Jennifer S. Hirsch, professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, is a member of Congregation B’Nai Jeshurun and an OpEd Project Public Voices Fellow.

Churches can help make homes a safer place for LGBT youth. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Public tolerance for laws and practices that discriminate against LGBT people under the guise of religion has rapidly declined. President Obama last week called for an end to so-called conversion therapies that seek to “fix” LGBT youth in some fundamentalist Christian circles. Public support for marriage equality – overturning the traditional concept of “one man, one woman” – has ballooned. And the chorus of indignant voices responding to Indiana’s religious freedom law was so overwhelming that the state has had to hire a PR firm to repair its image.

Politicians and activists have been increasingly vocal about how businesses, churches and government institutions treat LGBT people – children and teenagers, in particular. But the most important arena has escaped wide criticism: their homes. The disdain and discrimination that many gay or gender non-conforming youth receive from their parents has the potential to do far more damage than hostility they experience from others. The evidence abounds: Kids lacking parental support for their sexual orientation are at higher risk for mental health problems, drug use, and unprotected sex. And the risk isn’t minor – those who felt rejected by their families are eight times more likely to have attempted suicide.

These risks face far too many young people: More than one in four LGBT youth say parents and relatives who don’t accept them are the biggest problem in their lives, according to a Human Rights Campaign survey. And the consequences have been tragic. In Ohio, transgender teen Leelah Alcorn committed suicide in January after her mother, Carla, rejected her gender identity and took her to conversion therapy. Discussing Leelah’s gender identity, Carla Alcorn later told CNN, “We don’t support that, religiously.” In North Carolina, transgender activist Blake Brockington, who was his school’s first transgender homecoming king, committed suicide last month. He had moved out of his parents’ home and stopped communicating with most of his family.

The discrimination sexual minorities receive continues to have lethal effects over the course of their lives: One study found that sexual minorities living in communities with high levels of anti-gay prejudice experience a life expectancy 12 years shorter than those living in more supportive communities. That’s the difference between living in the U.S. and living in Bolivia.

Unsupportive families also lead to high rates of homelessness for LGBT youth nationwide. In Los Angeles and certain other urban areas, they make up as much as 35 percent of the homeless population. As part of an NIH-funded study about the lives of black men who have sex with men, one young man from Georgia described his mother’s reaction to his coming out as “physically and verbally abusive.” She told him that he was going to go to hell. He left home at 17 to live with a “sugar daddy” in New York City, whom he’d found through a website that pairs “sugar babies” with men in other parts of the country (or the world).  That didn’t last, though, and now he’s living at a shelter.

Science shows that when LGBT young people get the parental support they need, it puts them on the road to a healthy adulthood. Recent research found that LGB young adults with greater family support show lower cortisol reactivity – a measure of stress – to a lab stress test. By comparison, the level of peer support LGB youth received didn’t have a significant effect on stress response.

What’s missing here are public policies and campaigns to improve the family context for LGBT kids. Other countries are already leading the way: Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico all have had government-led campaigns seeking to change homophobic attitudes. A 2005 radio spot in Mexico, in which a young man chats with his mother about bringing his sweetheart home for Sunday dinner, never fails to give me shivers – not until the end do we learn that his sweetheart is named Oscar. Religious institutions are influenced by these government campaigns: Several years after this spot aired, the Archbishop of Saltillo was quoted echoing the tagline of that campaign, “homosexuality is not a sickness; homophobia is.”

Federal and state governments also could help by channeling funding to community organizations that support of LGBT youth, as they do for other at-risk groups. Last June, for example, New York Mayor Bill De Blasio’s administration launched a $52 million initiative for “community schools” that provide social services for at-risk children and families. Those programs, and others like it around the country, should include services targeting the families of LGBT youth.

Religious institutions can be key allies on these issues. In less than a month, my younger son will stand up to become bar mitzvah, and to my dismay, he has the task of chanting in Hebrew the verse in Leviticus that instructs us that “a man shall not lie with another man.” But then he’ll challenge the homophobic uses of that verse, lucky to be a member of a religious community that celebrates a critical approach to textual interpretation, a place that encourages him to think about the social harms that have been wrought in the name of the holy.  And, while I’m kvelling, I’ll share another of my proudest moments as a parent: when his older brother, as a 13 year old, led off a meeting in Albany with Senator Mike Nozzolio, arguing for marriage equality. That trip, part of Isaac’s bar mitzvah social justice project, was sponsored by our temple and Pride in the Pulpit.

Over the past few years we’ve seen a transformation in policies at the federal, state, and municipal levels: marriage equality, drivers’ license sex change laws, the expanded hate crimes laws, and laws to prevent school-based bullying. These laws recognize the value of LGBT lives and deem them deserving of state protection. LGBT kids are increasingly protected in school, but as long as they live in homes where parents have a free pass to mock or criticize them for failing to meet expectations about what it means to be a man or a woman, our work is not done.

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