Amanda Wilson is the Executive Director for PFLAG Birmingham (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). She and her husband, Ed, have lived in Birmingham for 34 years. They went to their first PFLAG Birmingham meeting in October of 2004 after their son Evan came out to them. Amanda is also in this year’s Leadership Birmingham class.
I am the parent of a young gay man. I love him because of who he is. When he came out to his dad and me, I felt many things: fear for how the world would respond to him, grief at the possibility of not having any grandchildren and a major shift in how I saw him. I was afraid of telling anyone. I didn’t want any of our family members to react in a negative way – I wanted to protect him from possible hurt. I reached out to a psychologist, and he recommended a group called PFLAG, Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. I began attending the monthly support meetings in 2004 and have not stopped since.
I have learned so much from the people who come to our PFLAG meetings, some of whom are parents like me, others of whom are friends and allies or LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning) people themselves. I have made some very dear friends, shared in many peoples’ stories and gained a real “cause” in my life.
In my work with PFLAG, I have had the opportunity to learn about the importance of family acceptance. Most parents want their children to grow up happy and healthy. Research by Caitlin Ryan and associates (2009) at San Francisco State University showed that high levels of family rejection of their LGBTQ child/adolescent lead to negative physical health and mental health outcomes. LGBTQ youth and young adults who reported higher levels of family rejection 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 to their peers who grew up in families that reported no or low levels of family rejection. The truly amazing results from this study showed that, if parents can move from highly rejecting to moderately rejecting or from moderately rejecting to low levels of rejection, that change yields a very positive outcome for their LGBTQ son’s or daughter’s health and mental health. Even if a family doesn’t become totally accepting, moving part of the way toward full acceptance makes a big difference.
An area where I have grown and changed is how I think about sexuality. I grew up in a time when you were either a boy or a girl, either straight or gay. Over the past 3 years or so, I have learned how important it is NOT to think in either-or terms. I am also learning that people “own their identity”: you are who you say you are. I am not an expert on this, nor am I really sure that I understand totally what these concepts mean. I now believe that defining yourself as being on a spectrum of gender identity and sexual orientation (attraction) is a healthy way of accepting yourself for who you are, a process that is key to becoming a productive, happy adult. I am also learning that appearances are misleading. You’d think that at 60, I’d have learned this a little earlier! However, I believe it is one of those internal prejudices that needs constant monitoring throughout life. I truly cannot tell from someone’s haircut or clothes how they define themselves, nor should I.
My work with PFLAG has changed my life. My hope is that some of what I’ve done with and through PFLAG has changed others’ lives as well.
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