Until recently, Tracy Morgan must not have been living in the same world with many of the rest of us -- the one where children and young people suffer every day because someone thinks they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT). That's the only explanation I can think of for making a public joke about killing his son not just for being gay -- but merely for "sounding" like he was gay. And while the past two weeks have been an introduction to the real world for him and many others, the conversation must not end when the media goes away.
Just this morning, Morgan met and apologized to people in the audience who heard his tirade. Last week he met with gay youth who had experienced severe family rejection and parents who lost their child in an anti-gay hate crime. These are first steps, but Tracy needs to understand the enduring power of parental hate speech to know that apologies are not enough, and that he has a unique platform to make a difference in the lives of many LGBT people whose families reject them based on distortions, misinformation and fear.
The rejection and abuse of LGBT children and youth is a community health crisis that could be prevented if we focused the time, energy and resources to educate and help diverse families learn how to support their LGBT children.
For nearly a decade our research and family support team at the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University has studied how families react to their lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) children and how their reactions affect these children's health and mental health as young adults. We are developing a new family approach to help ethnically and religiously diverse families decrease rejection and increase support for their LGBT children. The good news is that families can learn to modify rejecting behaviors that are related to significant increases in their LGBT children's risk for suicide, HIV, high levels of depression and other serious health and mental health problems.
We have not only done the research, we have seen firsthand how parents and caregivers can grow and change when they have specific information, guidance and support about how their behaviors -- including hateful words about their children's gay or transgender identity -- affect their children's health and survival.
The tragic reality is that some parents actually react like Tracy promised he would -- by physically hurting, threatening and even trying to kill children they merely think might be gay. These are just some of the stories we have heard in our work to help decrease family rejection, violence and abuse among LGBT and gender non-conforming children and youth:
- 4-yr old Kai used to run up to the TV and kiss images of men. His enraged step father would scream: "If you turn out to be a faggot, I'll kill you!" One day, when Kai kissed another man on TV, his stepfather threw a metal lantern at the toddler's head. The sharp pointed edge cut into Kai's skull and sent him to the emergency room. He had a concussion and dozens of stitches and a permanent jagged scar. Kai was sent to foster care and was placed in 11 foster homes by age 10.
- 15-year old Darnell knew he was gay and tried to hide it from his father who was deeply homophobic and used terrible language to talk about gay people. Darnell's father had a gun and would threaten to shoot his son if he turned out to be gay. His father beat him and goaded other family members into turning against him. "I felt so alone," Darnell said. "Somehow I found my way to the Hayward Bridge, and jumped. When I landed in the water, and I was still alive, I was so determined to end my life that I climbed back up and jumped again. This time, the police came and took me to the hospital. My father refused to get me. He told me that next time I should jump in front of a train."
- 16-year old Monica was raised in a socially and religiously conservative family that refused to believe she was a lesbian. Her parents sent her to live with another family that tried to make Monica repent using punishment that reflected her "sins." They made Monica face a wall for up to 14-hours each day wearing a backpack full of heavy rocks to symbolize her sins. Over time, the weight of the rocks caused multiple bone fractures in her shoulders and back, and the hopelessness she felt led to persistent thoughts of taking her life and her first suicide attempt.
Our research with LGBT youth and families shows that words have powerful consequences. We found that derogatory and demeaning words from parents and caregivers hurt just as much as physically beating or threatening their gay or transgender children because of their LGBT identity. We found that this kind of verbal abuse from parents and caregivers had a 9-times greater likelihood of attempted suicide -- just as high as physical abuse related to their child's LGBT identity.
We also found that parents and caregivers can help reduce their LGBT children's risk and promote their children's well being by engaging in specific behaviors related to advocacy, affection, positive communication and respect.
In other words, we found a solution to this heartbreaking epidemic. And what we urgently need is to create a climate where families can access this information and the support they need to help their LGBT children. The media is a critical part of this solution.
My hope is that Tracy Morgan will -- instead of crafting messages that teach people to hate and tear families apart, become part of the solution to help us keep families together and show parents and caregivers how to support their LGBT children. He knows the power of his celebrity. While apologies are accepted, informed actions are essential. I look forward to seeing actions that make a difference from Tracy Morgan and others who now know what the real world is like for many LGBT youth.
Caitlin Ryan, PhD, ACSW is Director of the Family Acceptance Project at SF State University and is developing a new family approach to help ethnically and religiously diverse families to support their LGBT children.