“For some girls, it might begin with a crush on an older sister’s best friend or a strange physical sensation that occurs while watching Xena: Warrior Princess on television. For a boy, it might be a fantasy to take a bath with a buddy or a strong urge to run his hand across his gym teacher’s bearded cheek,” writes professor Michael LaSala in Coming Out, Coming Home: Helping Families Adjust to a Gay or Lesbian Child.
LaSala, who interviewed 65 gay and lesbian youths and their parents for the book, advises parents not to confront children with their suspicions until the kids have come to terms with their own homosexuality. Otherwise, he writes, “They will simply deny it. Trying to push this issue is like trying to take a cake out of the oven before it’s fully baked.”
Today, the average age for kids to come out is 17, says LaSala, director of the master’s of social work program at Rutgers University in New Jersey. In “a sea change from previous generations,” frequently their parents are among the first to be told the news. The trouble is, most parents don’t want to hear it. LaSala writes, “A mom might watch Ellen DeGeneres but that doesn’t mean she’ll be happy if her daughter is a lesbian.”
Therefore, he advises kids to “get their support network in order” before telling their parents. “Kids should find people they can talk to, whether it’s teachers or friends at school, to get the reassurance they need while the dust is settling with the parents.” If both parents are horrified, LaSala urges them to hide it from the kids, and vent to someone outside the family, such as a therapist or trusted confidant. Sometimes, couples aren’t on the same page. “It’s common for parents to adjust at different rates,” he observes. In time, what helps the non-accepting parent is seeing that the child is happy and well-adjusted.
The parents who struggle the most are those who “worry they’ve done something wrong,” LaSala says. “For the longest time, psychiatry blamed parents, and in particular mothers, for their children’s homosexuality.” Parents who recover quickest are the ones who believe homosexuality is inborn, he says. They conclude that “their child was simply born gay and this could not be changed.”
When LaSala speaks to parents, he tells them, “ ‘I’m a happy gay man. Being gay has enriched my life in so many ways. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.’ Parents are surprised to hear this, and also comforted.”
Informing the gay child’s siblings should be handled carefully. If the sibling is young, a parent might say, “ ‘Mary would rather marry a woman than a man,’ ” suggests LaSala. “This is a good way to describe things without getting into the details of the sexual attractions and behaviours.”
Siblings’ reactions matter. LaSala notes that when one boy called his gay brother a “faggot,” he took an overdose of pills. If siblings are perturbed, it’s often because they feel stigmatized at school: “Sometimes peers think the sibling is gay as well.” LaSala advises parents to ask their gay child for advice on how to handle the stigma and bullying, and to pass this information on to siblings.
When parents tell others their child is gay, “it should never be done in a way that overshadows another important family event,” he says. “It could add resentment if people recall, ‘Remember the time that Janice told us her son was gay at Grandpa’s funeral? As if we didn’t have enough to worry about.’ ”
Some parents worry their gay children are “potentially taking a path that will put them in harm’s way,” and try to push the child to be “straight”—but this leads only to conflict, LaSala warns. He encourages parents to attend at least one meeting with a support group such as PFLAG—Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.
One mother who went to such a meeting was surprised to encounter “all these other middle- and upper-class people. This is going to sound horrible,” she told LaSala, but she’d assumed that “parents of gay children would be crazy. Instead, I met all these educated people who are lovely, who have become my friends, and who have lovely kids who are gay.”