Teenage son, head hung down, tells his devout Mormon parents he is gay. Mom says, "You are dead to me." Dad looks away with barely concealed disgust. Son moves out and joins the hordes of homeless LGBT teens. Eventually, he takes his own life.
This is no exaggeration. It is a scenario replayed over and over in the Mormon world.
Family reactions that affect well-being of LGBT youths
Rejection » Verbal harassment or name-calling, exclusion from family activities, blocking access to LGBT friends and events, blaming them when they are mistreated.
Acceptance » Listen respectfully, express affection when your child tells you about being gay, advocate for your child when mistreated because of his LGBT identity, require other family members to treat your LGBT child with respect, tell your child you love her unconditionally, welcome your child’s LGBT friends to your home.
Now, researchers say, there are techniques to ensure that the destructive pattern can be broken — without giving up LDS teachings or gay self-esteem.
"Parents’ attitudes can have a dramatic impact on their gay and transgender children’s lives," reads a just-released booklet titled "Supportive Families, Healthy Children: Helping Latter-day Saint Families With Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Children." "Parents and caregivers who are capable of even a little change — being a little less rejecting and a little more supportive — can make an important difference in reducing their adolescent’s risk for serious health problems, including suicide and HIV."
The booklet was written by Caitlin Ryan, a researcher at San Francisco State University, and Robert Rees, a former Mormon bishop who has worked extensively with his church’s gay population. It outlines the results of Ryan’s decades of studying LGBT young people and their relationships with family members and their church community. It offers helpful suggestions for responding to a gay child with love, even while possibly disapproving of some of their behavior.
The Mormon booklet is the first in a series of publications aimed at various faiths by the Family Acceptance Project and is sprinkled with statements from LDS leaders such as former church President David O. McKay and current apostle Jeffrey R. Holland extolling the importance of familial love.
"Above all, keep your lines of communication open," Holland counsels parents of gay children. "Open communication between parents and children is a clear expression of love, and pure love, generously expressed, can transform family ties."
While interviewing homeless LGBT Mormon youths, Ryan was struck by their "profound isolation and despair," she said in a phone interview. "They were cut off not only from their family, but [also] from their faith, their community, their future."
She wanted to find a way to "build on the innate strength of Mormon families, empowering them to care for their children."
Changing negative family interactions is not just a nice thing to do, Ryan added, it is crucial to the health and well-being of gay Mormon youths.
According to her research, LGBT young people whose parents reject them are: More than eight times as likely to attempt suicide, nearly six times as likely to report high levels of depression, more than three times as likely to use illegal drugs, and more than three times as likely to be at high risk for HIV and sexually transmitted diseases.
"Those whose parents support them," the booklet says, "show much higher rates of self-esteem and greater well-being, with lower rates of health and mental health problems."
Organizers plan to distribute the booklet through LDS grass-roots organizations such as Family Fellowship.
"What’s exciting to me is that this approach changes the whole paradigm," Rees said. "Arguing about choice and change has diverted us from looking seriously at the component of the family dynamics. All they [parents] have to do is say, ‘I love you and I’ll be there for you.’ After all, that’s really what the church teaches."
The group does not anticipate tapping official LDS channels to get the word out, Rees said. "But in three different [LDS] stakes where leaders have been exposed to this, they’ve been very positive about it."
The LDS Church declined to comment specifically on the booklet, spokesman Scott Trotter said, but did reiterate "the importance of treating all of God’s children with love and respect."
"As a church, our doctrinal position is clear: Any sexual activity outside of marriage is wrong, and we define marriage as between a man and a woman," Trotter said in a statement. "However, that should never, ever be used as justification for unkindness. We expect each Latter-day Saint family and individual to reflect Christ’s second great commandment — to love one another."
Mitch Mayne, an openly gay man who once considered suicide, is an executive secretary in his San Francisco LDS Church congregation and has become a sounding board for scores of gay Latter-day Saints, their parents and family members.
"It is astonishing the volume of people who have reached out to me," Mayne said Thursday. "Now I have something to give them that takes the best parts of Mormonism — compassion and Christlike love — and marries them with science. I have discovered a silver bullet."
It is "a lifeline of hope that has not existed before," Mayne said, allowing Mormons to stop choosing between their children and their faith.
They can have both.
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