LGBTQ Youth Health: What to Talk About During Pride Month
June is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning – or LGBTQ – Pride Month. For many, it’s the colorful and provocative gay pride parades that define the occasion, but beyond the glitter lies a much deeper meaning. LGBTQ Pride acknowledges this community’s violent struggle, pays homage to the rights and respect that have been hard won and mobilizes all of us – LGBTQ people and their families, friends and allies – to continue to work for more justice, less stigma and a world where a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity doesn’t endanger them or prevent them from reaching their full potential.
While LGBTQ people have enjoyed the benefits of more acceptance from society, LGBT youth remain vulnerable to suicide, homelessness and negative health outcomes. This is largely due to their lack of acceptance from their parent or guardians. In our own practice and in numerous studies, it has been proven that more than anything else, the love and support from parents and families are critical to the health and success of LGBTQ youth.
One of the most tragic cases we have seen was Manuel’s (names and other identifying details have been changed), a 16-year-old Puerto Rican teen who was raised in the South Bronx by his mother. All his life he was taught by his family, culture and society that his future would be defined by a wife and kids, by his ability to support his own family and become the “man” of his house. However, while everyone was telling him who and what he should be doing, he had already started to dream of a very different life. From an early age, he knew he was attracted to men – but he kept his feelings buried for fear his family would disown him if they found out or that his sexuality would bring shame to his family.
One day, his mother went through his cell phone and found text messages from his “best friend” describing how in love they were. His mother put all of her son’s belongings into garbage bags, put them on the curb and told him, “never come back until you like girls!” Manuel became homeless at 16, and with nowhere else to go, he began exchanging sex for money to live. Three years later, he was diagnosed with HIV. When he finally got help, he told his social worker he had two wishes: “That I had been born straight so none of this would have happened, and that my mother believed that I didn’t choose to be this way.”
Now meet Wanda, a 15-year-old African American teen born and raised in Brooklyn by two parents who were actively involved in their church. Every Sunday after church, Wanda and her parents had dinner together and used the time as an informal family meeting where everyone was encouraged to talk openly about their week. While she was sometimes attracted to boys, there was a girl on Wanda’s soccer team that she couldn’t stop thinking about. She tried to ignore her feelings for this girl and put more energy into dating a boy in her class who liked her a lot. One day after church, Wanda’s mother asked her how serious she was about the boy she was dating.
Wanda shrugged that it wasn’t serious, but then she built up the courage to ask her parents: “What would happen if I liked girls, too?” Her parents sat in silence for a few seconds before her father replied, “We would love you no matter who you like.” “Of course we will always love you,” Wanda’s mother said, “but are you sure about this? This is very new for me, so you’re going to have to help us understand this.”
How do you think you would react if your child told you they were LGBTQ? Parents play an extremely important positive or negative role in the lives of their children, especially when children are becoming aware of who they are attracted to or love (sexual orientation) or if they feel themselves to be a male, female or somewhere in between (gender identity). In fact research shows that children whose parents belittle or shame them are more likely to suffer from depression, attempt suicide and have poorer health than children whose parents are supportive.
While you might be afraid that talking about LGBTQ issues with your child will encourage them to be gay or transgender, who they are or who they love is inherent to each person and emerges over time. The best thing for you to do is talk openly and love unconditionally. Don’t be hurt if your child discloses their feelings to someone else first. Most children who are exploring their sexual orientation or gender identity tell a friend, family member or health/mental health professional before they tell their parents because they would rather know for sure before they risk telling their parents.
As a parent, you can emphasize that there’s no risk in talking about these things, because you will love your child regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity – and that you’re there for them when they are ready to talk. Being LGBTQ no longer means your child will automatically get HIV or will have a limited life. With pills to prevent HIV and the full range of family options (including marriage) increasingly available to LGBTQ youth, your support is crucial in supporting and accepting your child to emerge as a healthy teen and adult who can achieve their full potential.
While it can be difficult for young people and their families to speak about issues like sex, sexuality and sexual orientation, you are not alone. Many resources exist, such as PFLAG.org (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), GLSEN.org (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network), Family Acceptance Project (FAP.org) and our program, adolescentaids.org, which provides care for LGBTQ youth as well as HIV care and prevention services.
If you know or think your child is LGBTQ, we hope you will use this year’s Pride Month as an opportunity to proudly celebrate your child and help them navigate this wonderful and challenging time known as adolescence.