Help protecting my niece after coming out to her parents
January 14, 2016 8:28 AM   Subscribe

I'm gay and my husband and I are concerned about the safety of our 13-year-old niece who is in a relationship with another girl. My husband's brother and sister-in-law have reacted very poorly to learning about this. What we can do for his niece?

I'm gay and my husband and I have been happily married awhile now. This question isn't about us, it's about his niece.

She's 13 and is in a relationship with another girl. She hasn't decided whether or not she's a lesbian, but she's definitely in a same-sex relationship. My husband's brother and sister-in-law have reacted very poorly to learning about this; they're sending her to a Christian counselor, have taken away her phone, and are monitoring her closely. This is surprising as they're not religious and have not expressed disapproval of my husband and me in the past. While the niece's parents are not hitting her or locking her in the basement, just being very restrictive and extremely paranoid, we're concerned they're going to mess her up psychologically. For example, the girlfriend is the daughter of their next door neighbor and they're moving far away because of this.

We want to help the niece if at all possible, since we know it can be tough to grow up gay/questioning/bi/whatever and doubly so if your parents aren't accepting. My husband's family has been very accepting of us, and his parents (niece's grandparents) are using every ounce of their influence to try to calm his brother and sister-in-law down. They aren't listening. We aren't on very good terms with them, so they probably won't listen to us either. We're also across the country so we almost never see them, though niece called us crying and asking for advice and help because she knows we're gay.

So given all this backstory, I'm asking: what we can do for his niece, other than be there for her in a general sense? Is there some sort of legal protection we can try to extend her or an agency we can get involved for her well-being? If her parents go completely crazy and she asks us to fly her out of there, is that something we can legally do? What can/should we do, legally?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (18 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
While the niece's parents are not hitting her or locking her in the basement, just being very restrictive and extremely paranoid, we're concerned they're going to mess her up psychologically.

Google "child protective services [city/county/state]" and call them right the fuck now. That might not help, if she lives somewhere where the local authorities are likely to agree with the parents, but it gets a record into the file. Keep calling them until they do something.

Find a family lawyer in the same jurisdiction and get them on retainer.
posted by Etrigan at 8:34 AM on January 14, 2016 [6 favorites]


Continue to keep lines of communication open with niece and be there for her. Other than that, there are other allies with boots on the ground working on this.

I really feel for the kid. This is rough
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:41 AM on January 14, 2016 [8 favorites]


Conversion therapy to minors is banned in California, Illinois, New Jersey, Oregon, and DC. If your niece lives in one of these states, and you are prepared for a fight, you can call child protective services where she lives and report what is happening and mention the "Christian Counselor" who is probably not a licensed therapist. If grandparents are nearby, enlist their help. Your brother- and sister-in-law might not want your niece living with them anymore, so the grandparents might be a waypoint towards staying with you that is easier for the parents to swallow.
posted by juniperesque at 9:02 AM on January 14, 2016 [13 favorites]


Whats the local LGBT resource in your area? The nieces? I think those are the people you should be talking to.

http://www.montrosecenter.org/hub/ is for Houston, and can maybe advise on yall's specific locations better.
posted by Jacen at 9:06 AM on January 14, 2016


Are the next door girlfriend's parents moving because of this? Or are your in-laws moving because of this? An extreme reaction either way unless a move was already in the works. Do you know the details on this for certain?

I think you need to call an LGBT family lawyer and/or agency and find out your legal and practical options for this jurisdiction.

Once you have concrete options, it's easier to figure out what to do. In general, you want to deescalate situations, not make anything worse.

Family counseling might be a good start, for the adults. I'd be pretty angry to find out my sibling felt this way about same sex relationships, especially if I was gay myself.

I think you gather as much info as possible before deciding. There are experts who deal with this sort of thing. They can guide you.
posted by jbenben at 9:12 AM on January 14, 2016 [2 favorites]


Calling child protective services is unlikely to help and is very likely to make things worse when the parents get angry at someone (you? their daughter?) for putting them through the experience. CPS has very limited tools. They aren't going to take the child out of the home for emotional abuse unless the situation is very bad. (I know there are stories of CPS sweeping in for the case of a single spanking in public but usually takes multiple calls involving demonstrated abuse before things get that far.) Short of that, they can visit the home, do an assessment. Depending on what they find, they can talk to the parents about abusive and illegal parenting behaviors. I suppose that if they are basically good people, there is some chance that it might serve as a wake-up call (maybe) but there is also the change that either CPS will do nothing at all or the whole thing just makes the parents angrier.

I think the most important thing is for niece to get a chance to make connections to people who will support her and balance out her parent's negative messages. I would look for moderated on-line communities for lgbqt youth - can't recommend anything specific if you can contact LGBQT resources in your area or hers they might help. They can also advise you (and her) on her rights). Resources at school (like a gay-stragith alliance) would be great, especially her parents won't know about it. Books - fiction, biography - might also be source of strength. Maybe you could get her an e-reader so it won't be obvious which titles she is reading?

If she wants to run away from home to your house, you should be aware that her parents have legal custody. They can call the police in your area and have her taken into custody until they can come out and fly her home. I think (not sure) that they could also get you in trouble if you refuse to return her. I like the suggestion above of seeing if the grandparents can get more involved, even to the point of offer to let her stay with them.
posted by metahawk at 9:24 AM on January 14, 2016 [14 favorites]


I can at least give you a perspective that might be helpful, as a queer woman. The part of your story where your brother in law hasn't shown antipathy toward gays in the past, but is suddenly finding religion now that his daughter is expressing non-heterosexual feelings is pretty common. My dad was always a fairly vocal advocate of gay rights (it wasn't "LGBT" yet in those days) but when I came out as a lesbian at 15, he abruptly turned into a homophobe. It wasn't nearly as bad as this case, but he forbade me to see my girlfriend, and started tightly restricting my life. It was horrible.

In the years before he came around (and let's hope your husband's family does eventually) what was really helpful was other adults being very forthright in contradicting my dad's ignorance. Other family members and friends kept saying "your dad's a good guy but he is completely wrong about this, full stop." Don't underestimate how helpful this could be to her. It's the sort of thing that might even save her life, if it comes to that.

Can you say what state they are in? Because conversion therapies are outright illegal in some states. (That is, if you're in the US.) If the family has even remotely shown any kind of rationality in the past, I would look up the statements by the Surgeon General, the American Psychiatric Association, and the American Counselling Association, and many other respected institutions that "gay cures" do not work, and are harmful, print them out and mail them to them. I think getting physical mail might be more effective than emails they can just delete.

As far as whether you can legally take direct action to rescue her from this situation, I really don't know. Hopefully a lawyer will speak up here. I know one I could talk to if no one if forthcoming. I'm sorry to be so long winded, but this is an issue that's pretty close to home, obvs. Good luck.
posted by Fenriss at 9:25 AM on January 14, 2016 [30 favorites]


She's 13 and is in a relationship with another girl.

Do they have an issue with the fact that she's in a relationship with a girl? Do they have an issue that she's 13 and in a relationship? Or both? You need to figure out the root issue(s) before you figure out how to react (and I wouldn't necessarily assume she's got an accurate read on this herself - we all know how perceptive we were at that age).
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 9:26 AM on January 14, 2016 [13 favorites]


Is there some way you can get the niece an email address that she can contact you on, that her parents don't know anything about? That way, she'll know that she always has a supportive adult that she can talk to. She'll be able to use an email address at the library, a friends house, perhaps from school, etc, and her parents won't be able to confiscate it in the way they can her phone.

As soon as she's old enough (ie, a legal adult), do what you can to get her out of that situation. Maybe it will have all blown over by then, but there's a huge difference between seeing something as being your future, and seeing something as actually having an end date in sight. The latter will hopefully allow her some hope.
posted by Solomon at 9:30 AM on January 14, 2016 [1 favorite]


Oh, I also just remembered an organization that was a life saver for me as a gay kid. SMYAL is local to DC, but they have an extensive Resources section that might have something helpful.

Jebus, I hope she'll be OK. It's hard enough being 13 without having to deal with crap like this.
posted by Fenriss at 9:36 AM on January 14, 2016


I think there may be other things at play here. They may think she's too young to be involved with anyone. Also she may be so involved to the point where other things such as schoolwork and other friendships are suffering. Seems with kids that young no matter what the sexuality, if the parents disapprove, its drama, drama, drama. My first "serious" relationship was at 13 and I was obsessed. Nothing mattered but us. Oh, and of course the whole cruel world was against me and my honey. My mother even got me a membership at another sports facility across town so that I wouldn't see my squeeze during the summer. So just be there for her. Listen and sympathize. It all gets better.
posted by PJMoore at 11:30 AM on January 14, 2016 [2 favorites]


Tell the parents about PFLAG. Sharing their concerns with others might help them to cope.
posted by Carol Anne at 12:58 PM on January 14, 2016 [2 favorites]


National Hotline for LGBT Youth
1-800-347-TEEN
Provides comprehensive information about national and local resources for GLBTQ teens.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 1:06 PM on January 14, 2016 [1 favorite]


When I read what your in-laws are doing to your niece, it struck me how similar it was to the Leelah Alcorn story:

Alcorn publicly revealed her attraction to males when she was sixteen, as she believed that identifying as a gay male at that point would be a stepping stone to coming out as transgender at a later date. According to a childhood friend, Alcorn received a positive reception from many at school, although her parents were appalled. In Alcorn's words, "They felt like I was attacking their image, and that I was an embarrassment to them. They wanted me to be their perfect little straight Christian boy, and that's obviously not what I wanted." They removed her from Kings High School, and enrolled her as an eleventh grader at an online school, Ohio Virtual Academy. According to Alcorn, her parents cut her off from the outside world for five months as they denied her access to social media and many forms of communication. She described this as a significant contributing factor towards her suicide. At the end of the school year, they returned her phone to her and allowed her to regain contact with her friends, although by this time – according to Alcorn – her relationship with many of them had become strained and she continued to feel isolated. Source

The Christian counseling and forced isolation are the stuff that suicides are made of. Maybe send some links about conversion therapy and the Leelah Alcorn story to the grandparents so they can pass them onto the in-laws. It might help them gain perspective to realize that their actions could have disastrous consequences for their daughter's well-being.
posted by sevenofspades at 1:32 PM on January 14, 2016 [10 favorites]


The e-reader is not a good idea. If you give her a piece of electronics with LGBT-friendly stuff preloaded on it, I can guarantee you that her parents will snoop through it as soon as it is unattended, find the "objectionable" material, and punish her for it. Her parents are also likely to be monitoring her online activity very closely, and letting her go to, e.g., the library unaccompanied is probably going to be a non-starter for them as well.

This is a really tough situation and I am so glad you guys want to help. Sadly, I think her parents' behavior is likely to be both legitimately damaging and completely legal, with the possible exception of the conversion therapy, depending on jurisdiction. It may be that the best thing you can do for her is to reiterate that she's free to call you at any time if she needs support, keep pushing the message that she has nothing to be ashamed of and keep reminding her that her situation is temporary, no matter how terrible it feels right now. Another concrete thing you could do is to pay for or otherwise help her to attend an actual queer-friendly therapist, as soon as she can get out of her parents' house. I know people love to say that it "gets better" nowadays, but honestly, for a lot of people, the kind of anxiety and shame that comes from being treated like this can persist for a long time, and can also drive a lot of unhealthy, self-destructive thinking patterns and behaviors that may not be immediately obvious to an outsider (or even to her, honestly). Getting her actual help could make a big difference.

One other thing is that there may be opportunities for her to graduate high school early, which would potentially allow her to move out earlier than 18 with a plausible cover reason: five years is a long time to be on lock-down, especially for a young teenager. Of course, whether her parents let her go through with something like that is going to depend on whether they think they can trust her at that point and on whether she'd be leaving for a reason aligned with their values (e.g., if they value academic achievement). But it's at least a possibility.

Finally, it may also be that her parents are not as in lockstep about this issue as they seem from the outside, and that you may be able to chip away at the more reasonable one over time, but that would require a very, very delicate touch. Her parents may forbid her from contacting you guys at all if they sense that you are undermining their authority.
posted by en forme de poire at 4:56 PM on January 14, 2016 [3 favorites]


Also, there's a really big difference between setting age-appropriate boundaries about relationships and sexual activity, and punishing someone for having or acting on same-sex attraction. Just because she is a young teenager doesn't mean she is confused about the difference: unfortunately, in fact, she may be a lot less confused on this issue than her parents.
posted by en forme de poire at 5:32 PM on January 14, 2016 [4 favorites]


From an anonymous commenter:
She'll be able to use an email address at the library, a friends house, perhaps from school, etc, and her parents won't be able to confiscate it in the way they can her phone.

If you do this, please make sure it's an e-mail address she doesn't ever check from home or from a mobile device. I know this probably sounds paranoid to straight people, or non-straight people who grew up in a more supportive environment, but after I came out to my parents, even though they are pretty liberal and not very tech-savvy, they surreptitiously read my e-mail, found out I had reached out to a teen LGBT support group, and put me under even tighter restrictions in response. (This isn't an inference I made, either; my parents explicitly told me they'd done this.)

I think it is sometimes tough for people who haven't gone through something similar to understand the extent to which unsupportive parents, even ones who are otherwise loving and caring and non-abusive, are willing to control and police their LGBT children's communications and behavior for signs of deviation from cis-het development.
posted by restless_nomad at 6:31 PM on January 14, 2016 [9 favorites]


I think there may be other things at play here. They may think she's too young to be involved with anyone. Also she may be so involved to the point where other things such as schoolwork and other friendships are suffering. Seems with kids that young no matter what the sexuality, if the parents disapprove, its drama, drama, drama. My first "serious" relationship was at 13 and I was obsessed. Nothing mattered but us. Oh, and of course the whole cruel world was against me and my honey. My mother even got me a membership at another sports facility across town so that I wouldn't see my squeeze during the summer. So just be there for her. Listen and sympathize. It all gets better.

This is a supremely unhelpful and dismissive comment. Much of the "whole cruel world" IS very vocally against LGBT people, and please consider taking the OP and his niece at their word that the parents seem to be falling into that camp, and not just opposed to any relationship, period. There are layers upon layers of additional nuance between "parents disapprove of hetero bf/gf pairing," and a young LGBT person coming to terms with their own sexuality, making it known to the world, navigating first time relationships, and parental/familial/societal disapproval. Please recognize that before generalizing that this may be in any way analogous to run-of-the-mill teenage drama or your own situation if yours falls under the umbrella of the former.

OP, PFLAG was mentioned above, and while pointing the parents in that direction is a fantastic idea, be prepared for that advice to be brushed off if they've already made up their mind. In addition to the parents, though, I would make sure the supportive grandparents are made aware of PFLAG and other local resources, as I have a feeling that the more tools they have in their arsenal, the better it will be for everyone involved if things do not improve. Be sure to keep the lines of communication between you/husband and the grandparents open as well. The more people in the niece's support network, the better.
posted by wats at 7:36 PM on January 14, 2016 [7 favorites]


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