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Understanding Your Gay Teen

A Primer for Parents

As parents we cling to many fantasies about our kids. When they're babies, we tell ourselves: When they become toddlers, they'll never throw tantrums in the mall. When they're toddlers, we tell ourselves: When they become first-graders, they'll never have trouble learning to read or ever be sent to the principal's office. And when they're in grade school, we tell ourselves: When they're teenagers, they'll never do drugs, get pregnant, or come home and tell us that they're gay.

Those are the fantasies. But any mom or dad who's been a parent for more than 45 seconds knows that children delight in relieving us of our delusions, even as they bring us joy and wonder. Such is the case in families where an adolescent's sexual identity becomes an issue or cause for concern. Acknowledging that one's child has sexual feelings at all is difficult for many parents. But realizing that a child may not be following the traditional, or expected, path, in terms of sex and relationships, can cause parents even more distress.

"Is my son gay?" "Is my daughter bisexual?" "Can I as a parent find it within myself to accept my child's sexual identity, or should I try to dissuade my child of his or her feelings?" These can be very difficult questions for parents to consider. Here are some facts, opinions, and resources to help in the search for understanding.

How many gay, lesbian, bi and transgender teenagers are there in the United States?
No one really knows, but the Kinsey Report estimates that one of every ten teens may be gay, lesbian, bi or transgender.

What can parents say (or not say) if they suspect a teen is gay, lesbian, or bisexual?
Carolyn Wagner, national vice president of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, or PFLAG (pflag.org), says a good place to start is with a statement that offers acceptance instead of judgment. This lets a teen know that Mom or Dad is approachable and open to discussions about sexual identity:

"I just want to let you know that if you're having feelings that are different from other boys (or girls), it's okay to tell me because there's nothing you can say to me that's going to make me any less proud of you, or love you any less."

What should parents say (or not say) if a teen says s/he is gay, lesbian or bisexual?
When a teen comes out, the same expression of love and support is called for, Wagner believes. She urges parents to separate their belief in their child from whatever religious beliefs may conflict with a child's sexual identity.

"When our 13-year-old son talked to us about being gay, my husband said, 'Son, I love you just the same, and you're the same son to me that you were five minutes ago.' It was very straightforward and simple. Our son jumped up, huge tears rolling down his face, and gave his father a big hug. It was only then that we learned he'd tried to commit suicide several times, and had been getting depressed. Talking really was a big relief."

Facts and Resources

How serious is the risk of HIV infection and AIDS to gay teenagers?
According to the federal government's Centers for Disease Control (CDC), half of all new HIV infections in the United States are among people under age 25. Although the overall incidence of AIDS cases is declining, there has not been a comparable decline in the number of newly diagnosed HIV infections among the youth population.

Among 13- to 24-year-old males, 50 percent of all AIDS cases reported in 1999 were among males having sex with males, as opposed to 8 percent of AIDS cases among heterosexual males. There are no such statistics regarding AIDS infection resulting from sex between females; 47 percent of the 13- to 24-year-old females infected with AIDS contracted the disease heterosexually.

How serious is the threat of depression or suicide?
A 1989 U.S. government report on youth suicide sparked controversy with its claim that gay teens are 2 to 3 times more likely to attempt suicide that other young people, and may comprise up to 30 percent of those teens who actually do take their own lives. Although some researchers have since questioned those findings, subsequent studies have shown consistently high rates of suicide attempts by homosexual youths. Still, the causal link between sexual orientation and suicide has yet to be determined.

How serious is the threat of anti-gay violence?
Says David Buckel, senior staff attorney for the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund (lambdalegal.org): "Anti-gay harassment and violence is a plague in our nation's public schools. Studies show that large numbers of gay-identified students do not feel safe at school, are often threatened or injured, and often stay home for fear of injury."

Parents should know that the rights of gay, lesbian, bi or transgender students are protected by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, and by the 14th Amendment's requirement of equal treatment under the law. In a public school setting, this means, among other things, that a school district is bound by law to protect students from anti-gay harassment just as it protect students from other kinds of harassment.

What do psychiatrists say about sexual orientation?
According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, "Parents need to clearly understand that homosexual orientation is not a mental disorder. The cause(s) of homosexuality are not fully understood. However, a person's sexual orientation is not a matter of choice. In other words, individual have no more choice about being homosexual than heterosexual. All teenagers do have a choice about their expression of sexual behaviors and lifestyle, regardless of their sexual orientation." (For more information, go to aacap.org and look under "Facts for Families" for fact sheet #63, "Gay and Lesbian Adolescents.")

What do the terms "reparative therapy" and "transformational ministry" mean?
"Reparative therapy" refers to a controversial therapeutic practice intended to eliminate an individual's homosexual sexual desires. "Transformational ministry" is the use of religious or pastoral counseling to eliminate those desires. Both practices are based on an understanding of homosexuality that has been rejected by most major health and mental health professions.

What do the organized religions say about raising gay teenagers?
Only the American Baptist and Unitarian churches are open and accepting of homosexual church members. But across the country, many individual priests and ministers are openly defying the edicts of the church hierarchy and showing support for parents raising gay, lesbian, bi and transgender youth. The same is true of many unaffiliated Christian churches.

What about the future (marriage and grandchildren?)
Says PFLAG's Wagner: "This is where you as a parent project your own plans and dreams, for weddings and grandchildren, rather than look at your children's own hopes for the future. But just because your child is not heterosexual doesn't mean you are not going to have a wedding or grandchildren. I have been to several commitment ceremonies that were just beautiful, with all the families there. And there are now thousands of gay couples in committed relationships who are raising children."

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