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'Free dad hugs' at Pride show the lasting effect parents' rejection can have on LGBTQ kids

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LGBTQ rights have come a long way in the U.S. But the community still faces threats in the form of legalization, discrimination and even violence.
Just the FAQs, USA TODAY

All across the country, people are talking about Scott Dittman’s hugs.

The Pennsylvania dad, wearing a “Free Dad Hugs” shirt he bought on Amazon, gave more than 700 hugs at the Pittsburgh Pride Parade last week, offering tenderness to those who wanted it, and to many who seemed they needed it. 

“There were a lot of folks who were super happy, who grabbed you and squeezed you and gave you a slap on the back. But there’s a segment of folks that held on so long, where the hug was so deep, who started to hug and began to cry,” he said. “A lot of these folks were having a great time, but you can see how damaged deep down so many of them are. In such a festive environment they see a shirt, and it’s like a complete gut punch, and it reflects the pain that’s always there, the pain that they’re carrying all the time.”

Dittman, who attended the event with a friend working with the LGBTQ advocacy group Free Mom Hugs, posted about his experience on Facebook, imploring parents of LGBTQ kids to accept and love their children. The post went viral, highlighting the problem of parental rejection among LGBTQ people. 

More than one in four LGBT youth say parents and relatives who don’t accept them are their biggest problem, according to a Human Rights Campaign survey. Research shows family rejection can cause significant harm to people who identify as LGBTQ, contributing to higher rates of physical and mental health problems, including suicide, depression and HIV.

According to research from the Family Acceptance Project, lesbian, gay and bisexual young adults who reported higher levels of family rejection during adolescence were:

  • 8.4 times more likely to report having attempted suicide
  • 5.9 times more likely to report high levels of depression
  • 3.4 times more likely to use illegal drugs
  • 3.4 times more likely to report having engaged in unprotected sexual intercourse

Advocates say parents who affirm their children’s identity can save their lives. When family is accepting of an LGBTQ adolescent or young adult, it can provide a lasting protective influence, decreasing the risk of substance abuse, depression and suicidal behavior. 

“Just one affirming family member can make all the difference,” said Liz Owen, director of communications for PFLAG National, the first and largest organization for the parents, families and allies of LGBTQ people. 

LGBTQ people need more than a hug

When Dittman returned home from Pride, his wife asked how it went. 

“I told her it was an incredible experience, but it also made me feel so pissed off,” he said. “As a parent, you saw them take their first steps, you cried when they first said ‘I love you,’ you were there for those milestones. Then you’re going to cut them off because they love someone? Whether it’s religion or personal beliefs, I just can’t see any justification for that.” 

It’s what drove Dittman, who lives in the small, conservative town of Karns City, Pennsylvania, to post about his experience on Facebook. One of the photos he shared was of a man whose family kicked him out at 19. Thirty years later, he still hasn’t spoken to them. Dittman said when they embraced, the man sobbed so violently it felt as though Dittman was holding him up. 

Advocates say hugs are a start. But kindness from strangers is no substitute for family support.

“It was a beautiful story, a beautiful image,” Owen said. “Those viral moments are super important – we help elevate them as well – but the next step is thinking about how we go beyond the hugs.”

While many families are affirming of their LGBTQ children, others are conflicted, and PFLAG has more than 400 chapters around the country that offer peer-to-peer support to those who may be struggling with a loved one’s identity. 

“We tell people to lead with love,” Owen said. “It’s not about you, it’s about your LGBTQ loved one. As scary as it is to hear, it is 10 times scarier to have to be the one to say it. They’re likely worried about losing your love, their home, their support system. Even though there’s no perfect way to respond, positive responses lead to healthier outcomes.”

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The ultimate goal, she said, is for parents to not only accept their kids, but to fight for them. 

“We want to get parents to say, ‘I’m here for my kid, I love my kid, don’t you dare come for my kid with legislation that harms my kid,'” she said.

Dittman says there’s no way he’ll miss the parade next year. His hope is that people will stop making assumptions about who LGBTQ people are. He hopes they’ll stop making assumptions about him, too.

“I don’t identify as Republican or Democrat. I’m an Independent,” he said. “I’ve gotten a lot of hate mail calling me a leftist. I hunt, I fish, I carry a weapon, I’m a member of the NRA, but I’m out there hugging people, because I don’t care who you love.” 

If you or someone you know identifies as LGBTQ and is feeling hopeless or suicidal, you can contact The Trevor Project’s TrevorLifeline 24/7/365 at 1-866-488-7386.

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