I first realized how common and devastating estrangement is in the LGBTQ+ community while conducting a survey for my book, Brothers, Sisters, Strangers. A startling number of respondents reported experiencing cutoffs from family members after revealing their sexual orientation. Here are some of their comments:
~ I’m trans and my family has nothing to do with me. Estrangement is something many LGBTQ people face.
~ I’m gay and my sister does not believe in homosexuality because of her alt-right fundamentalist Christian beliefs.
~ I don’t know why my sisters have distanced themselves, but I think it’s because I identify as bisexual and polyamorous while they are “married homemakers with mortgages.”
Now, new research from Just Like Us, a UK charitable organization serving LGBTQ+ young people, quantifies this LGBTQ+ experience. It found that nearly half of LGBTQ+ young adults are estranged from at least one family member, and one-third are “not confident” that their parent/guardian would accept them if they came out.
“As LGBT+ people, many of us know the anguish that the breakdown of family relationships causes us when we’re not accepted for who we are,” says Amy Ashenden, director of communications at Just Like Us. “It is heartbreaking to see so many LGBT+ young adults spending their formative years in fear that their parents won’t love them because they’re lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans.”
Ashenden points out the fallacy of the common notion — presumably based on increased visibility of LGBTQ+ individuals in today’s media — that being LGBTQ+ has become easier. To the contrary, the Just Like Us survey of 3,695 adults, ranging in age from 18 to 25, shows how widespread both the fear and the reality of rejection are throughout the community. It also reveals how often family members repudiate even their “nearest and dearest” relatives on the basis of their LGBTQ+ identities. Respondents were twice as likely as non-LGBTQ+ young adults to report that they are not close to an immediate family member.
The family myth
Some families simply won’t tolerate behaviors that resist, defy, or “stray from” the family identity. “The ‘family myth’ is the presumption that every family member is compatible, possesses the same goals, and loves one another,” explains psychologist Mark Sichel, director of the Addiction Recovery Unit at Hebrew Union College, New York, and author of Healing from Family Rifts.
Sichel says that the family myth, characterized by “we” statements, implicitly discourages individual differences by asserting shared values and norms. Often, families perceive their collective identity to be threatened by one member’s significant difference. If the family feels a choice must be made between accepting deviation or keeping the family identity intact, members who challenge the myth — whether through sexual orientation, interracial marriage, religious conversion, political philosophies, or unconventional career or lifestyle choices — may be cast out.
In a moving essay for “Autostraddle,” a digital publication and community for multiple generations of LGBTQIA+ people and sympathizers, Whitney (Whit) Pow, a media historian and assistant professor at New York University, writes of the pain and devastation of being cast out.
When I came out to my parents, the rejection hit me so badly I could barely get out of bed most mornings in college. I ended up going to an emergency therapist one day because I needed to talk to somebody. When I sat down in the therapist’s office, I sobbed the entire time, and the therapist, who had a tiny rainbow flag hanging in her office, told me softly that things would be okay, that I wasn’t the only person. There were others, she said, who came into her office with the same story. Her eyes were filled with tears.
Other consequences of family estrangement for LGBTQ+ students
A recent survey from the Trevor Project/Human Rights Commission, which works to prevent suicide among LGBTQ+ youth, found that its population named parental or family lack of acceptance as the most difficult problem in their lives. Family rejection often results in other, perhaps desperate, life challenges.
Those in the LGBTQ+ community are 120 percent more likely to face homelessness than their peers, according to data compiled by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, a research organization supporting services and systems for young people and families. LGBTQ+ youth often are disowned and/or kicked out of their homes, posing acute challenges to their living arrangements and, often, longer-term trouble in securing financial aid for college. Parents are legally required to sign the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) forms, but applicants whose parents won’t speak to them are stuck without the most basic cooperation.
Eluned Parrott, former director of the United Foundation, a UK charity that provides scholarships for estranged youth, suggests some ways to mitigate the consequences of estrangement in the LGBTQ+ community:
- Provide safe, secure living quarters for LGBTQ+ youth. Young people who find themselves suddenly homeless are extremely vulnerable to violence, intimidation and worse. Treat youth homelessness as an emergency to prevent long-term harm.
- Don’t require estranged young people to relive their trauma every time they for apply for assistance, such as housing benefits or student support. Public bodies should only need to ask once for proof of circumstances. Adequate record-keeping and inter-agency communication would eliminate repeat requests.
- Make sure that the loss of parental support doesn’t mean the loss of life goals. Obviously, Parrot says, losing parental support should not automatically mean homelessness for a LGBTQ+ young person. Nor should it limit prospects for pursuing higher education, obtaining an apprenticeship, or finding a safe home.
Ashenden asserts that LGBTQ+ young people should know that their identities are valid — deserving of acceptance and celebration. “When there is silence,” she says, “there is shame, so we must talk about these topics in school and at home to ensure LGBT+ young people no longer live in fear of rejection.”