Society for Social Work and Research

Sixteenth Annual Conference Research That Makes A Difference: Advancing Practice and Shaping Public Policy
11-15 January 2012 I Grand Hyatt Washington I Washington, DC

16384 Families of African American Gay Youth: Examining the Intersection of Race and Sexual Orientation

Sunday, January 15, 2012: 8:45 AM
Penn Quarter A (Grand Hyatt Washington)
* noted as presenting author
Michael LaSala, PhD, Director of the MSW Program/Associate Professor, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ
Damien T. Frierson, MSW, Doctoral Student/Frederick Douglass Doctoral Fellow, Howard University, Washington, DC
Background and Purpose: As children grow into late adolescence and early adulthood, they must become more autonomous yet stay connected to the family, and in a reciprocal manner, family members must support the child in doing so--a challenging task for any family and for families of gay youth even more so. Upon learning that a child is gay or lesbian, parents in general have reported feelings of loss, guilt, and anxiety (LaSala, 2010). Considering that family support, when available can psychologically benefit young lesbians and gay men (D'Augelli, 2002; Ryan, et al., 2010) and that for African Americans, close kinship ties are a protective resource (Boyd-Franklin, 2006), social workers need to know what unique challenges African American families of gay youth face in order to assist them.

Methods: To this end, a subsample of 17 African American gay male and lesbian youth and their parents were drawn from a larger qualitative study of 65 families of gay youth. The black youth were aged 16-25 (mean of 17.6) and at the time of their interviews, were out to their parents from 6 months to 9 years (mean of 3.7 years). A combination of grounded theory and narrative methods were used to collect and analyze the data. Parents and their children were asked about parents' initial reactions to the discovery of their children's sexual orientation and how parental feelings changed over time. Probes were used to elicit the role of race and racism on coming out and family adjustment. Peer briefing and member checking were utilized to check codes and the overall theory.

Results: Like their white counterparts, African American parents felt guilt, self-blame, and worry upon learning that their children were gay, and they were particularly concerned about their sons' HIV risk. As time passed, many black parents adjusted to their children's sexual orientation, and parent-child relationships improved and strengthened. However, parents and youth identified prominent gender role expectations in the black community and worried about the social consequences of not fulfilling them. Gay sons reported that male relatives and neighbors claimed that homosexuality clashed with the image of a “strong black man” and further tarnished society's already compromised image of the African American male. As a result youth felt isolated and ashamed. Some parents and children learned to become critical of the prevailing norms regarding sex and gender in their communities and this helped family adjustment and youth self-esteem. Nevertheless black parents had ongoing worries that their children faced dual stigmas—one related to race and the other to sexual orientation, and they feared for their children's physical safety as well as their prospects for future success.

Practice Implications: Like their white counterparts, African American parents of gay and lesbian youth need assistance coping with feelings of loss, worry, and guilt. However, based on these exploratory findings, clinicians assisting black gay youth and their parents would be advised to help them reconcile their ideas about sexual orientation with gender role expectations and find ways of coping with intersecting stigmas.

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