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Professional News
Latino Parents Avoid Talks About Sexual Orientation
Psychiatric News
Volume 42 Number 23 page 8-8

Most Latino parents do not discuss bullying related to sexual orientation with their children, although most think such attacks are wrong, regardless of the youth's orientation, a recent survey indicates.

The findings from a nationwide survey of Latino parents released by Mental Health America (MHA) in October are part of an effort to educate that community about the mental health consequences of bullying, especially for homosexual youth, who often make easy targets for bullies.

"It is critical to raise awareness in parents in general, and in Latino parents in particular, because this survey.. .found that nearly a quarter were unaware that bullying of gay students happens at all, even though we know this is very common," said Sergio Aguilar-Gaxiola, M.D., Ph.D., board chair of MHA, during a conference call following the survey's release.

The July phone survey, which was offered in English or Spanish and completed by 503 Latino adult respondents, found that nearly all Latino parents (95 percent) believe it is important that their children get information about sexual orientation directly from them, although a substantial majority (64 percent) have not had such conversations with their children.

In addition, 70 percent said they do not feel they are prepared to talk with their children about people who are gay. The study's authors noted that particularly significant is that 63 percent of the surveyed parents believe it is important for parents to teach their children that it is wrong to treat other people differently because of their sexual orientation. Over three-quarters of Latino parents (76 percent) participating in the survey said it is harmful for children to tease each other for being gay—regardless of whether they are in fact gay.

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The study was conducted in response to increasing evidence on the dangers of schoolyard bullying. In 2005 nearly one-third of students reported being bullied at school during a six-month period, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Perceived or actual sexual orientation and gender identification are two of the top three reasons youth in America are bullied, according to the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States." Bullying and the use of gay slurs in schoolyards and communities are far too common in America," said David Shern, Ph.D., president and CEO of MHA.

It is no surprise that young people who are bullied are at an increased risk of mental health problems such as anxiety disorders, depression, and suicidal behavior. And lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth are at even greater risk, according to studies on youth suicide rates and sexual orientation, which consistently show that LGBT youth are at least twice as likely as their same-sex peers to attempt suicide. Three million U.S. teenagers have serious problems in school because they are taunted with antigay slurs, according to a 2001 report by Human Rights Watch.

Nearly a quarter of Latino parents surveyed did not think that bullying of gay students happens at all, while 59 percent of them agreed that bullying of gay students does likely occur in their child's school.

Bullying has serious effects on children's self-esteem, schoolwork, and overall development, Shern said. Although talking with their children about sexual orientation may not be easy, he said, it will help them learn to better handle situations of bullying and to respect and value others despite their differences.

The MHA study focused on Latinos because of evidence from previous surveys that more intolerance of gay youth occurs in minority communities, where LGBT youth are described as a "minority within a minority" and at greater risk of being bullying victims.

Such minority students feel less safe at school than white LGBT students do because of their race or ethnicity, according to a 2005 national survey by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network. Almost a quarter of these minority students experience physical harassment due to their sexual orientation alone, and 13 percent do so because of both their sexual orientation and race or ethnicity.

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The survey echoes previous studies of minority and nonminority American parents in which most acknowledged that they should talk to their children about sexual orientation, but either have not or do not feel prepared to do so, said Serena Yuan Volpp, M.D., chair of APA's Committee on Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Issues.

"The intersection of culture, religion, and sexual orientation is particularly complex in terms of parents' attitudes," Volpp noted.

The attitudes of parents were also defined by their level of acclimation to America's culture. The survey found that parents who completed the phone survey in English were more likely to oppose bullying and urge protection for children attacked on the basis of sexual orientation.

While 54 percent of Latino parents who completed the survey in English strongly agreed that parents should teach their children that it is wrong to mistreat someone because they are gay, only 47 percent of Spanish-language completers strongly agreed. In addition, 85 percent of parents who completed the survey in English felt prepared to start a conversation with their youngsters about someone who is gay, while 63 percent of those who completed the survey in Spanish felt that way.

"All of this convinces me that we need to do quite a bit of outreach with Spanish-speaking parents," said Aguilar-Gaxiola, who cited cultural beliefs in the Spanish-speakers' homelands as the primary reason behind the different responses.

Volpp said that although it is important to note that most parents do not feel prepared to talk to their children about this issue, she is concerned that about 1 in 4 of the parents strongly disagreed with the statement that it is important to teach children that it is wrong to treat others differently because they are gay.

Another part of MHA's outreach effort to the Spanish-speaking community was the October release of a new Spanish-language brochure, "Qué Significa Ser Gay?," which describes the extent of bullying related to sexual orientation and suggests steps parents can take to stop it.

The results of the survey "What Does Gay Mean?: A Survey of Latino Parents' Perspectives on Bullying, Sexual Orientation, and Prejudice" are posted at<mentalhealthamerica.net/go/surveys>.

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