Though our society has made great strides towards greater acceptance of LGBT people, it can’t be forgotten that there are still many places where people who are coming to self-awareness and self-acceptance face great struggles. The wider discussion of LGBT issues in our culture is helping people come out at younger ages because they are more knowledgeable about sexual orientation and gender identity questions than other generations were able to be. But this also means that young LGBT people are facing more family pressures at ages when they are more vulnerable than people in years past who came out when they were more established in their lives.
Perhaps no one knows more about what theses family pressures are than Caitlin Ryan, PhD, a social worker and researcher, who started the Family Acceptance Project (FAP) at San Francisco State University. The Project, according to their website is “a research, intervention, education and policy initiative that works to prevent health and mental health risks for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) children and youth, including suicide, homelessness and HIV – in the context of their families.”
Through her research, Ryan, a lesbian woman and a Catholic, has identified scores of responses that families give to their young LGBT members, and shows how the negative responses put these youth at greater risk for poor sexual health, HIV infection, substance use, depression, suicide, and low self-esteem. Perhaps more importantly, she also shows how specific family accepting reactions protect against risk and promote self-esteem and well-being.
In a New York Times profile about her work, Ryan explained that principles from her Catholic upbringing helped to shape the way she approaches her research. The article describes her early work with HIV patients, and how that opened her eyes and heart to the important work of human reconciliation that needed to be done:
“ ‘I saw something very few people saw,’ Dr. Ryan recalled. ‘This deep, profound connection that superseded dogma and doctrine. I saw the language of the heart.’
“Right then, she recognized her calling: to enable those reconciliations during life rather than at the portal of death. As Dr. Ryan received her validation the way scholars do — publication in peer-reviewed journals, six-figure grants as a principal investigator on research projects, a faculty position at San Francisco State University — she conducted extensive field work among homeless gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender teenagers in the Bay Area, as well as with parents of gay children. She and her academic colleagues documented a strong correlation between rejection by families and such dangerous youthful behaviors as drug abuse, unprotected sex and suicide attempts.”
Ryan’s research, educational efforts, and family intervention work now extend to specialized resource materials for families from particular faith backgrounds. As she describes her work, she recognized that though some religious parents may have moral objections to a child’s sexual orientation or gender identity, almost all parents want what is good for their children, and do not want harm to come to them. Her work builds on this common ground and helps parents to avoid family rejecting behaviors that can result in harmful outcomes for their children (such as an 8-times greater likelihood of attempted suicide), and to engage in supportive behaviors that strengthen families and increase their LGBT children’s self-esteem, self-worth and well-being.
Her research and family intervention work foster reconciliation and help people, regardless of their morality, to protect young people and support their overall health and wellness. Indeed, Ryan sees the spiritual side to her work, and self-effacingly noted in the Times profile:
“ ‘I’m still a Catholic schoolgirl,’ said Dr. Ryan, who regularly attends church to this day. ‘Modesty and humility were values that were instilled in me. I don’t feel right taking credit. It’s not my work. It’s a spiritual practice and a sacred trust.’ ”
Ryan is a featured speaker at this year’s Call To Action conference in Memphis, November 7th to 9th. Along with Fortunate Families President Deb Word, she will be conducting a day-long program entitled “Parent Day of Advocacy, Support, and Reflection.” The conference brochure offers this description:
“This pre-session day will be spent with parents and families of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender children and is also open to those who advocate for LGBTQ persons. Education and prayerful reflection the morning session will include a presentation by Dr. Caitlin Ryan on the Family Acceptance Project’s award winning Best Practices approach to prevent suicide and homelessness for LGBTQ youth. The afternoon will concentrate on parent stories, shared reflections and spiritual direction.”
For more information about the day, click here.
Caitlin Ryan’s work is life-saving. The fact that she can work with parents who would usually be described as “homophobic” or “transphobic” and can help them to follow their hearts to do what is best for their child’s well-being is a blessing for all. It forces me to wonder: Wouldn’t it be great if such a program existed for Catholic Church leaders to deal in healthy ways with the LGBT people in their congregations?
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry