Title

Rejected by the family for being lesbian and gay : exploring and testing factors that contribute to resilience

Date of Award

2013

Degree Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

School

School of Psychology and Social Science

Faculty

Health, Engineering and Science

First Advisor

Professor Lynne Cohen

Second Advisor

Associate Professor Paul Chang

Third Advisor

Dr Elizabeth Kaczmarek

Abstract

Research indicates that experiencing rejection from family for being gay significantly increases the risk of suffering various mental health and behavioural problems. However, research was not clear on what constitutes rejection and the focus was also on initial rather than current family rejection. Furthermore, research is needed on risk and protective factors that influence a person’s ability to successfully cope with such a stressful event. Therefore, this research investigated factors that contributed to the resilience of gay men and lesbians who experience current family rejection. Interviews in the initial research phase explored factors that fostered or inhibited a gay or lesbian person’s ability to cope with this challenge. Subsequently, a questionnaire was created and was administered to numerous gay men and lesbians to test the identified risk and protective factors that emerged in the initial phase. These factors were also profiled within a sample of gay men and lesbians who did not report such rejection.

The phenomenological approach adopted in the initial phase allowed exploration of: portrayals and perceptions of this rejection; its consequences; and factors that assisted or impeded the ability to cope with it. Data was gathered through individual semi-structured in-depth interviews with 11 gay men and 10 lesbians (M age = 26.19 years; M age of disclosure to family = 20.14). Four main themes emerged: Reasons for disclosure; The nature of family rejection; Negative impact of family rejection; and Resilience: Coping with rejection. Factors that appeared to contribute to a person’s ability to cope with family rejection were strategic concealment, social support, connecting with other gay people, and accepting oneself and others’ unacceptance. Some participants also coped through self-destructive means such as self-harm and substance use.

The questionnaire was informed by findings from both previous research and the qualitative study within the initial phase of this research. Eleven variables were investigated for their ability to predict resilience: self-esteem, support from family, support from friends and significant others, sense of belonging to the general community, sense of belonging to the gay community, strategic concealment, internalised heterosexism, self-acceptance, behavioural disengagement, substance use, and acceptance of stressful events. Through convenience and snowball sampling, a total of 759 participants completed the questionnaire and, of those, 550 (335 gay men, 215 lesbians; M age = 32.42 years) reported experiencing some level of current family rejection. Those who reported such rejection scored significantly higher on depression, anxiety, stress, and internalised heterosexism, while lower on self-esteem and self-acceptance. Resilience scores were also lower among gay men and lesbians who reported this adverse experience. Rejection levels were significantly higher when participants first disclosed their sexuality but current family rejection had the most influence on depression scores. Higher resilience levels significantly lowered depression, anxiety, and stress. Using a standard multiple regression analysis, the combined effect of the 11 variables accounted for 52% of the variance in resilience scores. Only two variables, sense of belonging to the gay community and substance use, did not make significant contributions. Support from family and behavioural disengagement negatively predicted resilience. Greater scores on each of the remaining seven variables were associated with higher levels of resilience.

The generalisability of the 11 variables for predicting resilience was then examined among a sample of gay men and lesbians who did not report current family rejection (n = 209; M age = 32.95 years). The model accounted for 44% of the variability in resilience scores. In contrast to the gay men and lesbians who experienced current family rejection, support from family was found to positively influence resilience while substance use emerged as a significant inhibitor. Support from friends and significant others, strategic concealment, and internalised heterosexism were not influencers for predicting resilience among the gay men and lesbians who did not report currently experiencing family rejection. The remaining six variables were relatively consistent in their influence across the two study groups.

This research contributes to theory and clinical practice, and provides greater insight into the nature of experiencing family rejection for being gay or lesbian and how one copes with it, as well as how rejection may be perceived. These findings can provide a basis for developing individual and community level interventions which could facilitate the ability to cope with family rejection and thus reduce the significant risk it poses to the well-being of gay men and lesbians.

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