Numerous studies have documented that LGBTQ youth report significantly higher rates of having seriously considered, made a plan or attempted suicide, compared with young people who are heterosexual and cisgender, meaning their gender identity matches the sex on their birth certificate, according to the Trevor Project, an organization dedicated to suicide prevention efforts for LGBTQ and questioning youth.
While demographers don’t have fully accurate statistics when it comes to LGBTQ youth, a 2015 Pew research study reported that 2 percent of teens ages 13 to 17 identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual, and 3 percent said they were unsure of their sexual orientation. A separate question found 3 percent identifying as transgender. Whatever the exact percentages, we’re talking about many, many young people who are at risk.
Thane Holiday, 17, a rising senior in high school in North Carolina, used to be among them. He identifies as “queer,” an umbrella term that conflates different kinds of sexual and gender identities, and as “a trans guy,” he says, meaning transgender, someone whose sense of personal identity and gender does not correspond with their birth sex. At the start of middle school, he said, “it was just absolute hell. I was just bullied relentlessly” for being open about his identity, “and my mental health took a plunge to the point where I was pretty suicidal in seventh grade.”
Fortunately, he says, he has “very accepting and open parents.” When he first came out to them in middle school at age 11, he says, “my parents were like, ‘We accept you.’ ” Their response was key, he says, giving him emotional security and the knowledge he wouldn’t be rejected, along with making home a safe place.
Kort, who practices in Royal Oak, Mich., says you don’t need to understand someone to accept them — or love them. Expressing your love is key, he says: “Start by saying, ‘I love you no matter what and I’ll be here with you as you work this out and think this through.’ ” Or: “I’m not sure I completely agree or am open to this, but I’m willing to listen to you.”
Caitlin Ryan, director of the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University, a research education and policy group that helps ethnically, racially and religiously diverse families support their LGBTQ children, is a proponent of the importance of family acceptance to the well-being of their children.
Her research, done over two decades, also delineates how “rejecting behaviors” will harm young people. Those behaviors (often from parents but also from teachers, religious leaders and other adults) include preventing young people from having LGBTQ friends, telling them God will punish them because of their identity, and not standing up for them when others mistreat or denigrate them.
Ryan says her research has made clear how important it is to help families of LGBTQ kids change their harmful behaviors, regardless of their religious or other belief systems.
“This will help reduce their child’s risk,” of depression, anxiety and suicide, Ryan argues, which is paramount to their well-being.
What parent wouldn’t want to make their children’s lives easier? The answer might surprise you. Ryan recalled a 17-year-old teen, Mateo, who loved dolls and at age 11 learned how to use his mother’s sewing machine to design dresses and evening wear. His father hated what he saw as his son’s “femininity,” calling him a “faggot,” even refusing to let him attend a family reunion with relatives from Mexico. Ryan says “their research has found that ridiculing an LGBTQ youth has the same impact as physically beating them and these were among the most risk-inducing, family-rejecting behaviors for suicide for LGBTQ youth.”
Of course, parents aren’t always aware of their child’s sexual or gender identities, especially when they are young and their identities are in many ways just emerging. This is why Kort says family members should consider that any child might be LGBTQ.
Without knowing a child’s ultimate identity, parents can be sending inadvertently damaging messages from a very young age, Kort says. As an example, he told me about one teen in his practice whose father didn’t know that he was gay, yet the young man painfully remembered the slur his dad had once used offhandedly with him. (“All the faggots go to dance at that gay bar.”) Another example cited by Kort was of a mother who found her teen daughter’s lesbian sexual imagery and shouted at her: “You’re not a lesbian, are you?” It’s those kinds of messages that are harmful and rejecting to closeted LGBTQ young people, or to kids still figuring things out.
Parents can create healthier environments by being matter-of-fact about — if not openly accepting of and embracing — LGBTQ politicians, athletes and TV characters. When I was a teen and still closeted, my parents often invited an openly gay couple to our family dinners along with heterosexual friends. The implicit message to me: “This is okay.” For me, that translated to, “I’m okay.”
For parents who think their child’s identity is “a phase,” Kort says that may be so, but the best approach is to accept what they say at the moment. “Going with the phase isn’t going to cement an identity,” he says.
For instance Thane Holiday first told his parents he was “pansexual,” or open to any gender or sex, when he was 11, later amending that to queer, and finally saying he identified as trans at 14. This is not unusual, Ryan says. “In our research, many youth identified as LGB first and then identified as transgender as they began to learn about other identity options.”
Lee Airton, the author of “Gender: Your Guide: A Gender-Friendly Primer On What to Know, What to Say, and What to Do in the New Gender Culture,” often explains to parents that it’s normal and healthy for children to wonder about and play with gender: “It’s very important to let your child know with your words and demeanor that you are grateful for their trust.”
The New York mother of an 17-year-old who identifies now as non-binary, meaning neither male or female, says the best advice she ever got was from a therapist she consulted when her child was 7 and refused to wear a dress for her first Communion.
“The therapist told me when it comes to sexual orientation and gender identity, parents don’t affect the outcome at all, they just affect how their children feel about themselves,” the mother, who asked to remain anonymous to protect her child’s identity, says. “When it came to haircuts, clothing, whatever, we tried to be as supportive as we could. It can be difficult not to push or pull, just to be there, but we have a happy teen as a result.”
Thane’s father, Mark Bell, 54, was raised in a family he describes as having a traditional “Southern Baptist mentality” that he and his wife, Virginia, do not share. He told me that when Thane first came out to him six years ago “it was no big deal for us, but we knew it was going to be challenging for Thane because not everyone was going to be as supportive and accepting.”
The Bells have done their best to ease Thane’s path — for example, by letting relatives know his identity (transgender) and pronouns (he/him/his) ahead of family gatherings. Bell admits, however, “we are more successful with some family members than others.”
As for Thane, he has some advice for other LGBTQ kids: “You’ve just got to have patience with [your parents] because they’re trying, trying so hard. Especially since most of them grew up not seeing LGBT people or with a negative viewpoint of LGBT kids.”
Still, Thane’s own patience goes only so far. “With kids who have parents who are just not supportive and can be pretty cold . . . you shouldn’t have to forgive them over and over again. They’re choosing not to [accept you].”
Indeed, many kids today remain frightened about coming out.
“There are a million reasons they give why they don’t feel safe,” Joe Kort says. Parents can change that.
Family Acceptance Project: An organization that helps all families support their LGBTQ children. (familyproject.sfsu.edu)
The Trevor Project: An organization dedicated to suicide prevention efforts for LGBTQ and questioning youth. (thetrevorproject.org)
PFLAG: The largest organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ+) people, their parents and families, and allies. (pflag.org)
Scarleteen: Sex education for teens and emerging adults. (scarleteen.com)
It Gets Better: A nonprofit with a mission to empower and connect LGBTQ youth around the globe. (itgetsbetter.org)