Just before her 18th birthday, Katrina Oakason told her parents she was "queer." Two weeks later, her father drove Oakason, who is adopted, from her home in Kila, Mont., to Magna and left her on the doorstep of her biological mother's home.
"He said, 'She can have you back,' " Oakason recalled on Saturday. Oakason, who stayed at the Magna house for just over a week, has been homeless in Salt Lake City for the past two years.
Oakason's was one of many stories of the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youths shared at the Utah Pride Center's Family Acceptance Regional Conference on Saturday. The conference was based on the work of Caitlin Ryan, a researcher and director of the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University. She delivered the event's keynote address.
Expelling an LGBT teen from home is an extreme example of family rejection. But gay and transgender youths often face more subtle brush-offs that can be as harmful to an adolescent's mental health as physical abuse, Ryan said. Examples of "rejecting behaviors" she has studied include refusing to believe a child is gay or transgender, excluding a child from family events and blocking the child's access to other LGBT friends and resources.
LGBT youths who experience high levels of family rejection are eight times more likely to attempt suicide, six times more likely to experience depression and three times more likely to use illegal drugs than those who don't, according to Ryan's research, which has been published in the medical journal Pediatrics.
"Families have a compelling impact on their LGBT children's health and mental health," she said.
Even families who belong to faith traditions that disapprove of homosexuality, Ryan said, can learn to modify their interactions to have a positive effect on their LGBT sons and daughters. Engaging in fewer negative behaviors and more positive ones makes a difference.
It helps, Ryan said, for parents to show love and affection for their children and speak openly about their LGBT identity without condemnation. Parents should have the same rules for their LGBT children as for their non-LGBT ones, she added. If a straight daughter is allowed to bring her boyfriend to family dinner, then a gay son also should be allowed a date.
"Families love their children and want the best for them," Ryan said. "We need to [help parents] with compassion, in a way that respects who they are, respects their faith traditions and their humanity."
Ryan characterized her work as "hopeful," because even parents who initially spurn their children can change.
Andrew Bell was in his 40s before he felt acceptance from his parents. Bell, now 54, ran away from home when he was 15 after he came out as gay. When he first told his parents he was HIV positive 11 years ago, they told him he "deserved to die." But the diagnosis was a turning point, Bell said, and now he enjoys a loving relationship with his parents.
On Saturday, Bell told Oakason to be hopeful.
"You live your life and hope that you will live long enough and your parents will live long enough that you can heal this," Bell said.
Oakason may not have to wait as long as Bell did.
Recently, she said her father visited her in Salt Lake City and they had their first positive interaction in two years. He went to breakfast with Oakason and her fiancée, Delayina Wallace. He bought groceries for the couple.
That, Oakason said, gives her hope.
Conference continues on Sunday
The Utah Pride Center's Family Acceptance Regional Conference continues Sunday at the Sheraton Salt Lake City Hotel, 150 W. 500 South, Salt Lake City.
Interfaith service • The Utah Pride Interfaith Coalition will hold a service from 8 to 8:50 a.m.
Workshops • Topics include gender-variant children and being safe at school; from 9 to 11:30 a.m.
Brunch • John Cepek, the national president of Parents, Friends & Families of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), will speak at the National Coming Out Day brunch.
Details • http://tinyurl.com/2eca4oc