Eli Torres experienced no problems with acceptance from his family when he came out as a lesbian, first in the third grade and then again in the seventh grade. However, it was a different story when Torres came out as a trans man at 19. His mother reacted negatively, expressing that he had “killed her daughter” and that his “female identity was now gone.” She went from being an ally to someone who consistently used the wrong name and gender for Torres, including incorrect feminine versions of Spanish terms.

Eli Torres outdoors in front of a house, smiling Eli Torres at one of his best friend's homes in Fresno, California. © Eli Torres

Eventually, it got to a point where Torres told his mother that unless she offered her support, he felt like he’d have to end his own life.

In response, she tried to brush off her previous actions as the result of bad memory, while paradoxically boasting to her colleagues about being a supportive ally. Torres cut off all communication with her for six months.

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During the separation, she underwent a complete transformation, but the family still wasn’t fully supportive.

“There’s things that she still doesn’t understand, but at the same time, at least she’s calling me by the right name or addresses me as a tio instead of a tia to family,” Torres said. “But I’m still treated like a female, I’m expected to be quiet and my opinions aren’t considered during family events.”

Torres experienced stigma from society for his identities throughout his life. As a result, he self-harmed for years and was on suicide watch almost his entire adolescence. Growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood, Torres also grappled with the challenges posed by the intersection of his Latino and queer identities, as well as how his peers perceived him.

Being both LGBTQ+ and Latino can intensify the stigma surrounding queerness that young people experience from their families and society. This can result in feelings of isolation, shame, and fear of rejection, discouraging them from seeking support and thereby impacting their mental and physical well-being.

To address this issue, it is crucial for Latino families and society to cultivate an atmosphere of acceptance, education, and open dialogue that validates the identities of LGBTQ+ individuals.

The impact of LGBTQ+ stigma

According to a 2019 paper, LGBTQ+ Latino youth face significant challenges rooted in the racism embedded in our social structures, and pressure to conform to rigid gender roles. These difficulties are particularly pronounced for LGBTQ+ youth of color, who experience a multitude of intersecting forms of structural stigma. This includes discrimination against people who are not heterosexual, cisgender, or white, creating a layered challenge for their identity and mental health.

Culture can add extra stress, such as prejudiced religious beliefs that condemn LGBTQ+ individuals and undermine their sense of belonging and acceptance. Altogether, this environment of prejudice frequently leads to heightened levels of depression, anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts among LGBTQ+ Latino youth.

“The recurring, seemingly minor traumatic experiences that LGBTQ+ Latino youth face day in and day out have a profound impact on them,” said Francesco Cerminara, licensed marriage and family therapist in San Francisco. “As a therapist, my priority in the room is to humanize the person, which ultimately gives them hope that something else is possible.”

Often overlooked in discussions of discrimination, the intersection of these structural stigmas becomes particularly pronounced when youth are also experiencing prejudice and rejection from their families.

A 2008 study surveyed 224 white and Latino LGBTQ+ adults ages 21 to 25 about how parents and caregivers reacted to their LGBTQ+ identity when they were adolescents. It also asked about various aspects of their health, including mental health, substance abuse, and risky sexual behavior.

The study highlighted the crucial role parents and caregivers play in shaping the health of LGBTQ+ youth. Those who experienced more family rejection during adolescence were significantly more likely to have attempted suicide, suffered from depression, used illegal drugs, and engaged in unprotected sexual intercourse. Latino men reported the highest number of negative family reactions to their sexual orientation.

While stigma and family rejection can compromise mental health, they may also create internal barriers that prevent LGBTQ+ Latino youth from seeking help. A 2020 study interviewed 38 Black and brown LGBTQ+ adults ages 18 to 25. The aim was to understand their experiences with mental health services, focusing on the challenges they faced and the support they received.

  • Reporting Fellowship on Latino Well-Being

    Gisselle Medina is a recipient of our Reporting Fellowship on Latino Well-Being, from the GGSC and the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley. The fellowship will support a series of articles exploring the well-being of Latino families and communities, with a particular focus on findings from the social and behavioral sciences.

One significant theme that emerged from the interviews was the sense of shame some participants experienced regarding both their mental health symptoms and their LGBTQ+ identity. This shame was exacerbated by the way LGBTQ+ identities have historically been seen as abnormal or problematic. Consequently, many individuals delayed seeking or continuing with mental health treatment.

“People think, oh, going to a therapist, a psychologist, a psychiatrist, es para locos [is for crazy people],” said Carmen Aceves-Iñiguez, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Oakland, California. “There’s also some shame and embarrassment to admit that you can’t control your mind or your emotions, and that’s where a lot of that stigma comes from.”

Because of a lack of support from their families, many of the young adults in the study shouldered a heightened sense of responsibility for their own mental health care. They struggled with a dearth of information about when and how to access the mental health services they needed, making it harder for them to follow through to get help. For some people, though, this self-driven responsibility to care for their well-being served as a coping mechanism to navigate all the stigma they faced.

Fostering support and acceptance

Acceptance and support play a pivotal role in the well-being of sexual minority individuals, especially from their parents and caregivers.

Another 2020 study found that when parents are accepting of sexual minority children, the children tend to have improved well-being and engage less in risky behaviors. Conversely, rejection from parents often leads to increased symptoms of depression and distress.

In particular, the study delved into the experiences of five Latino fathers in the U.S. as they navigated the journey of accepting their child’s sexual minority identity. It aimed to uncover the cultural values and beliefs shaping these fathers’ process of acceptance.

One significant theme that emerged was how specific cultural values fostered acceptance among Latino fathers. For example, in the context of Latino families, two prominent cultural values come into play: familismo and respeto. Familismo underscores the significance of family unity and support, while respeto emphasizes respectful communication and maintaining trust in relationships. With sexual minority children, these values may initially be at odds: Familismo encourages fathers to prioritize family needs and unity, while respeto guides them to treat their children with dignity and respect, promoting acceptance.

In moments of difficulty, Latino families often turn to their religious or spiritual beliefs for guidance, conflict resolution, and a positive perspective. This process, however, requires reconciling those long-held cultural values and beliefs, such as familismo and respeto, with their child’s identity.

“So, what are you going to do? Nothing. You have to love them. You have to want them and make them sure that they feel like they’re your children. They’re yours. You have to accept it. There’s no question about it and there’s no other solution. Any other solution would be inhuman,” said one father.

Machismo, a gender norm associating Latino men with aggressive behaviors, avoidance of femininity, physical toughness, and emotional restraint, also influences fathers’ acceptance of their children. For example, a father might find a way to be inspired by machismo to be their child’s caretaker and protector. In essence, acceptance involves parents finding a way to embrace their sexual minority children that aligns with their cultural values and nurtures positive relationships.

Additionally, the practical step of accessing resources tailored to their child’s needs and sexual minority identity proved instrumental in supporting the fathers’ acceptance journeys.

Another father said, “I started looking up information regarding [sexual identity]. Obviously . . . there’s no manual for being a father either. I didn’t grow up with a father, so it was a bit difficult for me.”

Overcoming stigma

Embracing diversity, understanding, and valuing the identities of LGBTQ+ Latinos can combat stigma, and families and society can create an environment that fosters emotional well-being, self-acceptance, and personal growth through these efforts.

“When Latino families openly accept and support their LGBTQ+ youth, it sends a powerful message of love and affirmation,” said Aceves-Iñiguez. “It allows young individuals to develop a strong sense of self-worth and confidence, leading to improved health outcomes, and build resilience against the challenges they might face due to societal prejudice.”

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