The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Families of gay kids were once seen as the enemy by support groups. That’s changing.

(Ery Burns for The Washington Post)
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David Pitches, 74, a retired New York architect, never came out to his parents when he was a teenager growing up in Yonkers. “We were a silent family,” he says. “Coming out to them seemed to entail a family intimacy that I never had, or cared to have.”

Even after his parents figured it out years later, Pitches always felt they disapproved. “My father believed that gay people should lead their lives in private, and my mother never accepted it, even to her dying day at age 94,” he says. “Growing up in the ’50s was not a fun thing for a dreamy little boy who was gay.”

Even if families sought to understand the implications of their child being gay in what was, at the time, an anti-gay culture, they had nowhere to turn for support.

“The idea that I singly, or with them, would ever think to get some sort of therapy or program for coping was absolutely beyond their or my ken,” he says. “I was a deviant, and an embarrassment, who was best kept undercover or well-closeted.”

Fast forward to 2012, when Wendy Williams Montgomery, then a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, discovered that her 13-old son was gay. “Learning this felt both confusing and scary for me,” she says. “It was never a question of: Do I still love him? Can I still accept him? My question was: How do I do this as Mormon? Am I going to have to choose between the God I love, and the child I love?”

For two weeks, she couldn’t eat or sleep. She sought understanding from the church, but found only hostility.

“The message I was receiving by my church leaders, family members, friends and printed text was that my son was broken in an irreparable way, and would have to suffer through a truly horrific life until he died, at which time he would be ‘fixed’ and straight like the rest of us in heaven,” says Montgomery, who quit the Mormon Church five years later.

She turned to the scientific and medical community and found help from the Family Acceptance Project, an intervention, research and education organization for LGBT youth and their families.

After reading one of their pamphlets targeted to Mormon families — titled Supportive Families, Healthy Children — “I just wept,” she says. “It honestly felt like the first ray of sunshine in months when everything had felt so dark and gray and cloudy.”

Until recently, service providers, such as therapists and support groups for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, excluded families from their programs, regarding them as the enemy.

Today, however, there is a growing recognition that the support of families — especially parents — is critical to the health and well-being of LGBT youth.

“In the past, families just weren’t in the conversation,” says Caitlin Ryan, a clinical social worker who directs the Family Acceptance Project. “The perception was that families rejected you, which meant you didn’t come out, and if you did, you prepared for the worst.”

But “I’ve found that most families want their child to be safe, healthy and have a good life,” she says. “They engage in rejecting behaviors because they often are misinformed. We need to help them understand that — even though they may want to help their children — what they are doing contributes to serious harm. Young people who experience rejection feel like their parents don’t love them. In religious families, they feel that God doesn’t love them either. This can be really painful and traumatic.”

Research suggests that having negative family members raises a gay child’s risk of depression and self-destructive behaviors, including unprotected sex, substance abuse and suicide. A 2009 study conducted by the Family Acceptance Project found that gay, bisexual and lesbian youth whose families are hostile are at least eight times more likely to attempt suicide than their gay peers from accepting families.

Moreover, the longer it takes parents to adjust, the worse it is for their kids. A recent study surveyed 1,200 parents of LGBT youth ages 10 to 25 and found that it takes many parents two or more years to come around — a long time in the life of a child.

“We found it was just as hard for parents who had known for two years as for parents who had recently found out,” says David Huebner, the study author and an associate professor of prevention and community health at George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health. “It gets better with time. But two years is an eternity for a child.”

Huebner created a website called Lead With Love, with guidance for parents. “I don’t think parents struggle because they are bad people,” he says. “I think it’s because they care about their children. They are exposed to the same anti-gay messages that their kids are exposed to, that all of us are exposed to. They struggle because they are worried. Some parents learn it’s a sin. That it’s an illness. That their child will die of HIV, or alone. Parents care about their kids, but sometimes they express it in ways that are not helpful.”

Kathy Godwin, president of the national board of PFLAG, a support and advocacy organization for gay people, their families and allies, agrees. “The most important thing you can do is give your kid a hug and tell them you love them,” she says. “For parents, it can be a grief process. They feel like they’ve lost something. We talk with them. We tell them things are changing, that this doesn’t mean you can’t go to a wedding or have grandchildren.”

Still, things aren’t improving everywhere, which underscores the need to broaden access to resources. “There still are kids living in less progressive states with a rejecting family and a hostile school environment,” Huebner says. “It doesn’t matter what is happening nationally, because that kid’s whole world is right there.”

He advises young people who encounter negativity to recognize their parents are struggling, as they did. “Your parents are human, and it’s going to take them some time,” he says. “You don’t have to like the things they are doing, but they are coming from a place of concern because they care.”

Experts suggest youngsters seek support elsewhere, from adult teachers, for example, or support groups such as the District’s SMYAL (Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League), and find a safe place to stay if they feel threatened at home.

“Don’t try to deal with this alone,” Huebner says. “Sometimes, other family members or friends can be more supportive [even if they] share the same beliefs as your parents. They can be supportive because they aren’t as invested as your parents.”

Young people also can “create their own families with other LGBTQ kids and people who accept them,” says Tia Dole, chief clinical operations officer for the Trevor Project, which provides intervention for gay youth, including a 24/7 hotline (866-488-7386) with trained counselors for kids in crisis. These “alternative” families “can be pretty wonderful,” she says.

Parents need to know that certain behaviors exacerbate feelings of rejection, for example, forbidding their children to go out or have gay friends visit, or belittling clothing choices. “Ridicule is a rejecting behavior,” Ryan says, citing “the 16-year-old boy who goes out wearing a pink shirt and his father says: ‘you’re not going out like that, you look like a [homophobic slur].’ ”

For minority families and those with transgender children, the stresses can be even greater. Evette Lewis, an employee benefits adviser from Bowie, worried her son would contract HIV, or be hurt. “It’s hard enough for African American boys to navigate our society safely,” she says. “Having a gay, African American son exponentially increases the possibility of his being victimized.”

It also was tough for Catherine Hyde, from Woodstock, Md., whose son told her as a child “something went wrong in my belly, and he was supposed to be a girl.” Initially, she was horrified at the idea he was transgender, and lashed out, telling him: “You can be as gay as you want, but if you go ‘trans’ on me, it’s going to be out of my house and on your own time and money.” He became depressed and suicidal.

But she grew to accept her child as a girl with help from PFLAG and other sources.

“Today, life feels good and hopeful,” Hyde says.

Huebner, 42, who is gay, came out to his mother 20 years ago during a walk in the woods. He said there was something she needed to know. “She was relieved it wasn’t cancer,” he says. “And then she said, ‘David, I love you and nothing will ever change that.’ ”

It’s been eight years since Montgomery’s son came out to his parents. She now is an advocate for LGBT kids. “I’m a better person for having a gay son . . . [who is] probably the biggest teacher I have ever had in my life,” she says.

Jordan, now 21, is starting his last year at Arizona State University, majoring in political science, and hopes to attend law school. He too has left the church. “He lives about a half-hour away, but we still see him several times a week,” his mother says. “Most importantly, he is happy.”

David Pitches, a runner, has gained strength from, among other things, joining Front Runners New York, a gay running club. “I’m around many, much younger LGBT runners who have grown up in this new age, and I envy the open, loving and accepting relationships they have with their families,” he says.

Moreover, his siblings have always been supportive. When he and his partner of more than 30 years decided to get married in 2013, his younger brother, a Presbyterian minister, “happily and lovingly performed our wedding ceremony.”

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