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Homophobia and HIV Risk: What's Family Got to Do With It? Part Two

By Olivia Ford

June 14, 2011

It's a familiar and haunting refrain: People who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer (LGBTQ) are systematically rejected by their families. And given the norms of many cultures, staying connected to your family is expected. But to maintain these familial bonds, LGBT folks usually don't have the most empowering options. They can either hide their sexual identity from their loved ones by pretending to be heterosexual; or be open with their sexual orientation and endure dismissiveness and disrespect. In some instances, they may choose to cut ties to their family altogether and create new families within queer-affirming communities.

In all these scenarios, not only is the onus on the LGBTQ family member to endure hardship, discomfort and isolation; but there is no accountability placed on the family for their own ill behavior. Moreover, there is no faith put in that fact that perhaps the family members can change or heal from their own biases.

This familial homophobia and rejection not only deeply impact LGBT people's mental health, but their overall health -- especially their sexual health. Data collected by the Family Acceptance Project highlights clear connections between family rejection and risky behavior. Lifetime suicide attempt rates for LGBTQ folks from highly rejecting families are 8 times as high as for those reared in "low-rejection" families; and LGBTQ youth from highly rejecting families are more than 3 times as likely to use illegal drugs, and to be at high risk for HIV and other STDs.

If we're to talk seriously about an HIV prevention "cocktail" that will be sustainable and effective in curbing HIV rates among queer and transgender youth, we need to alter the emotional and material realities that can lead LGBTQ youth to engage in risky behavior. This cannot be done without talking about homophobia within families, how it renders youth vulnerable to HIV infection, and what can be done to stop it. In this two-part roundtable discussion, we will begin to do just that.

Participating in this discussion are: Sarah Schulman, longtime activist, Distinguished Professor of English at the City University of New York and author of Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences; Darnell L. Moore, Visiting Scholar at the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality at New York University, and Project Manager for the forthcoming Sakia Gunn High School for Civic Engagement in Newark, N.J.; and Kara Tucina Olidge, Ph.D., Director of HMI To Go: Newark, a program of the New York-based Hetrick-Martin Institute (HMI).

This is part two of a two-part discussion; you can read part one here.

Olivia Ford: Even though young gay men account for a very small percentage of the youth population in the U.S., more than half of HIV/AIDS cases among youth between the ages of 13 and 24 were young men who have sex with men. I could quote a dozen sources connecting the failure of HIV prevention strategies with the lack of value society holds for LGBTQ people -- even CDC gives a nod to that connection. I'm attracted to the notion of addressing familial homophobia because it really gets to a potential source of trauma and devaluation that we all kind of dance around, and that really can't be reached with traditional prevention interventions. So how can we start to address homophobia within the institution of the family? How might other institutions be compelled to intervene in instances of familial homophobia, for example on a policy level, through faith community avenues or through schools?

Kara Tucina Olidge, Ph.D.

Kara Tucina Olidge, Ph.D., Director of HMI To Go: Newark, Hetrick-Martin Institute

Kara Olidge: I really believe it's a policy issue. As you all are speaking about familial homophobia, I'm reminded of policies around literacy: When we talk about literacy, we talk about competencies. There's money for early childhood education, pre-kindergarten, to work with children and families to make sure the literacy piece is in place so that the child is ready for school.

I think where we could do a lot more work on the policy level is to really look at health literacy: What level of education is being placed within these programs that are dealing with families? That's still a gray area when it comes to health literacy. In the trainings and information that are provided to care providers working with families and guardians, there needs to be a subject line that deals with HIV/AIDS and with identities. There should be some way, on a policy level, where we can impact that. Being able to talk about sexuality should be a major part of what we define as a healthy home environment -- where families are also prepared. Family should be prepared for this, and oftentimes they aren't. They're not informed about identity. Most of the information they get may come from popular culture, or they have fear-based information about HIV/AIDS. I think this is one place to work on a policy level: making sure there's some educational line within the frame of health literacy.

Olivia Ford: I'm glad these connections are being made: There are steps between youth experiencing rejection within their families and their engaging in behavior that puts them at risk for HIV; but people within families don't necessarily recognize that the behavior they're exhibiting is directly connected to community health, public health, their own child or family member's wellbeing.

Sarah Schulman

Sarah Schulman, Professor of English, City University of New York and author of Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences

Sarah Schulman: Because they're reflecting the social value that the lives of young gay men don't matter. And then the families repeat that. But if they got a social value that the lives of young gay men are very precious to all Americans, then the family would change their behavior, for the most part.

Darnell Moore: Another issue is that, beyond the notion of sexual identity: In a lot of our families, sex and sexuality in general is such a taboo area, one that we just have not come out of our Victorian closets to learn how to talk about. If we can't even talk about and address the fact that our youth are having sex, that they're masturbating, that their bodies are changing and growing, that young women are growing breasts, it makes it even more difficult to talk about sexual identity -- which, for many people, is even more complex.

I think on some level you're right, Kara: The notion of health literacy, and pointing out what it is that we need to begin advocating to have happen behind the walls of the home is really pivotal.

We talked earlier about socialization; but what we have yet to talk about is: What modalities are doing the socializing? What about the religious communities' impact upon these things? What about the faith traditions that create this Cartesian split between what the mind and body should be doing? Like all of these other matters, it becomes a conversation that has to be intersectional. We can't talk about families and their ability to have the cadence to be able to talk about issues of sex and sexuality if we don't then talk about where they're getting the information they do know: popular culture, the religious institutions, the communities that they exist in.

Darnell L. Moore

Darnell L. Moore, Visiting Scholar, Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality at New York University, and Project Manager, Sakia Gunn High School for Civic Engagement

We tend to employ the model used in the world of medicine, where we fix the issues as they come to the doctor's office, outside of the realm of the personal home space. But we need to get back into the home space, or at least begin to encourage individuals to open up, and tear down the four walls of their homes, and begin to have these types of conversations there.

Olivia Ford: Faith community is certainly an example of an institution with close ties to families. People within faith communities are likely to grant a religious leader greater access to their family's "business" than they necessarily would give to the agents of other institutions -- officials of their child's school, for instance. What could it look like to have anti-homophobic interventions directed toward families come from faith leaders? If any of you actually have examples of this happening, please, by all means, put them on the table. Readers and listeners may not know it's even possible, but if it's happened once, it could happen again.

Darnell Moore: First, let me just please say that I think that's hard work. It's hard work to reconstruct theology. Folks do not abandon their theological systems so easily that one can walk into a church and convince people to abandon everything that has defined their understanding of God and the world and themselves, which has been grounded over time.

We're in kind of a post-religious moment, where we tend to be so high in theory that sometimes we look down on the power of religiosity -- but it is often the very thing that shapes the way we come to understand the world, even if we're not religious. I think there's a need to integrate into our public policy conversations, and into conversations like this, the reality of the power of religiosity in the lives of those that we serve.

For example, I've been part of a group that was brought together by a large grant. Joretta Marshall and Duane Bidwell, who are pastoral theologians, brought together 13 scholars, theologians, who do this type of work. The name of the project is "Beyond Apologetics." No longer are these pastoral care workers interested in engaging the "yes, I'm actually a child of God so I'm right" argument. They're developing research that takes as truth the notion that individuals who are non-heterosexual are created in the image of God. They're saying, "We're going to forget trying to have the theological/Biblical argument with you. We're going to try to create tools that can help people to live, in spite of that."

"If we try not engaging in the diatribe and the back-and-forth arguments and debates about if I'm right or wrong as a queer person, and instead try to find common ground, what we find is that each of these systems is concerned with individuals. We care about our youth thriving and surviving in the world."
-- Darnell Moore

If we try not engaging in the diatribe and the back-and-forth arguments and debates about if I'm right or wrong as a queer person, and instead try to find common ground, what we find is that each of these systems is concerned with individuals. We care about our youth thriving and surviving in the world. Figuring out our common ground, and holding each other accountable to that common ground, is a place where the conversation in the policy world could start, I believe. But it is worthwhile not to discount religious communities from the conversations we're trying to have -- and not just attack them, but include them at the table.

Kara Olidge: It's also important to recognize the work that religious leaders are actually employing with their communities. I went to a church in South Orange, New Jersey, with my sister. In their service there's a litany of prayers, and one prayer is for families. I was amazed to find that the rector there has included, in the litany, a prayer for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender families. In the service program, it simply says something to the effect of: "We understand that not all families are the same. So we will be a church that will be inclusive; and when we focus on families, we include this." The congregation has to repeat this. I was awed by it.

As a lesbian who considers herself to be very spiritual, to this date, I have not found a spiritual space to be in -- not only for myself, but as I plan a family, I always have this in mind.

We talked about pulling religious leaders into the conversation, but there are leaders that are already taking the lead within their own religious communities, and it could be valuable to work with them, to understand, to get underneath the issues, and have some activism and leadership take place within religious communities as well.

Sarah Schulman: My only concern is that there be a balance between this sort of work and seeing how much pain fundamentalism can create in the lives of queer people. At the same time, we don't want to make assumptions that secular people, or Democrats, are these great friends of queer people. This gets used in Islamophobia, and all kinds of anti-Muslim sentiments.

The truth is, there are families that accept and embrace and respect and cherish their queer family members, regardless of their religious framework.

Darnell Moore: I'm glad you brought that point up. I'm reminded of families who, while they may sit in churches that will send their queer child to Hell through a sermon, and they may go back the next Sunday, they go home and they make a heaven for their queer child -- which says something about the capacity of families to withstand the pressures that are pushing on them from outside forces. There's strength there.

I have witnessed firsthand people who maintain what I call their public ideological frameworks: Out in public they'll say things like, "I'm not down with that same-sex marriage stuff. I don't think Adam should be dating Steve." But for the most part, let somebody call that mother's child, or that father's child, something like a faggot. Most of those parents will come forth to protect their children. Or, in their home and in their space, even while they may think everybody else is going to Hell, they create space for their child.

It's a very awkward paradigm, and I'm not saying it's right. But it does reveal this capacity on the part of some family members and parents, to love in spite of societal pressures that often construct the hate that they disseminate otherwise.

Sarah Schulman: Right. And these are key people, because they can become people who speak back to ministers, who work to transform their church. But they have to be activated on their true feelings.

Olivia Ford: Coming back around to the notion of accountability: What sorts of community-accountability models might be possible to address homophobia directly to families while keeping LGBTQ youth and family members in a safe space, where they're not put on the spot to either act as sole educator or, eventually, apologist on behalf of their identities?

Sarah Schulman: I'm a professor, and I teach in the City University of New York. I have a lot of immigrant students, working-class students, Italian-American students, who are queer and whose families are like a place of hell for them. What my colleagues and I have found is that we can say to the kids, "We will talk to your parents. Bring your parents in." It's the stepping-in of authority figures to let the families know that the institutions are on the side of the queer person.

I think that has enormous impact.

Darnell Moore: It's scary to talk about accountability language, though, as well, because it's wrapped up in ideas around who decides to do the interrogating, and the calling out of right and wrong? There are a lot of different layers to conversations like this, when you talk about families and the power to hold accountable -- particularly when we're in a point in time when the prison-industrial complex and all these other complexes are being developed. So I'm also very cautious when talking about accountability.

Olivia Ford: I have a devil's advocate question, speaking again about agents of institutions -- teachers, social workers, religious leaders -- intervening with families on behalf of LGBTQ folks. What role could difference, and perceptions of relative privilege and oppression, potentially play in these interactions? Say an "institutional person" comes to talk to the family; what to make of a situation in which the family's response is: "That's just some rich white person (or person who they perceive as having more power than they have) coming down here and telling me how to run my family" -- letting that be the reason to dismiss what the person intervening has brought to the family's attention?

Sarah Schulman: First of all, if it's a rich, white person it's not the appropriate person. But secondly, there are always going to be people who pathologically cling to supremacy ideologies, including homophobia. And no matter how many people around them tell them what they're doing is wrong, they're not going to change. But I believe that most people will change. So it's true; there will always be people for whom this will not be effective.

Darnell Moore: Thank you for the probe. One way I think about this is, for instance: Let's think about this idea of coming out. The rhetoric is, "Come out, everyone! Come out and name who you are."

I always encourage folks to think about what accesses and privileges are often necessary in order to undergo the coming-out process? That's not to say that I'm slamming anyone as it relates to this. But I do think it's worthwhile to think about the many contexts that make coming out possible for bodies.

I think it would be irresponsible of me, as someone working with a family, not to think through what those contexts were. For some, it's just not physically safe to come out, for whatever reason; someone's coming out could clearly mean the end of their lives. I've worked with youths who were physically violated because of naming their sexual identity. I would not want a child to go back to a home, to be paralyzed because of something like that.

The prescription we have that may work in certain circumstances won't always work in every circumstance, based on the context that frames them; we need to be thoughtful about that. Many of the prescriptions that we have are often connected to mainstream movement-building types of work that often don't think clearly through the realities of every community, of the ways different bodies move through different spaces, and the ways that class, economics, race, all these things, play into it.

As far as interventions within families: The very simple foundation of social workers, counselors and other providers -- to do no harm -- is one place to begin. How do you define harm, then? What does harm mean for a youth who is attempting to grow and become the full person that they're supposed to be?

I think when their sense of self as it's developing is impeded, as well as their safety -- physical, emotional, and even spiritual safety -- where it's so divisive that it wreaks havoc on that youth, then these are grounds for measures to be put into place to protect the child.

That's the rubric I use to begin thinking about what it might mean to hold families accountable, even while I still struggle with figuring out what that might look like as a process. Maybe you all can help me think about that.

Sarah Schulman: Well, one step could be a straight family member saying to the authority figures inside the family, "If the gay family member is not going to be treated as fully equal, I am not participating in this event." That's the kind of thing I'm talking about. It's when other people around the life of the homophobe intervene and explain to them that they are not going to collude with that behavior.

Olivia Ford: What would need to happen to make people within families, straight allies or family members of LGBTQ folks, to recognize that their actions against homophobia within the family are really the first line of defense against homophobia, both within their families and in society at large?

Sarah Schulman: We need to have a paradigm shift that's similar to the paradigm shift we saw around rape and domestic violence, where there starts to be general agreement in the society that this behavior is pathological, that it's antisocial, that it's very detrimental to the society at large, so that it becomes stigmatized -- so that people start to see this behavior as wrong, as destructive, and that they feel that it's their duty to interrupt it.

I think when you look at how quickly ideas about rape and sexual abuse inside the family were transformed -- it was in a matter of decades -- that's the perfect prototype for homophobia in the family.

Darnell Moore: I think that's a very helpful way to think about it. The difficulty, then, is making the subject of the offense a normative subject -- a "normal person." Within paradigms of accountability and prevention, for victims and survivors fo rape and domestic violence, often if the subject is viewed as a normative subject, the natural response is, in part, to help. Often in domestic partner abuse between queer people, it's not even seen as domestic partner abuse, because the subject of the offense is already viewed as a "deviant subject," and therefore what's happening to them is not even seen as something that needs to be stopped.

That paradigm works, but we also have to do the other work of creating a lens through which we see human beings being victimized ,and not the "othered" subjects that we tend to make them.

"Where is the campaign aimed at straight people, telling them that bullying is not acceptable? It's only half the picture. ... [B]eing positive with clients -- that's one part of it, the personal support. But then the other part is the social transformation and it has to address the perpetrator."
-- Sarah Schulman

Sarah Schulman: I want to bring up the It Gets Better campaign, because it's a campaign that drives me crazy. It's aimed only at gay people, telling us to grin and bear it. Where is the campaign aimed at straight people, telling them that bullying is not acceptable? It's only half the picture. And that's why, when you were talking before about being positive with clients -- that's one part of it, the personal support. But then the other part is the social transformation and it has to address the perpetrator.

Kara Olidge: Another area where we can do a lot of work, too, in terms of a paradigm shift similar to the one that occurred around rape and domestic violence, is to make more visible the incidents that do take place. For example, a domestic violence incident might involve an LGBT person being abused, but that doesn't necessarily come up in those types of reports, so we don't necessarily have either the quantitative or qualitative information to really push the paradigm shift. I think one of the things we can begin doing as service providers is, as we work on our cases, with individuals and families, and gather this information, to really make these incidents visible across lines.

If the police make a report to a social service agency such as DYFS, the Division of Youth and Family Services here in New Jersey, let's make it apparent that this was an LGBTQ person involved. That's one of the challenges: Along with the idea that, because a person is deviant, from a stigmatized group, their issues are not something that authorities need to pay attention to; we also don't have a lot of the evidence that we need to say, "Yes, it is."

Incidences of violence in the home may go on on a daily basis; it's also a matter of teaching young people to identify abuse for what it is, and act on it, as well, because a lot of our young people will stay in these situations because they're afraid to leave their families.

But that's the kind of work that we can begin to readily do -- to ensure that these incidents are documented properly, that the information is on hand so we can start focusing on that paradigm shift.

Darnell Moore: I wanted to connect the issues of rape and domestic violence to sexism and hetero-patriarchy. In terms of national LGBTQ movement building, I think we're failing to make the connections between homophobia and heterosexism, and sexism and patriarchy. I think there is an opportunity for us to think about how these technologies of oppression intersect -- not just as a politic, but as it relates to policy work, as it relates to sort of the social transformative movement building work that we do -- and not work in "queerantined" spaces that prevent those movements from coming together.

Olivia Ford: Before we wrap up, I wanted to ask you all about PFLAG [Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays]. Since they're known as the go-to organization for families and parents in dealing with their LGBTQ family members and the coming-out of their children, I wonder if you have any comments on PFLAG as a resource. In assembling this panel I spoke to a few people who said, "Check with PFLAG; see what they've got to say" -- though I must say I haven't actually witnessed the organization be a particularly effective resource on the ground. What's your experience been?

Sarah Schulman: PFLAG has a long history of wasted potential. Believe me, during the AIDS crisis, the families of people with AIDS were completely absent from the activism there. I run the ACT UP Oral History Project, and I can tell you that there were about five people in ACT UP who were the parents of people with AIDS, out of about a thousand people.

A lot of these groups have been focused on people coming to terms with the loss they feel about having queer children. They have not become advocacy organizations for insisting that their family members have full human rights. That has to be transformed. That's why we're trying to start a whole parallel discourse.

Darnell Moore: In Newark there's a fledgling PFLAG that was begun, but it hasn't really gotten off the ground. I don't know why, but I don't have any sense of the visibility and work of PFLAG, at least from the spaces where I've worked. I've just heard a lot of good stories, but I haven't seen any of their work.

Sarah Schulman: We're in a political reality right now where many, many Americans know gay people, and know that they have gay people in their families. And yet, at the same time, we've lost the last 31 out of 31 ballot measures. We're seeing that people are so embedded in their need to feel superior that they are willing to deprive basic rights from people that they know and are related to. That's why it's at an emergency level, where it has to go beyond queer self-empowerment to the larger question of a different standard for what it is to be a moral person in this country.

Kara Olidge: I definitely agree with that.

Olivia Ford: Do any of you have anything you want to add that you feel hasn't come up in this conversation, that you want to share with readers before we wrap up?

Sarah Schulman: I just want to say that in the last year and a half, I've been very involved, working with the queer movement in Palestine, with three queer Palestinian organizations. I did go to Ramallah in the West Bank, and I presented my work on familial homophobia.

I had also gone to Israel, to an anarchist vegan café in Tel Aviv, an anti-occupation venue, and I presented the same work there. And then months later, I presented it in Paris. And then I presented it all over the United States. And let me tell you that all those audiences reacted the same way. Everybody sat there, nodding their heads! Homophobia in the family is a universal experience for queer people. It may be the only one. It may be the only thing we all have in common. But there it is.

"We talk about peer-to-peer influences with young people, but peer-to-peer influences cross all age groups. I think that the more we educate and get parents who want to be active and informed and educated, speaking out, we'll really help the current state of LGBTQ issues and initiatives."
-- Kara Tucina Olidge

Kara Olidge: In closing, seeing the level of activism, as I work with different groups and organizations in Newark, I think this is a topic that should be an agenda item: How can we increase the level of activism among parents? We talk about peer-to-peer influences with young people, but peer-to-peer influences cross all age groups. I think that the more we educate and get parents who want to be active and informed and educated, speaking out, we'll really help the current state of LGBTQ issues and initiatives.

So please share any information that you have, in terms of resources, on what this would look like, because I think this is a topic that really should be brought up among many of the policymakers and community organizers in Newark.

Darnell Moore: I definitely think that the "aha moment" that arose for me as we were talking was this idea of instituting into the prevention strategy conversations the family as a particular system that we need to include in policy conversations.

A second thing is, in the same way that we at Hetrick-Martin work to undo heteronormative understandings of what family means, it's also to reimagine family in this particular space that we exist in. But how might we reimagine family in a way that it becomes an emancipatory thing for those whose biological families have ceased to provide them with support?

I wanted just to end by, again, pointing back to my own context: I'm thankful for my family. While the term familial homophobia may exist, I have a family that -- given all circumstances and ways in which this particular type of family is stereotyped -- should not love a queer son like me, and my trans friend, and everyone else, and they have consistently done so. That is, I think, present within some families: this potential to become the examples we can look at for how we might all want to exist.

Olivia Ford: Thanks so much to all of you for being part of this discussion!

Read part one of this discussion.

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Olivia Ford is the community manager for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.

This article originally appeared in TheBody.com's Pride 2011 special section.


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