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

Contributing Editor

Table of Contents


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).

Defining the Problem

Olivia Ford: First, let's clarify language, and what we're talking about when we refer to "familial homophobia." Sarah, would you start us off? What prompted you, in the title and contents of your book, to identify homophobia within families as its own particular brand of discrimination, rather than lumping it in generally with institutional or interpersonal discrimination?

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: The family is the place where all people first experience homophobia. It's where queer people first are victimized by it, and it's where straight people first learn that they can maneuver it to increase their status. So the family is very key in the development of an anti-homophobic society.

What I found so interesting was, all these years, I would travel the world; and even though what homosexuality is, or how queer people identify, changes in every cultural context, the one thing that was always the same was that queer people were being demeaned and diminished inside their families. This seemed to be universal. It was so understood as an experience that you could get on the bus, sit next to a gay person, make some comment about your family, and they would totally understand what you were talking about. And yet it had no name; we all called it it. It seemed to be the most pervasive, painful, fundamental experience of homophobia, and yet it had never been named.

So I decided that I was going to write a book which, in fact, is the very first book analyzing homophobia in the family and what its consequences are on the individual and on the society. In order to do that I had to come up with a name for it, so I just started calling it familial homophobia.

Darnell Moore: In fact, in some ways, familial homophobia is institutional homophobia. Family is an institution, the first institution that individuals are socialized into, and where they receive the codes and norms that govern behavior. Sarah, you've introduce something to us that expands the way we think about institutional homophobia, by helping us to think about family as one of those institutions.

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

One of the things that I've encountered when working with queer youth, and with queer adults, is that there's a lot of trauma connected to these individuals' experiences in their families. I was trained as a clinical counselor to work with folks and tell them: "Just leave your family alone." For many there are causal implications that govern the way those types of decisions are made, but it sets the stage for the way that individuals then interact with the world.

It's an important key to consider as it relates to the work that we do -- particularly the work that I do, with queer youth.

Sarah Schulman: You know, for years and years, queer people were told, "Forget about your family. Go out and make your own family." But I really think that that's an inadequate response. People need their families. And when queer people are driven out of their families, the families are not touched; it's the queer person who pays the emotional price.

So I started to think about other examples historically where there was profound abuse within the family structure -- so bad that it would determine people's futures -- in which the society at large decided to intervene. I realized the best model was really domestic violence and child abuse. These are paradigms that have really been transformed in the last few decades. I grew up in New York City, I was born in the '50s, and it used to be that if you heard your neighbor beating up his wife, you wouldn't intervene. Now people know they are supposed to call the police. Now they know the police are supposed to intervene. We have a value that certain kinds of abuse transcend the privacy of the family, and that the society has to intervene.

I would like to see familial homophobia be put into that category, so that queer people are not alone. Right now, we're usually alone in our families. We have no one to turn to. But if there's a social ethic that familial homophobia is so pathological that as a society we have the responsibility to intervene, then neighbors, coworkers, teachers, ministers, other relatives, will start to feel that it's their social responsibility to interrupt the homophobia.

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

Kara Olidge: I think it's important to be a little cautious about making generalizations about every family that has this experience with homophobia I strongly agree that many people have had very traumatic experiences within their families -- particularly people who have been isolated there. However, there have been instances where we've worked with families and found that the parents have gone through a particular type of pain themselves, that's rooted in the context of, for example, institutionalized racism, as certain stereotypes have ascribed on certain bodies.

This is work that we have to deepen, because as we look at the fact that familial homophobia is institutionalized, we also have to look at how it intersects with other forms of institutionalized discrimination. When we do the work, we almost have to approach families the way we approach youth: with wraparound services. Working with families that way, we can get at how familial homophobia intersects with other issues that are really heavy factors in families' lives.

I often hear parents talk about the pain of not seeing their child. One parent or a sibling may be going through that; so perhaps other family members feel the same way. It's important to look at the entire landscape if we want to really address the issue.

Sarah Schulman: I totally agree with you. I think most people are homophobic because they think they're supposed to be. If they got the message that they're not supposed to be, most people will change. Not everyone -- there will always be people who are pathologically homophobic. But if people get the message from their aunt, their minister, their next door neighbor, their teacher, and what they see on television -- that homophobia is a social problem -- a lot of people's behaviors would change.

"Right now, all of the stigma is on homosexuality. And I think we have to shift the focus, and say homosexuality is not the subject; the subject is _homophobia_. _Homophobia_ destroys families. _Homophobia_ causes violence. _Homophobia_ is antisocial." \-- Sarah Schulman

But I think the main thing is, right now, all of the stigma is on homosexuality. And I think we have to shift the focus, and say homosexuality is not the subject; the subject is homophobia. Homophobia destroys families. Homophobia causes violence. Homophobia is antisocial. This is what we as a society need to focus on transforming.

Darnell Moore: I always try to think about how to bring these issues into context. I'm thinking about my own family. I grew up in Camden, New Jersey, in what might typically be described as an African-American working and, possibly, jobless poor family, in an environment that's often assumed to be non-progressive.

While there were definitely instances of prejudice, mostly through words, my family -- despite how certainly families are read in certain class and economic spaces, and certain raced spaces -- is an example of one that was very open and accepting. I remember bringing home a trans friend of mine when I was in high school. I didn't even understand the transformation that my friend was going through, and my family said nothing. So, in a different way, a family is a seat and a bed, also, for healing, as much as it is for the trauma that's produced.

Another thing: My understanding of the word homophobia is that it speaks to the pathos that exists within a person that's disconnected from social constructions and systems; instead, I would use the term heterosexism in talking about the ways we're taught to think. We're taught to be prejudiced against one other; and I think homophobia, in some ways, takes the onus off us to own how discriminatory knowledges are passed, and the ways we enact them on bodies, and in our systems and practices. I'd like to push this usage of heterosexism as a means to lift that notion up and make it visible.

Sarah Schulman: My understanding historically of those terms is that they have really different meanings: heterosexism means seeing the heterosexual reality as the objective, neutral reality; and homophobia is being actively anti-gay.

But I agree with you: Homophobia is a problematic word. When I was writing this book, I was thinking about that word and I was thinking about all the times people have been homophobic to me. I was thinking about the expressions on their faces, and I realized that they were never, ever afraid. There was a certain kind of a joy in homophobia, like there is in all kinds of supremacy ideology.

Have you seen those photos of a black man being lynched, and the white people underneath his hanging body are laughing and smiling and picnicking? We know that there's a certain kind of person who enjoys and gets pleasure from being cruel, because it elevates their sense of themselves. And so, in a way, homophobia is more of a pleasure system than it is a phobia. So I agree; it's not the right word.

"Build Your Own World": The Role of LGBTQ Youth Institutions

Olivia Ford: Switching gears a bit, back to the notion of institutions: Kara and Darnell, the two of you are involved in a unique institutional environment. Can you talk a bit about the work you do? How does the impetus for these projects connect back to creating, in an institutional setting, the sort of safe environment that youth might not find in the institution of the family?

Kara Olidge: The mission of the Hetrick-Martin Institute is to provide a safe-space environment, as well as supportive services, for the LGBTQ community. We work with young people in crisis. We provide counseling, on an individual basis as well as with families in many instances -- when families have engaged in the process of working with their child in this way. It's not just about providing services, but also cultivating a sense of engagement on a community level: How do you take the skills you're acquiring through these services, and actualize them in your life so that you can impact community change?

The founders, Drs. Emery Hetrick and Damien Martin, found that we really needed to focus not only on creating safe spaces, but also on providing sensitivity trainings for service providers, health professionals, places that house homeless individuals and transient youth, so they could understand that this is a population that has a unique set of needs, and an identity that should be respected and also cared for. Thirty years later, here we are.

We also have the Harvey Milk High School, a partnership between Hetrick-Martin and the New York City Department of Education; and now we're working with the City of Newark to replicate some of these programs and services there -- and to create the Sakia Gunn High School for Civic Engagement, which Darnell can talk more about.

Darnell Moore: Because of the lack of options available in New Jersey, we had youth that were traveling across the Hudson from Newark to New York City looking for services, as well as safe spaces -- in the same way LGBTQ youth and adults travel across the bridge to places like Christopher Street or, when there weren't spaces there for them, to the Pier.

The Sakia Gunn High School is named after a 15-year-old black lesbian basketball phenom that was murdered for being a lesbian. She was stabbed in her heart and died on the street in Newark in 2003. Years later we're naming this school in her honor, as a way to symbolize the emergence of a space in Newark where youth can go and, hopefully, these instances of violence no longer have to happen.

Kara did a good job of laying out an overview of Hetrick-Martin and our services, and I wanted to point out a key aspect of our work with regards to familial homophobia. At Hetrick-Martin, we don't define family as the biological unit. Family for us is something that is a bit more nebulous. For some, family can mean a house or community that they are connected to. Family could be a cadre of adult mentors or role models, or a cadre of individuals who provide support services, that might be in a youth's life.

A lot of our students and youth that come to us have, because of various circumstances, had to redefine what family is. I've worked with youth who have been kicked out of their homes. In one case, the grandfather was a preacher of a church; he put his trans grandchild on the street. That youth had to redefine what family meant for her. So if this thing called familial homophobia exists, how might we help youth to find, or recreate, or connect to quote-unquote families?

Rather than using deficit models, we use strengths-based models to help youth to learn from their context -- and even in the midst of heterosexist spaces, help them find a voice, and use that voice in their connections with others. So we're not just about providing safe space; we want the students and youth who come into these spaces to walk away empowered as citizens, as socially aware and conscious activists, as human beings who might begin to the do the work of changing the society that they're living in.

Kara Olidge: We also do a lot of work with youth around unpacking the idea of heteronormativity. What does heteronormativity mean? What are the ideas surrounding this assumption of heterosexuality as normal and neutral? And then, let's look at our families, and see if our families fit that mold.

"How do we get young people to understand those differences so that they can begin to articulate with their families that their sexuality is one among many differences that exist in families?" \-- Kara Tucina Olidge, Ph.D.

What people often find is that nobody's family actually perfectly fits this middle-class paradigm. So what we're talking about then is differences: How do we get young people to understand those differences so that they can begin to articulate with their families that their sexuality is one among many differences that exist in families?

We talked earlier about holding families accountable. I think one level of making families accountable for familial homophobia is also making them accountable for their own differences. Because what we find in families is that people might suppress their differences to fit some commonality. But when you hold them accountable for their own differences, they have to recognize your difference, as well.

In giving the young people the tools and resources to talk about it, and unpack it, they are in many ways not only working on strengthening a relationship that might be strained, or working through areas in common, but they're also getting their families to think about these issues. That kind of spiraling out really impacts communities.

Sarah Schulman: Yes; it's not an either/or. There are all these different places of approach. In 1975, when I got in trouble with my family, and I went to my guidance counselor in a New York City public school, he told me, "Don't tell anybody that you're gay or they'll shun you." That was the level. And gay kids used to hang out at the pier then, just like they do now. These are ancient queer spaces, right?

Now there are all these services. But one of the things that's happened in the subsequent 30-something years is that queer people have changed a lot, but straight people haven't changed enough. So now we know that there are so many queer people in the shelter system, especially kids, because of familial homophobia. When queer people get in trouble, they don't have the support of the family, and they don't have the safety net of the family. That's why we're overrepresented among the homeless. We're seeing really dire consequences of straight people not evolving.

So, totally, yes: self-empowerment for queer people, and build your own world. But at the same time, as more and more of us have authority, are teachers, are social workers, are in these kinds of positions, we need to talk about social transformations -- and that it's very clear that homophobic behavior is not acceptable.

Familial Homophobia and HIV Risk: Connecting the Dots

As far as the relationship between familial homophobia and HIV infection: It's interesting because, over the years, there have been different moments when HIV incidence rates have been higher and lower, and there have been a multitude of prevention strategies over time. But there's always been a significant portion of the community that is immune to prevention strategy, for whom those strategies have never been successful. Everyone is asking themselves, "Why?" and, "How do we get through this?" and, "What is the obstacle?"

I really have come to believe that, as long as this society tells young queer men that their lives are not equal to straight people's lives, or that their lives are not valued, that they are not cherished, that they are not respected, we are not going to have successful prevention strategies. Right now the psychology of prevention is that each person is supposed to bootstrap themselves, and that prevention is their private problem, while they're living in a culture that's profoundly racist, profoundly homophobic, and in which gay people don't even have equal legal rights.

And yet the prevention industry has not been able to politicize and point to these factors of the emotional oppression that people experience, as endangering them to HIV.

Darnell Moore: I think you're right. It's also important to note the fact that prevention strategies are typically situated outside of one of the most important systems that they need to engage, and that's the family system. A lot of dollars are expended toward programs that are developed within the domain of community-based organizations. But as you're talking, I'm thinking I don't know if we've ever clearly thought out how we could direct dollars toward programs that are looking to institute preventive strategies in the home.

If we're first socialized within our home space, why should we not also be encouraged to learn about our bodies, about others' bodies, about sex and sexuality, in this home space? Some work would certainly have to happen in order to get folks to do that type of work. But we need to put dollars there, to think about how we can get that type of work happening in this neglected system: the family system.

Another thing: I was that black, young, queer man, brought up in an urban space. Family is the space where safety is paramount -- where despite everything else, you're supposed to feel safe, right? But as it related to who I was developing into as far as my sexual self, I did not feel that I had that safety. It may have been more my fear than an actual reality -- but because of the lack of discussion in the home, not only around issues of sexuality related to identity, but about sex overall, I created spaces outside of the home. Many of those spaces were danger zones.

So for me, a budding young man, growing up, it was really easy for me to be on the streets of Philadelphia, on 13th Street, standing next to sex workers and feeling perfectly fine, because this is the person that I felt myself to be. During that period I was put in some dire predicaments that could have had a negative impact on my social and physical health.

"If that affirmation came from other spaces, young men would not have to go to parks after dark and hide. They wouldn't have to be on train tracks, on street corners, without access to condoms, without access to things that could keep them healthy, if they had spaces that could fortify them otherwise." \-- Darnell Moore

All that is to say that, if I had had the space developed within my family system, I wouldn't have been standing on 13th Street, looking for affirmation, and looking to be held, and looking for someone to look at me and tell me that I'm human, or beautiful, or I'm worthwhile to live. If that affirmation came from other spaces, young men would not have to go to parks after dark and hide. They wouldn't have to be on train tracks, on street corners, without access to condoms, without access to things that could keep them healthy, if they had spaces that could fortify them otherwise.

Sarah Schulman: In other words, we're saying, next Mother's Day, let's have a prevention campaign saying: "For this Mother's Day, tell your gay son that you love and accept him, and you want him to live. So welcome his lover into the house for Mother's Day celebrations." This sort of thing?

Darnell Moore: Let's do it!

Read part two of this discussion, in which we'll hash out potential strategies for interrupting homophobia within families.

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.