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The Difficulty of Coming Out to a Latina Parent: Social Conflict Analysis

(Author: Jeri Ann Simpson)

 

Abstract

Conflicts between adolescents and parents naturally arise.  However, conflict intensifies when a teenager discloses to a parent that they are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.  Even more complicated is an adolescent coming out to a traditional, religious Latino parent.  An adverse reaction by a parent can impact the youth and destroy the rest of their lives. This topic is important to NCRP because the coming out process has never been analyzed and published using conflict principles.  Examining coming out conflicts through the lens of NCRP may produce insights never before raised.   There were two participants; one was a bisexual Latina adolescent and the other, the teenager’s Latina mother.  Given that Latino LGBT youths and their parents are an understudied group, a case study methodology was chosen to examine the coming out conflict experience.  The findings are that conflict principles could explain both the adolescent and parent’s behavior during the process of coming out.  Furthermore, Latino parents of LGBT youth use cultural and religious tools to address post-coming out conflicts. The results underscore that parents’ reactions are connected to views of interpersonal and group identity in LGBT young people and their families.  Future research may provide implications for the practice of conflict resolution, such as mediation and conciliation.

Keywords:  adolescence, coming out, gay and lesbian adolescents, Latino parents and youth, parents, intergroup conflict, social identity, family influence, teenage suicide, parent-adolescent conflict, religion and traditional family values.

Note: Names have been changed to protect identities.

Conflicts between parents and children naturally arise during adolescence due to the teenager’s impulse to develop further independence while parents tend to curb that impulse to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the child.  This conflict intensifies when the adolescent’s desire to acquire independence is the disclosure to the parent that the teenager is gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT).  Both parent and child are co-experiencing the array of emotions that accompany such a revelation.  Mom or dad’s response to the adolescent can run the gamut from acceptance to emotional and physical rejection and the complete collapse of relations (“Youth Suicide Prevention Program,” 2011).  An added difficulty for coming out of LGBT youth is their ethnic and cultural backgrounds (Merighi & Grimes, 2000, p. 32).

This writer’s beautiful 13-year-old stepdaughter drew her to this topic.  Astrid, a Salvadoran-American teen, has recently come out as bisexual to her parents.  Her parents were born and raised in El Salvador, a “country that is deeply religious and conservative, with widespread societal and institutional intolerance towards sexual and gender identities that are different” (Lakhani, 2015).   Astrid’s father, Moises, reacted with calm, love, and acceptance. On the other hand, her mom, Lissette, reacted badly.  New rules were employed forbidding Astrid from friendships with lesbian friends, requiring her to go to church, expressing that it was wrong for a girl to kiss another girl, and suggesting she will do whatever she can to ensure Astrid goes back to being  “normal” girl.  Astrid’s mother is very much ensconced in her Salvadoran customs and beliefs.  She does not speak English and associates only with family and friends who are Salvadoran.  The culturally homogenous family and the social circle may make it difficult for her to accept her child as bisexual.

Parental response to adolescents coming out is a large factor in affecting the teen’s self-esteem, self-acceptance, and feelings of familial security (Newman & Muzzonigro, 1993).  When a parent who reacts badly to an adolescent coming out, the impact on the youth can destroy the rest of her life.  Studying this issue through the lens of NCRP may produce insights never before raised.

Nine percent of adolescents identify as LGBT, which is equal to 3.7 million teenagers.  For many LGBT teens, the hardest decision of their lives is divulging to their parents that they are gay and that they will not fulfill the heterosexual expectations of their parents. In fact, concern about family acceptance is the top problem acknowledged by Latino LGBT teens, and having accepting and supportive families is a basic desire for them (“Latino LGBT youth,” 2012, p. 2). G.J. McDonald (as cited in Savin-Williams, 1989) posits that some teenagers never come out to their parents and become:

afraid and alienated, unable ever to be entirely open and spontaneous, to trust or be trusted, to develop a fully socialized sense of self-affirmation.  This sad stunting of human potential breeds stress for gay people and their families alike—stress characterized by secrecy, ignorance, helplessness, and distance, (p. 2)

A parent’s response to an adolescent coming out is significant to the relationship as well as to the adolescent’s self-esteem.  Teenagers to their mother or father’s response by running away from home, becoming homeless or drug addicted or becoming vulnerable to people who may lead them to prostitution or other criminal behavior (Savin-Williams, 1989).

The coming out conflict is relevant to NCRP theory and practice and has not been published before.  The clash between a parent reacting negatively and an adolescent who just came out is a perfect illustration of fundamental social and identity conflict theory and strategy.

There is an excellent episode of the television series, Edge of Eighteen (Gibney, Park, & Snyder, 2014), where a high school junior, Hanoy Urtarte, is trying to establish a meeting of minds and hearts with his father in regards to Hanoy’s coming out as gay.  It was heart- wrenching to watch this young man try to reason with his father who refused to accept his son as gay.  Hanoy was popular and outgoing at school.  Nevertheless, as soon as he came home from school he withdrew into his bedroom.  He felt that he could not be his true self at home.

The goal and purpose of this study are to analyze the coming out conflict using NCRP theory.  One day it is hoped that a mediation program may be created using conflict resolution methods. In the meantime, Lissette was offered several educational and supportive resources for herself and Astrid:

  • Our True Colors is a resource that offers reading material for heterosexual parents of LGBT children
  • Familia es Familia is an organization that provides comprehensive public education to Latino communities
  • The Family Acceptance Project is a nationwide program that provides videos and guides for how families can support their LGBT child

There are other local resources that were referred to Lissette:  Astrid’s middle school counselor, the nearby YWCA, and the Los Angeles LGBT Youth Center.

This study may be meaningful for Astrid and her mom.  Lissette is not an awful mother, rather she is culturally traditional and unenlightened.  It is challenging to disregard one’s culture and beliefs to accept something so drastically different from one’s experience.

Literature Review

Most literature on parent/child coming out issues pertains to adult LGBT children and written by social workers, psychologists, and physicians.  Very little has been written regarding parents and adolescent coming out conflicts, and even less so about LGBT minorities.

A small body of studies discusses parent/adolescent conflict, but not in the milieu of Latino LGBT youth.  However, the literature revealed that the effect of coming out to families invites feelings of personal loss (Newman & Muzzonigro, 1993), disgrace (Merighi & Grimes, 2000), and moral responsibility (Etengoff & Daiute, 2014) to both family and LGBT youth.  What emerges in the literature is that dominant forces disrupt the social identities of the adolescent as well as the parent (2014).  Teens must take a well-thought-out method when coming out to their families since mom and dad are capable of “inflicting ostracism, rejection, isolation and even violence” (Savin-Williams, 1989, p. 3).

Etengoff and Daiute (2014) suggest that spiritual and family pursuit are frequently interconnected and as such religion is prone to play a meaningful part in parental responses to the coming out process.  Religious, sexual minorities are often afraid to come out to their parents due to their religion’s homo-prohibitive text.  Rodriguez and Ouellette (2000), found the opposite to be true in their examination of LGBT Christians coming out to their parents.  They found that conflict resolution practices learned in their churches assisted both parties to maintain better family cohesion than those who are less religious. Nonetheless, studies show that although faith-based values and ideals might effectively facilitate family and cultural conflicts, they are often employed in methods that harm the family relationship (2014).  For example, in the coming out process God is often invoked to assign blame, guilt, and sin.  Sometimes parents or other family members will incorporate God into these conflicts at the cost of family relationships (2014).

Acquiring an identity is an essential undertaking for teenagers and young adults (Bregman, Malik, Page, Makynen, & Lindahl, 2013).  There is no argument about the significance of parents and family to the growth of an adolescent’s sense of individual and group identity.  Saltzburg (2004) suggests that many parents go through a parallel stage similar to what their gay child is going through, identifying themselves as parents of LGBT teenagers.  In other words, giving them a new identity.  Seltzer and Ryff (1994) posit that for all of a child’s life, parents are faithfully devoted to viewing their child’s successes and failures as signs of their own.  For a mom or dad absorbing the new fact that their teenage child is LGBT, judgmental thoughts about homosexuality might undercut former feelings about their teen as an affirmative feature of themselves (2004).

Newman and Muzzonigro (1993) suggest that much of society in the U.S. believes that homosexuality is discordant with conventional roles.  For ethnic minority LGBT adolescents, role conflicts might be further evident because homosexuality is thought of as objectionable in several of these societies.  Tremble, Schneider, and Appathurai (1989) posit that LGBT teens that try to assimilate a homosexual identity into their culture felt conflicted with “themselves, their family, and their community” (p. 254).  Those feelings are fiercest when the family was religious, their parents hoped their teen would wed and have children, and male-female roles were conventional (Van Doorn, Branje, & Meeus, 2011).

Pruitt and Kim postulate that groups usually have aspirations that are shared by everyone in the group (2004).  Those aspirations are a part of what brings group members together.  Although the child remains a member of the family when she comes out, the parent sees the child and the family’s aspirations growing apart, i.e., no heterosexual marriage, possibly no grandchildren, and the child’s identity within the expanded family.  Savin-Williams (2003) suggests that the range of parental responses is sometimes akin to those felt by those experiencing sorrow and bereavement.  The stages that a parent may go through are shock, denial, anger, guilt, possibly followed by integration and acceptance (2003).  Conversely, the Hetrick-Martin Institute reported of terrible aftermaths for many African-American and Latino adolescents.  Their report states that parents in minority cultures are frequently incapable of getting past their first shock and fury and explode in a bombardment of assault both verbal and physical (Savin-Williams, 1989).

In the Latino population, homosexuality is seen as abnormal and a deviation from their community norms (“Supporting and Caring,” 2012).  Consequently, Latino LGBT youth can be pilloried, seen as anti-family, and not concerned with their community (Newman & Muzzonigro, 1993).  This view isolates many Latino LGBT adolescents from their relatives and community.  Morales (as cited in Savin-Williams, (2003), posits that the Latino support system functions similarly to a tribe with widespread, extended families.  For Latino children, their family “constitutes a symbol of their core roots and the focal point of their ethnic identity” (Savin-Williams, 2003, p. 316) and, therefore, is the foundation of satisfaction and resilience.  Consequently, when teens come out to parents, there is a danger to the relationship with their family and also the Latino community (2012).

Assuming the sensitive significance of the extended family, Latino LGBT teens might think that it is necessary to unavoidably decide that they have to choose between their family and cultural association or their individual sexual identity (“Supporting and Caring,” 2012).  Numerous teens’ trust that they cannot openly reveal their sexual identities because of the shame and humiliation they might bring to their multigenerational extended family (Saltzburg, 2004).

 

Original Component

The purpose of this study is to determine NCRP theories that could explain coming out conflicts.

Methodology

Given that Latino LGBT youths are an understudied group and the search for information embodied in the research question, a case study methodology was chosen to examine the coming out conflict experience.

Participants

The subjects were Astrid and her mom, Lissette.  The relationship between Astrid and the author is loving, warm, and friendly.  Sharing intimate details of her life is something Astrid does freely with the author.  Over time, Lissette and the author have come to appreciate each other; Lissette trusts her with Astrid and is pleased with their rapport.  When asked if Lissette would participate in this project, she was grateful for the opportunity.  The issue had been a pent up secret for her, and she wanted to talk.

They were interviewed independently of each other. The interview questions were open-ended.  That is, there were some basic questions asked of both parties, but there was also an attempt to get free responses, and to follow up with further questions about their conflict.  Each interview lasted slightly over an hour.

Although Astrid’s father, Moises, and Lissette have a stormy relationship, Moises was all right with Lissette and Astrid participating in the interview.  He hoped the experience would have a positive influence on Lissette’s attitude toward Astrid coming out as bisexual.

Data Collection

More weight was assigned to themes instead of questions so that each participant could go in the direction they wanted.  Open-ended questions were used when interviewing Lissette to encourage her to reflect on her thoughts and feelings concerning her interests (needs and desires) and aspirations for herself and Astrid.   She was also asked for her opinions about homosexuality and bisexuality, as well as how Astrid’s revelation concerned her on a personal level.

Lissette reacted negatively to Astrid coming out.  At first, she said, she responded explosively.  She was so angry with Astrid, and wanted her to “stop being bisexual.” After all, it is a sin.  The refusal of her daughter to “mind her” made her feel angry and humiliated.  Astrid should do what she says because “I’m her mother.”  She felt that she did not know Astrid anymore.  How can Astrid be a part of that disgusting crowd of homosexuals?  All of her dreams for Astrid were shattered; there will be no wedding, no children, and no family gatherings with Astrid and her husband.  Lissette’s family and friends will ostracize both of them. She did not speak about the issue with anyone because she was too ashamed to share Astrid’s revelation.  “Maybe I haven’t been a good enough mother,” she said.  “I probably should have taken Astrid to church more often, but I’m taking her now,“ Lissette remarked.  After the initial anger, she said that she calmly but firmly told Astrid that she could not have gay friends, must go to church every Sunday, and only socialize with family. Most importantly, Astrid must not tell anyone about her sexuality.  Consequently, she kept Astrid on a tight leash.

Astrid’s mom’s reaction devastated her.  Family unity and genuine caring are important to her mom, so Astrid did not understand her mother’s response.  When she became angry, Astrid cried telling her that she could not change her bisexuality.  Her mom told her that she may not be able to change Astrid’s thoughts and feelings, but as her mom she could require her to change her behavior.  Astrid said that her mom told her she could be bisexual “inside” but not “outside.”  She said her mom told her that she cannot kiss girls, cannot touch girls, cannot have friendships with girls outside of school, and cannot have sleepovers with girls.  After each confrontation, Astrid avoided and distanced herself from her mother.  Unfortunately, Astrid said, she has to follow her mom’s wishes; as a 13-year-old teen, she feels that she does not have the power to fight her mom on these issues.

After her bad coming out experience, Astrid feared that her father would respond likewise.  Conversely, Moises responded with love and acceptance, and received her news in an encouraging manner; he became Astrid’s ally throughout her process of coming out.  Unfortunately, he used this alliance as one more reason to speak badly of Lissette.  This was done in front of Astrid, so as to negatively influence Astrid and Lissette’s relationship even further.  The conflict between Moises and Lissette is another story unto itself, and will not be addressed here.

NCRP Theory

Astrid and her mom are engaged in a social conflict.  Pruitt and Kim (2004) say that a social conflict is where the party aspires to an outcome that the other is unwilling to provide. Similar to a much larger conflict they have competing interests, different identities, and differing attitudes. Lissette and Astrid are correspondingly engaged in an intergroup conflict. Tajfel and Turner (2004) developed social identity theory to explain that the sheer existence of an out-group is enough to provoke intergroup discrimination by the in-group.

Lissette’s needs and wants are that her bisexual child be “normal” again.  She wants Astrid to “stop being bisexual,” and to stop socializing with lesbian girls.  On the other hand, Astrid needs her mom’s understanding and acceptance of her bisexuality.

Lissette has never known anyone who is bisexual, she said.  How can Astrid be part of the family if she claims to be a bisexual?  Astrid will be rejected, she said.  Based on the interview with her, Lissette no longer identifies with her daughter and is afraid that Astrid will only identify as bisexual. Astrid on the other hand says she still identifies with both cultures–Latino and gay, although she fears how her extended family would react if they knew of her bisexuality.

Lissette’s chosen strategy in response to Astrid coming out was to contend: arguing her position without taking into consideration the reality of how her child identifies herself.  Astrid’s friendships were restricted unless she stopped being bisexual, which led to Astrid choosing avoidance and yielding as her strategy.  When Astrid withdrew from her mom, Lissette went on to use more contentious tactics.  She tried to shame Astrid into obedience without knowing that the greatest danger in doing so was to drive Astrid away.

Lissette was trying to impose her authority upon Astrid by venting her anger and frustration on her.  Pruitt and Kim (2004) call this contending. Astrid knows that she must abide by her mother’s wishes, and had to lower her aspirations by settling for what her mom wanted.  Astrid withdrew from family functions, stayed in her room, and became depressed.  Pruitt and Kim (2004) call this yielding and avoiding. Lissette and Astrid’s conflict exists because their aspirations are incompatible, and the alternative for each of them leaves them dissatisfied. Neither of them is happy with their discord.

When Astrid came out to her heterosexual mom, they were both at risk for upheaval to their group identity. The family group and Latino culture to which Lissette and Astrid belong is part of their identity.  In the case of Astrid coming out to Lissette, Lissette felt she and Astrid had lost that group identity.  Astrid is now part of the bisexual community–an out-group.  This new identity did not necessarily need to lead to conflict except for the fact that Lissette finds bisexuality to be sinful and disdainful (2013).  For Astrid, this is especially challenging since she wants to acknowledge and incorporate a bisexual identity within her family and cultural identity (Newman & Muzzonigro, 1993).

Discussion

Generally, both the adolescent and parent’s behavior during the coming out process can be explained using conflict principles.  For example, Pruitt and Kim (2004) describe the term conflict, as a “perceived divergence of interest,” a conviction that the parties’ needs and wants are conflicting. This case study involves a Latina adolescent coming out as bisexual to her traditional mother.  Their conflict involves distinctive ways in which they engaged in the conflict in an attempt to resolve it.

Reviewed literature, other than Pruitt and Kim (2004), were not based in conflict principles.  Nonetheless, they provided rich detail concerning the manner of coming out, and the parent and child’s angst that results in a conflict.

This analysis affirmed Etengoff and Daiute’s (2013) and Newman and Mussonigro’s (1993) findings that religious faith and traditional family values emerge as cultural tools to defend the parent’s position.  It further supported that religious parents sometimes use their faith in relationally insensitive ways.  The parent in this project revealed that she used guilt and sin as one of her power dynamics.  At the same time, she felt morally responsible (2013) for her child’s sexuality since she had not taken her to church consistently.  Saltzburg’s (2004) suggestion that parents perceive a new identity was noted when the mother felt isolated since she now partially identified as a parent of a bisexual daughter. Merighi and Grimes’s (2000) research was affirmed when mom limited involvement in socializing within her Salvadoran friends and family to shield her from shame and embarrassment. The interviews affirmed Seltzer and Ryff’s (1994) assessment that parents, such as this study’s mother, may view their child’s failure as their own.  No longer feeling as though her child is the same as she was prior to coming out, the mom’s disgust at her daughter’s bisexuality weakened her former positive feelings toward her.  Van Doorn, Branje, and Meeus (2001) were accurate in their assessment of doomed aspirations.  The mom had high hopes of presenting her daughter at her Quinceanera or seeing her marry in the church.  However, she does not yet know if Astrid still likes “girl things” any longer.  How would her daughter identify herself if she got married, “husband or the wife?”

Large or small a conflict concerns two or more sides in circumstances where both parties want an outcome that the other party ostensibly is disinclined to provide (Pruitt & Kim, 2004).  The mom in this project used a key conflict strategy known as contending (2004), which means asserting her authority to insist upon her desired wishes on her child.  The adolescent used another fundamental conflict strategy called yielding (2004), which is reducing her desires and compromising what she wanted, and avoiding (2004), not engaging in the conflict by withdrawing.

Further escalating the conflict was the mom’s self-concept that was misaligned from her daughter’s.  The mother’s in-group is her Salvadoran family, her church, and her heterosexual identity.  Her child’s bisexuality has made her part of an out-group since mom sees her daughter as part of the LGBT community, a group mom rejects.

If Lissette eventually accepts her child’s bisexuality, this will be a positive conflict.  Astrid would have changed her mother’s perceptions of what it is to be LGBT, essentially enlightening her mom’s way of thinking.  If Lissette does not ultimately accept Astrid’s bisexuality, this will be a negative conflict.  They would remain at a stalemate, which can lead to estrangement or worse (1989).

Conclusion

The results presented here provide the first analysis of the coming out process using NCRP theory.  The focus was to analyze the Latino parent-adolescent coming out process using social and interpersonal conflict theory. The results cannot be generalized beyond the two individuals who participated.  Nevertheless, participants shared experiences suggesting that Latino parents of LGBT youth use cultural and religious tools to address post-coming out challenges and conflicts.  The results underscore that a parent’s reaction may be linked to significant sensitivities of interpersonal and group identity in LGBT teens and their families.

Future studies ought to enlarge the sample scope and NCRP theories and practices that were analyzed.  Existing text indicates that there is difficulty when using a test group of teens that are both ethnic and sexual minorities. Such adolescents are less prone than white teens to come out to their family due to an increased fear of rejection (Etengoff & Daiute, 2014).  Since this paper was intended to be the first empirical use of conflict assessment, it was quite basic in its use of conflict theory.  However, with more research there may be implications for the practice of conflict resolution, such as mediation and conciliation.  In addition, the participants were Salvadoran females.  Expanding research to include male and female LGBT youth in other Latino cultures may provide different findings.  Research samples with other Latino ethnic minorities might detect leitmotifs and implications that did not arise here.  Studying conflicts that exist between parents and youths of other Latino LGBT groups ought to expose added viewpoints and levels of understanding vital for conflict analysis.

References

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Etengoff, C., & Daiute, C. (2014). Family members’ uses of religion in post-coming-out conflicts with their gay relative. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 6(1), 33-43. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0035198

Gibney, A. (Executive Producer), Park, B. M. (Executive Producer), & Snyder, D. (Executive Producer). (2014, September 7). Episode 1 [TV series episode]. In A. Gibney (Producer), Edge of eighteen. Retrieved from http://america.aljazeera.com/watch/shows/edge-of-eighteen.html

Lakhani, N. (2015, August 15). LGBT in El Salvador: Beatings, intolerance, death. Aljazeera. Retrieved from http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2015/08/lgbt-el-salvador-beatings-intolerance-death-150805075132892.html

Merighi, J. R., & Grimes, M. D. (2000). Coming out to families in a multicultural context. Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Human Services, 81(1), 32-41. http://dx.doi.org/10.1606/1044-3894.1090

Newman, B. S., & Muzzonigro, P. G. (1993, Spring). The effects of traditional family values on the coming out process of gay adolescents. Adolescence, 28(109), 213-225. Retrieved from http://0-web.b.ebscohost.com.torofind.csudh.edu/ehost/detail/detail?vid=3&sid=84ca28cf-1c19-4077-b2e9-b1994fa1b354%40sessionmgr106&hid=124&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZSZzY29wZT1zaXRl#AN=9306106667&db=aph

Pruitt, D. G., & Kim, S. H. (2004). Social conflict: Escalation, stalemate, and settlement (3rd ed.). New York, N.Y.: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.

Rodriguez, E. M., & Ouellette, S. C. (2000). Gay and lesbian Christians: Homosexual and religious identity integration in the members and participants of a gay-positive church. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 39, 333-347. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/0021-8294.00028

Saltzburg, S. (2004, January). Learning that an adolescent child is gay or lesbian: The parent experience. Social Work, 49(1), 109-118. Retrieved from http://sw.oxfordjournals.org/content/49/1/109.full.pdf

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Savin-Williams, R. C. (2003). Lesbian, gay, and bisexual youths’ relationships with their parents. In L. Garnets & D. C. Kimmel (Eds.), Psychological perspectives on lesbian, gay, and bisexual experiences (2nd ed., pp. 299-326). New York, NY: Colombia University Press.

Seltzer, M., & Ryff, C. D. (1994). Parenting across the life span: The normative and non-normative cases. In D. L. Featherman, R. M. Lerner, & M. Perlmutter (Eds.), Life-span development and behavior (pp. 1-40). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Supporting and caring for our Latino LGBT youth. (2012). Retrieved from www.hrc.org/latinoyouth

Tremble, B., Schneider, M., & Appathurai, C. (1989). Growing up gay or lesbian in a multicultural context. Journal of Homosexuality, 17(314), 253-267. http://dx.doi.org/10.1300/J082v17n03-03

Van Doorn, M. D., Branje, S. J., & Meeus, W. H. (2011, January). Developmental changes in conflict resolution styles in parent–adolescent relationships: A four-wave longitudinal study. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 40, 97–107. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10964-010-9516-7

Youth Suicide Prevention Program. (2011). Retrieved from http://www.yspp.org/about_suicide/gay_lesbian_FAQs.htm#seven

Credits

I wish to thank Lissette and Crisbell for their generous invitation into their home.  I deeply appreciate them sharing such private and intimate details about their conflict experience.

I also wish to thank my husband for his subtle permission to allow me into the raw details of the lives of his ex-wife and daughter.  I knew I married a good man.

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