One of the clichés that surrounds being the parent of a gay child is that before your child comes out to you, “you must have known on some level.” When my daughter Casandra came out to my husband and me shortly before her 13th birthday, I did not even suspect that she was attracted to girls. My sister is a lesbian and a few of my cousins and many of my close friends are gay. Because of my relationships with them, I realized that sexual orientation is just one small aspect of any human being. My cluelessness about my daughter’s sexual orientation wasn’t denial, nor was it cloaked homophobia. Like many parents of adolescents, I just didn’t know what was going on in her head. Whatever stereotypes there are about gayness, my daughter doesn’t fit them (and I’m betting a lot of kids don’t). Casandra played with dolls. She loved Blues Clues. Her favorite Disney movie was Mulan. Casandra liked her long hair braided. She didn’t care if she wore a dress or sweat pants (though now jeans and a t-shirt are her favorite). She was just my beloved little girl—not my beloved-little-girl-who-might-be-gay.
Casandra is now 17 and out, and has given me permission to write about this subject. The trouble with finding support (or sharing with other parents) when your child comes out is that you might inadvertently out your child to others before she is ready. Your gay child may also have already heard horrible messages about gay people from our culture and society—even from friends, the media or perhaps from her religious community. To add further complexity to this delicate situation, your child has probably planned this talk with you for days, weeks, maybe even months or years. She’s been looking for the right opportunity to discuss this and you’ve probably been oblivious. You’ve been stressed about work, worried about what to make for dinner and trying to remember what time you’re supposed to pick her up from basketball practice.
So as a parent of a gay teen in this still homophobic and Puritan-tinged society, here are some tips to think about if your child turns to you during a seemingly ordinary car ride home from soccer practice and says, “Mom… I think I might be gay.”
1. Take your time but say something—dead silence to this pronouncement is probably your child’s greatest fear next to a screaming match. Even if you are totally baffled and blind-sided, try to say something non-judgmental like, “Can you tell me a little bit more about this?” “Okay, let’s talk.” Don’t let this be a one-time conversation. Bring it up again when you feel more prepared and have had a chance to think about what your child has shared with you.
2. Affirm with love—tell your child you love her and want good things for her, regardless of the gender of her future spouse. When Casandra came out to us, she was young and didn’t know all the words surrounding gender and sexuality. She was still working through what she felt. My husband and I told her we didn’t care whether her future partner was a man or a woman. What we cared about was whether he or she loved Casandra and treated her well. (I left out the part about the grandchildren…too much pressure for a middleschooler.) I told Casandra I wanted her to have what her dad and I have—a long, good marriage full of ups and downs and personal growth and couple growth (and secretly I was also thinking grandchildren… but honestly no pressure, Casandra!).
3. Educate your loved ones—you may have a family member or someone close to you who believes homosexuals are sinners and/or believes homosexuality is a choice. The documentary “For The Bible Tells Me So” is a great resource and walks viewers through the historical context of many Biblical passages. Find a gay-friendly church, synagogue or other faith community and have your family member talk to the leader there. (Go with your family member, if need be.) There are a lot of great books like Straight Parents, Gay Children: Keeping Families Together by Robert A. Bernstein and Always My Child: A Parent’s Guide to Understanding Your Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered, or Questioning Son or Daughter by Kevin Jennings available online and through bookstores. Keep a couple of extra copies of those books on hand and hand them out with love when well-intended ignorance comes knocking. Remind your family member that your child is still who she is and she’s asking her family and friends to know her even better. She’s being honest with the world and that’s a beautiful offering to the people she loves.
4. It’s okay to mourn—you and your child have lost something. You’ve lost social norming and with it the rights and privileges of “normal.” It really upset me at first that I would never see my daughter get married in a Catholic church. I was very worried (and still am) about Casandra’s physical and emotional safety.
Just remember that with everything that is “taken away” with homosexuality, other things are given. There won’t be accidental children and unwanted pregnancies. Casandra and I are very close because we have had to face “not normal” together. Your child sees the world in a different way because she is in a minority. So yes, mourn, but remember the loss of normalcy offers up other gifts to you and to your child.
5. Lose the guilt—whenever anything happens that might cause our child pain, we tend to blame ourselves as parents. Recent studies have shown that being gay probably has to do with genetic protectors called epi-marks. It’s not something you or she can control, any more than you both can control her eye color or the shape of her feet.
6. Watch for bullying—whether your child is “masculine,” “feminine” or can “pass,” acceptance can be a huge issue. Being gay can make a teen feel isolated from her peers. Depression and suicide are huge risks for gay teens. Pay attention to the SLIGHTEST change in your child’s behavior.
If there is a Gay/Straight Alliance (GSA) at your local high school, have your teen attend their meetings—often times they can even attend them if they are in middle school, with your permission. Contact the advisor of the GSA and let them know your teen could use some support. A lot of times the GSA advisor is a teacher who is gay, had gay parents and/or has a gay sibling. Your school counselor can also be a great resource for your family.
7. Don’t be afraid to ask for help—check and see if you have a local chapter of Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). A lot of times local chapters offer bowling, card games, picnics and pizza parties for gay teens and their families. We are lucky to live just a few minutes from Lansing, Michigan, and Casandra has attended teen gatherings at the Sir Pizza in our Old Town as well as the Teen White Party held the evening before Michigan Pride.
There are also a lot of great communities online for parents and gay teens. Do go over Internet safety with your teen repeatedly as trolls and predators can also see and join these sites. (Also some of the places for gay teens are flat-out hook-up sites…check everything out before it gets added to the approved list.)
Family therapy can be a great idea to get everyone talking. Be sure and look for a gay-friendly therapist and if possible, a gay therapist. He or she will understand family dynamics better than anyone else.
An acquaintance, with a good heart, I think, told me after Casandra came out that she was “sorry that Casandra had turned out gay.”
I look at my funny, bright, kind daughter who is a good student and a fine athlete, who, even at 17 still likes to spend time with her family. She wants nothing more than to go out in the world and help people, and I have to wonder what kind of world we live in, where my daughter’s gayness is a flaw, rather than just another facet of who she is.
*I used “she” and “Mom” in this essay simply because it was grammatically easier to do so. I hope the content also applies to sons and dads as well.
© 2013, Telaina Eriksen. All rights reserved.