Thursday, June 5, 2008

"Accepting the Unacceptable"

A few weeks ago, an old friend came to visit me. He is a rabbi who lives in Chicago, and after telling him about this journey, he offered some assistance, especially in terms of resources. Within a week he sent me a link to a study which was conducted by a marital and family therapist who has a doctorate in social work from the University of Illinois.

In her study, “Accepting the Unacceptable: Religious Parents and Adult Gay and Lesbian Children,” Linda Freedman, PhD, “debunks the perhaps popular perception that religiously oriented people, especially the orthodox, are sure to reject persons with sexual minority orientations, even their own children.”

With Dr. Freedman’s permission and the permission of the Alliance for Children and Families, I would like to offer a review of this study.

The study analyzed parental acceptance of adult gay and lesbian children. It included religiously oriented parents and parents who had not affiliated with any support group.

The study begins with certain facts and certain assumptions. It states that “research findings indicate that parental support mitigates risk to individuals identifying as homosexual. Increased visibility has led to a rise in illegal, socially sanctioned, physical attacks on gays.” It goes on to state that in a “clinical and empirical study of sexual minority families, parental support may provide sexual minority children a buffer against the prejudices and dangers inherent in a heterosexual society.” An Israeli study found that “family acceptance has a positive impact on psychological adjustment and self-esteem.”

The study continues to state that “we might assume, based upon the literature, that religiously oriented parents who believe that the sexual lives of their sexual minority children are sinful may not be able to function in a way that buffers their children from some of the dangers and challenges of a heterosexist society…Homophobia has been consistently found to be associated with religious orthodoxy and negative attitudes toward gays and lesbians.”

From these facts and assumptions, Dr. Freedman begins her study. The makeup of the subject groups was as follows, two thirds belonged to some sort of support group and one third did not. The study continues to explain to the reader the questions that were posed and how the analysis was computed. The study ends with a detailed discussion of the themes and issues which emerged in the analysis of the data.

Four themes emerged. They were as follows:

1. Initial reactions to disclosure

2. Coping strategies

3. Thoughts about therapy and counseling

4. Resolving conflict over time.

The first theme, Initial reactions to disclosure, the study reports that “initial reaction to learning that a child was gay did not differ between groups. Parents from all three groups had extensive lists of fears, including career-related concerns for the child and worries about health, social stability, and safety, especially from gay-bashers and murderers.”

“Losses and dashed expectations predominated the negative reactions and made initial acceptance difficult for most parents. They grieved the loss of grandchildren and marriages of children…”

“Parents reported initial social withdrawal followed by a period of adjustment and a flurry of interest in socializing with others who had a gay child. Some sought advice immediately..from parents in similar circumstances and expressed relief that they were not alone.”

The second theme to emerge was coping strategies. “Coping strategies, regardless of group affiliation, included reading everything possible about homosexuality and seeking information from people who knew about it.”

“Several parents described staying involved with their child as their greatest coping strategy….they learned to become defiant with people who criticized the child.”

The third theme dealt with the parents’ thoughts about therapy or counseling. In the study two thirds of the parents sought out some form of counseling, either pastoral or secular. “Parents who related to the counselor found the process a normalizing, learning experience. Positive comments about treatment alluded to a clinician’s ability to de-shame, comfort, reassure, and offer hope as an alternative to a parent’s helplessness and confusion.

In the fourth and final theme to emerge, resolving conflicts over time, “most parents said that they were ‘okay’ with their child and had hope for the future. A minority did not feel that they would ever resolve their issues.”

Dr. Freedman concludes her study as follows. She states that “the findings of the current study corroborate data that parent reactions to sexual orientation, especially when parents are religiously oriented, are complex. Most parents came to accept the child’s sexual orientation over time.”

“Most parents asserted that support groups helped them accept what they could not change….having an evolving positive relationship was better than conflict or cutoffs that accomplished nothing.”

“The only parents to profess to having rejected their children were those who had not attended any support group.”

Dr. Linda Freedman concludes that “this study nevertheless debunks the perhaps popular perception that religiously oriented people, especially the orthodox, are sure to reject persons with sexual minority orientations, even their own children.”

Thank you, Dr. Freedman.

Saul David

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Anonymous said...

Very nice summary, Saul.

Anonymous said...

I know I'm a bit late, but I just came across this blog. The key to Dr. Freedman's study seems to be that religiously-oriented parents come to accept their children "over time".

While I do not want to mitigate the comfort of that fact, it still presents significant problems. As I'm sure Dr. Freedman would tell you, some of the most critical developments, both physical and psychological, occur during the teenage years. These days, kids are coming out of the closet at younger ages than they used to. There are children as young as 7th-8th grade who are acknowledging their sexual orientation. Unfortunately, kids at that stage of life often times cannot afford to wait until "over time" comes around. The perceived loss of love and support from their parents before they have finally come around can be devastating and have a severe impact on the child's mental (and physical) well-being. At best, this could result in depression, or development in unhealthy ways. At worst, well, I don't have to cite the suicide statistics for gay youth for you to know how big of a problem it is.

While parental support is a great thing no matter when it happens, there are real dangers with it taking so long to come about.