Family Acceptance Project Encourages Latino Parents

By Crystal A. Proxmire

There are many approaches to improving the mental health of people in the LGBT community, but only one has been selected as a "Promising Practice" by Center for Reducing Health Disparities (CRHD) at the University of California Davis, School of Medicine and the Latino Mental Health Concilio.

At their conference on Community-Defined Solutions for Latino Mental Health, the Family Acceptance Project of San Francisco State University was featured. Under the direction of Dr. Caitlin Ryan, FAP has studied how family interaction and support affect someone who is going through the coming out process and created resources to help counselors and parents understand why their involvement in the child's life is essential to their mental well-being.

In April, Ryan spoke at Affirmations Community Center in Ferndale about the project, sharing resources created specifically for different demographic families. One video showed a Latino father who struggles to accept his gay son. By committing to the well-being of his child, and focusing on whether his words and behaviors may be hurtful or helpful, he protects his son's emotions while not denying his own.

"This is a whole family approach that isn't always welcome in the LGBT community," Ryan said. "It's a real paradigm shift to include the context of family and not everyone is ready for that. We tend to think of families as adversaries, not as allies, but we forget that rejecting behavior is often motivated by care and concern.

"In the psychology world, most LGBT youth are served as individuals or in peer support, not in the context of families. Professionals that do family counseling may or may not know how to help when a youth is coming out. They may not know how to recognize it or how to deal with it. They may not ask the right questions to see if a child is struggling with this. Those that do see a youth struggling may be reluctant to talk about it in family therapy sessions because providers still see families as rejecting."

The point is simple. The more a family rejects, belittles, abuses, judges, or dismisses their child's feelings, the more likely that child is to turning to drugs or alcohol, engaging in risky behaviors, having depression and other health problems, and even a greater risk for suicide.

"Families can have a lot of conflict, especially if their child's sexuality or gender expression conflicts with their religion. With these tools, religious parents can still express love and support for their child while they come to terms with the conflicts in themselves," said Ryan.

One group identified by FAB as facing challenges are families in Latino communities. The Center for Reducing Health Disparities and the Latino Mental Health Concilio examined mental health disparities for Latinos over an 18-month period across California, and identified community-defined, strength-based promising practices, models, resources, and approaches that can be used as strategies to reduce disparities in Latino mental health. FAP is one that hit home.

Here in Michigan, some LGBT Latinos struggle with family acceptance as well as other obstacles. There may be language barriers, racism and immigration issues in play. For LGBT Latinos, not being able to marry the person they love can sometimes mean losing that person to deportation if they are undocumented. Many children come to the U.S. with their families when they are young, and do not take the risk of applying to become citizens. In September BTL featured the story of Tim Hunter and Hugo Gallardo Petatan, a couple that would like to get married but cannot. Petatan is currently being held in an ICE facility awaiting an appeal on his deportation case.

Not only is Petatan isolated from his partner, he carries the weight of his father's rejection with him. "It was hard for my father. It was really hurtful. My father believes I would be better off dead than to be a homosexual. I told him I would change, and that I would like girls. But it was wrong. I told him I couldn't change and that it was a mistake to say that I could change. He is a discrete person and did not like it," Petatan said. "I left home because it was best for my father, so he would not be so hurt." After leaving the family home in North Carolina, Petatan traveled to Michigan with Hunter, where he was arrested. If he is forced to return to Mexico, he will start life over all alone.

Rosemary Linares, who was recently featured in the Hope Fund's People of Color Leadership Project, for all of the work she has done in advocating for the LGBT Latino community talks of the pain of isolation. The young bisexual Latina helped start a GSA in Saline, went to Miami to do HIV testing and advocacy work, and is now on the board of Detroit Latin@s. "Many in the Latino LGBTQ community feel isolated by language," she said in her March BTL interview. "We do partner with Affirmations and other groups, but there are issues specific to the Latino community. It's not just about the right to marry when you're in a same-sex relationship with someone who is undocumented."

As these issues put pressure on Latino individuals, having family of origin support can make a huge difference. The FAP research demonstrates to families why they need to be part of the coming out process, even if they don't fully accept homosexuality.

At Caesar Chavez Academy in Southwest Detroit, the Gay Straight Alliance helps give emotional support when families are not accepting. In March, BTL talked with students in the GSA who shared varying responses from their families.

When tenth grader Francisca Ibarra told her father she was joining the Cesar Chavez Academy High School GSA, he was not exactly thrilled.

"My father was mad. He thought that I would go lesbian, which is not true. I like boys and you can't go lesbian just by being around someone. You like who you like," she said.

"I argued with him. I was speaking up and giving him reason and evidence that it's not right to judge. He was really Catholic so not really accepting. It hurt me a lot. I'm Catholic too, I love God, I go to church and I read the Bible, but I don't believe how everybody sees it. If the Pope reads wrong and people depend on him, then sometimes religion is not the best influence on gays. If religions are more accepting, then maybe people would listen to them more.

"We argued a lot about it and I felt bad," she said. "I said 'Didn't God say he loved everyone? Jesus died for gays. Why would God hate them if he made them?'

"In the end he listened. Because I reacted really strongly, he said I had a really big heart and that it was okay to join."

Another GSA member, junior Hector Torres, gave an example of pressure that his well-intentioned mother put on him. "I did have a boyfriend," he said, "but my mom kept pushing me to date girls. My mom set me up on a date with a female friend and it was really awkward. But we were friends already so we just laughed it off." Torres has faith that his mother will "figure it out," but that his uncle who "just doesn't get it" continues to ignore the fact that he is gay even though he came out in the eighth grade.

Sonia Ponce de Leon, a social worker, has been the staff adviser for the group since it started in 2006.

"As counselors and staff we see these kids through the years. Many cannot come out while they are in school because their families won't accept them, but often we can tell the ones that are gay or not. But of course we can't say anything. We just give them support and let them know there is a safe place if they want it. We see these kids suffer all those years in school because they can't be themselves but we see them on Facebook later, when they are moved out, and they come out. That always makes us feel so proud. Like yes, they made it!"

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