What makes a community feel more tolerant or supportive for lesbian, gay, and bisexual parents?

December 21, 2017

URBANA, Ill. - Community factors and social connection may determine whether sexual minority parents view their community as tolerant versus supportive, according to a new study from the University of Illinois.

The study, published in the journal Family Relations, is led by Ramona Oswald, professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at U of I. Findings show that lesbian, gay, and bisexual parents in nonmetropolitan communities feel more positive about where they live when that place is more legally, politically, and religiously supportive of LGB people; when there are more LGB-friendly employers; and when there are other LGB-headed households.

For the study, data were collected from 55 LGB parents about their residential communities. The communities included university/college towns, as well as agriculture, industrial, government oriented, and small towns or villages. Parents reported on residential community climate (tolerant versus supportive) and community involvement.

Community characteristics alone, however, did not determine perceived climate, as LGB parents living in the same communities rated them differently. The differences seemed to hinge on whether parents experienced a fit between themselves and their communities.

Those parents perceiving a supportive climate felt comfortable being open about their identity, and were able to access support without barriers. Any stigma that they experienced was an exception to their overall positive experience. Those reporting tolerant communities described numerous barriers to social involvement and connection such as stigma, harassment, or apathy of institutions towards bullying and discrimination. For these parents, feeling support was the exception, and they found support in specific locations such as religiously affirming congregations.

Overall, community structural factors were necessary for a community to be considered tolerant, but were not sufficient for a community to be perceived as supportive.

“These findings show that legal protections, employer support, and religious affirmation are important for sexual minority families,” Oswald says. “These features should not, however, be taken for granted. Even within communities that look supportive at the level of community factors, not all LGB parents are able to find support.

“That is why, in addition to instituting inclusive and protective policies, we encourage community leaders to identify and remedy barriers that may be preventing LGB parents and their children from fully accessing what the community has to offer.”

The study, “Tolerance versus support: Perceptions of residential community climate among LGB parents,” is published in Family Relations. Co-authors include Ramona Faith Oswald and Jasmine M. Routon, both of the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, Jenifer K. McGuire, University of Minnesota, and Elizabeth Grace Holman, Bowling Green State University.

Oswald is a professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at U of I.

Funding for the study was provided by a UIUC Research Board grant for data collection.

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