Note: This is a longer article than usual, as I felt the subject deserved it.
Your First Response
So your kid came out to you as gay. How did it go? Did you handle it well? Badly? Not sure?
Best case, you totally understood the importance and ramifications of your child’s declaration, responded with glee and hugs and positivity, and then you started making plans for the celebration!
Worst case, you choked. You blew it. You completely insulted your child’s life and deepest emotions, and you may have created lasting damage for your parental relationship with your now very angry progeny.
Most likely it was somewhere in the middle. I would hope you did your best “I love you and want what is best for you” routine, but you were probably left feeling like you didn’t know what is best for your child right now. That’s OK, because this is the beginning of your learning process, and if you are of good heart and you love you child, I trust things will work out, or at least you will not be responsible if they don’t.
One of my favorite coming out stories was from a young man who spent months fretting about telling his parents, and when he finally did tell his mother he was gay she responded: “That’s nice, but you still have to do the dishes.” Your reaction may not have been quite that nonchalant, but that is fine, for reasons I will explain below.
Most likely you and your child have a history of communications both good and bad, of things said and unsaid, and of expectations met and unmet. Well, things have just taken another big turn for both of you, and the exciting thing is this could be very good news.
This whole discussion around sexuality and gender may all be new to you, but your kid has spent years learning who they are — thinking about it, mulling it over, considering the clues, and checking their internal feelings against the larger culture to see how they fit. That’s what we do as we grow up, we grow into who we are and figure out how to be that person in the social world of other people. And somewhere along that path adolescence hits, and overpowering feelings of sex and intimacy get rolled into the mix, a process that confuses most kids and a lot of adults. The important thing for you to know as the parent is that you also get time to work through all of this. Just as your child had a learning curve, you get one too.
We live in a culture that is terrible at teaching about sexuality and gender identity, and now that is hurting both you and your child. Growing up, your child probably received horrible information about what it means to be gay as so much of popular culture vacillates between the judgmental and the pornographic. Children need the guidance of wise parents, grandparents, religions, schools, role models, and all the rest of civil society to help them grow into healthy adults, but gay kids rarely get to experience solid guidance and cultural support, so they may have felt like there was no clearly visible path to sanity. If you are feeling confused about what to do now, then you are feeling a bit of what every gay person has experienced over and over from a very young age.
It is the nature of youth to want to forge ahead, and your child may be frustrated or angry with you for not “getting it” right away, but that is unfair, and you need to say it. Help them get clear on how their own process has evolved to where they are today, and let them know you get to have a similar process. Blame society if you have to, for failing to prepare you if this moment, and double down on your commitment to your child’s well being in something deeper and longer lasting than the current discussion. Chances are your kid is at a pivotal stage of adolescence or young adulthood, and this is a great time to demonstrate that you are in it for the long haul, wherever life leads, no matter how challenging or unexpected the challenges ahead.
When I start a new relationship I set one clear rule: I will do my best to get everything right the first time, but I know I will fail. Because of that, I reserve the right for clean-up rounds. This means that once I realize I offended you, or made a mistake, or did not follow through in the right way, I reserve the right to come back around to that subject and correct it, make amends, and have a do-over to try to get it better the second time around. Or third. Or whatever it takes until I get it right. I am a work in progress, and I can only commit to continuing improvement, not to getting everything right the first time every time.
You get that same right. Regardless of how that first coming out discussion went, things can get better. You get to loop back around and say:
Hey. When you came out to me as gay (or bisexual, or whatever), I had __________ reaction. I saw on your face at the time that it hurt you that I did not do better in that moment, and I would like another try. I want you to know that I love you, and as your parent I am in this for the whole ride. I am committed to helping you the best I can, and part of that is going to be me growing and learning in ways I was not expecting. It is not a bad thing, it is just the way it works. I apologize, but it is going to take me a bit to catch up. I want us to be generous with each other. I am going to do my best to be open to your process now and in the future, and all I can ask is that you give me the same space to work through my own thoughts and feelings in my way too. I will do the very best I can, and when I stumble, I commit to coming back around to clean up my mess and try to do better the next time, because my commitment to you is bigger than the up and down moments that inevitably occur.
Anger, and Depression
Unfortunately, by the time you have this talk, your child might be very angry, or if the anger is turned inward, depressed. This may arise from a history of anger between you, or it may have come from the process of coming into themselves as LGBT in a world that can be hostile and mean to queer youth, or the anger may come from some deeper places too hard to ever identify or explain with clarity. To give examples: A young lesbian may rage against the patriarchy and men in general as they she grew up feeling disrespected and thwarted by male mistreatment and a society structured to cater to men, and yet she never felt the kind of visceral sexual attraction to men that might drive straight women past those atrocities and into connection. Young gay men might be angry or depressed about a world that can be cruel to signs of effeminacy in a young man, they might have been persecuted at school and church for being emotional sensitive in a culture where men taught not to have any feelings at all. Gender variant kids may feel rage against a world that left them lost between the cracks, not fitting in with one side or the other, and angry they should have to “pick teams” at all.
There is only one way out of this kind of anger and depression. We have to turn and face the dragon, for the exit lies behind the anger, and the only way out is through.
I once had a long talk with a woman with a very angry daughter. The woman was lovely, soft, and wise, but the one thing she could not face was an angry person coming at her. And yet that was exactly how she experienced her lesbian daughter – as a raging storm of persistent anger at her mother, men, and society in general. So my advice to her was to do the hardest thing ever: invite the anger in. Welcome the dragon into the conversation, sit it down and have tea with it, and hear what stories it has to tell.
In my own experience of the anger I felt towards my Mormon family and others, the thing that made it rage the loudest was their inability or unwillingness to hear. What I needed, and what I believe this woman’s daughter needed, was for someone to actually listen and hear the roots of my anger without judgement, commentary, dismissal, or even agreement. Often when we are angry it just needs an outlet, someplace it can land on solid ground so it can transform into something else. Parents can help by just hearing the stories and not make it about themselves.
This can be scary stuff, and very hard to do. You get to have your own boundaries about how much you can take, and it may be a long process to get to healing. If it took many years for you and your child’s relationship to get into the ditch, it will take a serious and ongoing commitment to get back out. But you can do it, looping back again and again to heal the old wounds and improve your connection each time. You can hear your child’s anger, even the anger aimed at you and the lists of all of your parenting mistakes or whatever, and you can come out the other side more deeply connected and real together.
And if all this gets too overwhelming, ask for help. This is not easy stuff for any of us.
The Goal Is Authenticity
If this whole discussion leaves you feeling lost and overwhelmed, remember keep one simple end goal in mind for both you and your child: to be authentic. But of course the simplest things can often be the most difficult. Learning to live an authentic life is like peeling an infinite onion, it takes removing layer after layer of the superficial as we get closer and closer to the core. Amidst all the words around sex, gender, and attractions, and all the labels like gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and so many more, remember that these words are just a map of the heart’s territory. They are just signposts and pointers, not the thing itself. The goal is to touch each other’s hearts.
To find what is at the root of this discussion, let the details, labels, judgements, and the like wash over you without holding on to any of them too tightly, because as useful as they are they are not the deepest truth. To uncover truth we have to listen to each other’s stories. Not stories of what we think, but stories of who we are. That’s why we love stories of how couples first met. It grounds us in the founding moments of two people coming together and illuminates the magic of what draws two people to commit to a difficult journey together.
The same is true for coming out stories. If you want to understand what your child is going through and where they are now, ask for the stories. Be curious. Be excited that your child now has enough perspective to start sharing what third grade looked like from their eyes. Ask about their attractions and when they first felt them, and how it was for them to be different at various stages of life. Do not do it like a lawyer interrogating the witness, but as a student trying to learn a new subject. You love your child, and now you get to learn more, and share more, together. But be gentle. If your child is younger, they may never have articulated many of these feelings out loud, and a parent is not always the easiest place to start, so it may take them a while to learn how to translate such complex adult thoughts into shareable words. It takes a while to develop a vocabulary for something new, and the heart is never literal anyway, so the answers may be poetic than concrete.
All of this may be profoundly uncomfortable for you. Truth speaking is not our cultural norm, as we prefer to keep things pleasant rather than real. But if you ever wanted to live in a world with more depth and meaning, this is your chance. Lean into the discomfort and hear the stories. Pretty much every gay person I have ever met has great stories, as part of what makes us so fascinating and important is the the difference in the way we experience the world, far beyond questions of who likes to wear dresses or who we want to have sex with.
By coming out, your child has let you know they are committed to being their true selves, and you get to be with those truths in your equally authenticity ways — hopefully as your most open, non-judgmental, and curious authentic self. You do not need to agree or approve of everything your child says, but when we really listen to each other’s stories, we can hear the deeper truths beneath the words and details.
Whatever your previous opinions about the gay community, trust me when I tell you we are now going to be your friends. Mine is a quirky community, and not always the healthiest, but we love parents who love their gay kids. So many of us never got that experience, which is part of why unhealthiness can be so common, but we still treasure it when we see it. Back in the early days of Gay Pride parades, it was consistently the parents groups that got the most ecstatic applause.
Please know that you now have entry into our little club. Ask any thoughtful gay person for help and advice, even online or anonymously, and I think you will get it. It may not always be what you want to hear, but it should be useful nonetheless. And resources within the gay community abound, and they are all open to you as a parent. I listed a few here to get you get started.
Most importantly, embrace your child’s identity. This is a tough concept to share clearly, but you need to practice accepting where your child is today in their process, even knowing that some things might change over time. This may mean accepting your daughter’s lesbian declarations at one time, and her boy crush at another. That may mean she is more bisexual than lesbian, or it may just be she liked that one boy that one time, or it may mean she experiences attractions as something more fluid. Welcome to the world of non-rigid sexual categories, where we pay more attention to the root of who we are than the details others might consider more essential.
And stay away from anyone who wants to cure your child. Sending a kid to therapy to cure their homosexuality or gender variance is cruel and it does not work. Some religions and therapists will take your money and say they can help, but it is all a sham. After decades, if not centuries, of trying to cure gay people, there is no evidence that any of it works, and the results are often more tragic than helpful.
This is a Gift
Knowing what I know now, as an older gay man, you should be thrilled your child has come out to you as gay or differently gendered. It is a gift for both of you. Through radical honesty, your child is offering you the chance to learn more about their lives, yourself, and humanity in general. I hope you can see that for the incredible opportunity that it is.
Your child just did something incredibly scary, possibly as emotionally brave as most people will ever do in all their lives. Your child just shared a truth from the deepest part of themselves — from their most tender feelings and their most intimate emotions — in a way that left them profoundly vulnerable. Society excels at shaming gay people, and your child just choose honesty over fear. Be aware that your child is now vulnerable, exposed, and in need of solid parental love and caring in ways that may be difficult or inconvenient for you, but will help you grow stronger as a person fully engaged with all of life, including areas beyond the mainstream assumptions. Your child needs your help now to learn how to integrate their truths and take responsible actions to move forward in the healthiest ways possible.
This is your chance. This is the call to deepen your connection and broaden your horizons. Get yourself firmly on the path of listening without judgement, practicing radical acceptance, and continually renew your commitment authenticity and the long term connection you two share, and I think you will be OK.
God bless you on your journey together. And if you read this to help your own child, consider sharing this post with your kid as it may provide some common ground to help you talk it out together.