Op-ed: Reaching Out to Red State Parents

By Anne Dohrenwend

Originally published on Advocate.com June 25 2013 4:16 AM ET

Coming out has health benefits, especially when parents support their child’s sexual orientation. Studies show that LGB children with supportive parents are less likely to be depressed, to use drugs, and to drop out of school. LGB and gender-nonconforming children who view their parents as supportive and accepting fare better psychologically, even when bullied. Across the country, there is a growing acceptance of LGBTs, making it easier and safer to come out.

Unfortunately, there are reluctant guests at the party, not only in the red states, but anywhere that social conservatism thrives. How do we bridge the gap between conservative parents and their LGBT children?

Sometimes it's the cold, hard facts that help. All parents of LGBT children can learn from objective scientific data about homosexuality and gender identity, especially if they are unlikely to have been exposed to this information in their social circles. Besides, conservative does not have to mean antiscience. For example, the American Psychological Association's two-year review of sexual orientation change efforts (SOCEs) revealed that there is no evidence that "reparative therapy" works and some evidence that it harms. Studies show that SOCEs can lead to diminished self-esteem, depression, and increased use of alcohol and drugs.

Facts like that will help conservative parents understand the long-term effects of suppressing sexual identity development. Some parents think that supporting nonheterosexuality is akin to allowing a child to thrust her hand into a bees' nest. They might argue that good parents protect their children from harm. While teaching a child to stay away from bees' nests is a sensible way to spare her unnecessary pain, the same cannot be said for teaching her to avoid or negate her sexual or gender identity.

Coming to terms with sexual and gender identities, even when painful, is a necessary pain. According to Erik Erikson, identity development (which includes sexual and gender identities) typically occurs between the ages of 12 and 20. The solidification of identity allows one to conquer more advanced developmental tasks, such as engaging in authentic, intimate relationships. Failing to acknowledge a developing person's gender and sexual identity is much like failing to place key bricks in the foundation of a building. When the foundation is weak, the building will lack integrity. If it does not fall, it will be prone to tilt or lean. LGBT children who suppress their orientation or identitys must either resign themselves to isolation or engage in the pretense of a relationship by way of heterosexual marriage. Inauthentic marriages, like buildings without integrity, are bound to fail. The negative effects of poorly integrated identity continue into late life. Erikson calls the last challenge of social-emotional development “ego integrity versus despair.” This stage might be thought of as a final accounting of life when the question is asked: “Did I live a full life, or do I have regrets?” If authenticity is sacrificed, the answer will surely lead to despair.

Religious belief may seem an impenetrable barrier to acceptance of homosexuality. Bernadette Barton, who studied LGBs in the Bible Belt, uses the term “psychological violence” to describe the “spirit crushing experiences of isolation, abuse, and self-loathing” experienced by many of those she interviewed. More specifically, 50% of her interviewees report having begged for forgiveness, sometimes weekly, in front of their congregations for feelings they could not pray away. Over 75% reported suffering anxiety, fear, depression, or suicidal thoughts.

Religious beliefs are often among the most deeply held. Being asked to rethink or reject a religious belief can be experienced as a threat to personal integrity. Questioning religious beliefs associated with homosexuality can raise the specter of social rejection or even damnation. When individuals are entrenched, afraid, or otherwise unwilling to consider anything but their “truth,” it may be best to table any discussion of religious differences and move on to talking about family boundaries. Good parenting requires that the boundary between parent and child be constantly recalibrating as the child matures. Healthy boundaries are also critical when family members hold different views on heartfelt subjects like homosexuality.

When family relationships break down, the problem is often not a lack of love, but a failure to abide by the boundaries that love requires. Parents are particularly vulnerable to boundary errors because they fail to keep up with the shifting terrain. When a child is a toddler, the parents are in charge. They decide what the child can and can’t do. In this way, parents protect their children from harm — like sticking one’s hand in a bees’ nest. Gradually, power shifts from parent to child. Decisions are meted out in increasingly vital chunks. In order for a child to become a mature adult, parents must eventually relinquish all control and become powerless over their children. While the task of parenting never ends, it transforms dramatically.

It is easy to recognize those parents who make a successful transition from parenting a child to parenting an adult. They listen more and explain less. They refrain from offering unsolicited advice. They don’t expect or demand that their adult children live according to their rules and values. Just as they model healthy boundaries within the family unit, they model healthy boundaries in other social contexts; while they may not agree with homosexuality, they would not behave aggressively or tolerate aggressive behavior toward LGBTs. 

Good parents know that in order for their children to mature, they must learn to follow the moral compass of their own hearts and minds. These truths resonate to all good parents, whether they reside in blue, or red, or purple states.

 

ANNE DOHREWEND, Ph.D., ABPP, is the author of Coming Around: Parenting Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Kids.