During the holidays, family acceptance for LGBTQ youth is more important than ever

By Emily Hecht-McGowan

Photo: Peter Hershey/Unsplash

As many of us spend time with our families and loved ones this holiday season, it is worth remembering that for some, this is not an easy time of year. For lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) youth who have been rejected by their families, the holidays can be particularly difficult, making the challenges they face in their daily lives and the negative impacts of such rejection much more acute.

All young people need to feel socially, emotionally, and physically safe and supported to thrive. Despite unprecedented gains in legal protections over the last decade — including nationwide marriage equality — LGBTQ youth continue to be among the most at-risk youth populations in America. Every day, LGBTQ youth face discrimination, bullying, and harassment in their classrooms, neighborhoods, places of worship, and even in their own homes.

Research and available data paint a stark future for many of these young people. LGBTQ youth interact with the juvenile justice and foster care systems, and experience homelessness, depression, and suicidal ideation at disproportionately higher rates than their non-LGBTQ peers. Up to 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ, and LGBTQ youth represent at least 13% of the total detained population in the juvenile justice system.

And while data on the sexual orientation and gender identity of foster youth is limited, we know that LGBTQ youth are not only over-represented among the foster care population, but they also spend more years in care and experience more placements than their non-LGBTQ peers. For example, one study in LA County found that 19.1% of youth in foster care identified as LGBTQ, about twice the rate at which they are found in the general LA County population.

The CDC reports that lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth seriously contemplate suicide at almost 3 times the rate, and are almost 5 times as likely to have attempted suicide compared to their straight peers. And one out of every six students nationwide (grades 9–12) seriously considered suicide in the past year. For transgender and gender nonconforming people, the reality is even more disturbing. In one national study, 40% of transgender adults reported having made a suicide attempt in their lifetime while 92% of these individuals reported having attempted suicide before the age of 25.

Research tells us that family rejection is one of the primary root causes of negative outcomes for LGBTQ youth. But the same research also shows that healthy outcomes are much more likely when young people experience family and community acceptance and support. For example, lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth who come from accepting and supportive families are more than eight times less likely to have attempted suicide than LGB peers who reported high levels of family rejection. While this statistic is startling, it is clear evidence that family acceptance works, and has proven to have a significant impact on suicide rates among young people.

Additionally, when schools implement LGBTQ-inclusive policies, procedures, and activities designed to promote a healthy environment, all students, including those who are LGBTQ, thrive. For example, in schools with gay-straight alliances (GSAs), not only does absenteeism among LGBTQ students diminish, but there is also a significant decrease in incidents of bullying and harassment. Schools with GSAs have also seen a reduction in the number of students contemplating and/or attempting suicide.

The work ahead

In the coming months, the Biden Foundation will use its resources and networks to highlight negative outcomes for LGBTQ young people who experience rejection — and how experiencing those negative outcomes early on can become lifelong barriers to health, happiness, and success. We will lift up research, best practices, and personal stories to show the dangers of family rejection and the benefits of family acceptance. We will identify gaps in research and public policy and attempt to find solutions to help bridge the divides. We will convene conversations with service providers, educators, advocates, and other experts who are successfully working within existing family acceptance models and we will connect them with individuals, agencies, and government institutions that want to learn and do more to help LGBTQ young people thrive.

Together we can change the culture to make certain that no young person is rejected by their family, their school, or their community simply because of who they are or whom they love. As we celebrate this holiday season, the Biden Foundation will be working on behalf of our LGBTQ youth to ensure they are whole, healthy, and affirmed as we endeavor to make 2018 a more just, peaceful, and prosperous new year.


Emily Hecht-McGowan is the Director for LGBTQ Equality at the Biden Foundation.

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