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A Series to Help Parents Understand Their LGBTQ Child: Harm Reduction

by | July 20, 2019

A four-part series intended to help parents understand what their child is telling them, how to support them, and where to find the resources they need. Join us as we explore the world of harm reduction, conversion therapies, and stigma.  

LGBTQ child
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In the first part of this series, we interviewed Lindsey Pembrooke (they/them), who is on the Board of Directors for the New Haven Pride Center, a trained Facilitator with Hartford PFLAG, and co-coordinates the Transgender Adult Support Group at the New Haven Pride Center. A question was asked about how a parent should react if their child comes out to them as LGBTQ+, and it really highlighted the fact that the way in which a parent or primary caregiver reacts has a huge influence on the mental well-being of their child. 

A Series to Help Parents Understand Their LGBTQ Child

One of the statistics we mentioned was the high suicide attempt rate of people who identify as LGBTQ+, especially transgender people with a lifetime rate of 41%. This number does not tell us the entire story. Most parents reading this have younger children, and sadly, younger generations have even higher rates of attempted suicide.   

The 41% statistic only applies to older adults. Transgender 18- to 24-year-olds are slightly more at risk, with 45% reporting that they’ve attempted suicide. The most sobering reality is that 50% of trans children, those under 18 and the most vulnerable, report that they’ve attempted suicide. The highest suicide attempt rates are among people of color, though the rates are shockingly high across all demographics.

The point of this series isn’t to scare parents; there are rays of sunshine and hope. We are here to help you understand what your child needs from you in order to feel supported and accepted. Studies have shown that when LGBTQ+ youth are met with acceptance and love, recognized for who they are, called by the name and pronouns that they have asked for, and are generally given the same access in school as any other student, the suicide rate tends to fall back down to the rate of the general population.  

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In spite of these statistics, kids continue to be silenced and told that their identity is not ‘real.’ They are bullied, not taken seriously as a person, and oftentimes, treated as subhuman and mocked. The harassment can even extend to having their private thoughts and personal lives scattered across social media by cyberbullies. 

Society tells trans-kids that they cannot use the bathrooms of the gender with which they identify, wear the clothes they want to, be called the name they have chosen, or use their preferred pronouns. They are constantly singled out as different, and society is gatekeeping them and stopping them from joining the gender community to which they belong. 

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A Series to Help Parents Understand Their LGBTQ Child: Harm Reduction

The heartbreaking reality is that some parents condone this invalidating behavior, sometimes even from other family members, towards their LGBTQ+ children. Either expressly or with their silence, they allow this abuse simply because they don’t want to ‘rock the boat’ during this transition. Then there are those parents who are so vocal, so disgusted and blinded by bigotry, that they evict their children, disown them, and become the person they never imagined they could be when that little baby was born – all promises to protect and be there for them, ignored. In this situation, love is not a guarantee. 

We cannot control every person our children encounter in life. We can, however, control our own actions, by learning and educating ourselves on how we can improve, resolving to do better, and working to create the world in which we want our children to live.

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A Series to Help Parents Understand Their LGBTQ Child: Harm Reduction

Here are the excerpts from the second interview with Lindsey.

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Hi Lindsey, thank you so much for joining us again for the second part of this series! As we begin our discussion on harm reduction, can you first explain the culture of substance abuse in the LGBTQ+ community?

When people are made to feel as though there is something wrong with them, and not accepted, they can react in a variety of ways. Some withdraw inside while others have a tendency to lash out or engage in high-risk behavior. I’ve met people in my transgender community who used to race cars or go skydiving, and then there are others who engage in substance and/or alcohol abuse as a coping mechanism.

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How does the concept of harm reduction fit into all of this and why has it become such a popular approach for treatment for those battling a drug or alcohol addiction?

When most people talk about harm reduction, it is often in the context of substance abuse. As vegans, you already have an idea of how harm reduction works. Many of you came to the vegan lifestyle from other ways of eating. You saw veganism as a healthy, compassionate lifestyle for yourself and gradually worked your way into it. 

Maybe you started out by eating vegan meals once or twice a week. You knew you wanted to eventually get to eating vegan 100% of the time, but it was a gentler way for your body to transition to a fully vegan diet.

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It works similarly in alcohol and drug treatment. Just as smokers use nicotine patches or vaporizers to wean themselves off of cigarettes, methadone can be used in the treatment of some narcotic addictions as an intermediate step to lessen one’s dependence on the substance. 

While at a workshop earlier in the year, I heard Dr. A.C. Demidont, of the Anchor Health Initiative in New Haven, CT, speak about transcare. She was talking about the concept of harm reduction in a slightly different way. She had a patient who saw a hospital physician for a non-transgender-related issue, and the physician was more concerned about the hormone regimen that the patient was on than with treating the issue they had come in about. The doctor warned them about the slight risk of developing heart issues and convinced the patient to stop taking their hormones. This individual was stuck in a loop of self-doubt until they saw Dr. Demidont again. I don’t know what finally happened with that patient, but I do know the hospital physician got a stern call from Dr. Demidont. When you are dealing with a patient with gender dysphoria, weighing the slight risk of heart attack or some other negative outcome against a 41% suicide attempt rate, it is the ultimate example of harm reduction. One has to decide which is the least harmful to the individual: potential side effects from a drug or an increased chance of suicide.

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Some people believe that identifying as LGBTQ+ is a choice or something that can be “fixed.” Of course, we know that’s not true, but what is the mindset behind conversion or reparative therapy?

“Conversion therapy” (also known as reparative therapy) is a practice that some people believe can turn gay people straight or transgender people into the gender they were designated at birth.  

A push to make it illegal in Connecticut was a priority in 2017, and the prohibition of the practice was passed on May 10, 2017. We had a speaker discuss this at PFLAG Hartford when the push for this was just starting. The law, “prohibits licensed professional therapists from practicing the coercive therapy tactics, which includes electro-shock therapy, on those under 18, although it does not ban the practice among adults and does not restrict religious leaders from offering guidance.” There is technically a religious exemption if the religious person holds a professional license; however, they jeopardize holding that license by engaging in such practice if it exceeds the “offering guidance” clause.   

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As a Catholic, I am unable to escape it. The Catholic Church has their own programs called Courage and EnCourage. Courage is the Church’s conversion therapy arm, and EnCourage holds out hope that God is going to turn people’s kids away from these “choices” that they have apparently made.

Conversion therapy as a way to “fix” individuals stems from the belief that people who are gay or transgender are “afflicted” with something that is contrary to the human condition. Depending on what you read, LGBTQ+ people either have an illness or we have made the conscious choice, by accepting who we are, to be immoral.  

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What is the goal of conversion therapy? 

With conversion therapy, the goal is not to listen to the child; it is to “cure” them. There are all kinds of ways this is done: approaches that include deprivation, starvation, beatings, electroshock, and other aversion techniques that sound more like brainwashing and torture than therapy.   

If the LGBTQ+ child does not feel safe, or if the person is trying to tell them what to do or how to be, it is no longer about the child. At this point, it has become more about the outcome desired by the person doing the conversion therapy, or, sadly, one or both of the parents.

The practice does not work. It is documented that it can curb the behavior, but it does not curb feelings. People that feel a “same-sex attraction” still experience the same feelings after conversion therapy. They may just not talk about it or they avoid acting on their feelings for a while. It is a terrible state to be put in when one is being conditioned to feel pain and shame for acting on their true feelings. There is also a high recidivism rate.  

[Read the complete report on ‘Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation’ by American Psychological Association here]

Essentially, the thoughts don’t go away but the individual no longer feels worthy of exploring those feelings. It comes as no surprise that there is a spike in the suicide rate for people that have gone through conversion therapy.

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How widespread is the practice of conversion therapy?

There has been no central agency keeping statistics on conversion therapy patients, so it’s hard to quantify how widespread it is. However, a recent study from the Williams Institute estimates that “698,000 LGBTQ+ Americans between the ages of 18 and 59 have undergone conversion therapy at some point in their lives.” More than half of these individuals received treatment as a child. In the same report, it was estimated that 20,000 LGBTQ+ teens, aged 13-17, will be treated with conversion therapy from a licensed healthcare professional before they turn 18, and an additional 57,000 will be required to see a religious or spiritual advisor for guidance.

There are nine states – California, Connecticut, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont, along with the District of Columbia that have banned conversion therapy. A similar ban was recently passed in Maine with bipartisan support; however, the current Governor vetoed the bill and the legislature was unable to override. I expect the trend to continue of states passing legislation to curb, and eventually eradicate, the practice of conversion therapy. [Ed. note: Five more states have passed bans on conversion therapy this year: Washington, Hawaii, and Delaware now have laws in effect. Maryland’s and New Hampshire’s bans take effect soon.]

Each time conversion therapy occurs, a soul is crushed. It perpetuates the false narrative that being LGBTQ+ is a choice and therefore it can, and should, be cured. As long as people truly believe this, the practice of conversion therapy will never be completely eliminated.

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Do you have any advice for those going through therapy now, especially if they have been subjected to conversion therapy before?  

The individual should seek out an appropriate medical professional, but what, exactly, makes a doctor or therapist appropriate?  When it comes to counseling on LGBTQ+ identities, I include religious advisors in this evaluation.   

There are a few important questions a medical professional needs to answer before you agree to see them: Will they put the needs of your child above their own agenda? Will they help your child understand themselves and listen to what your child is telling them about how they feel? Or, will they instead attempt to guide your child to a predetermined outcome and tell your child how they should feel? Do they have any real training or experience in the area of gay or transgender patients? 

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One of the saddest stories I’ve ever heard was about a trans-male’s experience with the mastectomy doctor doing their surgery. The doctor had no appreciation for the aesthetics of what they were doing, and instead of performing the surgery in a way that would allow the patient to take their shirt off at the beach or the pool, they were left with a horribly scarred and disfigured chest. Just because a doctor may have had some general training in the area of LGBTQ+ as part of their studies, or had a handful of LGBTQ+ patients over the years, does not make them an appropriate, or qualified, choice.  

If you are trying to pick out a gender therapist, select one that has had actual training and specifically studied the topic, not just someone who took a 101 course or attended a seminar or two. 

This “appropriateness” is a big part to understand when considering religious advisors. I have met some wonderful Catholic priests who have offered spiritual guidance, and there are a few that I have been particularly close with over the last couple of years. I didn’t jump right into deep conversations because I wanted to build up trust first. I wanted to feel safe. For the few priests I have had extensive conversations with, I found them to be very compassionate and their counsel to be helpful.  

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Any final words of advice for parents in this situation? 

There are “bad things” that are a reality in this community and some LGBTQ+ people are forced to confront them. There are ways people manage the pain that is inflicted upon them by the world. Drugs, alcohol, cutting, or escapist high-risk activities are a very real concern. They are scary to contemplate, but in the end, everything still comes down to you and your child.   

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Michelangelo once said, “The sculpture is already complete within the marble block before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.”  It is like that with people, and you could say that who we are has always been there, just waiting to be set free and discovered.  

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Whether our kids are LGBTQ+ or not, this is the journey we are on with them – to help them along the path to discover who they are and help them to achieve their best potential.  

We can listen to them and help them to see they are beautiful just as they are. We can accept them for who they are, and try to shelter them from those who would try to shape them into anyone other than themselves. We can help them as they shed their “superfluous” outer shell and reveal who they really are inside. 

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Previous in the series:

Part 1- ‘Coming Out

Next in the series:

Part 3 – ‘Growing Together’ 

Part 4 – ‘Education & Activism’ 

The series originally appeared in the Raise Vegan print magazine.

Lindsey Pembrooke

Lindsey Pembrooke (they/them), is on the Board of Directors for the New Haven Pride Center and a trained Facilitator with Hartford PFLAG. They are active in support groups around Connecticut and online, as well as a frequent panelist on transgender/non-binary issues. As a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, Lindsey is also a parent, a spouse, and a person of faith. Lindsey uses this perspective to relate to the reader with understanding and compassion. They are fond of saying "create the world you want to live in". [Photo credit: Am Norgren]

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