Friday and Saturday, Miller-Eccles study group in southern California will host Bob Rees (LDS, former Bishop) and Caitlin Ryan (psychologist and social worker) for a presentation about their joint work with the Family Acceptance Project. (EVENT DETAILS HERE.) The Family Acceptance Project’s goal is to educate families and communities about research showing that LGBT youth have much better outcomes (in terms of avoiding suicide, drug use, and other harmful behaviors) when their families exhibit accepting behaviors rather than rejecting behaviors in response to the child’s orientation.
I interviewed Brother Rees about the project for the release of their booklet specifically written for an LDS audience this past summer. Unfortunately, due to some personal circumstances, I had to take a break from blogging at that time. The occasion of Brother Rees’ presentation at Miller-Eccles seemed like the perfect occasion to finally share these important thoughts from him.
CL: When was the first time in your life that you remember being aware of homosexuality? What was your impression of your family’s and the church’s feelings about homosexuality when you were young (if applicable)?
I think I first became aware of homosexuality during my first years of high school in the small Arizona town where we lived when I heard other people refer to gays as “queers” and “fags,” although it is highly probable that I first heard those and other dehumanized words about gays earlier from my father and other adults in my life.
CL: When was the first time in your life that you remember feeling a need for increased understanding and empathy for LGBT individuals? At that time, did you feel any conflict between those thoughts and your beliefs or commitments as a latter-day saint?
BR: When I went to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin in the fall of 1960, I suddenly became aware of the fact that among the faculty and students there were many more homosexuals than I had been aware of at BYU. There was still a general negativity toward homosexuals even at so liberal an institution. Nevertheless, being in close association with such people caused me to start thinking about them differently, although I still did not understand homosexuality and continued to have essentially a negative response to people we identify today by the term LGBT. In actuality, as I look back, I had been taught to disdain such people and to be fearful of them.
My attitudes continued to shift when I took my first teaching position at UCLA in 1966. Not only was I more aware of gay men and lesbians on the faculty and among my students, but I actually hired a couple of gay teaching and research assistants, which put me in closer proximity to gay men than I had ever been before. I was aware for the first time, I believe, that at least some of my colleagues had a more open and accepting attitude toward gay people, and this undoubtedly influenced my growing awareness of a disconnect between not only them and me, but between my beliefs and those of my fellow Mormons. I was not at all what I would now call enlightened, but I was aware of becoming increasingly uncomfortable with my attitudes and feelings on the subject.
The big change came for me when I was called to be bishop of the Los Angeles Singles’ ward in 1982. Since I was coming from a family ward and didn’t know most of the people in the singles’ ward, I set up a series of 15 minute interviews with everyone. I said, basically, “Is there anything in your life that needs to be resolved, because if there is, I would like to deal with it and get it out of the way so that we can make a fresh beginning.” During those interviews I became aware that some of those who were now in my pastoral care were carrying a great burden that was now also mine in some sense—or at least it was my calling to help them carry it. What I discovered was that most if not all of these gay and lesbian Mormons had accepted the idea that they were terribly flawed in the eyes of their family, their church, their culture and God, and that unless they could find some way out of the labyrinth in which they found themselves, they had little hope of happiness in this world or the next. Most were in deep conflict over these feelings because they had been told that their attraction to the same sex was something over which they had choice and could change–if they had enough faith and determination to do so. And so they had done everything they could to try and change their sexual orientation and their sexual identity in order to conform to a model that they experienced as not only unnatural but counter to their core being. Most had been rejected, or at least been found terribly flawed, by their families and church leaders. Most had been treated unkindly, or worse. Some of these individuals had been given blessings and had promises made to them by priesthood leaders that they both should and would experience a change. Many had served missions, gone to the temple, and been furiously active in the hope that they would realize a transformation of their romantic and sexual feelings. When change didn’t come, many felt estranged from the Lord and from the Church, felt unworthy of the blessings of heaven, and had essentially disfellowshipped themselves.
My evolution on this issue did not happen overnight, but rather was a slow, wrenching process. Essentially what happened was that I could no longer reconcile what I had been taught about homosexuality by my church and culture with my experience with those to whom I had been called to be a spiritual guide and pastor. If faith and righteousness, to say nothing of patience, determination, commitment and loyalty, could have empowered these good people to change their sexual orientation and identity they would have been able to do so, but they told me they hadn’t been able to and I believed them.
CL: How did you become involved in the Family Acceptance Project?
BR: Dr. Ryan had both intuited and then confirmed through her research the significance of the family, both positively and negatively, for LGBT youth. She studied religious values, beliefs and practices as part of her research on LGBT youth and families. From the outset, she had intended to present her research to religiously diverse families through a series of publications for families and providers. Her research revealed that families have a profound impact, either negatively or positively, on the health and happiness of their gay and lesbian children. As a clinical social worker, she also understood that by educating and strengthening families, she could help prevent some of the tragedies that she saw happening to LGBT youth who came from rejecting families.
Caitlin recognized that part of the problem in dealing with this issue is that families, who should provide the greatest strength and support for LGBT youth, were in fact often doing things that drove the young person out of the family circle—very often into other surrogate family or social circles that, though supportive in some ways, often put the young person at greater risk. Many young people estranged from their families (and often as a consequence from their religious communities) were at greater risk for substance abuse, depression, sexually-transmitted diseases, and suicide.
What Caitlin saw is that if she could identify which behaviors were productive and which counterproductive and then motivate parents to decrease rejecting behaviors and increase supportive behaviors, it would increase the likelihood that their son or daughter would stay within the family and therefore not be so vulnerable to destructive influences. This has made her research unique in the field and to my mind highly significant because many organizations working with gay youth see the family as an enemy to LGBT youth and do very little to address the family culture. Caitlin sees families as a strength and believes that faith communities can play a significant role in strengthening families. She recognizes that most parents love their children and want the best for them but that many have been taught by their religious leaders and by the culture at large to respond to their gay or lesbian child in ways that her research has found are actually destructive to the child’s health and well-being. Based on her experience in working with homeless LDS youth and with the LDS families who were part of her primary research, she came to understand how central families are to Mormon doctrine and culture and felt that developing materials for Mormon families and church leaders would be a good place to start her outreach to faith communities.
About five years ago, Caitlin set up a conference call with half a dozen of us who had been working for change on this issue within the Church to serve as a sounding board for what she hoped to accomplish. I was among that group and over the next several years sought ways to try and help Caitlin introduce her work into our faith community. I invited her to present her findings at the Sunstone West Symposium and later at the Salt Lake Symposium and worked with others to arrange meetings with Church leaders and others. Caitlin had also been presenting on aspects of her work on LGBT health in Utah on her own since the 1980s, including her work with youth and families, and with various other groups. Based on our work together, several years ago Caitlin invited me to co-author Supportive Families, Healthy Children: Helping Latter-day Saint Families with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Children, which I was honored to do.
CL: What has the reaction been so far to the booklet?
BR: The response has been overwhelmingly positive both from individuals and groups. There has been quite a bit of media coverage, again essentially positive. Since Supportive Families, Healthy Children is by design not a Church-sponsored publication, there are some Latter-day Saints who have taken a more cautious stance in response to it, but I think that is expected in a culture that is as hierarchically oriented as the LDS Church. The fact that there have been thousands of downloads of the booklet from the FAP website is especially encouraging. In truth, this booklet should be welcomed by LDS leaders and members alike since its message is both positive and practical—and in keeping with core gospel principles about the obligation of parents to love their children even when those children (whether heterosexual or homosexual) do things of which the parents do not approve. In the past, parents and other caregivers sometimes felt they had to choose between their LGBT child and the Church, a Sophie’s choice if there ever was one! Unfortunately, their children often felt (and often were) rejected by and alienated from the family, which usually led inevitably to alienation from the Church. When the argument centered on the chosen-change paradigm, family relations suffered; with the paradigm shift to love and support, it is a win-win for LGBT youth, their families and the Church.
CL: Have you received any reaction personally to your participation in its creation?
BR: Whatever response I have received has been quite positive. I find people pleased that they have a publication based on both science and religion that strengthens families. The fact is, as I stated earlier, most families want the best for their children and our booklet shows them clearly what they can do to be more supportive and the consequences if they choose not to. Essentially, parents have been operating out of misguided beliefs about homosexuality and have not fully understood how devastating their rejection can be to their LGBT child.
CL: The booklet lists a number of things a parent could do to decrease their LGBT child’s suicide and health risks even if they are conflicted about or disapproving of homosexuality. (For example, “Advocate for your child when he is mistreated because of his LGBT identity.”) Can you share any experiences through the Family Acceptance Project where you have seen parents who disapprove of homosexuality due to their LDS faith successfully implement suggestions like this?
BR: Since Caitlin has extensive experience in working with families and studying the impact of their attitudes on their LGBT children, she is in a much better place to respond to this question. I just want to say that the lists of parental behaviors in the booklet are far more than mere lists–they are actual research findings of parental and caregiver accepting and rejecting behaviors that Caitlin and her team have identified and then measured in her research. Her research shows how these and other family accepting and rejecting behaviors affect risk and well-being in their LGBT children.
I can also say is that in the more than three decades in which I have been involved with this issue, my experience confirms Caitlin’s research. That is, I have seen the consequences when families respond to a gay or lesbian child with anger, hostility and rejection as opposed to when they respond with love, acceptance and support. The differences are dramatic. My experience also confirms that children from accepting families are much more likely to maintain a healthy relationship with the Church and with their congregation.
I have great respect for Caitlin both as a person and as a social scientist. What is remarkable is that as a non-Mormon she has done research that should have been done by Mormons decades ago. It is an indictment of our culture that we have not taken this matter seriously enough to have done this kind of research. Thirty years ago when I wrote No More Strangers and Foreigners [a sermon to the members of his ward, near the end of his time as bishop -ed.], I said,
I don’t know if there is a way out of the dilemma that Mormon homosexuals and Mormon heterosexuals who relate to them face, but I would like to suggest something that we might at least try. Since this is a matter of such significance to the Church, and since it involves the suffering of so many of our brothers and sisters, perhaps as individuals and as a Church we should make the solution of this problem a matter of urgent fasting and prayer. Since we believe in revelation, why don’t we plead with the Lord for light and knowledge on this problem that affects so many of us? Surely it deserves very high priority among those matters for which we knock upon the door of Heaven.
Each of those of us who is concerned about this matter could begin including it in our daily prayers. Perhaps we could undertake special fasts on behalf of our gay brothers and lesbian sisters. At the very least, our religion requires us to accept homosexual saints with love and fellowship, to bind up their spiritual and psychic wounds, to mourn with them, to weep with them, and to comfort them.
I believed then that we could find more enlightened and more compassionate solutions. Many of us have tried to do that and in some ways have made important progress, but it has taken a Catholic with a bright mind and a large heart to show us, in Paul’s words, a more excellent way, even though it lay there in our scriptures all the while.
CL: One thing that really struck me in my phone conversation with Dr. Ryan was how the importance of family acceptance has qualitatively changed recently. Previously in our society, homosexuality was not discussed as openly, so gay individuals only came out of the closet (or even realized themselves they were gay) after leaving home for independent adult life. While family closeness is important in all stages of life, a child still living at home and coming out of the closet is obviously in a very different situation.
BR: Caitlin’s extensive research, including work with health and mental health providers and service systems, has found that society in general, as well as families overall, including LDS families, are not prepared to address these issues with children and adolescents. Caitlin and her team are working hard to get this information out to families and providers as quickly as possible which is why the LDS booklet and other publications from the Family Acceptance Project are so important. I feel this research will make it much more likely that families will be more understanding and supportive when their children do come out at younger ages. As we sang in the sixties, “The times they are a-changin’”; younger generations are much more eager and capable of helping effect change. Older generations have the choice of joining them, following them or getting out of their way!
CL: What are the next steps?
BR: The pamphlet is available for free on the FAP website as a downloadable document but it is my hope that parents and other family members and church leaders will purchase hard copies (which can also be ordered from the FAP website—Fap@sfsu.edu) because I think they are more attractive and durable than the downloaded version—and because they will support projected expansion of the FAP work (see below). Also, when people download a copy, I hope they will consider making a donation to help pay for this work – which they can do at the same time.
Caitlin’s desire to bring her research to the LDS community has meant that she has had to develop and produce the LDS booklet by using her own resources and by investing an enormous amount of her own time to the project without compensation. The total cost of writing, producing and distributing the LDS version of her booklet has cost several hundred thousands of dollars, very little of which has come from LDS sources. Income from hard copies of the booklet would help defray some of these costs.
Caitlin has been producing a series of videos that show how diverse families learn to support their LGBT children and she plans to include an LDS family. She also plans to develop training materials that would help families, leaders and congregations eliminate rejecting behaviors and increase supportive behaviors. In order to develop and produce these materials it is necessary for us to get financial support from the LDS community. Such materials would make it possible to more quickly and more effectively introduce the Family Acceptance Project research and practice into the Mormon community. Any of your readers who wish to make a contribution can do so, also through the FAP website, which is tax deductible
We are fortunate to have been chosen by Caitlin as the first faith community to have a special publication focusing her research on their religious community. Her plan to develop similar materials for Jews, Catholics, Evangelicals and others will be enhanced by the LDS community’s reception and utilization of her research.