'National Parents Coming Out Day' Aims to Educate Families of LGBTQ Youth
"National Parents Coming Out Day" is a day for parents to learn how to support their LGBTQ youth, which is a strong factor in mental and physical health.
By John Paul Brammer
Janet Duke's daughter was crying. It was a night a little over 17 years ago. To give an idea of the time, Duke said she was still using a dialup line to connect to the Internet back then. She said she woke up because she thought her 12-year-old daughter was sick. But when her daughter stopped crying long enough to speak, Duke said she asked, "Will you always love me?"
That was the night Duke's daughter came out. From then on, Duke made it her mission to help other parents learn how to support their LGBTQ children.
"Research shows that parent rejection is the number one determinant of health for LGBTQ youth," Duke told NBC News. "If they are rejected, their risk of suicide, depression, homelessness, everything goes up. But everything goes back to normal when parents are supportive."
Today, Duke is the founder of Strong Family Alliance (SFA), an organization that works to provide parents of LGBTQ youth with accurate information, insights into family dynamics and ways to keep their child safe and healthy. For the first time, SFA is celebrating National Parents Coming Out Day on October 12, the day after National Coming Out Day.
"You want to be careful how you do it, because you want it to be a show of support and not an inadvertent outing of the child," Duke said of National Parents Coming Out Day. "We have over 50 suggestions for things parents can do to support their child, and it's categorized by how open the child is."
Duke is not the only parent working to educate other parents on how to support LGBTQ youth. Susan Cottrell is the the cofounder of FreedHearts, an organization that helps parents with a religious background accept and affirm their LGBTQ children.
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For Cottrell, like Duke, her journey began when her daughter came out as gay. She said she immediately accepted her daughter, but her daughter remained anxious.
"She asked me months later, 'Are you sure you and dad won't reject me later?' She asked about four times," Cottrell said. "I said, 'Yes, I'm sure, but why are you asking?' She said she'd seen so many people thrown out of their houses and beaten. I had no idea that was a thing. That was the moment FreedHearts was born."
Years later, Cottrell now works with her husband to personally speak with Christian parents about how to be there for their children after they come out, and she talks them through issues that the kids might not be able to deal with. FreedHearts also provides video courses to assist parents.
"The first thing is to pause and know this is the same child you had before they came out," Cottrell told NBC News. "Embrace them fully and let the answers come when the answers come. Err on the side of love."
For LGBTQ parents, days like National Parents Coming Out Day provide an opportunity to discuss the joys and challenges of parenthood. Michael Anderson, for example, never thought he'd be a parent. He came out to his mom in 1995. Without knowing it, she'd spent the day with Anderson's boyfriend, who Anderson had introduced as a friend.
But today, Anderson is a proud gay parent raising his daughter, Annika, with his husband, Jeff Binder in Naples, Fla. The family moved from upstate New York to Florida two years ago. Anderson said he was nervous to move into a conservative area as a married gay man with a multiracial daughter. But he said his local community has been nothing but supportive.
"As Annika's gotten older, I’ve always talked about, 'You have two dads, some kids have two moms, and all kinds of families,'" Anderson told NBC News. "It’s important she knows there are other families like hers. She has a girl in her class that has two moms. The amazing thing is, these kids are growing up with peers that have parents that are gay or chose to have kids as single parents, and for them, it's how things are."
Growing up in and around LGBTQ families is an experience many LGBTQ youth still don't get to have. According to a 2012 study conducted by the Williams Institute at UCLA Law, while LGBTQ youth made up just 7 percent of the population, they accounted for 40 percent of young people experiencing homelessness.
The study also found that 46 percent of homeless LGBTQ youths ran away because of family rejection, 43 percent were forced out by parents and 32 percent faced physical, emotional or sexual abuse at home.
This is something Cottrell talks to parents about frequently. "I tell them, 'If you embrace your child, and then change your mind in five years, sure, you could do that,'" she said. "'But if you reject them now, and in five years you want the relationship, it may be too late. Because they may be unwilling, or you may not have a child.'"
NBC News asked Duke what her biggest ambition is for National Parents Coming Out day.
"My dream is that in 20 years, we won't even need it," she responded.