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All in the Family

All in the Family

Renee Zellweger

In 1998 our family endured the tragedy of our 21-year-old son, Matthew Shepard, falling victim to murder at the hands of two young men motivated by hatred of gay people.

A few years before, Matt had come out to his father, brother, and me. We were so proud that we had raised him to be honest with us and trust us enough to tell who he really was, and that our love for him was strong enough to guide us in accepting him with compassion and understanding. Never in our worst nightmares did we foresee how, or why, our time with him would be so brief, but knowing that he was able to be open with us has helped us enormously in cherishing the time we did have together as a family.

For more than 10 years I have traveled around the country speaking to high school and college students about the dangers of hate and the rewards of embracing diversity in their lives. When I speak to these students, I tell them that I always had a strong feeling that my son was gay, and that most of us who have a loved one in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community always knew in the back of our minds. The challenge is to bring that awareness to the forefront, despite any fear we may have in making it real.

I have seen -- as we all have -- the extraordinary amount of media attention and discussion about LGBT youth and bullying, and I imagine young people will soon be coming home from college for the holidays and middle and high school kids will gather with extended family and friends These topics will surely come up. And make no mistake, this is no new epidemic -- it has been hiding in plain sight. This I know from experience.

Even now I find myself looking into the eyes of young Americans who have been abandoned -- emotionally, financially, and spiritually -- by parents who refuse to accept them for who they are. Despite all the progress our society has made in valuing its LGBT youth, there remain hundreds of thousands of young people suffering the sting of family rejection. Today, we know even more about the breathtaking extent of the damage that is the result of this abandonment.

Caitlin Ryan and her team from the Family Acceptance Project have done groundbreaking research that shows that how families treat their LGBT children affects their mental health, including suicide, depression, substance abuse, self-esteem as well as overall physical well-being, including HIV and STDs. Although this seems intuitive for many of us, this is the first time that research has made the connection between parent and caregiver reactions and the mental and physical health of LGBT young people.

Ryan's most recent research paper shows the powerful impact of family acceptance in guarding against suicide and substance abuse and promoting good health. Her research has identified more than 100 behaviors that families use to react to their children's LGBT identity, and this research shows how each of these family behaviors affect their LGBT children's mental and physical health.

Employing this critical research, Ryan and her team are developing the first evidence-based family model to help ethnically and religiously diverse families decrease rejection and increase support for their LGBT children; to help parents advocate for their LGBT children; to prevent homelessness and placement in foster care and/or juvenile justice programs; and to change the way we provide public services for LGBT youth so we can serve them in the context of their families.

We need to support this groundbreaking and essential research and family intervention work to help all families change the future for their LGBT children. It is the most important work we can do to prevent suicide, HIV. and other serious mental and physical health risks. Whether we believe it or not, our unvoiced acceptance or rejection is coloring the way our children live their lives. Now we see proof that it's also affecting their health and wellness. As parents, that is all we need to know to do the right thing -- accept and love our children for who they are.
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