When Kids Come Out to Mom and Dad

Debbie LaPlaca

Um mom, dad…I think I’m gay.

Popular TV dramas of late have portrayed this defining moment in the family dynamic as joyous, with words of affection and acceptance, punctuated by group hugs. Yet, for many families, the scene plays out much differently.

How parents, caregivers and guardians react when hearing their young one is lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender can have a dramatic and long-lasting impact on the child. One study of more than 10,000 LGBT-identified youth, ages 13-17, reported 26 percent said their non-accepting families were the greatest problem they face.

So, how should you, as a parent or caregiver, react when learning your child is LBGT?

First, “lead with love.”

That is the advice of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), a national nonprofit that provides support, education and advocacy for LGBT families.

National PFLAG spokesperson Liz Owen said, “Our work for 46 years has truly proven that family acceptance saves LGBTQ lives, like nothing else.”

In this instance, “Q” stands for “queer or questioning.”

While each family’s story differs, commonality is found in the questions parents ask, from, ‘Why my child?’ to ‘What do we do next?’

Know that you are not alone.

According to PFLAG, one in four, or possibly one in three families has an immediate family member who is LGBT.

The five PFLAG chapters in Massachusetts serve as local resources for families seeking guidance and support.

The Greater Worcester chapter at 4 Mann Street, and Greater Boston chapter at 85 River Street in Waltham, offer confidential telephone helplines, monthly support group meetings, one-on-one sessions, workshops and community forums on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Laura Farnsworth, director PFLAG of Greater Worcester, says family acceptance truly does save LGBT lives.

“It can be almost negligent to reject and isolate a family member,” she said. “When a parent comes to us, it shows they are engaged and care for their children.”

The Worcester location serves nearly a 150 families per year.

“The need has never been greater for these families to have connections and resources,” Farnsworth said. “For most parents who come to us, it’s about knowing they are not alone, that they have a safe place to go where they are not going to be judged, and they can receive appropriate support.”

The Human Rights Campaign and the Human Rights Campaign Foundation together are billed as the nation’s largest civil rights organization working to achieve LGBT equality, and a trusted resource in the support community.

An HRC report, Growing Up LGBT in America, is considered a groundbreaking survey of more than 10,000 LGBT-identified youth.

Fifty-six percent of the youth surveyed said they are out to their immediate family, and 25 percent are out to their extended family.

The Family Acceptance Project, which conducts research and publishes best practices to decrease risk and promote the wellbeing of LGBT youth, says family acceptance helps protect against risky behaviors.

The Project also reports gay and transgender teens who were highly rejected by their parents and caregivers were at high risk for health and mental health problems when they become young adults (ages 21-25).

When compared to their peers who were not rejected or only mildly rejected, the highly rejected were more than eight times as likely to have attempted suicide; nearly six times as likely to report high levels of depression; more than three times as likely to use illegal drugs, and more than three times as likely to be at high risk for HIV and sexually transmitted diseases.

So how do you best react to your child’s sexual and gender expression?

The Project says behaviors to avoid are physical abuse, verbal harassment, excluding the child from family activities, blocking access to LGBT friends and resources, and forcing the child to keep their identity secret.

The recommended behaviors to promote wellbeing include the show of affection, advocate for your child, bring your child to LGBT organizations or events, and welcome your child’s LGBT friends to your home.

Directed by Dr. Caitlin Ryan at the Marian Wright Edelman Institute at San Francisco State University, the Family Acceptance Project has developed the first research-based family support model and a wide range of research-based materials and assessment tools to help families.

Its publications, including “Best Practice” resources for LGBT families, are available for download here

The PFLAG network of support groups sprang roots in 1972 when now deceased school teacher Jeanne Manford and her son Morty marched in the Christopher Street Liberation Day March in New York, which was the precursor to today’s Pride parade.

The story goes Manford’s experiences during that march and the mistreatment of her gay son led her to form a support group for families. The first meeting at a church in Greenwich Village in March 1973 was reportedly attended by approximately 20 people.

Today, PFLAG has 400 chapters and 200,000 supporters in 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, according to its website.

Its stated mission is to “build on a foundation of loving families united with LGBTQ people and allies who support one another, and to educate ourselves and our communities to speak up as advocates until all hearts and minds respect, value and affirm LGBTQ people.”

Debbie LaPlaca is veteran journalist, photographer and joyful mom of two, living in Central Massachusetts.