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Volume 26, Number 2
March/April 2010

Beyond Gay-Straight Alliances

Research shows why family support is critical to helping LGBT students succeed


Decades’ worth of studies point to the importance of parental involvement in K–12 schooling. Yet when it comes to programs and policies related to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students, families are often deliberately left out of the conversation, according to several leading experts in LGBT youth development. Even in schools where LGBT-positive programs such as gay-straight alliances (GSAs—support and advocacy groups for LGBT students and their “straight allies”) exist, these are often kept low-key. Obviously, educators need to exercise care when discussing individual LGBT students—some may not be “out” to family members, or some parents and caregivers may not be supportive of their children’s LGBT identities. But in some cases, they say, family involvement is absent, or even avoided, for fear of controversy.

“The assumption is that families are going to be unsupportive at best,” says Caitlin Ryan, a researcher at San Francisco State University, who has studied the issues affecting LGBT youth for more than three decades. Evidence from Ryan’s research, as well as several recent school-based initiatives, however, suggests that parents and caregivers can be important allies in the success of LGBT students, and that schools’ unwritten “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies around LGBT issues may do more harm than good.

Family Acceptance is Key

Ryan is director of the Family Acceptance Project (FAP) at San Francisco State’s Marian Wright Edelman Institute for the Study of Children, Youth, and Families. Ryan formed the FAP in 2002 with colleague Rafael Diaz to study how parent/caregiver acceptance or rejection of young people’s LGBT identities affects these youths’ mental health and well-being and to use these research findings to design educational programs and materials for parents, caregivers, youth service providers, educators, and others.

Research has consistently found that sexual minority youth are significantly more likely than other adolescents to experience depression and to abuse alcohol and illegal drugs, and that as many as one-third have attempted suicide. An article highlighting one FAP study included striking findings about the high correlations between parent/caregiver “rejecting behaviors” and some of these risk factors. The survey of 224 white and Latino gay, lesbian, and bisexual young adults, ages 21 to 25, found that those who had experienced high levels of family rejection associated with their sexual identities during adolescence were more than eight times as likely to have attempted suicide, roughly six times as likely to report high levels of depression, and more than three times as likely to use illegal drugs and engage in unprotected sex than those with more accepting families.

The survey found that just over two-thirds of LGBT young adults had experienced at least some level of rejecting behavior from their parents or caregivers, and roughly 42 percent had families who were “rejecting” or “extremely rejecting.” In general, higher levels of rejection were found to be strongly associated with higher levels of risk (see sidebar “Family Acceptance and Rejection: Some Key Indicators”). Family Acceptance and Rejection: Some Key Indicators
After a child comes out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT), how do parents or caregivers react? And what effect do these words and behaviors have on the mental health and well-being of LGBT adolescents and young adults?

Through interview-based research, the Family Acceptance Project (FAP)—a research and education initiative at San Francisco State University—has identified 55 “accepting behaviors” and 51 “rejecting behaviors” on the part of parents and caregivers that are strongly correlated with either positive or negative developmental and behavioral outcomes.

According to “Supportive Families, Healthy Children,” a guide published by the FAP in 2009, parent/caregiver “accepting behaviors” associated with a reduction in risky behaviors and positive mental health outcomes include:

• talking with a child about her/his LGBT identity
• supporting an LGBT child’s identity even if it makes the parent/caregiver uncomfortable
• bringing the child to LGBT organizations or events
• requiring that other family members accept the LGBT child
• connecting with an LGBT adult role model
• welcoming an LGBT child’s friends and partners into the home
• believing one’s child can have a happy future as an LGBT adult

Among the family “rejecting behaviors” associated with higher levels of depression, substance abuse, unprotected sex, and suicide among LGBT youth are:

• verbal harassment and/or hitting related to a child’s LGBT identity
• excluding LGBT youth from family events or activities
• blocking access to LGBT friends, events, and resources
• pressuring a child to be more (or less) masculine or feminine
• telling a child that God will punish her/him for being gay
• telling a child that how s/he looks or acts is shameful or will shame the family
• making a child keep her/his LGBT identity secret from other family members

FAP director Caitlin Ryan stresses that rejecting behaviors—and therefore youth outcomes—can be changed through family education and awareness.

“We found that parents and caregivers can modify rejecting behaviors when they understand how their reactions to their LGBT children—their specific words, actions, and behaviors—affect their children’s health, mental health, and well-being,” she says.

In addition to its survey research, since 2005 the FAP has worked with LGBT students and families in the San Francisco Unified School District and elsewhere and has conducted numerous in-depth interviews, including one recent study of 49 families from different areas of California.

According to Ryan, two of the most striking findings to emerge from the FAP’s in-depth interviews and work with families have been that virtually all parents and caregivers who exhibit rejecting behaviors believe they are acting in the best interest of their children, and that many want to modify these behaviors once they are educated about their consequences.

“These families love their children,” says Ryan. “Parents and caregivers who tried to change, discourage, or otherwise reject their children’s LGBT identity or gender variant behavior were acting out of care and concern, to protect and help their LGBT children fit in and have a good life.”

In 2009, the FAP published its first family educational materials in three languages—English, Spanish, and Chinese. The guide “Supportive Families, Healthy Children” outlines some of the FAP’s findings about accepting and rejecting behaviors and their associations with positive and negative mental health outcomes; provides basic definitions related to sexual orientation and gender identity; lists additional resources parents and caregivers can turn to for help; and offers advice about opening up conversations with children about LGBT issues.

“‘Rejecting’ parents often don’t have the communication skills to know how to talk about these issues,” Ryan notes. For example, she says that when LGBT students are bullied or harassed at school—a problem affecting as many as two-thirds of this population, according to statistics from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network—these caregivers are often the most ill equipped to discuss the issues effectively or advocate for their children. “But we’ve seen that we can have an impact with families when they see that certain behaviors they thought were helping their children are actually putting them at risk.”

A Role for Schools

While educating students, not parents, is the primary mission of K–12 schools, Ryan and others who have studied the FAP’s findings say they show how closely linked these two functions are, mostly because of the salience of the parent/caregiver relationship in LGBT youths’ lives.

“The tension for adults who work with and want to support LGBT or queer kids is that the stakes are highest with their parents,” notes Stephen T. Russell, director of the University of Arizona’s Frances McClelland Institute for Children, Youth, and Families and an expert in both parenting practices and LGBT youth issues. Russell says this means school officials need to tread carefully when discussing individual LGBT students with their parents or caregivers when it might compromise the students’ confidentiality, comfort, or safety. But Russell adds that to keep families in the dark about larger LGBT issues at school, such as anti-gay harassment or the activities of the gay-straight alliance, ignores the potentially positive role parents could play in helping these students feel connected to school.

“We need to think about new ways to engage parents and not immediately assume that they’re going to be rejecting,” Russell says.
Few schools are currently taking active, institutional-level steps to include families in the discussion of LGBT-related issues, according to Russell. Carolyn Laub, executive director of the San Francisco-based Gay-Straight Alliance Network, a national organization dedicated to helping GSAs make their schools safer and more inclusive, agrees with Russell’s assessment but points to a few signs of progress.

For example, Laub notes that the GSA at West Hills High School in Santee, Calif. (near San Diego), now has a parent booster club that raises funds and community support for the GSA, similar to clubs that raise money for sports, music, or cheerleading at other schools.

“What [the GSA booster club] does symbolically is say that there are parents who support their children being in a gay-straight alliance club.” Laub says. “That’s a tremendous support on the emotional level even if the main focus of the booster club is financial.”

A Long-Overdue Dialogue

Canton High School in Massachusetts held a forum on LGBT issues for parents and other community members in March 2009 in preparation for the school’s production of The Laramie Project, a play that depicts the people and events around the 1998 killing of openly gay college student Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyo. School officials also scheduled the forum because members of the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church (founded by anti-gay minister and activist Fred Phelps) announced they would hold a protest outside the school before one of the play’s performances.

Although the forum was planned primarily to prepare the community for these upcoming events, Canton schools superintendent John D’Auria says it opened a long-overdue dialogue among its approximately 120 participants, who included the parents and grandparents of LGBT students who had struggled with homophobia and LGBT alumni of the school who had been harassed when they were students.

“All these people who had been wounded in the past stood up and shared their pain, and then talked about how proud they were of the school for doing this [the play and forum],” D’Auria says. These kinds of conversations are important not only for the community education they provide, D’Auria notes, but for the message they send to both LGBT and straight students that their parents and others in the community are behind the values of respect and fairness.

In addition, a state-level collaboration to educate parents and caregivers about LGBT issues through schools was announced last spring by the Massachusetts PTA (Parent Teacher Association) and Greater Boston PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, an advocacy and support group for the families of LGBT youth and adults with chapters across the country). Using the FAP’s research and information booklet for parents, state-level leaders trained approximately 150 PTA presidents in three regions of the state in 2009 and plan to work with these district leaders in 2010 on family information sessions in schools across Massachusetts. In addition, Massachusetts PTA president Kim Hunt says the group hopes to pass a resolution regarding safe schools for LGBT youth at its April 2010 convention, and then propose it at the national PTA convention in June.

“It’s proven that when parents are involved, children succeed. Why shouldn’t that apply to every child?” says Hunt. “LGBT youth need support, encouragement, and to feel safe. This begins at home.”

While it may seem from these examples that the discussion of LGBT issues is possible only in liberal strongholds like California and Massachusetts, the University of Arizona’s Russell says he believes a school’s ability to include parents and families in the discussion of LGBT issues is not defined by geography, but by a staff’s willingness to open up the kinds of conversations that the FAP data illustrate are crucial. “We can all point to schools in different parts of the country where principals and superintendents are doing all sorts of things—and we can point to schools in California and Massachusetts where the environment is toxic,” notes Russell. “I think it’s all about leadership.”

Michael Sadowski is an assistant professor in the Master of Arts in Teaching Program at Bard College in New York City and Annandale-on-Hudson, NY.

For Further Information

For Further Information

Family Acceptance Project:

Gay-Straight Alliance Network:

J. G. Kosciw, E. M. Diaz, and E. A. Greytak. 2007 National School Climate Survey: The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth in Our Nation’s Schools. New York: Gay, Lesbian and
Straight Education Network, 2008. Available at 

Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays:

C. Ryan. “Supportive Families, Healthy Children: Helping Families with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Children.” San Francisco: Family Acceptance Project, San Francisco State University, 2009. Request at

C. Ryan, D. Huebner, R. M. Diaz, and J. Sanchez. “Family Rejection as a Predictor of Negative Health Outcomes in White and Latino Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Young Adults.” Pediatrics 123, no. 1 (2009): 346–352.