This month, we are taking a look at what June means to people globally. One of the most prominent events in many countries around the world is the Pride march. June is the month in which the LGBTQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer) community celebrates its existence. Here in South Africa, where the constitution does not allow discrimination against LGBTQ+ people, Pride is a major event, especially in our biggest cities. In North America, Europe, South America, parts of Asia, Australasia and some parts of Africa, LGBTQ+ individuals will be on public display, some braving violent repercussions from their societies or authorities, and we will see marches on TV and in our streets. Whatever our personal beliefs, Pride marches are one way for LGBTQ+ people to assert their right to live their life and be respected as human beings just like non-LGBTQ+ people.
A recent Gallup poll showed that 1 in 5 Gen Z adults in the USA identify as LGBTQ+, and this number is growing. Teenagers are the future adults, and as many teenagers are more accepting than adults in the present time, this may indicate a more general shift in attitudes in the future.
Given the controversy that attaches to this topic in certain communities, we thought we would ask our psychologist for her take on addressing some of the issues LGBTQ+ young people face in society, the repercussions of which may affect their mental health.
What advice would you give to parents who think their children might be gay or trans? Or to those whose offspring have come out to them and they don’t know how to react?
Just as you would approach the topic of a young person’s sexuality if they were straight; parents should not be intrusive and/or pester their child with questions about their love life. Some teenagers are not even interested in having a boy- or girl- friend. It’s not uncommon. They can have friends of both sexes, girls can dress like teenage boys, and that does not mean anything. So, the best thing to do is not to pry.
If they come out to you, be accepting. They are your child, and that has not changed because they love someone of their own sex, or because they believe they belong to the opposite gender. If they ask for it, you can take them to therapy, but only if they ask for it. They can be very happy as they are and not need it at all.
On the other hand, if they seem depressed, if they tell you they’ve experienced bullying, then they need help from a qualified therapist. Feeling rejected or “abnormal” can lead to depression, or even suicide. As The Trevor Project states: “LGBTQ youth are not inherently prone to suicide risk because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, but rather placed at higher risk because of how they are mistreated and stigmatized in society”. Research by the Family Acceptance Project has demonstrated that “parental acceptance, and even neutrality, with regard to a child’s sexual orientation” can bring down the attempted suicide rate.
Other points to reflect on when recognising that your child may be LGBTQ+:
- It won’t keep them from marrying, having children, and/or a fulfilling life.
- It is not “a phase” – as in “all teenagers are like that, but when you grow up you’ll realise you are straight after all”. Although that can happen, most often the opposite is true – some people realise their orientation later in life.
- It is not “curable”, because it is not a disease. No one tries to cure having blue eyes or large hands – sexual orientation is the same.
- It is not a sexual perversion, and it has been taken off all the mental health guides of symptoms, because LBGTQ+ people are not mentally ill or perverts because of their orientation.
If your child believes they have been born in the wrong body, they will need more help from you as there are medical protocols available to them (although it is unwise to hurry into medicalising the procedure and taking hormones). In this case, it is necessary to involve a therapist.
How do you approach parents of LGBTQ+ kids and young adults who come to you with concerns (especially if they are religious and feel that being LGBTQ+ is sinful)?
The Bible tells us to love your neighbour like yourself. Whether your neighbour is white, black, blue, gay, lesbian, transgender or straight is not a condition of that love.
Whatever your personal beliefs about sexual identity, supporting, rather than rejecting your child will lead to a better outcome for both of you. It’s also important to listen to your child’s story and to try to understand the challenges they face before jumping in with the heavy-handed judgement. They cannot change who they are; but you can change the way you approach them. Acceptance, tolerance, love, and respect are all values characteristic of major world religions.
Is conversion therapy something you would ever endorse? Why (not)?
I would never, ever, endorse conversion therapy. You might as well ask me if I would endorse being thrown from a skyscraper to cure a fear of heights!
To be clear, conversion therapy is a practice which sets out to change a person’s sexual identity by force if necessary, to comply with what the practitioners believe is “normal”. Even using the word “therapy” to describe these practices is a misnomer as they have no medical basis at all, and in 99.9% of cases, they are harmful to the young person undergoing them. They are emotional, and often physical torture. The British Psychological Society and Royal College of Psychiatrists in the UK has declared that all kinds of conversion therapy are “unethical and potentially harmful”.
Many countries worldwide have now banned Conversion Therapy. In France, for example, these practices are punishable by law with two to three years in prison and a heavy fine. However, there is sometimes a fine line between what some organizations call “counselling” and what the law defines as Conversion Therapy. In principle, if an organisation campaigns or preaches against LGBTQ+ people, the odds are that any “counselling” offered may be given by a person untrained in dealing with issues of sexual identity or gender dysphoria, and the result may be a form of conversion therapy, or just discouragement and negativity, in which case, the young person can feel that no one understands them, and may fall into depression and even experience a desire for self-harm. If in doubt, always seek a professional therapist, who will not make judgements or attempt to influence the young person’s sense of who they are.
1. Bagley, Christopher; Tremblay, Pierre (2000). “Elevated rates of suicidal behavior in gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth”. Crisis: The Journal of Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention. 21 (3): 111–117. doi:10.1027//0227-5910.21.3.111. PMID 11265836.