UT Student Surveys Siblings of Gays and Lesbians

How do people react when a brother or sister comes out?

Numerous studies have examined how parents react when their children reveal that they're gay or lesbian. Now University of Tennessee doctoral student Nikki Hilton would like to hear from the straight siblings—how does having a brother or sister revealing their homosexuality subsequently affect family dynamics, sibling friendships, and even long-held moral beliefs and attitudes? "Around 80 percent of Americans have siblings, so I thought it was an important portion of the population to study in the context of the LG experience," says Hilton. "Also, my thoughts are with the bullying going on, and the recent suicides, siblings who are accepting could possibly become a protective factor for lesbians and gays."

In her first study on the topic, Hilton aimed for qualitative information, not hard numbers. "I was looking to find out what the experience was like," she says. She discovered that family dynamics inevitably changed, and also that sibling reactions tended to be different than their parents. "My study wasn't trying to answer this question, but something I noticed while doing my research is that people who had come in contact with LG people before their siblings came out were more accepting. I talked to one sibling who'd had someone come to his school and talk, and just that experience, meeting someone who's comfortable being LG, was enough to make him more comfortable with his own gay sibling."

Hilton's stepbrother is gay, but for the sake of a controlled topic, she's just studying biological siblings. "I don't know for sure, there could just as possibly be adopted or step siblings who have the same considerations," she says.

She notes that any angst about a biological sibling being LG did not seem to come from worrying whether they too would end up gay. "I didn't ever hear anyone say, ‘When my sibling came out, I started to wonder if I was gay or lesbian.'"

Hilton talked to people ages 18-57 and many of her subjects were Knoxvillians, but she says she didn't notice any particular difference in their attitudes or experience—only in their participation rates.

"It was hard to find participants at UT," she says. "For example, we list studies in the department, so students can read about them, and also so they can participate for credit in their Psych 110 class. I didn't get one participant when I listed my study. I can't believe there's not at least one student taking psychology with a lesbian or gay sibling. I can tell you at NYU, where I studied undergrad, we would have had lots of participants."

Hilton's had an abiding interest in multi-cultural psychology and LGBT issues her entire academic career. "When I was younger it was about animals and the environment, then it grew to include humans," she says with a laugh. Despite the reluctance of local citizens to be studied on LG topics, Hilton vied to come to the University of Tennessee's Counseling Psychology Program, as one of just five or six students accepted each year. She was drawn both by the program's reputation—third oldest in the Southeast and their unusual incorporation of social justice—and that of assistant professor Dawn Szymanski, Ph.D., who's nationally known for research on multicultural-feminist issues, particularly those involving sexual orientation, gender, race/ethnicity, and social class.

Hilton has submitted the paper that resulted from her qualitative research, "Family Dynamics and Changes in Sibling of Origin relationship after Lesbian and Gay Sexual Orientation Disclosure," for publication, and is now on to a more quantitative survey of heterosexual siblings of lesbians or gays, for a class called Applied Psychometrics that involves making scales and surveys.

The study's questionnaire, which straight siblings can take online, incorporates a wide range of experience and attitude, asking participants to rank on a "Strongly agree" to "Strongly disagree" scale such statements as, "I am proud to have a lesbian/gay sister/brother," "I wish my lesbian/gay sister/brother would try to become more sexually attracted to members of the opposite sex," and "I do not spend time with my lesbian/gay sister/brother because of her/his sexual orientation."

Right now, the data collection is just for class. "But there's a good chance it could become another paper, or lead to another study," says Hilton.

Straight people with a gay or lesbian sibling can take Hilton's survey at www.surveymonkey.com/s/lgsiblingacceptance.