Caitlyn Ryan’s Talk at the Affirmation 2013 Annual Conference (Transcript)

Caitlyn Ryan

I’m going to have to wake up my computer, uhm it’s such a privilege to be here, and  it’s amazing to see so many people at this conference, I think we should give a round of applause to all of you and to the organisers. I wonder what happened to my pointer oh uh here it is.

As I pointed out at the Sunstone conference; Catholics also believe in the Holy Spirit and I feel like the Holy Spirit has been sitting on my shoulder for the last forty years and doing this work – it’s very spiritually directed, I didn’t choose to do it, uhm this work chose me. I wanted to show you the empirical foundation for our work with families for the Family Acceptance Project because it’s really really important that people understand that everything that we’re doing is based on the lived experiences of many people like you, of families, of caregivers, of LGBT people who are coming out these days at very very early ages.

One of the things that people want to know about it is; what’s going on now? I mean people long ago didn’t come out at such young ages a long time ago. Well we didn’t have the internet a long time ago, internet really blew the closet door off of its hinges, it has dramatically changed the way in which we have access to information, images in the media are so much more positive than they were three decades ago, two or even ten years ago. It’s a very very different time. The expansion for community support for LGBT young people is dramatic in terms of support groups in schools and in community settings and more increasingly faith-based programs. All of that has enabled young people to come out at ages that are normative for developing who they are. Historically, people never came out, or they came out when they were in adulthood, that’s not the case anymore and we’re never really going back to where it was before. You’re very familiar with many of these serious health and social problems, suicide, homelessness, drug abuse, removal from the home, HIV uhm being separated from families.

LGBT people, historically, are at a much higher risk of a whole wide range of negative health and social problems and that doesn’t have to with who they are, it has do with how we relate with them and how people interact with them and precede them. One of the really exciting things about the family intervention problem and developing with our program is that we can prevent this, we can change it, and when people are struggling and families are in crisis and we can do something about it and that is really incredible development and a really important change.

When we started working on the family acceptance project which I started thinking about this in the 1990’s, the focus on LGBT adolescents is really just in schools, before we started this project, no one had studied what really happens in families from the prospective of the whole family, they just asked adolescents what their experiences were like; and that is what people perceive. They believe that families weren’t supportive at best, toxic at worst, therefore families were rejecting and that is why, there wasn’t really anything that could be done about it, there was very little information about little people and faith communities and all of these family, faith and schools are corner stones for how we socialise and nurture children and adolescents.

As a result of these changes going back four decades when I started doing this work, we’ve emerged into the present with very few services for LGBT young people in the context of their families, very few activities that reach out especially to ethnically and religiously diverse families. The focus has either been on individual or group based services and we have to change that because of the radically ways that young people are learning about who they are today. In fact we’ve known since the late 1980’s that on average, kids have their first crush at about age of 10, they know who they like, they know who’s poster they want to put up on the wall, they know who they want to give a valentine to, even when the people around them say “oh no Billy, you don’t want to give your valentine to Houssay, you want to give your valentine to Mary-Jane”, Billy knows who he wants to give that valentine to. We’ve actually known since the 1990’s that young people were coming out between the ages of 14 and 16, and were self-identifying as lesbian, gay or bisexual and in our work with the family Acceptance project was more recent and younger adolescents from the ages of 13 to 18, we found that the average age of self-identifying was 13.4 and many many young people knew who they were between ages 7 and 12. I get a phone call every week from all over the country “my child is 9, my son is 10, 11, 8 uhm, where can we go? Where can we find a programme? Where can we find services?” And I have to say “I’m sorry, there really aren’t any because the impression in so many people’s minds is that you don’t come until adulthood or maybe you don’t come out until very very late adolescents.

Well for years and years and years, young people have been coming out at young ages but it hasn’t really been recognises, and therefore services haven’t been provided in the context of families, which is essential. You can’t take a 9 year old out of their family or a 10 year old and have them create an alternative family, we have to support them in the context of their families, their cultures and their faith traditions and that really is what our project is all about.

People will say well how can this be, a child’s sexual orientation is only about sex, when you know what, it’s not only about sex, it’s primarily about connectedness. Human connectedness and relatedness, the kind of need that every one of us has to live in the context of relationships with others and once we realise that, we understand how that could be possible for young people to know who they are at developmentally appropriate ages, and this is critical, it’s not just unique to Mormon world or the Catholics or the Evangelic or the Atheists for that matter, it’s true all over the place, all over the United States and certainly in other parts of the world, where we have to engage and involve families and what more appropriate faith to start with, in terms of bringing our research and messages to religious communities and in a religious social world than the Mormons and actually I have to say that it’s been an extraordinary journey Bob for, with you being with you, and so many others of you here tonight, you know the Montgomerys who are an extraordinary family and others of you who I have come to know and to care about so deeply, you have such an amazing ability to be in relation to others and such an amazing to create such a welcoming congregation, which is actually an important finding in  our research.

So when we started this project, we started it wanting to find out and understand from  our research perspective, what happens to families, but to develop a whole new framework to change how services are delivered, to change how school counsellors and paediatricians and nurses and teachers and clergy and religious leaders understand about human development and really to change public policy because when families are in conflict, the only thing we can do is to remove those kids from the home and put them in foster care where, in a matter of time they’re going to end up in the street and maybe 2% of them will have the opportunity to go on to college, that’s not a solution, that’s really the end of their future. So changing the frame has enormous implications not just for what happens in the home, but what happens in society at large. So when we started this project, we wanted to understand not only what happens in families, but how do families express the acceptance or rejection of their LGBT children and how do those accepting or rejecting behaviours affect a whole range of health issues and well-being and their lives as young adults. So that’s what we actually did with this research, it had never been done before, in any country with in any age, as Bob said, there’s enormous interest, we’ve trained in China, Latin America and other countries, we’ve actually been working with a whole Catholic school district, can you imagine that it has taken our whole research to develop a support programme for other LGBT students in Elementary, they have junior high or where their schools go to high school in general. I guess that’s somebody up there giving me a (clapping and shouting).

These are some of the more than 50 rejecting behaviours that we have identified in our research and now what we can show with our research is how each one of these behaviours affects risk for HIV, suicide attempts, substance abuse, depression, self-esteem, sense of self- worth, being in general health, this is so exciting because we can show that restricting access to LGBT information can lead to denial and refusing to accept that a youth is LGBT, telling them that its’ a phase, you’re , just confused. That’s done out of love by parents, it’s done out of love by caregivers, they want to help their children fit in, they want to help them have a good life, they want them to be accepted by others but what these parents don’t understand is that those behaviours are shown by our research to be related to very high levels of risk.

We’ve also shown that over 50 supportive behaviours such as supporting their genders expression or standing up for them when others mistreat them because of who they are, believing that they can have a good life, helping your congregations become more supportive, these are behaviours linked with protecting against suicide, substance abuse, depression building self-esteem and most importantly; building overall health and sense of the future. So really the way parents talk, act, behave, caregivers, families has a huge impact on not only the sense of self, but risk behaviours and wellness.

We found that a lot of these rejecting behaviours are related to high levels of risk for HIV, for example a more than three times likelihood of risk of HIV with a lot of those rejecting behaviours occurring in adolescents and can be cut in half with moderate levels of rejecting or with suicide attempts, with a lot of those rejecting behaviours sometimes with someone who’s a young adult can be more than eight times his likelihood to try and take their own life at least once and that can be cut dramatically by three quarters by moderate levels of rejection. We  found that if young people who come from families who are not at all more accepting, about 60% of them are thinking of taking their own lives as a young adult, just a little bit of acceptance, just a little bit of support, “honey, this, as you know, this isn’t a part of our faith, and we love you, we’re going to be there for you, no matter what you’re our child and we love you” think about how remarkable that would be for so many young people in Utah, or elsewhere who end up in the street, some of you in the experiences that you’ve had in the course of your lives. We can change that by helping families and caregivers understand how to support their LGBT children.

So family acceptance actually boosts self-esteem, I was talking to a mom one day and she said “what’s a protective factor?” and I said think about it like a vaccine, it’s like inoculating your child with love, to protect them from risk and that’s exactly what we’re able to teach them; parents and caregivers. That rejection is linked with serious health, and health problems, with family, children are protected and helps promote well-being. One of the uhm, most important things that I think we can do is change the future and changing the present. As Bob said, our family education booklets, they are on our webpage, you can download them free of charge, thousands of people download them and we have them in different languages and we’re always creating more, it’s really great to be able to put that in a Bishop’s hand or in a state president’s hand or any society member or parents who desperately need this information. I know some parents for whom it made an extraordinary difference to be able to help their children because that’s what parents want to do, you don’t want to hurt them, they want to help them.

We’ve developing all kinds of tools uhm, you can’t just publish a research paper, a lot of people do, stick it in a fancy journal and it stays there, you know, in that journal, you have to really put it into people’s hands in terms of tools, so that’s why we’re developing the booklets, the videos my aim really is to create a whole series of these videos that show the journey from struggle to support of ethnically and religiously diverse as families and LGBT children, families need role models, they need to understand what is acceptance, how do they help their child, what is important to their child. So with the video you’re going to see tonight, we’re actually creating a successions guide will help Mormon families, not only understand how to support their children, but how to help congregations become more welcoming, how to help schools and supportive communities.

As Bob mentioned; our booklet, you’ll find this, many people will find this is very ironic. Our booklets, and we have four of them now, are uhm the first best practice resource for suicide prevention for LGBT young people and the national best practice’s registry. But you’ll probably find this ironic, our Mormon booklet is the only faith based best practice, in the whole registry for anything based on faith and guess what it happens to be for Mormon families with LGBT kids, isn’t that great?

The videos are incredibly important, we have to give young people hope, the most prevailing factor in preventing suicide is connectedness, helping them feel connected, and giving them a sense of the future and families need hope too, they need to understand families from their background, they need to understand their tradition, their culture that speak their language that they can support their LGBT children and help them understand how to do that as well.

We use these in training, the film you’re going to see tonight costs a lot more money because of uhm of the production and also making sure that it was really an authentic, cultural experience for Mormon families. So I’ve put it in a number of festivals and as soon as it’s done with the festivals, we’ll be able to disseminate it. I think I have some clipboards which I was going to pass around Randal, for people to uh sign up if they want information about them or if they want to learn more about how they can participate. We have to humanise the lives of LGBT people, we have to break the myths and misconceptions that you have to be, let’s say there’s the normative age for puberty for kids on average, maybe around 10, some more older, 11 and then for gay people it’s 24, 25 or 50, that doesn’t make any sense does it? Of course not, but in doing this we have to tell real stories. You know I started doing this work in my heart many years ago at the, I started doing LGBT health in the 70’s and in 1980 I moved to California to do a clinical internship and that was at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, people said to me that you know how to start these programmes, help us start this community AIDS programme. So I actually start the first AIDS community in the south, and as a much younger social worker then, part of what I was doing was meeting the families that came in from little towns and communities across the whole South because then and even today, so many young people, young gay people left their homes to try to live a more integrated life without shaming their families, and I would meet these families would come in to sit at the bedside of their dying son and find out within a matter of minutes that they were gay and they were dying of AIDS.

And while that was a devastating experience to witness that, I also saw something extraordinary, I saw the impact on the whole family and very very few people ever saw that, they saw the pain and the suffering of a young gay person who was excluded or rejected or left their family out of shame, but they never really saw the devastation of the whole family, and at that point I think it planted the seed to do something different to support families in a holistic way, to do it, not just waiting until somebody comes out but you know, what every single parent in our research who had uhm, we did all kinds of uhm lot of different kinds of studies and we did our work in English, Spanish and Chinese. And I think of this dad who’s a day labourer, who had a 4th grade education didn’t speak English, was a Chinese speaker and he said “why isn’t this information printed in every Chinese newspaper”. Every Chinese parent needs to know how to help their child why didn’t we learn this? Everybody says that, the nurses, the well-baby care, the paediatrician should give us, our clergy should give us this information and I encourage all of you to know as Bob said, to carry this information to share it, to disseminate it, to help people in your work settings in your word and stakes in your school and in your family and social network, understand that we can make a difference right now.

We’re creating the future by changing the present and we change the present we can support our LGBT young people even if we believe that being gay is wrong or being transgender is not normal, we can still love and support them there is so much positive behaviours that parents can engage in, telling their children they’ll always be there for them. So I want to show you an example really of what I think is a very very powerful example of how love in action happens when families step up and support their LGBT children and I hope this is going to work…could you turn the lights off?