Thursday, March 29, 2012

Better off within the family

Yesterday, my volunteer time at Ruth Ellis Center was not an ordinary evening. I had a break from serving the food (and loading the dishwasher and scrubbing pots). Shortly after I arrived, Jessie (one of the staff) pulled me aside and said a visiting woman had just done a presentation for most of the staff and was about to repeat it for another staff person who had just arrived. When she described the presentation it indeed sounded interesting.

I met Caitlin Ryan of the Family Acceptance Project of San Francisco State University. She has a PhD in sociology and did research to put statistics behind her discoveries. She started by noticing that nearly all gay support organizations, especially those for teens and young adults (like Ruth Ellis), serve the gay kids but don't mention the word "family." There is usually a good reason: the kid was thrown out of the home or otherwise rejected.

She started her research with these premises that she could soon back with numbers.

* Gay kids are better off within their families.

* Parents want what is best for their child. They want the child to thrive, prosper, not be lonely, fall in love, be self-sufficient, and maybe have kids of their own.

* When the kid is gay the parents may not know how to guide their child. Many still think the only way to success is by being straight. Yeah, some parents use some twisted, inside-out logic to think that rejecting the child is a form of love.

On to the numbers: If a gay kid experiences a high level of rejection from the family he or she will be more than 8 times more likely to have attempted suicide, nearly 6 times more likely to have high levels of depression, more than 3 times more likely to use illegal drugs, and more than 3 times more likely to be exposed to HIV or sex diseases.

Dr. Ryan also did research into what is rejecting behavior. Here are some of them:

* Physical or verbal harassment because the child is gay.

* Excluding the gay youth from family activities.

* Blocking access to gay friends, events, and resources (under the belief that one learns to be gay).

* Telling the child God will punish them.

* Pressuring them to act more like a boy or girl is supposed to act.

There is also a long list on how to be supportive.

Ryan gets involved in a particular case when a school calls and asks her to meet with the gay youth and the parents. Most of her referrals come from schools. She has found that many kids understand their orientation by age 10 (that's fourth grade!) and says her research and services should be available in middle school and even upper elementary school.

Some conservative churches have contacted her. She has worked most closely with the Mormon Church (the ones who put so much effort into defeating gay marriage in Calif.) and wrote a version of her pamphlet based on Mormon beliefs. The Mormons have said even though they consider homosexual behavior to be a sin…

* They do not want the parent to think it is a choice between their faith and their gay kid.

* They do not want the gay kid to be so traumatized to consider suicide (or take up drugs, or contract HIV). They want families (including the gay members) reunited in heaven.

* They do not want parents rejecting their kids.

That prompted me to ask some questions:

* Is her research and discussions with conservative churches leading them to reduce their rejecting messages from the pulpit?

* Is her work leading conservative churches to change their stance on gay people?

The answer to both is maybe. There does seem to be less ranting from the pulpit. Denomination policy hasn't changed yet, but there are signs it might soon.

The Mormons, at least, have asked her to do sensitivity training at the denomination district level in Calif. and Utah and (I think) elsewhere. She was invited to come to give a presentation to the United Methodist General Conference a month from now. She had to decline because they didn't offer enough to make up from lost income. However, I might see her again at the Reconciling Ministries Convo next year.

I'm very glad I was able to hear about this research and work.

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