Homophobia and HIV Risk: What's Family Got to Do With It?

Published: June 9, 2011


It’s a familiar and haunting refrain: People who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer (LGBTQ) are systematically rejected by their families. And given the norms of many cultures, staying connected to your family is expected. But to maintain these familial bonds, LGBT folks usually don’t have the most empowering options. They can either hide their sexual identity from their loved ones by pretending to be heterosexual; or be open with their sexual orientation and endure dismissiveness and disrespect. In some instances, they may choose to cut ties to their family altogether and create new families within queer-affirming communities.

In all these scenarios, not only is the onus on the LGBTQ family member to endure hardship, discomfort and isolation; but there is no accountability placed on the family for their own ill behavior. Moreover, there is no faith put in that fact that perhaps the family members can change or heal from their own biases.

This familial homophobia and rejection not only deeply impact LGBT people’s mental health, but their overall health — especially their sexual health. Data collected by the Family Acceptance Project highlights clear connections between family rejection and risky behavior. Lifetime suicide attempt rates for LGBTQ folks from highly rejecting families are 8 times as high as for those reared in "low-rejection" families; and LGBTQ youth from highly rejecting families are more than 3 times as likely to use illegal drugs, and to be at high risk for HIV and other STDs.

If we’re to talk seriously about an HIV prevention "cocktail" that will be sustainable and effective in curbing HIV rates among queer and transgender youth, we need to alter the emotional and material realities that can lead LGBTQ youth to engage in risky behavior. This cannot be done without talking about homophobia within families, how it renders youth vulnerable to HIV infection, and what can be done to stop it. In this two-part roundtable discussion, we will begin to do just that.

Participating in this discussion are: Sarah Schulman, longtime activist, Distinguished Professor of English at the City University of New York and author of Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences; Darnell L. Moore, Visiting Scholar at the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality at New York University, and Project Manager for the forthcoming Sakia Gunn High School for Civic Engagement in Newark, N.J.; and Kara Tucina Olidge, Ph.D., Director of HMI To Go: Newark, a program of the New York-based Hetrick-Martin Institute (HMI).

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