Glee, Coming Out, and Family Acceptance
This week’s Glee episode had many problems. In particular, glee club member Finn (Cory Monteith) suffered no consequences for outing classmate Santana (Naya Rivera) as a lesbian last week, as Dorothy Snarker has pointed out. And using Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl”—a song about drunken antics, not about being a lesbian—as the theme for the episode could be seen as lending credence to the false “it’s a choice” theory of why people are gay.
But the episode did one thing right: It showed that one of the key issues for young LGBT people is acceptance—not just by their friends, but by their families. Santana informed the glee club that her parents were accepting when she told them she was a lesbian—but a heart-wrenching scene later showed her grandmother telling her she is no longer her granddaughter.
Santana is the second Glee character to come out to parents. Kurt (Chris Colfer) came out to his father in Season One, and also found love and acceptance. It’s a great message to send to LGBT youth--that many parents can be loving and accepting. At the same time, by giving Santana one rejecting relative--also not an uncommon occurrence--the writers are also free to explore the hurt that such rejection can cause.
And family rejection does hurt—and may cause ongoing problems even into adulthood.
The Family Acceptance Project, a research, intervention, and education initiative formed by Dr. Caitlin Ryan and her team at San Francisco State University, has found that when families reject their LGB adolescents by telling them the way they act is shameful, excluding them from family activities, or similar behaviors, the young people are more likely to have health and mental health problems in early adulthood.
LGB young adults who reported higher levels of family rejection during adolescence were:
- 8.4 times more likely to report having attempted suicide;
- 5.9 times more likely to report high levels of depression;
- 3.4 times more likely to use illegal drugs;
- and 3.4 times more likely to report having engaged in unprotected sexual intercourse,
compared with peers who reported no or low levels of family rejection, according to an FAP study.
Ryan and her team are now working to turn their findings into interventions, and to support LGBT youth in the context of their families—an area where there has long been a gap. Previously, information existed for LGBT youth outside the context of their families, and for families whose children came out as adults, but there was little for parents of LGBT children and adolescents. Earlier work also focused almost exclusively on the risks faced by LGBT youth, not on what can be done to help them develop into happy LGBT adults.
The FAP strives to help families from diverse ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds support their LGBT children, increase their well-being, and decrease their health risks. Another goal is to help LGBT youth stay in their family homes, reducing the high rate of homelessness among LGBT youth.
Ryan and her colleagues -- along with a variety of community organizations, care providers, and advocates -- have therefore been developing educational materials in English, Spanish, and Cantonese to help families assess their interactions with their LGBT children, change their misconceptions, and see the impact of their behaviors, all in culturally appropriate ways.
The FAP also offers free family support services in English, Spanish, and Cantonese throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.
Throughout her work, Ryan is adamant about treating families as allies, not enemies.
Ryan is also working with award-winning filmmaker Vivian Kleiman to produce a series of videos in different languages, showing the journeys of an ethnically diverse group of families with LGBT children. The first one, “Always My Son,” is about a Mexican-American family with a gay son, E.J., a “tough-guy” Marine dad and a more accepting mom. It's well worth watching. Ryan is currently trying to raise the funds to produce additional videos.
Rumor has it that singer Gloria Estefan will play Santana’s mother in an upcoming episode of Glee, so clearly the writers are not done with Santana’s family story. It may be too much to expect any in-depth exploration of serious issues in a show like Glee, but if the writers can even come close to showing the positive impact of family acceptance--and the negative impact of rejection--that we see in E.J.’s story, then they will have done LGBT youth and their families a great service.
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