Coming Out as Gay or Lesbian: Common Questions from Parents
Adapted from “Coming Out as Gay or Lesbian,” by N. M. Malik and K. M. Lindahl, published in The Parent’s Guide to Psychological First Aid Helping Children and Adolescents Cope with Predictable Life Crises, edited by D. Koocher and A. La Greca.
Your teenager has seemed a bit out of sorts lately – avoiding talking to you, at times seeming secretive, getting angry with you, or seeming very sensitive for no good reason. On other occasions your teenager just seemed more withdrawn from you, spending more time in his room or not wanting to tell you who he has seen, or what has gone on in his social life. If you ask him about a date for Prom, he gets very upset, even when you didn’t think you said or asked anything that could hurt his feelings. After a few weeks or months of this behavior, he sits you down and tells you, at some point when you least expect it, “Mom, I’m gay.” Or, “Dad, I think I might be gay.” While his recent behavior suddenly begins to makes some sense, a range of emotions washes over you almost like a tidal wave.
It is never easy for parents to hear that their child is gay or lesbian, or thinks they might be. Even if you feel one hundred percent comfortable with the concept of accepting such an orientation, every parent worries about what it will mean for their child. And if you do not feel comfortable with such news, or if your religious beliefs tell you that being gay or lesbian is wrong, then the news can become extremely difficult to manage.
Below we have listed several questions that many parents have after their child comes out:
Whether your child identifies as gay or straight, and whether this is hard for you or not, remember the thing you provide most as a parent: support of your child as the person he or she needs to become. The strongest emotional bond in the world forms between a parent and a child. Remember that your child, for the longest time, couldn’t even survive without you. Despite the strength of your emotional bond many things may make parents feel very fragile. Feeling as though you don’t know your child, or that your child has not become the person you imagined when they were little, can become the most heartbreaking moment in a parent’s life. Remember the remarkable truth that no child really ever becomes exactly who their parent imagined, and every parent has to cope at some point with that realization. Having an LGBTQ child may involve more of a departure from parental expectations than you bargained for or than you ever thought you could deal with. But you can. Your child remains your child, and nothing will change that. His sexuality does not define him. Her choice of partner does not mean she has turned her back on you. The greatest gifts parents can give a child remain love and acceptance for who they are. Even if you think you can never get there with a gay or lesbian child, know in your heart that, if you try, you can. Don’t give up on them, and don’t give up on yourself.
What is my child saying to me?
When a child of any age recognizes that he may have a sexual orientation different from heterosexual, telling a parent about being gay or, for a daughter, lesbian, can take a while. The child first must recognize and then has to come to terms with feeling different from most of his or her peers. This process will likely be a long and complex one for a young person, as connecting with and identifying with your age mates becomes particularly important in adolescence. Once teenagers come to terms with their sexuality for themselves, they usually tell a friend or several friends. This may happen even before a youth feels fully comfortable with herself as a gay person, and she may turn to her friends to seek support and assistance.
Many reasons contribute to understanding why young people might feel reluctant or shy about talking with their parents about their sexual orientation. The nature of the topic itself, sexuality, makes many teens and parents uncomfortable, irrespective of the teens’ sexual orientation. In addition, significant generational differences exist in beliefs and values about sexuality. Youth who suspect or know that they are not heterosexual often fear their parents’ response, and as a consequence, parents often become the last to know about their child’s sexuality. When youth talk to parents, they usually tell their mothers first, and then their fathers, though certainly sometimes fathers know before mothers. In addition, the way family members communicate with each other also likely has an impact on when children disclose their gay or lesbian sexual orientation to their parents. In families where talking about feelings comes naturally, quite possibly parents will learn early, rather than last, about their gay or lesbian child’s sexual orientation.
This means that by the time your child tells you, she quite likely has gone through a lot of stress and worry related to trying to understand her own identity, which, especially if it is during the teenage years, can prove quite a challenge. Your child may still have a lot of worries, fears, and concerns, and she may feel very unsure of herself or fearful of your reactions. The important thing to realize, however, is that if your child has come out to you, she has demonstrated that she wants an honest relationship with you, her parent or parents, and to share something very private and important about herself with you.
You may feel a bit confused by what your child is telling you. Sometimes it seems very clear; your son tells you that he is sexually attracted exclusively to men, or your daughter tells you that she is attracted exclusively to women. But sometimes the definitions do not come across clearly, and parents who are already struggling with the idea of a potentially gay child can find that very confusing. For example, young people may use several different terms and definitions these days, all falling under the umbrella of “LGBTQ,” which means “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, queer, or questioning.” Many youth and researchers these days also use the term “same-sex attracted.” Lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, questioning, or same-sex attracted all refer to an individual who has a sexual orientation that is not exclusively heterosexual, and may or may not include opposite-sex attraction. Transgender has a different definition, which relates to self-identification with a gender that does not match one’s own biological sex.
Definitions of sexuality have become somewhat fluid these days, which probably seems very different than how society viewed such matters when you were growing up. These changes mean that for many young people, defining their sexuality does not feel as important as being true to themselves and allowing themselves to feel however they want to, about men and women alike. In these changing times, many adolescents have become less likely to feel the need to label themselves one way or another. For a parent, however, the sense of panic they may feel once their children reveal same-sex attractions or feelings of being transgendered may become amplified by not really understanding what the child means. Remember, however, that even if your child seems somewhat fluid or vague in what they say about themselves, the scientific data indicate that sexuality is not a simple choice; rather, it has strong biological roots. Your teenager may not feel nearly as urgent as you do about “deciding” on a sexual orientation. Regardless of how they ultimately define themselves, settling on a definition is not the same thing as making a choice about their sexuality. Although one can choose labels, one cannot choose one’s sexuality. All scientific research reported to date shows that sexual orientation is biological in nature, rather than a personal choice.
Eventually, somewhere around 2-10% of the population will describe themselves, in adulthood, as what we commonly refer to as “gay” or “lesbian.” This means that if your child has a non-heterosexual orientation, he will truly find himself part of a minority. He will find himself part of a minority for whom our society shows growing acceptance, but with a long way to go. Sexual minority adolescents will doubtless face some stressful experiences going forward, such as taunting by peers, worries about being accepted by friends and family, and fears of discrimination. Your child probably faces problems like figuring out how to have a same-sex boyfriend or girlfriend, or dealing with a crush, or simply dealing with feeling really different from most other kids.
All these reasons may contribute to why your child might feel touchy about a date for the Prom. At this moment in their lives, support from Mom and Dad becomes critically important. The period of “coming out” definitely qualifies as one of those times when parental support becomes critical.
What does “coming out” mean, and why is this important for my child?
“Coming out” refers to the process of recognizing and acknowledging same-sex attractions in oneself, and then sharing that information about one’s identity with other people. This process can mean different things for different youth. Kids might talk to you, as we just described above, about falling anywhere on a continuum from gay to bisexual to heterosexual. Thus, in order to continue communicating well with your child, you will need to try to understand where they fall based on what they tell you, rather than what you think or want to believe. This will not always prove easy to do. Because society’s views about homosexuality vary by age, over time, and by region, kids’ definitions and experiences will likely vary from yours as a parent.
The teen and early adult years, when same-sex attracted individuals tend to “come out,” normally represents a time of great developmental changes. Establishing an identity, both internally for oneself and in terms of a social or public identity, becomes an important developmental task we all face as we move forward in the process from childhood to adulthood. Some parents might prefer that their child simply not tell them if they believe they are gay or lesbian. They might prefer not to hear things about their child that they feel uncomfortable about or do not agree with, since it may make their relationship with their child complicated.
A child who comes out to a parent does so with the intent to share something important and personal with their parent. Most kids are aware that this will be hard for their parents and are likely ready to help their parents deal with a number of very common questions parents have. The most likely question, or concern, parents have is, “did I do something to cause this to happen?” Or, “how did I go wrong with my child?” The answer to that question, unequivocally, is “No.” You did not do anything wrong. In fact, there is nothing you did or could do that would influence your child’s sexuality. Sexuality is not considered a choice nor something influenced by the environment.
How worried should I be?
Even when parents feel “totally cool” or at least “okay” with having a gay son or lesbian daughter, they still generally worry a lot about what might happen to their child. A son who acknowledges same-sex attractions can become subjected to a host of negativity from peers – even heterosexual adolescents who get taunted by peers as gay or lesbian can find the experience very hurtful. When a child truly identifies as gay, the put-downs strike an even deeper sensitivity. They may encounter friends, family members, coaches, teachers, parents of friends, and others who reject them, and those experiences can trigger feelings of despair and isolation. A child who begins to come out can’t really predict how people will respond to her when she tells them about her sexual orientation. She will likely feel a mix of both fear and worry about rejection, along with hope for acceptance as she acknowledges her identity and shares it with others.
The media has reported on horrible acts of violence committed against gay youth, and gay men, even more than lesbians or other groups that fall under the “LGBTQ” category. This does not mean that risk of victimization for LGBTQ kids ranks high on a day-to-day basis, or that they will likely become victims of violent crime. Harassment, such as teasing, proves emotionally difficult but not physically dangerous, and occurs much more commonly than violence.
Some research reports suggest that LGBTQ youth seem more likely to feel depressed, express thoughts of wanting to die, and attempt suicide, because they face so many stressful experiences. Other reports, however, show a tremendous amount of resilience in same-sex attracted youth. One of the deciding factors in how adolescents cope seems to involve how family members cope with their son or daughter coming out. If youth have a supportive and helpful environment at home, and good relationships, even with only one parent, they seem very likely to cope effectively with whatever negativity and bigotry they may face.
Generally, no one knows your child better than you. If you didn’t expect your child to disclose a non-heterosexual orientation, you might feel that you do not know your child as well as you thought you did – but in reality, you still know your child very well. Most parents know how their children express fear, stress, or suffering. Even if sexual orientation is an issue between you and your child, you can still help them be resilient if you pay attention to their day to day feelings, help them cope with difficult experiences, and give them opportunities to communicate with you about important positive and negative events. Even if you cannot talk to them about their sexuality, you can still talk to them about all the other important things in their lives. Not withdrawing from your role as a parent is probably one of the most helpful ways to help a child continue to feel a sense of being cared for and accepted.
How can I be supportive?
Some suggestions to keep in mind when your child comes out, in terms of ways to help her move forward with her newly understood – or at least newly disclosed – sexual identity follow.
Keep lines of communication as open as possible. This becomes a tricky balance for parents who want to show acceptance and concern for their LBGTQ child. A youth coming out seeks acceptance, and it may prove difficult for him to hear the legitimate concerns or worries you have. Before discussing your concerns, reassure your child that you love them, respect them, and feel proud of them (in whatever ways you can genuinely say this). Your child will feel more open to hearing about your worries, if they know that the two of you still have a solid foundation in your parent-child relationship.
Acceptance of a child’s sexual orientation, like “coming out” for teens, unfolds as a process, developing over time. Even if you do not feel completely comfortable with your child’s sexuality at the outset, you will want to protect them and help them cope with rejection or teasing they might experience from others. If necessary, try to put your own doubts about sexual orientation aside, and focus on teaching problem-solving and coping skills to your child.
Help your child stay safe. This will prove less of an issue for young women, but for young men, same-sex attraction and sexual activity can carry a risk for HIV and AIDS. Even for young women, one must remain vigilant about sexually transmitted diseases, regardless of sexual orientation, when becoming sexually active. Educate yourself about safe sex practices and try to communicate the importance of self-confidence and self-protection for when your child may become sexually active.
Support them and suggest ways to cope, if they have to face harassment or discrimination. Helping your LGBTQ child feel a sense of self-worth and a sense of self-confidence will become the most important gift you can give your child. Maintaining a solid sense of self and learning ways to cope with difficulty will prove the most protective skills an LGBTQ youth can have as they move forward into adulthood as a gay or lesbian person.
Remain aware of your own biases or prejudices. As much as society has become more accepting of LGBTQ persons in some quarters, prejudice and negative stereotypes still exist, and you may have some your own mind without even realizing it. Your child wants you to accept him for the person he is and has always been, even though you now know something very different about him that you didn’t know before. Your child can feel very sensitive to expressions that make him feel you now see him differently with negative connotations. Remain patient with him, and with yourself, as you adjust to the new information you have learned about your child.
What if I feel I can’t be supportive?
We said before that you are going to have feelings to deal with as your child comes out, and it may prove very, very hard for you. While having supportive parents can make a great and positive difference in the lives of gay youth, the process can prove extremely hard on all of you, if you as a parent have trouble accepting your child once he comes out to you. Consider ideas for how you can understand, acknowledge, and move forward in your own reactions to your child coming out.
Try to remain patient with yourself and do not focus on predicting a negative future. It may seem that you have hit an irreparable impasse with your child over sexuality. Don’t focus on that feeling. Instead, focus on understanding why you have such a negative reaction to your LGBTQ child.
Don’t feel ashamed of feeling ashamed. So many parents end up believing they have done something wrong for their child to turn against them, or against God, or against their community. They feel they have done something wrong for their child to turn out gay. Your child’s sexual orientation began before birth. We do not yet fully understand the underlying science, but try to get beyond the “how” and “why,” since we lack clear answers. If you feel ashamed, or you feel you need to keep things secret, allow yourself to have that reaction. The pain you feel will diminish if you take things slowly.
If you feel the need to keep your child’s sexuality a secret, remember your child may experience that need as rejection. Open communication with your child will become key. If you can tell your child that this need forms part of your way of dealing with her sexuality, and you do not yet feel ready to tell people, but that you are working on acceptance, she will likely feel more patient and compassionate with you. She probably struggled with all those feelings too, before she told you.
Don’t blame yourself, but don’t blame your child, either. As you struggle through dealing with your child’s coming out, taking blame out of the picture makes communication and understanding much easier for you and your child.
Recognize you are not alone. For generations parents just like you have struggled with acceptance of their gay children. You may not feel that you can seek out support, but if you can, do so. You can find support from clergy, friends, counselors, colleagues, and support groups. We’ve listed some of the places you can go in person or anonymously on the internet to get some support.