With the recent group of suicides by gay teens, we a take a look at the lives of gay teenagers. NPR's Robert Siegel talks to Ritch Savin Williams, a professor of developmental psychology at Cornell University. He specializes in gay, lesbian, and bisexual research, and his latest book is The New Gay Teenager.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Recent suicides by gay teenagers and teens bullied because they seemed gay have drawn national attention. Celebrities and politicians from Ellen DeGeneres to Hillary Clinton have recorded messages of encouragement to gay teens. And it's been widely noted, including on this program, that gay teenagers are more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers.
But is all this attention to suicide and bullying actually helpful for teenagers struggling with their sexuality?
Well, Ritch Savin Williams says no. He's a professor of developmental psychology at Cornell University and he studies the lives of gay teens. Welcome to the program.
Professor RITCH SAVIN WILLIAMS (Chairperson, Human Development Psychology, Cornell University): Thank you very much.
SIEGEL: And what, if anything, is harmful about all this attention?
Prof. WILLIAMS: For me, first off, scientifically it's not true. That is that, as a developmental psychologist, when we look at the wide population of youth who identify as gay or who have same-sex attractions, it appears to me when I look at the data that they're actually just as healthy, and just as resilient, and just positive about their life as are straight youth.
So from a scientific perspective, there is certainly no gay suicide epidemic. But the more problematic aspect for me is that I worry a great deal about the image that we are giving gay-identified youth.
SIEGEL: But apart from image here, as for the social science of it, we've reported on numbers on this program numbers from the Suicide Prevention Research Center and elsewhere, which suggest that gay teens are more likely to make a suicide attempt than straight teens. Not true, are you saying?
Prof. WILLIAMS: Well, there are a number of studies which certainly do indicate that. But there are also other studies where that is not true. So certainly, there's an ability to pick your study to support whatever position one wants to have.
The other issue is that, as we get a more representative sample of youth who identify as gay who have same-sex attractions, what we discovered is that difference begins to narrow considerably. So, do we emphasize this kind of difference, group difference? Or do we begin to say, well, actually it's not quite as bad as we have portrayed it to be, or at least how the medical sciences, the mental health providers and research, and the public policy people have said.
SIEGEL: But could somebody on the other side of this argument say that you are picking your studies, the ones that conform to your less than statistical sense of what's going on here?
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Lesbian and Gay Youth: Care and Counseling
By Caitlin Ryan and Donna Futterman
The American Journal of Psychiatry
The American Journal of Psychiatry, 158:154, January 2001
ROCHELLE L. KLINGER, M.D.
This comprehensive review of clinical care of lesbian and gay youth grew out of a conference in 1994 designed to identify primary care (including mental health) needs of this underserved population. The authors’ goal was to integrate a large database of research information into a format that could be used by clinicians, educators, parents, and advocates for sexual minority youth. They have more than succeeded in this daunting task. This volume is concise, readable, and scholarly. The coherence of this book reflects the increasingly rare phenomenon of a volume written by one or two authors rather than multiple experts. The emphasis throughout is on practical clinical application of research knowledge. To this end, the authors employ a variety of helpful tables and figures as well as seven appendixes of resources and protocols.
The book is divided into three sections. Part 1 is a thorough overview of pertinent background information about gay, lesbian, and bisexual adolescents. Complex definitions of sexual orientation, behavior, and identity development are explained as clinically applicable. For example, because of the vicissitudes of identity development, gay and lesbian youth are not likely to present initially as such to a primary care or mental health practitioner. In one study, 5% of surveyed youth reported homosexual behavior but only 1% identified themselves as homosexual. Clinicians who treat adolescents need to be particularly conscious of not making assumptions about heterosexuality.
Multiple stressors faced by sexual minority youth in learning to live with external and internal stigma are documented by the authors. In addition, they identify the primary developmental task for these adolescents, which is learning to adapt to and manage a stigmatized identity. A great deal of information is also provided on family adaptation to an adolescent’s coming out and therapeutic work with families of lesbian and gay youth…
Lesbian and Gay Youth: Care and Counseling
By Caitlin Ryan and Donna Futterman
Family Acceptance Project™
Although there is an increasing amount of information about the risks and challenges facing LGB youth (with very little information about transgender youth), we know little about their strengths and resiliency, including the strengths of families in supporting their children's health and well-being. Even though the family is the primary support for children and youth, and family involvement helps reduce adolescent risk, there have been no previous studies of how families affect their LGBT children’s risk and resiliency. Prior to this study, little information was available to show how families respond to an adolescent's coming out and how family and caregiver reactions affect adolescent health, mental health and development for LGBT young people.
Attention to family reactions is critical since increasingly, youth are coming out at younger ages which significantly increases risk for victimization and abuse in family, school and community settings, and provides opportunities for helping to support and strengthen families. Victimization has long-term consequences for health and development, and impacts families as well as the targeted individuals. Early intervention can help families and caregivers build on strengths and use evidence-based materials to understand the impact of acceptance and rejection on their child’s well-being.
The Family Acceptance Project™ (FAP) is directed by Caitlin Ryan at the Marian Wright Edelman Institute at San Francisco State University, and was developed by Caitlin Ryan and Rafael Dìaz in 2002. It includes the first major study of the families of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth.
Read complete overview:
The Family Acceptance Project™ team includes Project Director, Caitlin Ryan, Senior Quantitative Researcher, Rafael Dìaz and Project Coordinator, Jorge Sanchez. Teresa Betancourt worked on the first two phases of the project.
Caitlin Ryan is the Director of the Family Acceptance Project.™ Caitlin is a clinical social worker who has worked on LGBT health and mental health since the 1970s, and AIDS since 1982. She received her clinical training with children and adolescents at Smith College School for Social Work in inpatient and community mental health programs, and began her social work career in school-based psychoeducational settings. Caitlin pioneered community-based AIDS services at the beginning of the epidemic; initiated the first major study to identify lesbian health needs in the early 1980s; and has worked to implement quality care for LGBT youth since the early 1990s. She developed the Family Acceptance Project™ with Rafael Diaz in 2002 to promote family support, decrease risk and improve well-being for LGBT youth…
Study: Tolerance Can Lower Gay Kids' Suicide Risk
All Things Considered - NPR
December 29, 2008
Gay, lesbian and bisexual teens and young adults have one of the highest rates of suicide attempts — and some other health and mental health problems, including substance abuse. A new study suggests that parental acceptance, and even neutrality, with regard to a child's sexual orientation could have a big impact in reducing this rate.
The study, published in the journal Pediatrics, found that the gay, lesbian and bisexual young adults and teens at the highest risk of attempting suicide and having some other health problems are ones who reported a high level of rejection by their families as a result of their sexual orientation.
"A little bit of change in rejecting behavior, being a little bit more accepting," says lead researcher Caitlin Ryan, "can make a significant difference in the child's health and mental health."
Ryan, director of Adolescent Health Initiatives at the Cesar Chavez Institute at San Francisco State University, and her researchers conducted lengthy interviews with more than 200 gay, lesbian and bisexual young adults. Ryan tried to judge whether, as adolescents, they had faced low, moderate or high levels of rejection from their families.
They found that kids who, by Ryan's measure, experienced high levels of rejection were nearly 8.5 times more likely to have attempted suicide. They were nearly six times more likely to report high levels of depression and almost 3.5 times more likely to use illegal drugs or engage in unprotected sex. That was compared with adolescents whose families may have felt uncomfortable with a gay kid, but were neutral or only mildly rejecting.
Acceptance Can Go A Long Way
Because the level of rejection is hard to measure, Ryan looked at things like whether the parents tried to get their children to change their sexual orientation, or tried to stop them from being with other gay kids…
Dr. Caitlin Ryan:
Reducing Risk and Promoting Well-Being for LGBT Youth:
The Critical Role of Family Support
November 16, 2009
GROWING UP GAY
October 21, 2010
The Boston Globe
A spate of gay teen suicides, including that of 18-year-old Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, has focused attention on homophobic bullying and resulted in the “It Gets Better’’ project, a YouTube campaign aimed at offering support to gay teens and young people. We asked several well-known Bostonians to share their memories of growing up gay, and they accepted, revealing the fear and loneliness they lived with and the strength they’ve achieved. Here are their stories, in their own words.
Author of many books, including ‘Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West’
I always wrote. Took my cue from “Harriet the Spy’’ in fifth grade and never looked back. But like many kids, I wasn’t introspective. Didn’t question my own identity. I came of age in a liberal time (early ’70s) in a progressive Catholic environment (not always an oxymoron) among good people who were tolerant of many things as long as they went unnamed. So I remained basically clueless about myself.
For a while, in high school, a cadre of friends caught my writing habit. We scribbled approximations of our real feelings in the safety and pretend anonymity of our journals. Then we circulated these notebooks for peer review, scrawling appreciative comments or jokes in the margins. A way of sharing private apprehensions and affections in a safe environment…
Actor/playwright and cofounder of theater group The Gold Dust Orphans
I thought of suicide many times as a teenager. I grew up in a factory town in Connecticut, where the only fun to be had was either sex or stealing your mother’s car. There, like so many places with no imagination, “faggot’’ was the worst word you could use.
The first time I heard the word “faggot’’ of course it was directed at me. Who else? I was 12 years old. It was summer, I remember, because I never wore shoes in the summer, even to the movies. Walking barefoot along a guardrail, a sort of bridge from my house to the candy store, I remember thinking myself a great acrobat. I always had these thoughts, that I would somehow escape the torture of being what I was, a sort of swishy “halfbreed’’ among spitting, strutting “cowboys.’’…
Meteorologist, WCVB-TV Channel 5
Growing up in Waterloo, Iowa, I thought I was the only gay kid. In junior high I was picked last in gym class, made fun of for playing the piano, and tormented by the older kids. I moved after the seventh grade to a suburb of St. Louis, with a hope that things would improve for me. It wasn’t any better. I didn’t fit in because I was the new kid. I didn’t fit in because I joined the choir and not the football team. Deep down I knew the reason why I didn’t fit in — it was because I was gay. Still, I wanted to fit in more than anything.
In junior high I was beat up in the halls because I was different. Coaches who were supposed to be looking after and supporting students mocked me because I would rather be in school plays and choir than run track.
It slowly turned around in high school. I was president of my senior class. But it wasn’t until I came out to myself and my family that it got better, and that wasn’t until after I graduated from college…
Chef at Rocca Kitchen & Bar, former contestant on ‘Top Chef’
My teen years were spent in northern California. While the majority of the California population is seen as flag-waving liberals, the flags I was most aware of were the Confederate ones affixed to pickup trucks that burned rubber pulling up to the school parking lot. There was an inherent fear that I felt around all of those young men.
At the time, I didn’t openly identify as gay, but there was a brotherhood of bigotry. It made me nervous and I steered clear. I knew I was different, but saying the word meant target. It meant zero assimilation; no cheerleading, no prom, no sleepovers, no parties. It meant self-imposed exile in the day-to-day life of high school that was already socially and emotionally unbearable…
Read complete list: Bostonians - Growing up gay - open up about the homophobia, fear, and isolation they endured as teens — and how they made it through – The Boston Globe
by Donald J. Cantor,
James C. Black, and
Campbell D. Barrett. 2006
While other countries have recently legalized civil marriage for same-sex couples debates over such marriages continue in the U.S. This timely book reviews the history of the evolution of same-sex marriage in the United States. With topics ranging from State Law regarding same-sex couples to legal adoption of children by lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals and couples this book provides a clear and even-handed treatment of the on-going struggle for equal rights to civil marriage by all people, regardless of the gender of partners.
Society for the Psychological Study of
Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Issues
A Division of the American Psychological Association
Distinguished Book Award
The Division offers this award for a book that has made a significant contribution to the field of LGBT psychology. The award is generally given to a book published within the two years prior to its nomination. The Division encourages self-nominations by authors, as well as nominations from publishers and readers. These works represent highly valuable contributions to scholarship that synthesize research and practice and advance the development of science, practice, and policy on LGBT issues in psychology.
The American Psychological Association's Division 44 is psychology's focal point for research, practice, and education on the lives and realities of LGBT people. The president's theme for the Division this year is "Psychological Science Serves: Making LGBT Research Relevant".
by Donald J. Cantor, Elizabeth Cantor, James C. Black, and Campbell D. Barrett.
President Obama: It Gets Better
October 21, 2010
The White House
Recently, several young people have taken their own lives after being bullied for being gay – or perceived as being gay – by their peers. Their deaths are shocking and heartbreaking tragedies. No one should have to endure relentless harassment or tormenting. No one should ever feel so alone or desperate that they feel have nowhere to turn. We each share a responsibility to protect our young people. And we also have an obligation to set an example of respect and kindness, regardless of our differences.
We all have a responsibility to protect all of our children. But we also have an obligation to set an example of respect and kindness regardless of our differences.
This is personal to me. When I was a young adult, I faced the jokes and taunting that too many of our youth face today, and I considered suicide as a way out. But I was fortunate. One of my co-workers recognized that I was hurting, and I soon confided in her. She cared enough to push me to seek help. She saved my life. I will always be grateful for her compassion and support – the same compassion and support that so many kids need today. Photo
In the wake of these terrible tragedies, thousands of Americans have come together to share their stories of hope and encouragement for LGBT youth who are struggling as part of the It Gets Better Project. Their messages are simple: no matter how difficult or hopeless life may seem when you’re a young person who’s been tormented by your peers or feels like you don’t fit in: life will get better...
Read more/watch video - President Obama: