This issue features
introduction by Esther Schwartz-McKinzie, and
photograph by Lazyllama,
Hands Making Love Heart Shadow on Rainbow Background
Copyright © Lazyllama.
Introduction to Speaking Out: Families of LGBTQ+ Advance the Dialogue
“What is more important than an attempt at understanding a different corner of human experience than the one you inhabit? What is more life-giving than an affirmation that people like you can live?”
After I asked my daughter to read this book, she replied with these questions; since she is my inspiration, I gladly give the opening words to her.
Mac recently returned from her first year of college and is suspicious of labels that never quite convey the right import for beings as complex as humans. The closest fit for her, she says, is cisgender lesbian.
When she, as a small but mighty 11-year old, declared (to us, and then to her entire school) that she was lesbian, we did not know a lot about what that meant. Could a child, at that age, know what they were talking about? We did not know how to counsel her, and we did not know how to navigate family, school and friendship situations that can become challenging very quickly when children do not conform to heteronormative appearance and behavior.
We did know that we loved this child, and that if we did not have a map, we would have to make one.
It soon became clear that she did not want our guidance: she wanted us to hurry up and get on board.
I have since learned that this is the experience of many parents of LGBTQ+ children and adults. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAAP), children typically have a stable understanding of their gender identity, whether that is congruent with the sex assigned at birth or not, by age four (Rafferty). Mayo Clinic asserts that “children categorize their own gender by age three years, but that “because gender stereotypes are reinforced, some children learn to behave in ways that bring them the most reward, despite their authentic gender identity” (“Children”).
In other words, by the time a child (particularly an adult child) comes out, they have likely known and been struggling for a long time with the dissonance between their identity and the cultural expectation of gender conformity.
Moreover, they may have been navigating a complicated calculus of loss: who will stop loving me if I reveal myself? How will I be hurt? Or even, where will I sleep?
Parents, especially cisgender heterosexual parents who do not already have ties to LGBTQ+ communities, find themselves needing to catch up in an environment that is both politically hostile and rife with information that is scary, wrong, or both.
Analysis of data from the Centers for Disease Control’s 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance survey recently led the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) to conclude that “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer youth are living in a state of crisis. Whether it is being bullied in school, poor mental health or substance use, LGBTQ teens experience marginalization from multiple angles.”
The consequences of marginalization and minority stress for LGBTQ+ youth are staggering:
31% of LGBTQ+ youth, 43% of transgender youth and 40% of questioning youth have been bullied at school, compared to 16% of their non-LGBTQ+ peers
54% of LGBTQ+ youth, 61% of transgender youth and 61% of questioning youth are battling symptoms of depression, compared to 29% of non-LGBTQ+ youth.
35% of LGBTQ+ youth, 45% of transgender youth and 40% of questioning youth have seriously considered attempting suicide, compared to 13% of non-LGBTQ+ youth (“LGBT Youth”); suicide is the second leading cause of death among youth ages 10-24, and LGBTQ+ youth are four times as likely to attempt suicide as their peers (“Facts About LGBTQ”).
Sadly, family of origin rejection is a primary source of stress for LGBTQ+ people (Meanly 41), and stressors can be even greater for those who identify as bi (2019 Bi+). Youth with rejecting families are frequently forced to leave their homes: In addition to being dramatically overrepresented in the foster care system, they comprise 40% of the 4.2 million homeless youth in the United States, even though they represent closer to 10% of youth overall. A recent study from the University of Chicago concludes that LGBTQ+ youth have a 120% increased risk of experiencing homelessness compared to youth who identify as heterosexual and cisgender (Morton 12).
When I first learned about this crisis, I hated the idea that I could even belong to a group that needed to be told, for example, not to reject their child. I did not want my child to face such risks. Although I had every intention of being on affirming parent, the question—like some ambient spore from the culture at large—crept in, “Why would she choose to have a harder life?” 
The idea that people choose their gender identity and sexual orientation is, to be sure, the most widely believed and pernicious idea fueling hatred towards LGBTQ+ people around the world. It supports the dangerous ideas that LGBTQ+ people are either unnatural or sinful and that they can be “fixed.” From this dehumanizing perspective, they generally do not deserve compassion or autonomy.
Seven years ago, the Supreme Court, in the landmark case, Obergefell v Hodges, ruled that the fundamental right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples. In the years following the legalization of marriage, the visibility of LGBTQ+ people (married or not) increased dramatically, in real-life as more people came out of the closet, and in cinema (“Observations”). Another landmark case in 2020, Bostock v Clayton County, held that LGBTQ+ employees are protected against workplace discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. 
The power of such normalization and protection cannot be overstated.
For people living in some areas of the United States at least, the tensions around LGBTQ+ identity (which peaked during the 1980s AIDS crisis) seemed to have died down. One Article published in The Atlantic even declared in June of 2019, “The Struggle for Gay Rights is Over.” The author noted, “On television, one cannot change the channel without coming across prominent lesbian and gay characters,” reflecting an integration of LGBTQ+ experience into modern life (Kirchick).
The increase in the number of people identifying as LGBTQ+ recently has been a cause of celebration for many. The 2022 Gallup Poll reported that US adults who self-identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or something other than heterosexual has reached 7.1%, double the percentage indicated by the 2012 survey, with Gen Z, the youngest group of adults (born between 1997-2003) driving the growth (Jones). The 2021 Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey puts the figure even higher at 8%, an estimated twenty-million adults (Powell), while the UCLA School of Law’s William’s Institute estimates that 9.5% of the population of youth ages 13-17 identify as LGBTQ+ (Conron, “Youth”). The CDC’s most recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey put this figure at 2.5 million, “with tens of thousands more saying they are questioning their identity” (YRBS). Additionally, the typical age of first coming out has decreased from about 20 a generation ago to age 16 now, with many children coming out at younger ages.
However, seven years is a relatively short time for legal rights and protections to become deep-rooted. As I write, I have just received the alert that Roe v Wade has been overturned. Already, politicians in some states are making moves to reinstate sodomy laws and to overturn Obergefell. America is in the midst of a culture war, and LGBTQ+ people find themselves in the crosshairs.
Despite the fact that the majority of Americans “favor laws that would protect gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people against discrimination in jobs, public accommodations, and housing” (PRRI), conservative lawmakers across the country have launched unprecedented attacks against LGBTQ+ people. In the first four months of 2022, over 300 anti-LGBTQ+ bills were introduced in 36 state legislatures, many of them aimed at trans youth, an especially vulnerable population. Laws that have successfully been enacted so far “range from making it a felony to provide transgender youth with life-saving health care to banning transgender girls from participating in sports to erasing LGBTQ+ people from school curriculum to granting broad licenses to discriminate against LGBTQ+ people” (2021).
Collectively, these efforts work to “normalize antagonism” towards LGBTQ+ people, “creating additional pain and distress for a population that already bears more than its fair share” (Carrasco). The cultural shift that culminated in Obergefell helped many LGBTQ+ people to, as poet Robert L. Giron notes, “fully discover and accept ourselves,” yet the country appears to be moving backwards, and now, “We are all concerned by the movement to crush the lives of individuals, especially the trans communities.” Author Henry Gass further observes, “Now, legal winds are rising that could uproot the rights that have helped [members of the LGBTQ+ community] feel like safe, valued, and equal members of society.”
While much of the existing literature explores risk factors faced by LGBTQ+ youth, now, more than ever, is a moment to emphasize protective factors. Numerous studies point to parental support and familial warmth as factors that decrease the impacts of victimization, reducing suicidality and promoting lifelong resilience for LGBTQ+ people. Although it is generally understood that familial acceptance may increase with time (and often begins with mothers), researchers still do not have a good understanding of how to facilitate acceptance.
One thing we know about stereotypes that generate rejection is that they “thrive in isolation but diminish with exposure to members of the outsider group” (Issitt). The anti-LGBTQ+ movement seems to understand this, and many of the proposed and newly established policies are geared towards silencing and erasure, particularly in the school context. This is now happening even in democratic strongholds like Maryland, where the Carroll County School Board just banned the display of rainbow flags as symbols that go against a so-called “neutrality policy” (Goodnight).
Existing research shows that once parents become “sensitized to the needs and well‐being of their LGB children, many family relationships improve” (Ryan).
Parents trying to understand what it means when a child comes out may well feel intimidated by available information and discussions. Connecting with others can be most challenging when one feels vulnerable. Blogs, Facebook chats, tweets and video clips are, by nature, abbreviated.
This book is an attempt to help to advance the dialogue for people who are in the crucial role of parenting LGBTQ+ youth. I understand now that what I most needed as I tested the tightrope I was about to cross was the full, rich, messy, and complex stories of people who had taken the journey before me.
Included here are interviews with 19 people with very different backgrounds and life experiences. All of them have spent some part of their lives in Maryland, but they have hailed from a variety of places, including Ohio, New England, Washington State and even Jamaica. They include Gen Z adults and older adults who recall their experiences coming out to their parents, as well as the parents of children who came out—or who began to struggle with their identities—when they were quite young. In some cases, I have been fortunate to capture the perspectives of parents and children in the same families, interviewed separately or together.
These families had different starting points: some had to deal with the dissonance of beliefs and perspectives that too often cause people to reject their children; others, though lacking such baggage, still had to deal with the stigma of homophobia or transphobia and with how that affected their child.
On the one side, these interviews share how people grew in their understanding of and response to their children and themselves; they remind us that coming out is a lifelong process, and that parents also must come out—sometimes in situations that are very fraught and isolating. A remarkable aspect of parent narratives here is the candor of interview subjects who share the events and turning points that helped them to evolve in their thinking. Another is the degree to which the experiences of their children have led them to different forms of activism and to a greater awareness of and desire to make their communities more inclusive and fairer.
On the other, people who describe their childhood and adult experiences attempting to understand and come to terms with difference here exhibit tremendous bravery: the gay man whose mother told him she would “pray for god to kill him;” the lesbian new mother who still weeps over her rejecting father’s absence; the young trans person who proudly took on a new name before synagogue and community, and others—all share their intimate narratives in a spirit of generosity and as a form of activism, because they hope that giving readers an opportunity to know them as real people can make a difference.
Altogether, the memories and experiences of these individuals help to undo the harmful notion that gender and sexual orientation are choices and show how the policing and repression of human identity have terrible costs. Proposing connection and visibility as a response to bullying and hatred, they invite readers to dwell for a moment with the courage of LGBTQ+ people and their families, and to admire and celebrate their resilience.
Perhaps even for some readers, coming to better understand, through these voices, “a different corner of human experience than the one you inhabit” will inspire new journeys.
Participants in this project were given the option to use their real names or use pseudonyms. What follows is a mix of both.
 Acknowledging this is important, because doing so speaks to the power and presence of such notions, despite their mistakenness.
 In Obergefell v Hodges, fourteen same-sex couples and two men whose partners were deceased successfully argued that denying them the right to marry was a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. The legislation was passed despite four dissenting opinions, three by current Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and John Roberts. See “Obergefell v Hodges.” Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School, https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/14-556#writing-14-556_OPINION_3.
 Bostock v Clayton County asserts that employment discrimination on the basis of an employee’s sexual orientation constitutes a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. For a detailed description, see “Bostock v Clayton County.” Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School, https://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/17-1618. On June 15, 2022, President Joseph Biden signed the Executive Order on Advancing Equality for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Intersex Individuals, another major initiative to thwart discrimination, with an emphasis on access to health care and strong repudiation of conversion therapy. See “Executive Order on Advancing Equality for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Intersex Individuals.” The White House, The United States Government, 15 June 2022, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2022/06/15/executive-order-on-advancing-equality-for-lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender-queer-and-intersex-individuals/.
 While data about children can be harder to track and “coming out” can mean either to oneself, to one person, or to many people, studies over the past decade suggest a general decrease in the age of coming out, with many children coming out between ages 13-16, and a significant number at younger ages. The American Academy of Pediatrics notes that, as society has become more open and accepting of LGBTQ individuals, “young people are beginning to come out at earlier ages than they did a generation ago. Children may first come out to online communities or peers they perceive as safe and accepting before telling their family.” For more discussion, see “Coming out: Information for Parents of LGBTQ Teens.” HealthyChildren.org, American Academy of Pediatrics, 6 Mar. 2021, https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/teen/dating-sex/Pages/Four-Stages-of-Coming-Out.aspx.
 Familial warmth an acceptance make a profound difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ youth. Bittaker emphasizes the high costs of parental rejection, but as narratives included here show, parental warmth can help young people to thrive. While the majority of research has focused on the risk factors faced by LGBTQ+ youth, recent studies call for increased focus on parental acceptance as a protective factor. Sansfacon et al., for example, note that, “Literature regarding parents who support their child in receiving gender-affirming care is scarce,” though existing research shows mothers demonstrating a higher level of support and engagement (Sansfacon 1216, 1224). Meanley et al. emphasizes a need for research on how “familial warmth shapes LGBTQ+ adolescents’ self-esteem,” and posits that “promoting self-esteem has the potential to improve later psychosocial functioning” (Meanley 41). Gorse emphasizes family connectedness as a “protective factor against suicide” (Gorse 17). Newcomb et al., identify a need for research that includes parents and identify this question as a future research opportunity that could lead to innovation: “Why do some initially unsupportive parents become supportive?” (Newcomb). Even with parental warmth, bullying is endemic, and minority stigma too often leads to depression and suicidality for LGBTQ+ youth.
About the Author
Esther Schwartz-McKinzie earned her BA from Bard College and her PhD in 19th Century British and American literature from Temple University. Her scholarly work includes efforts to recover the voices of marginalized women writers who used literature as a way to expose injustice and to expand imaginative possibilities for their readers. As a professor of English, Literature and Women’s Studies at Montgomery College, she has worked to promote access to the humanities, improve the well-being of student veterans, and to reduce violence against women and members of the LGBTQ+ community. Her chapter, “Keep ‘Doing Good’: Women’s and Gender Studies Programs and VAWA Education Initiatives Against the Tide” appeared in Theory and Praxis, Women’s and Gender Studies at Community Colleges in 2019. Also in 2019, she was among the first recipients of the College’s Excellence in Equity Award, recognizing individuals who demonstrate a commitment to social justice, equity, inclusion, antiracism, and diversity. Her photography and poetry have appeared in the Sligo Journal.