No matter how loving and supportive a parent may be, learning that a child is gay or lesbian can come as a shock. To help parents process the news, David Huebner, an associate professor of clinical psychology at the University of Utah, has created a short documentary film called LEAD With Love, funded through a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) to study how anti-gay discrimination affects gay and lesbian teens’ health and their tendencies toward risky behavior.
“My underlying belief is that most parents really want to do the right thing by their children,” says Huebner. “When you see parents getting upset by the news or rejecting their child, it’s not because they are bad people. It’s because they are worried about their child’s well-being. ”
LEAD With Love is thirty-five minutes long and can be viewed at no charge through the film’s website. It introduces viewers to four families—as well as psychologists, teachers, and members of the clergy—who explore the range of complex emotions surrounding parental reactions to a child’s sexual orientation. It draws on Huebner’s academic research into how discrimination affects physical and mental health within minority and marginalized communities.
“One of the things that jumps out from research about LGBT youth is the huge influence that parents play,” he says. “Straight or gay, all children need their parents’ love. But the way a parent reacts to their child coming out is the single most important factor in whether that child grows up to be healthy and happy. When a parent rejects a child because of sexual orientation, that child is at much greater risk for substance abuse, suicide, low self-esteem, and depression.”
As part of the NIMH grant, Huebner wanted to create a resource for parents that acknowledged the devastation they might be experiencing (as one father in the film says, “It felt like a kick to the gut”) but that also offered advice and support for moving toward acceptance.
Huebner knew that there were few support networks or resources for parents who were just receiving the news about their child’s orientation. “Parents tell us that when they first learn their child is gay or lesbian, they often aren’t ready to talk to anyone about it in a group setting. For many parents, it’s only after a few years that you see them getting involved more publicly in great organizations like PFLAG [Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays]. We realized parents needed something they could access shortly after hearing the news, in the privacy of their home, that wasn’t a huge investment of time.”
LEAD With Love includes specific guidelines to help parents through the initial stages of accepting their child’s sexuality. The acronym in the film’s title stands for Let your affection show, Express your pain away from your child, Avoid rejecting behaviors, and Do good before you feel good. “Even the most well-meaning parents might say something that can come across as rejection,” says Huebner, such as questioning wardrobe choices or discouraging the child from telling other people.
Huebner says it is natural for parents to experience feelings of loss and anger. “Parents imagine a future for their children and themselves—being the parent of the bride or groom at the child’s wedding, becoming grandparents—and when they hear that their child is gay or lesbian, those dreams start to unravel. But if parents can find ways to work through that, and show their children that they are loved no matter what, those children can go on to live meaningful, interesting lives, have healthy relationships, and succeed in life. Ultimately, that’s what any parent wants for their child.”
David Huebner '95
Love Above All
June 1, 2011