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


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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  • June is Pride Month and were taking a look at all the exciting ways cities around the globe plan to celebrate the LGBTQ community this year. 24/7 Tempo reviewed the largest, longest running and most impactful Pride events around the world.nbsp;1 of 16
  • WorldPride, New York Citynbsp;(June 1-30):nbsp;Its only fitting that the worlds biggest LGBTQ pride event would return to New York to mark the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, the June 1969 protest that gave birth to the gay-rights movement. WorldPride 2019 will includenbsp;rallies, concerts, lectures, and exhibits will take place all month throughout the city. The WorldPride Welcome Center (112 Christopher Street in Manhattanrsquo;s West Village) will be open for the month of June. Its located just a few steps from the Stonewall Inn itself, which is still open today.2 of 16
  • Tel Aviv Pride, (June 9 -15): The Middle Easts biggest LGBTQ celebration takes place at Hilton Beach, a well-known refuge for the areas queer community,. The citys many gay night clubs will also host parties throughout the week.nbsp;3 of 16
  • Zurich Pride Festival, Switzerlandnbsp;(June 14 -15): This Pride actually lasts two weeks, from June 1 to 16th, culminating in Switzerlands largest citys Pride Festival, a weekend of concerts, vendors, dance parties, and a parade. This years theme is Strength in Diversity.4 of 16
  • Toronto Pride Festival ( June 21- 23): This year, Canadas biggest LGBTQ eventnbsp;will feature a Dyke March, Trans Pride program and drag events. And of course, theres the popular Pride Parade, which evolved out of the 1981 Toronto Bathhouse riots. The citys gay community protested after police raided four gay bathhouses and arrested hundreds.5 of 16
  • Sao Paulo Pride Parade, Brazil (June 23): The first Sao Paulo Pride Parade took place in 1997 when 2,000 LGBTQ activists gathered to celebrate their culture and protest against discrimination. The event has since become the largest Pride Parade in the world, with 5 million attendants in 2017.6 of 16
  • NYC Pride ( June 26 - 30): New Yorks inaugural Pride March took place in 1970, a year after the Stonewall Riots, and has grown to see over 2 million attendees every year. This years grand marshals include members of the Gay Liberation Front, an activist organization that formed in the wake of the Stonewall riots. Theyll joinnbsp;Monica Helms, a navy veteran and transgender activist, andnbsp;representatives of the Trevor Project, which aims to prevent suicide among LGBTQ youth.7 of 16
  • San Francisco Pride Parade (June 29): San Franciscos first gay rights march to City Hall took place in 1970, followed by a quot;gay-inquot; at Golden Gate Park. The first Pride Parade took place two years later, and in 1976, a group of female motorcyclists gathered at the head of the parade. Now, the Dykes on Bikes are a mainstay of this huge parade and celebration, which sees over 1 million attendees yearly.8 of 16
  • Mexico City Pride Parade (June 29):nbsp; One of the largest pride events in Latin America, Mexico Citys Pride Parade is entering its 41st year. Mexico City is continuously at the forefront of queer rights in the predominantly Catholic country. In 2010, the capital became the first Mexican city to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.nbsp;9 of 16
  • Madrid Orgullo, Spain (June 28 - July 7):nbsp; The Spanish capitalsnbsp;Pride Parade is second only to Sao Paolos, attractingnbsp;3.5 million attendees in 2017. People from all over Europe flock to Spain, one of the mostnbsp;gay-friendly countries in the world. A week of parties and cultural events precede the parade on July 7.10 of 16
  • Cologne Pride Parade, Germany ( July 5-7): Every year on the first weekend of July,nbsp;Cologne holds a Christopher Street Day celebration, named for the New York neighborhood where the Pride movement began. The weekend featuresnbsp;a street festival, political events, AIDS gala, and stage performances, culminating in a parade with over a million attendees and participants.nbsp;nbsp;11 of 16
  • Sparkle in the Park, Manchester, Englandnbsp;(July 12 -14):nbsp; Anyonenbsp;who identifies as trans, non-binary, or gender questioning ndash; and their loved onesnbsp; ndash; are welcome at this free U.K. event, featuring concerts, comedy performances, workshops and lectures.nbsp;12 of 16
  • OutFest, Los Angeles (July 18 - 28): Every July, Los Angeles hosts one of the worlds largest LGBTQ film festivals, screening movies that share LGBTQ stories and highlight queer filmmakers. OutFest has recently placed the spotlight on underrepresented voices, featuring more directors that are women, trans, and people of color.nbsp;nbsp;13 of 16
  • Canal Pride Festival, Amsterdam (July 27 - August 4): Pride in the Dutch capital is as amazing as youd expect from the home of the Red Light District and the first country to legalize gay marriage. Milkshake Festival, an outdoor dance festival dedicated to inclusivity and acceptance, kicks off the opening weekend of Canal Pride. As the week continues, there arenbsp;street parties, a Drag Queen Olympics, and a unique Pride Parade that floats down the citys canals.14 of 16
  • Taiwan Pride (October 26): Asias biggest LGBTQ event takes place in the first Asian country to legalize same-sex marriage. What started as a political rally is now a celebration that includes a parade and dozens of street parties.nbsp; The action is focused aroundnbsp;Taipeis Red District, home to over 20 gay bars and clubs hosting Pride events.15 of 16
  • Buenos Aires Pride Parade (November 2): In 1992, 300 people attended the first Pride Parade in Buenos Aires, many of them wearing masks to remain anonymous. Now, the parade has grown to 200,000 participants, who gather in early November to commemorate the founding of Argentinas first gay organization, Nuestra Mundo, in 1967.16 of 16

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.

You may also be interested in: 

  • LGBTQ definitions every good ally should know
  • I came out as a lesbian in high school, was told to kill myself. I would do it all over again.
  • Kiss! : London bus attack began in a way familiar to many LGBTQ women
  • Opinion: Trump’s transgender ban is cruel, medically unethical and damaging to the US military

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