Report details needs of LGBTQ families

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday December 14, 2022
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Our Family Coalition Executive Director Mimi Demissew. Photo: Rick Gerharter
Our Family Coalition Executive Director Mimi Demissew. Photo: Rick Gerharter

A needs assessment of LGBTQ families conducted by a San Francisco-based nonprofit found that many are struggling with mental health issues and feel socially isolated. It also spotlighted that addressing the needs of LGBTQ students and parents in school environments is an ongoing concern, even in the Bay Area.

Our Family Coalition, which provides services to local LGBTQ parents and their children, partnered with Kali-Ahset Amen, Ph.D., a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, on the family needs assessment. It included a formal survey people could fill out as well as holding focus groups with a total of 10 parents.

Survey responses were collected between October 2020 and April 2021 during several surges of the COVID pandemic and when many school districts conducted classes virtually. While the report was completed last May, it was only widely distributed by the coalition in late October. The document will guide the nonprofit's work in the coming years.

One interesting finding of the survey was how the terminology used for families often doesn't properly reflect the makeup of LGBTQ households, which in addition to looking like the more traditional nuclear family of two parents with children can also be made up of single parents or families with three or more child-rearing adults in them.

"Participants expressed that OFC's programming was overwhelmingly, and possibly unintentionally, geared toward the nuclear family with two parents. As a result, some respondents felt uncomfortable or unable to find support for their own families within OFC," noted the report.

It was one of the findings that stood out for Mimi Demissew, OFC's executive director, who has a 4-year-old son with her wife. In an interview with the Bay Area Reporter, she said it brought to her and her staff's attention that they "were acting heteronormatively" when describing LGBTQ families.

"We keep speaking about two-parent households, while the research found parents who said, 'I am a single parent,' or 'we are a poly household.' We weren't thinking how our own different personal biases may come in to play," said Demissew. "Even around disability or centering different abled bodies and neurodiversity in our programming, these things need to be brought to the forefront."

In response to the report findings, OFC launched this year a non-bio, non-gestational parent support group for those parents who have adoptive children or are not the birthparent of their kids.

"If one parent is biologically connected to the child and one is not, it creates unique stress in the household," noted Demissew.

Even though Demissew is Black, and most of the nonprofit's other seven staff people are also people of color, the report found that most people were unaware of the agency's diverse leadership. Many parents of color also reported concerns about being welcomed in the nonprofit's programs and support groups.

"We brought on a Black executive director but it was during COVID so no one was coming into the place and no one saw that," said Demissew, who started at OFC in September of 2020. "We have BIPOC and trans, gender-nonconforming support groups, but it is not enough."

OFC has begun convening parent groups representing different minority and marginalized communities to seek their advice and input on how to make the agency and its programming inviting and welcoming to all families. It started first with Black parents and will next be holding similar listening sessions with Latinx parents.

"We want to get people into talking about what does affirming services look like," said Demissew.

Many parents noted they felt "aged out" of OFC's programming once their children were in elementary school. They would like to see more offerings geared toward the needs of older children.

School issues also were a top-of-mind concern. Parents want OFC to better address bullying at school and finding emotional support for students, according to the report findings. In addition to wanting to see OFC continue to push for curriculum changes in schools "beyond representation alone," the report also noted that many respondents want to see the nonprofit "focus on the safety of transgender children in schools and children raised by kinship networks other than their birth or adoptive parents."

Those needs come amid increasing attacks against the rights of trans youth and students by conservative politicians and parents. Demissew acknowledged that those leading the transphobic campaigns have "done an amazing job of branding" their position in the public sphere.

"It is so catchy. You call it 'parental rights.' Who doesn't want to support parental rights?" she asked. "But when you look deeply at it, it is really about further marginalizing LGBTQ students, and Black and Brown students."

OFC has long worked with, and in, school districts all across California. The report cemented how important those initiatives are, said Demissew, and called out the need for OFC is counterbalance the anti-LGBTQ messages parents are hearing.

"We need to do more work with parents," she said. "Great floods of misinformation are going to the parents. I don't think these are evil people. They are really wanting to protect their children but are being greatly misinformed."

The San Francisco Unified School District board has approved a Queer Transgender Parent Advisory Committee but not the funding to staff it. Photo: Cynthia Laird  

SFUSD issues
One ongoing issue for LGBTQ families in San Francisco is the San Francisco Unified School District not launching a parent advisory council focused on their needs and concerns. The school board approved the Queer Transgender PAC in February but has not budgeted the $180,000 needed to hire a person to staff it.

"We met with the San Francisco school board to fund and create an LGBTQ family task force. They had all these other task forces but not one for LGBTQ families," noted Demissew. "Now they are saying there isn't the funding for it."

The school district's other parental advisory councils continue to be staffed and have been meeting this academic year. Laura Dudnick, a spokesperson for the school district, told the B.A.R. there is no current date for when the QTPAC will officially be convened.

Nonetheless, Dudnick said the needs of LGBTQ students and families are being addressed through other programs and initiatives the school district has in place, such as its LGBTQ Student Services program launched 32 years ago.

"There are a lot of district level programs to support LGBTQ student services," said Dudnick. "While this parent advisory council is one of the components of that work, there are many other ways staff and schools are supporting and can support students."

Gay District 6 Supervisor Matt Dorsey, who sits on the Board of Supervisors' Youth, Young Adult, and Families Committee, told the B.A.R. he would discuss with its chair, currently District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen, about scheduling a hearing to discuss the LGBTQ family assessment report and possibly the fiscal constraints the school district is facing in regards to the QTPAC.

"I have always felt the city should be a full partner with the school district when it comes to funding. Temperamentally, I am disinclined to get too much in the weeds of telling the school district what to do," said Dorsey, who noted the supervisors have placed various ballot measures funding school needs before voters. "If there is a need that we can help to meet, we should have a talk about it."

As for the various findings of the LGBTQ family assessment report, Dorsey said they echo a presentation that the city's Department of Children, Youth and Their Families gave to the supervisor committee last summer.

"The takeaway from that mirrors some of the prime takeaways I found in this report, that mental health and social isolation are particularly acute issues that deserve focus," he said. "I think much of this, I have to believe, has to do with COVID, that was certainly the case with the citywide data here in San Francisco."

Dorsey has long had ties to Our Family Coalition from his days working as the top spokesperson at the San Francisco City Attorney's office. The nonprofit was a co-plaintiff in one of the marriage equality lawsuits that the city filed in state court.

"It wasn't widely appreciated some of the legal advocacy that Our Family Coalition does, so I am glad that was mentioned in there," said Dorsey, adding that he "will always have a lot of affection" for the nonprofit's being "shoulder to shoulder with us on something that made history."

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