Friday, November 5, 2010

Concerns of Parents of Lesbians and Gays: Interview with Cynthia Conley, Ph.D.

Risk for suicide among gay youth has caught a lot of attention in the American media as of late. There have been a number of youth who have been bullied because they have been gay or perceived to be gay and who have consequently died by suicide. Dan Savage and friends and colleagues and supporters have put together an amazing project called "It Gets Better" ( focusing on the issue of youth suicide for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, question and queer teens.

Now there is good reason for this. According to the U.S. Government’s Report of the Secretary's Task Force on Youth Suicide, gay and lesbian youth bear an increased risk of suicide, substance abuse, school problems, and isolation because of a "hostile and condemning environment, verbal and physical abuse, rejection and isolation from [peers and family]" (Gibson, 1989). Social worker and pioneer gay and lesbian researcher Caitlin Ryan, found that lesbian, gay, and bisexual young adults who reported higher levels of family rejection during adolescence were 8.4 times more likely to report having attempted suicide, 5.9 times more likely to report high levels of depression, 3.4 times more likely to use illegal drugs, and 3.4 times more likely to report having engaged in unprotected sexual intercourse compared with peers from families that reported no or low levels of family rejection (Ryan, Huebner, Diaz, & Sanchez, 2009).

So, here’s the thing. Families who reject their kids are doing their kids a huge disservice. And that’s the point of today’s podcast. Today I’m talking with Dr. Cynthia Conley about the concerns of heterosexual parents of gay and lesbian youth.

Cynthia Conley, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor in the Department of Social Work at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. Her research focuses on parental concerns about having gay and lesbian children. Currently, Professor Conley is investigating the types of clinical interventions used with heterosexual parents of gay and lesbian children to develop a best practice model to improve family cohesion during the coming out crisis. Professor Conley has worked with LGBT adolescents and their parents since the late 1990s, focusing on heterosexual parent’s acceptance of their LGBT children. She provides consultation to organizations, educational institutions, and service providers on working with families of LGBT children. She received her B.A. from Purdue University, her MSW from Indiana University, and her Ph.D. from the University of Louisville.

So here’s the pop quiz for you: When lesbian or gay youth come out to their parents, what concerns are their parents most likely to have? Well, I’m not going to answer - you’ll have to listen to the podcast for that. And I hope you like it. So, on to episode 62 of the Social Work Podcast, Concerns of Parents of Gays and Lesbians: An Interview with Dr. Cynthia Conley.

Download MP3 [26:54]

Contact Info:
Cynthia Conley, Ph.D., MSW
Assistant Professor
Department of Social Work
Ball State University
Fine Arts Building, Rm. 227C
Muncie, Indiana 47306
email address removed due to hate mail

Jonathan Singer: Cyndi, thanks so much for being here today and, talking with us about how to talk to parents, who have gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or questioning teens.

Cynthia Conley: Thank you Jonathan, I appreciate the opportunity to come in and, talk about this topic.

Jonathan Singer: I know it’s a significant focus of your research, and, and I’m very excited about this conversation because, there’s been a lot of information out there about, LGBTQ, individuals, but there’s not much out there about the parents is there?

Cynthia Conley: You are, you’re very correct about that, there is, there’s a huge gap, and as you said it that’s, this is my, primary research topic I’m very passionate about, really trying to help families, who have gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender children, I just really want to continue my research and, really investigating, the concerns or the experiences that parents have when, they learn about their children’s sexual orientations, or their gender identities.

Jonathan Singer: So let me ask you a question, I’m sitting at my office, I get a phone call, I’m in an agency, I’m at a hospital, I’m somewhere, and parent calls up and they say I’m, I’m freaking out, I think my kid might be gay.

Cynthia Conley: Um hm

Jonathan Singer: What do I do with that?

Cynthia Conley: Sure, well you know of course as, as any good practitioner would do is address the, feelings first and, in my practice and my research experience, you know I found that there are three dominant concern areas, that parents experience, when they learn that their children are gay or lesbian. One of the, the dominant areas is around, their own feelings of, the loss of loved ones, so, parents experience, concern that they may, lose friends, if their friends find out that they have a gay or lesbian child, parents are very much concerned about, that their loved ones will avoid them, if they find out, and so, as a practitioner you can address, you know the specific area by asking, you know when your son or daughter, came out as gay or lesbian to what extent, you know were or are you concerned you may lose friends, you know, and you can certainly have the parent then, you know say well, you can have them rank order it, you know, on a scale of 1 to 5, you know 1 being not concerned at all to, 5 being extremely concerned, to understand the level of concern that parent is experiencing in that particular area. So love loss is one, particular area of parents’ concern.

Jonathan Singer: So for this, hypothetical parent that calls me, one of the things that I need to keep in mind is that, one of their reactions might be, how’s this going to affect me?

Cynthia Conley: Yes

Jonathan Singer: How, how’s this going to affect my social life, how’s this going to affect the way that people think of me as a parent, maybe I’m going to lose my friends, maybe my family’s going to reject me...

Cynthia Conley: Yes

Jonathan Singer: ...because my kid is gay.

Cynthia Conley: Right. Yeah, and you can really kind of, categorize this as internal, versus external, concerns. Internal concerns as far as, you know, oh my gosh, what’s the outside world, what’s society going to think of me? And then there’s the external concerns, oh my gosh, I have concerns for, my child’s physical, psychological, and social well-being. So, if you want to look at internal concerns versus external concerns, that’s certainly, one helpful way of looking at, this issues.

Jonathan Singer: So what are some of the - you said that there were three ways of, of thinking about this...

Cynthia Conley: Sure

Jonathan Singer: ...three areas.

Cynthia Conley: So, you know the next you know dominant, area of concern is really, parents’ concerns for their, physical, psychological, and social well-being. They’re very concerned about, you know whether or not, their child will be physically assaulted, whether they will be verbally assaulted, they are, very concerned as to whether their child’s self-esteem will suffer, as a result of belonging to a stigmatized group, as well as their social well-being, you know, will my child makes friends, because, they are gay or lesbian, will my child have equal civil rights, because they are gay or lesbian. So, those three areas you can, you can certainly again, you know, ask questions of the parents in the same kind of format, you know, are you concerned, you know now that your child has come out or, you believe that your child is gay or lesbian, you know you could certainly ask questions around, you know this area, are you concerned that, they will be physically assaulted, are you concerned that they will not receive good health care. So, these are the kinds of questions that, can certainly tap into the physical, and again you know the psychological, concern for the psychological well-being, you could ask them, you know are you concerned that, you know your child’s self-esteem will be okay, that, they will be proud about who they are, and then again the social, aspects as far as, the concerns, you can ask that, you know are you concerned that your child will not, have equal civil rights, those are three areas within, the dominant area of child well-being.

Jonathan Singer: Okay so, let me just make sure I, I’m understanding, so the first area would be this love loss,

Cynthia Conley: Love loss, right.

Jonathan Singer: and that’s,

Cynthia Conley: I’m afraid I’m going to lose friends.

Jonathan Singer: I’m afraid I’m going to lose friends, there’s going to be so love loss for me.

Cynthia Conley: Yes, I’m afraid my neighbors are going to reject me, and I’m afraid that, yes my loved ones will avoid me.

Jonathan Singer: And then the second area is, it’s not about the parent it’s, it’s really that parenting,

Cynthia Conley: Yes, it’s external.

Jonathan Singer: yeah, it’s my concern for my child,

Cynthia Conley: Child well-being.

Jonathan Singer: is somebody going to beat up my kid?

Cynthia Conley: Yes

Jonathan Singer: You know, the hate crimes,

Cynthia Conley: Yes

Jonathan Singer: is there going to be some you know, now my kid won’t be able to, have equal protection under the law,

Cynthia Conley: Right

Jonathan Singer: that sort of thing, okay,

Cynthia Conley: Yep

Jonathan Singer: good I’m getting it, and what’s the third area of concern?

Cynthia Conley: Okay, and then the third area, which is you could say that it’s somewhat related to the love loss, that public perception, area is, concerns about society’s perception, of them as parents, so almost like this social desirability, so, you know are you concerned that, you will be judged a parenting failure by society, because your child is gay or lesbian? Are you, concerned that, your child is gay or lesbian because you did not spend enough time with them, as a parent, all of these types of items, speak to, oh my gosh, what is society going to think about me, if I didn’t do these things and my kid is gay, or lesbian? Okay, what are people going to think about me, the gaze is upon them.

Jonathan Singer: No pun intended.

Cynthia Conley: Yes that’s right, that’s right.

Jonathan Singer: [chuckling] So the third area is really, society’s perception

Cynthia Conley: Yes

Jonathan Singer: of, the parent,

Cynthia Conley: Yes

Jonathan Singer: because your kid is gay, you must have screwed up as a parent.

Cynthia Conley: Yes, yes

Jonathan Singer: Which is different than, because your kid is gay I no longer want to be your friend.

Cynthia Conley: Yes

Jonathan Singer: Right, okay, I get it! And, all of those seem to be, totally, reasonable concerns,

Cynthia Conley: Yes

Jonathan Singer: that a parent would have, to say, will my friends reject me? Will my kid get hurt? And will people think of me as a failure as a parent?

Cynthia Conley: That’s right, I mean and the parents you know they experience the effects of, the stigma surrounding homosexuality, just like their children do, you know the parents certainly, experience what is coined as, “courtesy stigma”, by the work of a sociologist, Erving Goffman, and um, there’s you know, little research out there that really studies these ill effects that the parents experience, and there’s you know, relatively, few supports, you know for these parents, you know there’s a lot of, knowledge to be built in this area, through practice and research.

Jonathan Singer: So let’s say that, I’m talking with a parent, and I have these three areas in my mind, and a parent is talking about say, I’m totally freaking out because, you know my grandfather’s birthday’s coming up and I know that if he finds out, he’s gonna totally disown me, and, he’s not going to want to have anything to do with my son, and it’s just it’s going to tear the family apart.

Cynthia Conley: Um hm

Jonathan Singer: Is there something specific that I should say in response, or can I just use, my clinical skills, to address it in the way that I am, trained or most comfortable.

Cynthia Conley: There’s really so little known , in this area that, you know I can give you, kind of a code book response, you know to this, you know however I, the parents, are going to experience again, the, similar notion of coming out, just like their children, um

Jonathan Singer: Like the parents have to come out

Cynthia Conley: The parents have to come out as well

Jonathan Singer: to society, as a parent,

Cynthia Conley: Yes

Jonathan Singer: of a kid who is

Cynthia Conley: That’s right, the parents have to come out, and um, you know, so they have their own coming out experience as much like their children. You know as a practitioner, you know if I were to, address that question, certainly I would not advise, that parent, to come out, okay? I mean I would, I’m not going to advise a client to come out, they have to be ready

Jonathan Singer: They have to want to come out.

Cynthia Conley: and they have to want to come out and there, this is a process, just like the identity development, of their, LGBT children, there’s an identity development process for parents, of LGBT children, and they have to work through this, I mean it’s a journey, and, um, you know, I would, you know certainly as a clinician, I would explore the feelings around that, you know, I’m afraid of this, of coming out to my, you know, my parents and what they’re going to think about, you know me for having a gay or lesbian child and, you know I’d advise them they’ll you know, it’s okay, for you to not reveal this information until you’re ready, as a clinician I would focus on the feelings, her feelings of concern, or her feelings of anxiety.

Jonathan Singer: So I can see how this, would be, really useful, when talking with a parent. I’m wondering if you think, it would be useful to talk to, the child, if you happen to have that type of relationship with a kid whose thinking of coming out or has come out to you but not come out to, his or her parent, um, to talk to them, about well these are some things that your parents might be concerned about.

Cynthia Conley: Sure, sure, and I think it would be very beneficial to, an LGBT client, to have this information, if they have not come out to their parents, they can, use this information to guide conversations with their parents, you know depending on the strength of that relationship, you know the LGBT child or adolescent, young adult, they, might be able to anticipate what concerns parents may have, they may have picked up that, oh my gosh, mom or dad are really concerned, about what others think about you know, having pink flamingos in the front of the house, so if they’re very concerned about, you know what others think, then maybe this might be a large area of concern for their parents. So this can, you know certainly, be a conversation starter, to understand these concerns.

Jonathan Singer: And I can imagine that if I were the kid, and I was coming out, and my parents were like, oh my God it’s all about me, that could be very disconnecting

Cynthia Conley: Yes

Jonathan Singer: but if I knew in advance, that their parents might be concerned about how their neighbors are going to react or you know are friends going to reject them, and I’m able to have that conversation with my therapist or my social worker, in advance that it wouldn’t be a disconnect, it would be a, oh, this is what Cyndi and I talked about, right, okay, yeah my parents are reacting, huh.

Cynthia Conley: Right, you know and there might you know the fact is that there may be, other, LGBT family members, somewhere that, if mom you know reacted you know in a positive manner to, finding out that Uncle Bill, was, gay, you can certainly, you know, estimate that okay well, you know maybe my, mom’s reaction to my own sexual orientation may not be a s bad, as what I anticipate.

Jonathan Singer: So Cyndi one of the things that, we always talk with social work students about, there’s a big push for social workers to know, why they’re doing what they’re doing. So you’ve just talked about these three areas, that would be important to, talk with parents about, but, you know how do I know that I should talk about these three areas and not, three other areas, or what makes these three areas legitimate, how did you come up with them? And why should social workers use them?

Cynthia Conley: Sure, that’s a great question Jonathan. Um, there’s three steps, really, I first went to the literature, and I reviewed, the research out there, that, was on parents reactions, to, learning about, having a gay or lesbian child, and you know, there was very little literature out there, on this particular area but, what I did, find it certainly supported my work in my practice, with LGBT individuals. And then I took this information and then I went and did some qualitative work in which I, conducted focus groups, with parents of, LGBT children who belonged or who attended PFLAG support meetings, and PFLAG Parents Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, because I wanted to see okay are these themes in the literature, and they still present, and um, that was very fruitful study, and from that information you know I did a, content analysis and um, on those themes and then I developed items, specific questions for, a scale actually of 55 items, and then I conducted a pilot study, of this scale, of the COPLAG scale on a national level, to, parents within PFLAG, who had an LGBT child. So that was the three steps taken, and so, in, in doing that of course with the statistical analysis, in doing various factor analysis I found that, these three, areas really clump together, these are the three predominant concern areas, that exist, it’s parents own concerns about, their own love loss, that’s, certainly, parents’ concerns about their child’s physical psychological and social well-being, and then the last, particular, cluster, factor, is really around, social desirability, in which I call “parent-ego”, it’ really about, oh my gosh, what is parent, what are what’s society going to think about me, because I’m a parent of a stigmatized child, so those are the three areas that kind of, really, you know shook out during all that statistical fun work.

Jonathan Singer: So you’ve created this scale, is this something that, social worker, would use with a parent right now, or a client?

Cynthia Conley: Eventually, yes

Jonathan Singer: Eventually, okay.

Cynthia Conley: eventually yes, I mean and I’m continuing you know, doing ongoing validation work and right now I’m in the process of doing a confirmatory factor analysis so that I can, certainly confirm these three areas, of concern, um, that exist you know, among this population, of actually parents who, are members or attend PFLAG. I’m also, um, confirming, you know these three concern areas I’m also confirming these, among different sample populations of parents, of LGBT children, who do not attend PFLAG. So, you know, so, certainly trying to access parents, you know, of LGBT children who do not go to support groups or, or therapy you know for this issue, but you know who can be accessed through various, for instance uh, gay-friendly churches or synagogues, so that I can, say alright, well this is these concern areas are pretty consistent, across you know various sample populations of parents.

Jonathan Singer: So it sounds like, these three areas that you are talking about are, based on, literature that you reviewed, focus groups, and then this, these psychometric techniques

Cynthia Conley: Yes

Jonathan Singer: About, um, these crazy statistics.

Cynthia Conley: Yes

Jonathan Singer: And through that it’s not that you set out to, say, oh, love loss, you know concerns about my kid, and, how society views my parenting, like those weren’t the three areas that you,

Cynthia Conley: No

Jonathan Singer: I’m going to create a scale and I’m going to test that and now I’ve proved it.

Cynthia Conley: No

Jonathan Singer: No, so this is what panned out.

Cynthia Conley: Yeah this is what panned out,

Jonathan Singer: Okay

Cynthia Conley: it’s you know 55 items and then when you, when you do the, you know the fun statistical analyses, this is what prevailed, it was you know three strong factors where, you have several items, you know there were four specific questions or items, that, aligned strongly, on, you know one factor, and that one particular factor when you look at what’s going on with these items, parents’ concerns that, they will you know, their loved ones will avoid them or that, they will be rejected by their parents, when you really look at the theme there, it’s around parents’ own, concerns that they’re going to lose love ones, because of having an LGBT child.

Jonathan Singer So the social workers that are out there that are listening to this, and are thinking oh, I would love to follow up with, you know this particular parent, on these three issues, um, can they, can they contact you?

Cynthia Conley: They can contact me and, you know and, you know as a practitioner, you know I would, certainly, you know if I was going to address one of the specific, areas of concern first, um, I would certainly address the parent’s concern over their child’s, physical psychological and social well-being, because it can be threatening to a parent, to be asked, are you just concerned about yourself, and not your child?

Jonathan Singer: And I mean when I think about, societal stigma about parents having a gay or lesbian kid or, loss of friends I mean that’s really, so much about the parents doing their own work,

Cynthia Conley: Um hm

Jonathan Singer: you know it’s like okay so, you know my, my 14 year old son whose gay, like he can’t control whether or not Aunt Betty, rejects me as the parent, you know and so, while it’s totally a reasonable and valid concern it’s very different than, this parental function of protecting my child and,

Cynthia Conley: Yes

Jonathan Singer: make sure that my child is able to, have a, sort of quote un quote normal, adolescence as possible,

Cynthia Conley: Right

Jonathan Singer: they seem to be very different,

Cynthia Conley: Yes

Jonathan Singer: yeah.

Cynthia Conley: That’s true, very good, that’s a great point yes they are they are very different, so, but um, you know, and they’re going to again they’re going to just vary, on the degree, but you know as far as the level of concern and the magnitude you know you’re going to find some parents who, are, very concerned that, that they’re going to lose friends, and you might, but on the other, you know particular concern areas, such as their, you know child’s, social well-being they’ll be extremely high or, um, vice versa, I mean there are some, you know I’ve seen some, parents’ responses in this pilot work where, you know, parents are not concerned that their child will be, you know verbally assaulted, but, you know they are, concerned that, society may consider them a parenting failure, for having a stigmatize child so, it’s, I have to tell you Jonathan it’s really kind of all over the place right now, you know, we don’t have a good enough grasp of what’s going on, and so, you know the development of the scale was really, a way to really start, you know bridging this gap in the extant literature, because, you know one of the things that you know and the goals that I really want to get to is, let’s look at some of the, you know factors that are going to predict, these parental reactions to learning about having a gay or lesbian child. You know, that’s where I really want to take this, because we don’t know, and so if we, can first you know figure out, what are the effective experiences, what are the feelings, what are the concerns, behind these reactions, if we can find, you know a little bit more out about, you know this particular area then maybe we can start building, towards okay, well, what kind of, can predict, you know, these concerns, what predicts these feelings, so.

Jonathan Singer: That sounds like uh, I’ll be interviewing you in a couple years about the predictors [chuckle]

Cynthia Conley: I would welcome that I would welcome that

Jonathan Singer: [chuckle] Just to wrap up because I think this is really important stuff, you were saying that there were three areas,

Cynthia Conley: Um hm, um hm

Jonathan Singer: that parents are concerned about…

Cynthia Conley: Yes, love loss, child well-being, and parent-ego. Parents are concerned about their own love loss, about their child’s physical, psychological, and social well-being, and the third area, the parent-ego is what I call it and, that and they are concerned about, what society thinks of them as parents, as a result of that, having a stigmatize child.

Jonathan Singer: Well Cyndi, thanks again for, for being here and talking with us about how to address parents’ concerns about having a gay or lesbian kid.

Cynthia Conley: Thank you so much Jonathan it’s been a pleasure and, certainly I hope that you’ll have me back in the future when I can, talk about the predictors, of parental reactions.

Jonathan Singer: I look forward to that.

Cynthia Conley: Great, thank you.

Jonathan Singer: I’m Jonathan Singer and thanks for being with me today for another episode of the Social Work Podcast. If you missed an episode, or have suggestions for future episodes, please visit If you’d like to support the Podcast, please visit our online store at To all the social workers out there keep up the good work, we’ll see you next time at the Social Work Podcast.

-- End --

Conley, C. (2011, forthcoming). The Development and Initial Validation of the COPLAG Scale: Measuring the Concerns of Parents of Lesbians and Gays. Journal of Gay and Lesbian Social Services.

Gibson, P. (1989), "Gay and Lesbian Youth Suicide", in Fenleib, Marcia R. (ed.), Report of the Secretary's Task Force on Youth Suicide, United States Government Printing Office, ISBN 0160025087

Ryan, C., Huebner, D., Diaz R. M., & Sanchez, J. (2009). Family Rejection as a Predictor of Negative Health Outcomes in White and Latino Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Young Adults. Pediatrics, 123, 346-352. Retreived from

Homosexuality (n.d.). Available at

Resources for Parents
Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG)
1828 L Street, NW
Suite 660
Washington, D.C. 20036
Phone: (202) 467-8180
Fax: (202) 467-8194
General e-mail:

Books for Parents
Straight Parents, Gay Children: Keeping Families Together
Robert A Bernstein, Thunder’s Mouth Press,2003

Straight Parents, Gay Children: Inspiring Families to Live Honestly and with Pride
Robert Bernstein, Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2003

Now That You Know
Betty Fairchild and Nancy Hayward. Harvest Books, 1998

Out of the Twilight: Fathers of Gay Men Speak
Andrew Gottlieb. Haworth Press, 2000

Beyond Acceptance: Parents of Lesbians and Gays Talk About Their Experiences
Griffen et al. St Martin’s Press, 1997

Different Daughters: A Book by Mothers of Lesbians
Louise Rafkin (ED). Cleis Press, 2001

Resource for LGBT adolescents/young adults
The GLBT National Youth Talkline (youth serving youth through age 25)
Toll-free 1-800-246-PRIDE (1-800-246-7743)

APA (6th ed) citation for this podcast: 

Singer, J. B. (Host). (2010, November, 5). Concerns of parents of lesbians and gays: Interview with Cynthia Conley, Ph.D. [Episode 62]. Social Work Podcast. Podcast retrieved Month Day, Year, from


margaret said...

As a clinical social worker in a rural area, I'm more often serving this parent population than the LGBTQ community members, who often move to more receptive and diverse communities as young adults. Thank you, Drs. Singer and Conley. The information provided about parents' concerns and fears, along with the positive clinical direction, are fully appreciated.
I regret to see that Dr. Conley's email address is unavailable due to hate mail. That is a sad statement on our society's lack of humanity.

Unknown said... is like we have gone back in time...I think it also has a lot to do with where you are located geography I moved 7 years ago to "the bible belt" and let me tell you what a change from up north...More education is diffinetly needed..Thank you for bring this to the media..Thank you for reaching out and sharing you knowledge and concern for this issue...