Times have a-changed! And although it sometimes looks like the world is getting worse, some things are definitely getting better.
Maybe you remember Dan Savage’s wide-reaching anti-suicide campaign, It Gets Better. Thousands of LGBT people and allies created Youtube videos with encouraging messages that said just that, “hold on, don’t give up – life will get better.”
Today, I have the same message for you – if your child just came out as LGBT.
(For the purpose of this post, I address parents whose children came out as gay or lesbian. Most of it applies to kids who come out as bi or trans, but I hope to write a different post to address trans kids more specifically, since other social and cultural aspects come into play. To simplify, I am using the word gay to mean “gay or lesbian”.)
I speak to many parents who suspect that their child is gay but hasn’t come out to them yet. They come to me because they want to prepare for the moment when their child opens up to them. Other times, parents need to process their own thoughts and feelings right after their child comes out as gay.
I consistently notice that even the most accepting parent asks some of the questions that I will answer here.
If you consider yourself an accepting person, who supports LGBT people around you, but you also struggle with the idea that your child is officially coming out, please don’t beat yourself up. As a parent, you want the best for your child. Being LGBT can bring some extra complications into the mix, and it’s only natural for you to want to protect your child from hardship.
When your child comes out as gay, they are giving you new information about their identity that adjusts how you see them. This is not to say that this picture becomes better or worse – it just changes.
Here are some answers I give parents when they tell me that their child is gay.
It’s not your fault
The science is in, and it’s clear. Sexual orientation is inborn and mostly unaffected by culture. Of course, a more accepting society allows gay individuals to come out earlier in life. This sometimes gives the impression that everybody is gay nowadays. But the percentage of gay individuals has been pretty steady (they just used to live in hiding).
Nothing that a parent can do makes a child gay or straight. Most gay children come from homes with straight parents and many positive straight role models.
Old Freudian theories that children become gay because of poor relationships with their fathers, or over-involved relationships with their mothers, have been completely debunked. Boys don’t become gay because they were too sheltered by their mothers, and girls don’t become lesbians because they had negative relationships with men.
This is just who and how your child is. Maybe they are left-handed, or maybe they are terrible at math and great at sports. Or, maybe they are gay. There is nothing you could have done to change that. You can help them live their best life, though!
You need time to adjust
By the time your child comes out as gay to you, they have processed their thoughts and feelings about their sexual orientation for years. They have observed and analyzed their every experience. They have observed others in their community, and they have probably paid attention to how you talk about gay people in your family. They have already thought all these things through for quite a while.
You, on the other hand, may not have suspected any of it. As a parent, you have certain mental images of who your child is. You envision their future, and you do everything you can to help them reach the best future possible.
When your child comes out to you, this image changes. It’s ok if you feel a bit disoriented. Give yourself time. You don’t need to be totally 100% on board right away. Your child has many years ahead still.
You shouldn’t have known
So often parents tell me, “I should have known!” But the truth is, you didn’t have to know. This does not make you a bad parent. You didn’t think of your child as gay or straight. Or you assumed they were straight. Some research says that 95% of people are straight, so your assumption was a safe one.
The thought that you should have known also points to unhelpful beliefs that we can recognize that someone is gay by how they look or what they do. That is just not the case. Sexual orientation is not visible or noticeable, especially when the person tries to hide it.
Lastly, your child has probably gone to great lengths so that you wouldn’t know.
And they were successful at this.
And that is OK.
It’s not just a phase
Being gay means that a person feels some sort of attraction toward the same sex. Your child is not likely to misinterpret their attraction. If they feel it, it’s probably there.
Even if it happens to be a phase, which is rarely is, it still shouldn’t be ignored or minimized. Just as you treated other phases, allow the experience of the phase to help your child grow.
Your child will be safe
Of course, nobody can promise this to any parent of any child. But one of many parents’ most common fears is that their child will be a victim of homophobia-fueled violence.
We have all heard the terrible stories of how gay couples were beaten just for holding hands on the street. This happens, even today, even where we live. But it doesn’t happen all the time, everywhere, or to every gay person.
I know many, many young LGBT people who have never been harassed. They may get looks, and they may feel unsafe in certain places. But in today’s world, it’s very possible for your gay child to be safe as they live an open and honest life.
Just like with any other safety issues, it’s a good idea to have a conversation with your child about what to look out for, and how to be appropriately cautious.
Your child may actually feel a little safer than they are because their peers are so accepting of them. This may worry you because you want them to be careful when they need to be. But something else to consider is that just as homophobia is still around, so are LGBT allies – in increasing numbers.
LGBT allies are everywhere.
Your child will be OK
This one often comes up with White families, but it’s also a very common fear for many parents who are POC. When their child comes out, they lose some privilege. This can feel terrifying. Parents worry about how their child will be judged simply because of who they are. And yes, this is true and will happen.
Children of families who belong to racial minorities experience it all the time. They know that they can’t, and don’t need to, change or neglect who they are. They learn to code-switch. They understand that certain aspects of life are harder for them, and they often work harder for the same results.
So yes, your child will face struggles you didn’t face. It may be hard for them, especially during the school years. But the struggle will also give their life special meaning and depth.
What they can learn from facing prejudice will make them better people.
Sexual orientation is not first about sex
I really wish the word sex wasn’t part of sexual orientation. One reason why many teens don’t come out to their parents is that they try to avoid the sex-talk.
Parents of boys often worry more about safe sex because of the stigma of HIV and because of the sexualized image of “gay culture.” Your child’s risk of contracting an STI exists whether they are gay or straight.
When your child just comes out, consider responding to their concerns and discussing how their coming-out can affect relationships before you start the sex-talk. There will be a time and a place for it. Give it a minute.
Allow your child to see that relationships and attraction aren’t just about sex. And remember that talking with your child about responsible sexual behavior is an ongoing conversation, independent from their sexual orientation.
You can still be a grandparent
Although gay parents are more visible today than ever before, parents often worry that their children will not be able to have kids. And worse, that they won’t become grandparents themselves!
This fear is understandable. But, it’s also a little silly. Just having a heterosexual child doesn’t guarantee that you will have grandchildren, either.
And, as you know, there are many different ways for anybody to become a parent. When that moment comes for you, it will be just the way it was supposed to be.
Coming out is not a one-and-done deal
Your child will come out repeatedly and continuously – forever. And so will you! This world assumes they are straight until proven otherwise.
Whenever your daughter mentions her girlfriend or partner for the first time, she will notice that people adjust their mental picture.
I notice this all the time. Because I’m married, it’s often easy just to casually throw something about “my husband” into the conversation. I haven’t gotten negative responses, but I notice a little coming-out moment that lasts about five seconds, and happens over and over.
The same thing will happen to you. At first, it can be terrifying when you say something about your son and his boyfriend. But with time, coming out becomes very easy and natural.
The more secure you feel of who you are, the easier it will be for others to accept you, too. You’ll see!
There isn’t one right way to respond
Just like with everything else in parenting, there isn’t one right way to respond when your child comes out. They probably planned his coming out for a while, or at least they thought long about it.
You, on the other hand, may have been caught by surprise. At that moment, you are dealing with many thoughts and feelings coming up at once. It can be overwhelming.
Parents often feel guilty over how they responded. Or, they are unsure if their response was good enough. And of course, there are many ways to respond that are just not helpful. But remember that what you do afterward is what really matters.
The coming-out conversation is just one moment of many. Whatever you said or didn’t say can be overshadowed by what you will do after. You can’t un-say it, but you can take it back.
Do your best, and focus on maintaining a loving, safe, and trusting relationship with your child. That’s what matters most.
You’ve heard the expression kids don’t come with a manual. But gosh, nobody really prepares you for when your kid comes out as gay. You may be the first one in your mom-group, or dad-group, or your family. And even without instructions or support, you have to go ahead and deal with it anyway.
You’ll make mistakes, just like any parent does. That’s fine!
You aren’t perfect, and by allowing yourself to be imperfect, you are modeling to your child, that it’s OK for them not to be imperfect, too.
Have you learned anything else on your journey as the parent of a gay child? I’d love to hear it! Feel free to write it in the comments or share it on social media!
At LaunchPad Counseling, we work with children, teens, and adults who identify as LGBT, and their families. If you think we can help you, please let us know by calling 804-665-4681. You can also sign up online and we will call you to set an appointment.