ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual teens and young adults have one of the highest rates of suicide attempts, along with health problems including substance abuse. But new research shows that when a parent is neutral about a son or daughter being gay, or even only mildly rejecting, that goes a long way to reduce a child's risk. NPR's Joseph Shapiro reports.
JOSEPH SHAPIRO: As a young social worker, Caitlin Ryan worked in Atlanta. It was the 1980s, and back then many young men didn't feel safe telling their families they were gay. They left home.
Ms. CAITLIN RYAN (Social worker, Atlanta): And so young people came to Atlanta from Biloxi or Birmingham or Jacksonville. And my experience working with them was especially poignant and very sad.
SHAPIRO: It was the start of the AIDS epidemic.
Ms. RYAN: So often they'd be in intensive care in the hospital, and their parents would fly in from wherever they lived and they'd find their 25-year-old son dying of AIDS. For the very first time they'd learned that their child was gay, and that their time left in the world with them was very limited. Their time to reconcile, to let them know that they loved them - all of those years were lost.
SHAPIRO: Today, Ryan runs a research program at San Francisco State University. She still sees gay kids who say their parents reject them, are violent, or even kicked them out of the house. Ryan and her researchers conducted lengthy interviews with more than 200 gay, lesbian, and bisexual young adults. Ryan tried to judge whether, as adolescents, they'd faced low, moderate, or high levels of rejection from their families. That's hard to measure, so she looked at things like, did parents tried to get a kid to change their sexual orientation, or try to stop them from being with other gay kids.
Ms. RYAN: Parents thought that by trying to change them, that would make them happy. But actually it put their children at great risk, and so when we shared that with parents, they were shocked.
SHAPRIO: The research appears in the current issue of the journal Pediatrics. Kids who'd experienced lots of rejection were nearly eight and a half times more likely to have attempted suicide, nearly six times more likely to report high levels of depression, and almost three and a half times more likely to use illegal drugs or engage in unprotected sex. That was compared to adolescents from families that may have felt uncomfortable with a gay kid, but were neutral or only mildly rejecting. And that what's got other health researchers excited about Ryan's work, because it shows that just a little bit of acceptance can go a long way.
Ms. EFFIE MALLEY (Senior Prevention Specialist, Suicide Prevention Research Center): The big impact of Ryan's study is pointing out that family rejection is so harmful. And having a family that accepts them is a huge protective factor.
SHAPIRO: That's Effie Malley of the federally funded Suicide Prevention Research Center. She's done her own research and released another study this month that shows gay teens have very high rates of suicide attempts. She says parents matter and so do peers, teachers, and society in general.
Ms. MALLEY: What I'd like to see down the road, is that parents and people who work with families counseling them would really take to heart Ryan and her co-authors' research about not trying to change who the parents are or their beliefs, but just to help them recognize the words they use and the actions that are harmful to their kids and to stop using those behaviors.
SHAPIRO: Leonor Holmstrom is a parent who has faced her own worries about having a gay child. She's an elegant 64-year-old with bright red lipstick. And on this day, she's arrived at a modest house in Santa Rosa, California with colorful plastic toys across the small front lawn.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. LEONOR HOLMSTROM: Oh, I'm so happy to see you. What - I know like pieces that - what I know...
SHAPIRO: She gets a big wet kiss from her five-year-old granddaughter.
Unidentified Child: When I got really interested in dogs, I start knowing that they let lick instead of kiss.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SHAPIRO: Fifteen years ago, Holmstrom figured she'd never have these grandchildren to spend Christmas with, after her daughter Juliana told her she was gay.
Ms. HOLMSTROM: I really didn't want her to be gay. (Laughing) This is very common among the Latin-American countries. We try to change the kids. It was difficult - I got very depressed, I couldn't talk about it. It's painful. It's a pain that you carry.
SHAPIRO: At first, Holmstrom tried to hide that her daughter was gay from family and friends. Her church taught her that homosexuality was a sin. She had a couple of friends who were gay and their lives, she says, were disastrous. So, mainly, she worried about her daughter's future.
And at first, her daughter did suffer. She dropped out of college for a while, she dealt with depression, she lived in poverty. Then Holmstrom reached out to the girl. Today, she's close to her daughter, her daughter's partner, and their two children. And Holmstrom works as an advocate with other Mexican-American parents of gay kids.
Ms. HOLMSTROM: I did a lot of things that I tell the mothers don't do, because I did them - and my daughter suffered because I did them.
SHAPIRO: The new research shows that gay males, particularly Latino males, report the highest levels of family rejection. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.