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Rejection of Gay Teens Linked to Later Troubles

MONDAY Dec. 29, 2008 -- Gay young adults whose families rejected them when they were younger are more likely to have histories of unprotected sex, illegal drug use and suicide attempts, new research suggests.

The findings don't prove that a family's negative reaction to a child's sexuality directly causes problems later in life. But it's clear that "there's a connection between how families treat gay and lesbian children and their mental and physical health," said Caitlin Ryan, a clinical social worker at San Francisco State University and lead author of a study released in the January issue of Pediatrics.

In recent decades, studies have found evidence that gay, lesbian and bisexual children are more likely to suffer from a variety of ills, including depression and suicide. Researchers attribute the problems to social stigma around homosexuality, but there has been a gap regarding the role of families' reactions to children's sexuality, Ryan said.

In the new study, researchers first talked to 49 white and Latino families in California to determine how they reacted to children who weren't heterosexual so they would know what to watch for when they started the main research.

In terms of rejection, "we saw that in so many cases, families and caregivers thought what they were doing would help their children have a better life, fit in, belong and be accepted by others," Ryan said. "They'd try to change their gender identity, forbid them from spending time with a gay friend, not let them have access to information about what it's like to be a gay, lesbian or bisexual person."

In some cases, parents wouldn't stand up for their children when they had problems at school, Ryan said. "Their parents would say, 'Of course that's going to happen to you.' They'll blame the victim."

After the initial interviews, the researchers surveyed 224 gay, lesbian and bisexual adults, 21 to 25 years old, in the greater San Francisco area. All the participants were white or Latino, and the researchers located them by contacting community groups and visiting bars, clubs and other nightspots. The interviews took place from 2002 to 2005.

More than two-thirds of those who had been rejected by their families said they had tried to kill themselves, compared with about 20 percent of those who reported the lowest rates of rejection.

About 46 percent of those in the most-rejected group said they'd had unprotected sex with a casual partner in the past six months -- nearly twice the rate of those in the least-rejected group.

Those who reported the most rejection had higher rates of illegal drug use, substance abuse problems and depression. However, people in that group had somewhat lower rates of heavy drinking.

Ryan said the findings suggest that health providers should look for signs of trouble by talking to teens about their sexual orientation. As for families, they should emphasize to their children that they love them even if they disagree with their choices, Ryan said.

In cases of rejection, "most of these families feel that being gay is wrong or sinful or the worst thing that could happen," she said. "What often doesn't get communicated is that they still love their child."

Stephen T. Russell, director of the Frances McClelland Institute for Children, Youth, & Families at the University of Arizona, said the study confirms his suspicions about the harm caused when families reject gay children.

"It's really important to have research that documents the risk," he said, adding that the study provides guidance by pinpointing the specific harmful things that families do.

Russell echoed study author Ryan by saying that families often have the best interests of their children in mind even as they lay the groundwork for tremendous harm. "Families do these things because they think it's the right thing to do," he said. "They think it's protecting (their children) and making things better for them."

More information

To learn more about issues facing gay, lesbian and bisexual teens, check out information from the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.

Posted: December 2008


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