On Oct. 27, the Family Acceptance Project (FAP) at San Francisco State University further expanded its ongoing "Healthy Futures" poster series by launching three new behavioral guides for indigenous parents and caregivers raising LGBTQ/Two-spirit (LGBTQ-2S) youths.
These posters are intended as guidelines to help parents recognize how their behavior impacts their child's mental health and overall well-being.
FAP Director/Co-Founder Caitlin Ryan said the the institute launched the posters to reintroduce the biological family unit into the conversation of LGBTQ-2S health. She started her work almost 46 years ago when she opened one of the first HIV/AIDS clinics during the epidemic. As Ryan escorted families to the deathbeds of their loved ones in the facility, she noticed how many parents wished they could've done something differently.
"I didn't see the rejecting hardhearted images that we read about in the media or that the people heard about," Ryan said. "I saw parents that were devastated and probably would never have another happy day again because of the estrangement; the fact that they didn't even know that their child was gay."
Ryan explained that the biological family has been excluded from the conversation of LGBTQ-2S wellness due to the initial rejection children may experience when they initially come out. She recalled, for example, how often she watched as parents and caregivers couldn't even walk their children to the door of LGBTQ-2S resource centers.
However, through her work with FAP, she has also seen the ways that parents and caregivers change once they gain access to the "roadmap" her organization provides.
"I've learned that many, many parents and caregivers can change what they're doing once they understand how [behavior] affects their children, because they really don't want to hurt them. They want them to be happy," Ryan said.
The poster's list of accepting and rejecting behaviors comes from more than hundreds of hours of interviews with LGBTQ youth aa well as their families and caregivers. FAP has collected more than 8,000 pages of transcripts from the interviews thus far.
To create the individual, culturally aware posters, Ryan emphasized the importance of collaborating with local community leaders to respectfully spread their information across racial, religious and generational lines.
"The root of our work is culture. So we align with the cultural values, with the spiritual and religious values, with the human values that parents and caregivers and other family members have for their children," said Ryan.
FAP has published 33 posters in ten languages available in both print and online. This most recent release is specifically designed for Native caregivers with LGBTQ-2S youths.
Dr. Pamela Jumper-Thurman, one of the Native consultants on the project and CEO of Council Oak Training and Evaluation, emphasized how these posters are just stepping stones to attempt at undoing centuries of shame.
"Two-spirit" is a modern pan-Native term that describes an indigenous person who identifies as gender non-conforming. However, Thurman said that the word has been contested as a result of its historical significance.
Within the Native tradition, "two-spirit" was in many ways a societal and spiritual role. They were held in high regard, often seen as unique or gifted since their spirit is not confined by the gender binary, thus by gender roles. Each tribe had its own understanding of the identity and individual names.
However, even this understanding of the term is not entirely accurate because the tradition was destroyed by colonization's systemic destruction of Native culture.
"You have multiple gender identities or social or spiritual roles, and they've been obliterated by the sands of time," Ryan said. " You can't carry something forward that doesn't really exist in the same way."
Indian boarding schools were also used to destroy Native culture. Primarily run by factions of Christian churches, the boarding schools were created with the sole purpose of assimilating Indigenous children into American society. Children would be taken from their families and forced to be "civilized." They were punished for speaking their language, were forced to cut their hair short and inundated with intense religious beliefs, many of which continue to manifest even after most of the boarding schools have been phased out.
As a result, many Native Americans have been indoctrinated to feel ashamed of their ethnic identity. The schools also interrupted family dynamics as many Native children were taken and raised away from their tribes. Thurman estimates that the schools created two to three generations of Native parents raised without their biological families.
"We were parented by people who didn't really know parenting skills because they were taken forcibly from their families," she continued.
Often, Native children aren't raised by their parents but rather by their extended family.
"Many of [the children] are raised by grandparents that are a totally different generation that lacks acceptance. And there's maybe an auntie or uncle or cousins that will take these youths into their homes," Thurman explained. "The families are not always the traditional family unit."
All these layers of shame and the destruction of the nuclear family have made it difficult for LGBTQ-2S children to come out. For these reasons, Thurman believes that FAP's posters are essential to circulate among the Native tribes.
"If [parents and caregivers] can have access to these posters, they can see the kind of rejecting behaviors that are hurting their children and making them more shame-based," she explained. "They can see the kinds of things that they can do, small things. For example, just saying, 'I love you, I accept you, I'm with you.' Just those kinds of things will be life-changing and life-saving for a lot of native families that have LGBTQ-2S kids."
To learn more about FAP's work and download the posters, visit https://familyproject.sfsu.edu/.