So many of the men dying were young and had moved away from their small towns and their families to Atlanta for a slice of the metropolitan life and to be out and open as gay men.
And when the disease that later became known as AIDS began taking the lives of droves of men in Atlanta in the 1980s, families from the small towns where there sons, brothers, nephews had moved away from were making the trek to the big city to say goodbye to their loved one.
“I would stand with them [the families] at the bedside as their son was dying of AIDS. The young man would often be on a respirator. And that is when the parents would learn their son was gay,” Ryan said.
“It was devastating for the young man and I particularly saw the effect it had on families. But there would be no future with their child,” she said. “It was so beyond words. By 1985 I lost 100 gay men to AIDS. I was profoundly moved by it. It was really painful … to bear witness to it. And I think it motivated me to do something.”
Ryan continued to live in Atlanta, serving on AID Atlanta’s board of directors before becoming its first executive director. And after decades of working on LGBT health issues, Ryan helped create the Family Acceptance Project in 2002.
“I’ve worked in LGBT health and mental health for 37 years and what I realized some years ago, about 20 years ago, is that no one had ever studied what happens to families when kids come out during adolescence,” Ryan said.
“No one knew how to support families. And not just white kids, but kids from ethnically diverse backgrounds.”
Organizations such as PFLAG and numerous organizations for LGBT youth themselves exist, but even now LGBT youth are typically served individually or through peer support, Ryan said. But they don’t provide a core ingredient to helping ensure LGBT young people live health lives.
“Very few providers ask about families. The assumption is that families were unable to help at best and at worst be toxic. And that monolithic perception still exists — that families are not going to be there [for support],” she explained.
So Ryan and the Family Acceptance Project set out to conduct actual research and in-depth studies on families and publish their findings in journals to spread the word about how families can actually be helpful for an LGBT youth coming out.
“Our goal is to change the paradigm of how LGBT youth are served and to serve them in context of their families. Families can learn to support their LGBT children,” Ryan said.
Ryan and the organization’s research has been published in numerous journals and magazines and newspapers. In “Pediatrics,” the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Ryan and her team’s research shows that parents’ rejecting behaviors toward LGB children “dramatically compromises their health, has far reaching implications for changing how families relate to their LGB children and how LGB youth are served by a wide range of providers across systems of care.”
“Our research has established a predictive link between specific, negative family reactions to their child’s sexual orientation and serious health problems for these adolescents in young adulthood — such as depression, illegal drug use, risk for HIV infection, and suicide attempts,” Ryan said. “The new body of research we are generating will help develop resources, tools and interventions to strengthen families, prevent homelessness, reduce the proportion of youth in foster care and significantly improve the lives of LGBT young people and their families.”
More research is being conducted on black families, Asian families and Latino families and extensive research is also being conducted on families and their transgender children as well, Ryan said.
“For youth of color living in a community, the family provides buffer against racism and ethnicity provides source of strength,” Ryan said. “And not to have a focus on families is a great problem when more and more people are coming out in adolescence.”
With bullying and the recent international media attention paid to suicides by LGBT youth, more research is necessary to show how families themselves — not just friends, not just teachers, not just the government — can help young queer people develop coping skills, Ryan added.
“Our research found one that one of the most important things families can do is stand up for [their child] when they are mistreated by others. This says, ‘Iove you, you’re worthwhile’. It is also teaching the child how to stand up for themselves,” Ryan said.
“How we can teach standing up for a child is very important in loving a child.”