Not infrequently, science butts heads with culture as the data scientists collect about issues of the day may conflict with cultural perceptions and deeply-held beliefs. Attitudes and perceptions about homosexuality are, not surprisingly, a source of denialism as certain overvalued ideas about sexuality are being challenged with our deeper understanding of human sexual desire. For one, homosexuality is not a choice, despite all attempts to reprogram or suppress homosexual desires, the desires do not go away. One might even hypothesize the attempts to repress or disparage such a fundamental aspect of someone’s identity might cause harm long term and result in negative health outcomes. Sure enough, this article published in the journal Pediatrics last week suggests this is in fact the case, and I believe we must begin to view the rejection of homosexuality by parents as not just as small-minded, but actively harmful, constituting child abuse that has long term implications on their childrens’ health.
The authors identified 224 gay and lesbian youths between 21 and 25 years of age and using surveys to evaluate for high risk behaviors, mental health and levels of rejection by family, they found some startling patterns…
Starting with the methods, they developed a survey of 51 questions to evaluate a number of “rejecting behaviors” – various ways in which parents demonstrated disapproval or rejection of their child’s sexuality – such as blaming the child for any anti-gay experiences they may have been subjected to by others. They then scored the respondents by their answers to these questions and compared the level of rejection to several measures of health outcomes. These included self-reported depression, suicidal ideation and attempts, current depression by depression inventory score, substance abuse behaviors, and sexual risk behaviors. All of these negative outcomes with the exception of drinking and std diagnosis were increased in homosexual youths experiencing high levels of rejection.
As you can see, the results are pretty striking. The odds ratios reported indicate that a homosexual youth experiencing high levels of rejection by family have a risk of attempting suicide as much as 8 times more than those experiencing little or no rejection by family. Looking at the raw numbers, this means as many as 67 percent of study subjects in the high rejection group had attempted suicide by age 25! Illicit drug use, substance abuse disorders, and risky sexual behaviors are also similarly increased in this group. The apparent effect of family rejection is devastating.
Now, as always, we must point out that these are correlative findings. I am inclined to believe there is a very real effect of family rejection behavior for a few reasons. For one, it’s simply very plausible that strained family relations will have negative effects on individuals’ self esteem and mental health. For another, there isn’t a good alternate explanation for the observed patterns. I find it implausible, for instance, that the drug behavior or sexual behaviors in adolescence were what caused the parents to be critical of their child’s sexual orientation – that is the rejection effect was due to the presence of these behaviors rather than the homosexuality itself and if they weren’t doing drugs or attempting suicide they would not have rejected them for their homosexual behaviors. I therefore believe it is quite likely that it is specifically these rejection behaviors which preceded and caused the negative outcomes.
As far as what we learn about how we treat homosexuals from this paper, I think it’s clear that one of the worst things a parent can do is reject their children because they are homosexual. I’m sure these parents think they’re doing the best thing for their children because they see themselves as rejecting the sin and not the sinner and the homosexuality is the problem. But it is clear that rejecting these children, and no doubt considering them sinners for the sexual orientation that they have no control over, results in terrible mental health outcomes and extremely high risks of suicide. Expressing disapproval of homosexuality to children who are homosexual is likely causing a great deal of harm to children that have done nothing wrong other than be born homosexual. In light of what the science tells us, it’s clear we don’t just have a societal problem with bigotry (especially in light of the societal regulation of homosexuality as evinced by prop 8) but a serious public health problem as well.
So to the parents of homosexual parents an appeal. No more of this hate the sin love the sinner nonsense, just love and accept the child for who they are.
Ryan, Caitlin, Huebner, David, Diaz, Rafael M., Sanchez, Jorge. Family Rejection as a Predictor of Negative Health Outcomes in White and Latino Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Young Adults Pediatrics 2009 123: 346-352 doi:10.1542/peds.2007-352