide and HIV infection. And LGBT young people whose parents support them and stand up for them show much higher levels of self-esteem and greater well-being, with lower rates of health and mental health problems.
Another important factor in the mental health of LGBTQ teens is how their families respond to a teen’s coming out experience. Even if parents are initially shocked but are willing to adjust and support their teen despite their own views, LGBTQ adolescents are more likely to maintain a healthy well being. In fact, Caitlin Ryan commented that the way families react can have “a dramatic and compelling impact” on the physical and mental health of an LGBTQ youth.
In turn, when families can accept their teens it helps a community to do the same. But when teens are thrown out of their home, rejected, punished, or forced to change, LGBTQ teens become vulnerable to homelessness, abuse, bullying, drug use, and other dangers.
Research on Acceptance vs. Rejection of LGBTQ Teens
In 2014, a study found that family rejection plays a significant role in whether a teen decides to commit suicide. The study followed adolescents after their discharge from a psychiatric unit for a suicide attempt. Many of the teens who participated in the study reported that they felt “invalidation” at the time of discharge.
Feeling invalidated by one’s family challenges a person’s sense of self and the importance of their emotions. Lead researcher Shirley Yen, an associate professor of psychiatry at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island commented:
This could mean anything from not accepting an aspect of their child’s identity or preferences, such as sexuality, to telling their child they should not feel the way they do, such as feeling depressed or anxious.
The study followed 99 teens for six months after they had been discharged. The participants in the study were asked weekly whether they felt accepted by their family and peers. They were also asked if they were able to express their true thoughts and feelings without being dismissed, punished, ignored or mocked.
Interestingly, girls were more likely to perceive rejection from their families at the start of the study. However, if a male adolescent perceived family rejection, he was more at risk of suicide attempts, according to the study. The final results of the study revealed that male adolescents were vulnerable to suicide due to feelings of invalidation from their families. They were almost four times more likely to attempt suicide than adolescent males who didn’t feel rejected. Furthermore, the longer adolescent males felt rejected, the more likely they were to attempt suicide. The study found that the adolescent males who felt rejected most often during the follow-up were eight times more likely to attempt suicide than those who felt accepted by their families.
Both boys and girls who felt rejected by their peers at the start of the study were more likely to self-harm, such as cutting, than those who felt peer acceptance. Other consequences to not accepting LGBTQ youth include homelessness, drug use, and more. The following describes the challenges that LGBTQ youth face when they are not supported.
LGBTQ Frequently End Up Homeless
According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, 20% of homeless youth are LBGTQ. Furthermore, additional research from the Williams Institute, an organization that advances sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy through independent research and scholarship, provides the following information:
- 43% of clients served by drop-in centers identified as LGBTQ
- 30% of street outreach clients identified as LGBTQ
- 30% of clients utilizing housing programs identified as LGBTQ
Furthermore, LGBTQ youth have difficulty finding shelters that will accept them. The teens who identify as transgender are frequently forced to identify with the gender they no longer identify. And at times, LGBTQ youth are in physical danger because of the bullying and abuse they experience at shelters. Some of them are subjected to emotional, physical, and even sexual abuse.
LGBTQ Teens are often Targets of Bullying
Bullying is the overt behavior of a teen to belittle a child, teen, or adult and to make that person feel inadequate. It can include harassment, physical harm, demeaning speech and efforts to ostracize that person. Bullying is an active behavior and is done with intention to harm another, whether physically or emotionally. According to Emily Bazelon’s book, Sticks and Stones, 85-90% of LGBT youth have been verbally harassed, 40% have been physically harassed, and 20% have been physically assaulted.
There are thousands of cases across the country and in the news that describe an LGBTQ teen who has been bullied, harassed, or harmed. You can read some of those stories online.
LGBTQ Teens are At Risk for Suicide
As a result of bullying, many LGBTQ youth turn to suicide. In fact, bullied teens are up to five more times likely to commit suicide. Leelah Alcorn committed suicide on December 28, 2014. Instead of accepting Leelah for her transgender sexual orientation, her family forced her to participate in conversion therapy which aims to convince a teen to reject their desired gender identity and accept the gender given to them at birth. Sadly, Alcorn admitted that loneliness, stigma, and alienation contributed to her desire to end her life. She committed suicide by walking in front of oncoming traffic on the highway.
Because of pressure from friends and family, LGBTQ teens sometimes turn to suicide as a way to escape the inability to be who they are. LGBTQ teens are more at risk for suicide than other teens. LBGT teens are 2-5 times more likely to attempt suicide. Furthermore, there are two factors that make LGBT teens more vulnerable to suicide – parental support and school bullying. Without the support of one’s family, teens feel that they have nowhere else to turn. Parental support usually acts as a safeguard for the rejection teens will likely get from the outside world. Rejection from parents is the number one contributor to a suicide attempt.
Sadly, it’s not only sexual orientation, it’s mental illness, personality, political views, and even social skills that can create divides among teens. Teens who are marginalized, for whatever reason, might be bullied, harassed, teased, or in extreme situations, killed. And as a result, those teens might engage in drug use, risky behavior, and suicide attempts.
Resources for Parents and Caregivers of LGBTQ Teens
The importance of a single caring adult in a teen’s life cannot be overstated. Even if a teen does not have a parent or caregiver, one adult in a teen’s life makes a big difference in their ability to heal and overcome they challenges they face. This could be a teacher, school counselor, relative, or friend. If you are an adult in the life of an LGBTQ teen, it’s important to do what you can to support them. Here are a few ways to provide your assistance:
- Educate yourself. Learn about the issues that LGBTQ teens face and how you can help.
- Attend LGBTQ events. For instance, you can attend the LGBTQ annual parade with your teen. Meet an entire community of LGBTQ youth and their families.
- Join an LGBT support group. For instance, PFLAG (Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays) is one of the largest communities of support for the LGBT population. They have local chapters to develop relationships with other LGBT parents and supporters of LGBT youth.
- Participate in family therapy. This can help your family work through concerns and strengthen relationships.
- Don’t make your child’s sexual or gender preference the center of your family life. Remember that sexual orientation is not all there is to enjoying life and having fulfilling and meaningful relationships.
- Seek out resources online and in your community. The following are some resources that might be useful to LGBTQ youth and their families.
Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) is an organization that has been around since the early 1970’s. They provide support, education, and advocacy to those in the LGBT community. They have local chapters that meet regularly, which sponsor the annual PRIDE parade in most cities around the country. Find them here: www.pflag.org
Trans Youth Equality Foundation provides education, advocacy, and support for transgender youth and their families. Their location on the web is: www.transyouthequality.org
Gender Spectrum helps to create gender sensitive and inclusive environments for all children and teens. This site also has a number of brochures, videos, and other resources to share with friends, family, and school staff about how to support transgender children and teens. For instance, on this site, you’ll find an FAQ on transgender youth and use of bathrooms at school. Read more at: www.genderspectrum.org
National Center for Transgender Equality is a national social justice organization devoted to ending discrimination and violence against transgender people through education and advocacy on issues of importance to transgender people. Locate them at www.transequality.org
Helping LGBTQ Teens means a Healthier Community
When LGBTQ teens feel supported, there are often less divides between families, neighborhoods, and communities. The above resources, tips, and information is meant to inspire families to support LGBTQ youth, even if they are fundamentally against their sexual orientation. Parents, caregivers, and families can accept a teen for who they are even if they don’t agree with them. If more and more parents and families can strengthen this muscle, we can help avoid teen suicide and create healthier communities.