Whilst homosexuality was legalized in the UK in 1967 and attitudes towards gay people are far better than they were, there still exists homophobia in society, and that society includes, of course, parents. Indeed, according to the Human Rights Survey, about 25 percent of LGBTIQ+ youth regard the most major problem in their lives to be the fact that a parent or other relative will not accept them due to their sexuality.
Parents who are homophobic and consequently are emotionally or physically abusive towards their gay child frequently have a devastating psychological effect on him/her. And we know emotional or physical abuse is far more damaging to a child if perpetrated by a parent (due to the degree of betrayal such abuse entails and the fact that it is the very person whom the child naturally depends on for love, care, and emotional support that is perpetuating the abuse. In other words, the homophobia the child is subjected to in the home is likely to be more damaging than any homophobic attitudes the child is exposed to in wider society.
For example, a study by Rothman (2012) found that if parents were not supportive of their child when the child disclosed his / her sexuality, the child was put at increased risk of developing psychiatric disorders.
One reason parents may be homophobic is due to rigid religious beliefs. Indeed, my own step-mother who, when I was a young teenager and went to live with her and my father after my mentally ill mother three me out, was a religious fundamentalist (who would sometimes shout at me in what she believed, delusionally, to be ‘tongues’) also had my father throw me out after I disclosed my own sexuality. (In relation to how parents can use religion as a weapon against their children, see my previously published post). Research suggests that children rejected by their parents are at a massively increased risk of taking their own lives (indeed, I am one of those statistics; one suicide attempt, many years ago now, left me in a coma in intensive care for five days). Some religious parents may seek to change their child’s sexuality by punishment or coercion which, of course, equates to emotional abuse. Indeed, religious parents may force their child to undergo the notorious, highly psychologically damaging, ‘therapy’ known as ‘conversion therapy.’
Research by Burton et al (2014) found that gay individuals who enjoyed parental support were more significantly more resilient to stress than those who were unsupported by their parents (the supported individuals had a lower cortisol -cortisol is a stress hormone – in response to the Trier Social Stress Test in laboratory conditions). This research also suggested that parental support was more important than peer support as peer support was not found to have the same stress-inoculating effect as parental support.
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Research has also shown that gay young people are at greatly increased risk of homelessness (due to running away from home or being thrown out by their parents). Studies suggest (e.g. Fournier et al. 2009) that although only makeup about 1%-4% of the population they comprise between about 15% and 40% of the homeless population.; it has also been found that gay youth with a history of homelessness experience more serious mental health problems than their non-gay peers with a history of homelessness. in the form of anxiety, depression, conduct disorder, and addictions suggesting that they are in even greater need of social support than are young homeless people who are heterosexual (though both groups are in extreme need of such support, of course)
Pace (2020) carried out research showing the important role schools have to play in helping parents to be accepting of homosexuality. Pace (2020) also suggests parents should be trained to look out for ‘internalizing’ symptoms which may be the result of distress induced by homophobic peers.
THE ENORMOUSLY DAMAGING EFFECTS OF ‘CONVERSION THERAPY.’
Some homophobic parents may go as far as to coerce their children into undertaking so-called ‘conversion therapy’ which involves trying to change an individual’s sexuality by physical, psychological, or spiritual means (or by a combination of these). However, studies have repeatedly shown how such ‘therapy’ psychologically damages an individual; besides, there doesn’t exist any scientifically validated evidence that a person’s sexuality even can be changed (e.g. Cruz, 1999; Halderman, 1999).
Denying a person’s sexuality, particularly if the person who is doing the denying is an emotionally significant figure (such as, of course, a parent) can have very damaging psychological effects as, in essence, it constitutes an invalidation of who a person, at heart, is. If the individual internalizes such homophobic attitudes, this can lead to profound feelings of shame, suicidal ideation, or actual suicide. In my own case, for example, when my (Christian fundamentalist) step-mother discovered my sexuality she would leave on my bed books written by fellow Christians about the ‘sinfulness’ of homosexuality and how through prayer and ‘healing’ one could be ‘cured.’ Unsurprisingly, this strategy failed and, soon after that fact became clear, she got my father to throw me out of their house.
Here is what the World Health Organization has to say about conversion therapy:
‘a serious threat to the health and well-being – even the lives – of affected people.’
Cruz, David B. (1999). “Controlling Desires: Sexual Orientation Conversion and the Limits of Knowledge and Law” (PDF). Southern California Law Review. 72 (5): 1297–400. PMID 12731502.
:Haldeman, Douglas C. (December 1999). “The Pseudo-science of Sexual Orientation Conversion Therapy” (PDF). Angles: The Policy Journal of the Institute for Gay and Lesbian Strategic Studies. 4 (1): 1–4.
Rosario M, Schrimshaw EW, Hunter J. Homelessness among lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth: implications for subsequent internalizing and externalizing symptoms. J Youth Adolesc. 2012;41(5):544-560. doi:10.1007/s10964-011-9681-3
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc;