At age 13, Jay approached his mother in their Southern Indiana home with tears in his eyes.
“I don’t feel right,” he said.
Worried, Lynn thought her child was becoming ill, and questioned him further.
“And then he said, ‘I feel like I’m a boy,’” said Lynn, whose name has been changed for this column. “I told him you’re my kid. I don’t care what gender you are. You’re my kid and I love you and that’s not going to change.”
Two years have passed since Jay came out to his mother as a transgender man. While assigned as a female at birth, he identifies as male. Prior to beginning his freshman year at a private Louisville high school, Jay changed his name and transitioned to living his life as a boy.
Despite losing friends for their decision, his parents and other family members have supported his journey that began on that cold, December day.
“He’s my child. Why wouldn’t I love him?” Lynn said. “He still has the same soul and the same spirit. He just happens to be a boy in a girl’s body.”
Life as a boy hasn’t always been easy. With a tall mohawk and gauges in his ears, the 16-year-old stands out in his conservative hometown. Folks stare, at times with dirty glares. People become uncomfortable when they can’t identify his gender, he said. Hurtful comments have been made. Bullying has occurred as well.
“I surrounded myself with people who are actually good and I made sure I looked the way I wanted to and tried not to care what they thought,” Jay said. “If I’m happy, I can care less.”
Thanks in part to his parents’ love and backing, Jay considers his story a positive one. Unfortunately, not all LGBTQ youth can say the same. According to the Trevor Project, close to half of young transgender people have contemplated suicide, with a quarter having made an attempt. One in five transgender individuals has also faced homelessness at some point in their lives.
Studies have found family rejection plays a role in this. Jay has several friends who can’t come out to their parents for fear of being spurned and thrown out of their homes. As a result, their self-esteem suffers.
“You just feel like if your parents don’t love you and they are supposed to love you no matter what, how is anyone else going to?” he said.
For 40 years, Caitlin Ryan has heard these tales as both a social worker and a researcher specializing in LGBTQ mental health. When she began her career, familial support of LGBTQ youth was perceived by society as non-existent.
But through her experiences, Ryan realized this simply wasn’t the case. It turns out that families show a wide range of reactions when faced with an LGBTQ child. Some were supportive, others extremely rejecting. Many were somewhere in between.
In 2002, Ryan and her colleague Rafael Diaz developed The Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University. As director, Ryan began the first major study that focused on the families of LGBTQ youth.
“One of the important findings of our research is that families who are engaging in these rejecting behaviors are actually trying to help their children, and not intentionally trying to hurt them,” Ryan said.
“What families, we found, didn’t understand was when they tried to change them or prevented them from learning who they were, or wouldn’t let them have a LGBT friend, or participate in activities in the community that would help give them support, it was like starving that child of oxygen.”
Through her research, Ryan concluded LGBTQ youth later in life were more than eight times as likely to have attempted suicide, nearly six times as likely to report high levels of depression and more than three times as likely to use illegal drugs as a result of their caregivers’ high rejecting behaviors than opposed to when they had familial support.
“Acceptance is like a vaccine that protects your child with love, and it protects them from suicidal behaviors and thoughts, depression, substance abuse, and it boosts self-esteem, well-being and overall health as a young adult,” she said.
Educating families of LGBTQ youth to the harmful physical and mental effects of their rejecting behaviors became a mission for Ryan. After all, her studies confirmed parents who tried to change their child were trying to protect them. She reasoned if the mothers and fathers knew their actions were hurting their child, they’d institute new responses even if they disagreed with their children’s behaviors.
In addition, Ryan created resources that provided vital information for families of LGBTQ youth. Included in these were videos and other material from the perspective of a caregiver’s faith tradition or cultural background.
“They can support their child even if they disagree,” she said. “You can change rejecting behaviors that our research shows are related to high levels of risk without agreeing to something you are uncomfortable with because you want to reduce your child’s risk and protect them from harm.”
Education, of course, remains key to reducing rejecting behaviors. Organizations like Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) can help with providing information and support to caregivers of LGBTQ youth when their children “drag them out of the closet.”
“(LGBTQ youth) tell their parents, and their parents are in shock much of the time because they are not expecting it. Then, they have that whole different vision of what their future is going to be for their children,” said Mark L., secretary of the Louisville chapter of PFLAG. “So the parents have their own parallel process of coming out if they are going to be able to accompany their children on their life’s journey.”
For 25 years, PFLAG Louisville has offered monthly support groups that allow LGBTQ caregivers and friends a chance to meet others in the same situation and learn about the community. Members also can phone those who wish to speak to someone who understands their questions and concerns, all under the cloak of anonymity. In addition, at the meetings, attendees can meet men and women who are LGBTQ themselves.
“The more people talk with LGBTQ folks, the more comfortable they become with them because they learn they’re just folks,” Mark said. “They have the same kinds of fears and concerns, strivings and ambitions everyone else has, but there’s some little unique thing about them that makes them a little bit different. But everybody has some little unique something that makes them different.”
Jay’s mom Lynn agrees.
“God doesn’t make mistakes,” she said. “I don’t think he’s a mistake. This is just something different. I love him no matter what. And I think he’s an amazing, amazing, amazing kid.”
For more information on PFLAG Louisville, visit pflaglouisville.org. To read the studies and learn more about positive responses to LGBTQ youth, check out the Family Acceptance Project at familyproject.sfsu.edu.
— Amanda Hillard Beam is a Floyd County resident and Jeffersonville native. Contact her by email at email@example.com