"It was like he kicked me. … I came home and I cried. … It was crushing … a slap in the face."
Those are the voices of parents remembering the day their children told them they were gay, lesbian or bisexual. The parents are featured in a new documentary film called Lead With Love. The message of the film: Such reactions are common in a world that still often rejects gay people — but the sooner parents can move past their shock and offer their children acceptance and love, the better.
Acceptance can be a matter of life and death, says David Huebner, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Utah. He produced the 35-minute film with colleagues and posted it online a few weeks ago (at leadwithlovefilm.com) in hopes of reaching as many parents as possible. Driving his urgency: His own studies and others that show gay youths rejected by their parents, in big or small ways, are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, have unprotected sex, become depressed and attempt suicide.
In recent months, media attention has focused on gay teens who killed themselves after they were bullied by peers. But rejection by parents plays an underappreciated role in the struggles of gay youths, Huebner says.
"You hear anecdotes about people who disown their children and throw them out," Huebner says. But more common forms of rejection, such as complaints about "gay" clothing or pleas for teens to delay coming out to the wider world, can hurt more deeply than parents know, he says.
"Parents don't react badly because they are horrible people or hate their kids," he says. "They react badly because they care so much and they are worried."
Jody Huckaby, executive director of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (pflag.org), a national advocacy group, says: "This film really communicates the honest struggles that many families have," while sending the message that "family acceptance is the key to young people's success … and that's true whether they are straight or gay."
Jan Wood, 52, a mom from Salt Lake City featured in the film, says she was scared when her then-16-year-old daughter, Lauren, announced that she had a girlfriend. "She was popular, captain of the swim team, class president," Wood says. "I thought that this was going to destroy all of that for her." She and her husband urged their daughter not to tell too many people about her sexual orientation and to try dating some boys.
Today, she says, they understand that by the time Lauren talked to them, she had known for a long time that boys didn't interest her in that way.
"They reacted very well, considering the society in which we live," says Lauren Wood, now 22. "The first thing they said was, 'We support you and we love you.' So I knew it was going to be OK."
Not everyone gets to "OK" quickly, Huebner says, but "we're trying to get parents to react a little bit better, a little bit sooner."
To that end, the film offers the mainstream scientific view on homosexuality — that it is a normal biological variation, not a choice or an illness. Some, but not all, religious groups label it a sin, but most also ask parents to love and support their gay children, the film notes.
The filmmakers suggest four specific ways to do that, with the acronym LEAD:
•Let your affection show. Keep up the hugs, back pats and praise.
•Express your pain away from your child. Talk to understanding family members, friends or a counselor.
•Avoid rejecting behaviors. Even a few cutting remarks can hurt a vulnerable young person.
•Do good before you feel good. In other words, do all of the above even if you are hurt, angry or depressed, Huebner says: "Fake it until you make it."By Kim Painter