Almost half of homeless youth today are on the streets because their parents put them there, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. Television programs like “Modern Family” show the world examples of what warm and supportive families of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender children look like, but, unfortunately, that type of family is mere fantasy for most LGBTQ teens today. Forty percent of homeless youth in America identify themselves as LGBTQ, the coalition found, meaning thousands of parents are choosing to inflict a life of homelessness upon their children. Research shows that kids today are coming out around 13, and the truth is that many parents react to their child’s sexual orientation in ways that prove the unconditional love of a parent is, in fact, a myth.
Homelessness is just one of the many possible adverse effects of parental rejection. Lack of love and support makes LGBTQ adolescents more likely to use drugs, smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol, harm themselves and commit suicide. These behaviors are often a substitute for love, or simply an escape from feeling hated by the ones they love most. Unlike an African-American child who has been discriminated against at school and comes home to a family who can relate to that child’s struggle, the bullied gay or lesbian child comes home to their family in isolation — mom and dad don’t know what it’s like to be gay, and they may even be bullies themselves.
LGBTQ teens are forced not only to deal with the fact that their lives are in danger for simply walking down the street, but may come home and experience that same hate from their very own families. During an already confusing time of hormonal changes, shaky self-esteem and self-discovery, many of these teens have no outlet, empathy, or understanding. It comes as no surprise that an LGBTQ adolescent may see suicide as the only option for escape.
As a social work intern and high school therapist, I recently conducted a school-wide poll of a Los Angeles arts high school showing that out of the school’s 16 percent LGBTQ population, 40 percent of those teens do not even have one trusted adult in their life that they feel safe talking with. This means that even in a city deemed as one of the most “progressive,” almost half of the surveyed LGBTQ students still feel unable to come out to their families. What does this mean regarding the statistics in more conservative areas or small towns? How can families be encouraged to display tolerance toward their gay, lesbian or transgender children, let alone acceptance?
As soon as I came out, my parents were forced into a closet of their own. What would they tell their co-workers when someone asked if their daughter had a boyfriend? What would their church think? Would this news send grandma to an early grave? Were my parents trying to hurt me by saying I had ruined their hope of a “normal” child, or were they expressing their grief and sense of loss in the only way they knew how? A child coming out can throw a family into a tailspin — but they can recover. My high school and town had no support systems, no opportunities or outreach programs to support my parents with their struggle to accept me, something that would have changed my entire family for the better. With organizations such as PFLAG, the LA LGBT Center, and the Pasadena Pride Center, parents who are willing to open their hearts and minds just enough to consider meeting with other parents like themselves may create a ripple effect that results in that child feeling the unconditional love that they deserve. Parents may need just as much support as their LGBTQ children, whether it’s through school-based programs, community outreach, or online education.
Unfortunately, there is a lack of support systems out there for parents of gay or transgender adolescents. If LGBTQ organizations spent more time on parent outreach and education, especially through schools, we might be able to solve the problem of family rejection that leads to teen homelessness at its source rather than treating the child after the damage has been done.
For many teens living in small towns and big cities, life does not feel like it’s going to get better, and it is very hard to see beyond the moment. But if we start proactively educating families and dissolving ignorance, they just might see that sometimes life doesn’t turn out as we planned because it is meant to be better.
Jennifer Piponnian is a master of social work candidate at the USC School of Social Work.