Study: Why LGBTQ adults often keep ties with parents who reject them

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Even if outright disowned by their parents, many LGBTQ adults do their best to mend fences with their family. Why do so many work so hard for the approval of parents who have rejected them? New research performed by sociologists at The Ohio State University set out to answer that question.

Study authors held extensive interviews with 76 lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer adults and 44 of their parents.

“We found a sense of what we called ‘compulsory kinship,’” says co-author Rin Reczek, a professor of sociology at Ohio State, in a university release. “There’s this feeling among many LGBTQ people that the family is untouchable and should be maintained at all costs.”

Researchers explain that three main themes kept appearing time and time again during the interviews. The number one most common theme is called “love and closeness,” but study authors explain it isn’t exactly the type of closeness one might expect. “In many interviews, there was a lot of talk about the pain and suffering in the relationship with their parents, but then they would say they were close, or they loved each other,” adds co-author Emma Bosley-Smith, a doctoral student in sociology at Ohio State. “It was contradictory.”

Often, interviewees “just repeated the language we use about family relationships, the language that hints about what is expected of family,” Prof. Reczek notes. “But it was often hard for them to explain how that related to their own relationships.”

A second common theme was the apparent growth that LGBTQ adults believed they saw in their parents. For some, this was legitimately true; their parents had gradually become more open-minded. Unfortunately, for most this belief was merely a sense of hope or optimism that it would happen in the future. “There were these instances where they would say ‘Well, they are a little better than they used to be,’” Bosley-Smith comments.

The third theme was the uniqueness of the child-parent bond. Notably, people with very poor parental relationships tended to mention this theme. “We would hear things like ‘There’s not even any love in our relationship, but she’s my mom,’” Prof. Reczek says.  “It was this notion that the parent-child relationship is so unique that it can’t be replaced or ended.”

Generally, to maintain a relationship with their parents interviewed LGBTQ adults had to put in some serious work. Study authors called this type of effort “conflict work”. Different people tried different varieties of conflict work. Some hid their sexuality entirely, while others “went under the rug,” which refers to never speaking again about being LGBTQ after coming out. Some interviewed LGBTQ adults even “become normal” by getting married and having kids.

Some cases did see the adult eventually leave the family entirely, but even these instances were ultimately temporary. “If they did come back to their parents – and they almost always did – it was because of this notion of compulsory kinship,” Prof. Reczek notes. “The social forces that keep parent-child ties together are pressuring them to come back.”

Researchers clarify that it isn’t just cultural or emotional ties binding kids to their parents, there are also practical and financial reasons. “If your parents are how you get health care or pay your phone bill, that’s another factor,” Bosley-Smith explains.

In conclusion, the research team believes LGBTQ adults should be able to cut ties with their parents if it’s a toxic relationship at the end of the day. “We need to make it so adults can be less reliant on their parents,” Prof. Reczek says. “For example, having a living minimum wage that would allow all adults to live on their own without having to rely on a homophobic or transphobic parent.”

Besides just practical and financial considerations, researchers also posit that compulsory kinship is probably doing more harm than good in most of these cases. If you’re only keeping in touch with mom and dad “because it’s the right thing to do” – are you really doing the right thing? “We don’t need to place our entire sense of self, our identity, on being a parent or child. Adult children should be able to be independent or even estranged from their parents without losing their sense of belonging, purpose and identity,” Prof. Reczek concludes.

This research is published in the book Families We Keep: LGBTQ People and their Enduring Bonds with Parents.