Out in the Bay: Family acceptance is Caitlin Ryan's project
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Social worker Caitlin Ryan, Ph.D., was caring for AIDS patients in Atlanta during the early years of the epidemic when she found her calling. At the time, her work included meeting the Southern, often conservative families of young men dying from the disease.
"They would come to the bedsides of their dying children and many of them had no idea that this young gay or bisexual man was gay or bisexual or had AIDS," Ryan tells listeners on this week's Out in the Bay radio show and podcast. "They would learn those two things at the same time. And they were devastated."
While some of those families rejected their children, others would have done anything to help their dying loved ones. Ryan recognized an opportunity to help families learn to reconcile their culture and beliefs with their children's queer identities.
Ryan is now director of the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University, described on its website as "a research, education, intervention, and policy project to help ethnically, racially, and religiously diverse families support their LGBTQ children," that she co-founded in 2002 with Rafael Diaz, Ph.D.
"When we started that work, people didn't believe that families, especially 'diverse' families, could learn to support their LGBTQ children," Ryan says. "The perception was they were all rejecting, that none of them could change, that they couldn't grow, that they didn't want to."
But that impression was wrong. Ryan's work has proved that culturally and religiously diverse families can learn to support and promote the well-being of their LGBTQ kids.
The Family Acceptance Project's extensive research has shown significant health risks to queer youth when parents reject their identity, including increased suicide, drug use, and homelessness. Although Ryan and her colleagues find that all rejecting behaviors are harmful, they're not always intentional. Some parents erroneously believe their actions — blatant or subtle — to deny or hide their child's identity will help protect the child.
Ryan says that while many cultures and religions oppose homosexuality or gender diversity, they often also endorse mercy, compassion, love, respect, and the importance of family.
"Once we understand their underlying cultural beliefs and values, we can align our messaging, our framing and our research findings with those beliefs and values," she says. Then they can help parents focus on their behavior, rather than their beliefs, to support their children and benefit the whole family.
What do LGBTQ kids really need to hear from their parents?
"That their parents love them and will support them, even if they disagree, even if they think that being gay or transgender is wrong," says Ryan. "Those are powerful messages that can make a profound difference."
Hear more from Ryan on this week's Out in the Bay radio show and podcast. The show airs at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, April 24, on KSFP, 102.5 FM in SF only, and at 10 p.m. Tuesday, April 27, on KALW, 91.7 FM throughout the Bay Area. Or listen anytime from anywhere on Out in the Bay's website.
Kendra Klang produces, and this week hosts, Out in the Bay — Queer Radio from San Francisco. Learn more and listen at https://www.outinthebay.org/
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