She could tell something was wrong the minute she heard my trembling voice on the phone.
“What is it baby?”
“Mom, I have to tell you something. But first you have to promise you’ll still love me no matter what.”
And thus began the scariest conversation of my life as I came out as gay to my (very conservative) mother at the ripe old age of 37. I would have preferred to do it face-to-face but distance and circumstances dictated otherwise. I fully anticipated being rejected by my mom and dad when they learned the truth it had taken me all these years to accept about myself. But I had no choice—it was time they and everyone else knew the real me.
If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you; if you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth with destroy you.
-Gnostic Gospel of Thomas
If you have a child who identifies as LGBTQ, I hope they don’t wait until they are 37 to come out to you, as secrets this big are oppressive to both the secret-bearer and the family. Perhaps you have suspicions about your son or daughter’s orientation/identity but they have not verbalized it to you yet, or maybe your kiddo has already shared their news with you and you are confused, sad, and unsure how to react.
Wherever you are in the process, following are some suggestions for you to consider that are meant to help you understand and honor your child’s identity. These suggestions are based on my coming out experience as well as experiences shared with me by the many LGBTQ kids I’ve known in 23 years of working as an educator.
I come from a place of love here, not judgment, because my deepest wish is for you to find a way to maintain a close, supportive relationship with your child both during and after the coming-out process.
When your LGBTQ child is ready to come out to you
Here are some things to consider as you navigate this challenging time:
1. Your child’s sexual orientation/gender identity is not a reflection of you.
There is nothing you did or didn’t do in parenting them to “make” them this way. Allowing your daughter to play baseball and work on cars with Dad did not make her gay. As our friend Lady Gaga says, “Baby (she) was born this way.”
2. How they identify today is not necessarily how they will identify permanently.
For many people, sexuality is fluid and gender identity does not feel fixed. Give them space and time to explore who they are. Some people initially identify as bi when they come out but after dating later come to understand they are really gay, or trans, or even straight, or they may continue to embrace a bisexual identity.
Don’t be too quick to put your child in a box but at the same time, don’t assume this is just a phase. That feels dismissive.
3. Allow them to come out on their own terms.
You may have suspected your son was gay since he expressed an affinity for dancing to show tunes in feather boas at age 3, but one’s sexuality is deeply personal and we must each learn to accept it in our own way. Even if you have a gay best friend, a closet full of rainbow t-shirts, and are committed to being 100% affirming, do not force your child out of the closet.
4. Words matter.
If you suspect your child is queer but they have not come out yet and you are not affirming of this identity, avoid making remarks meant to scare them into staying closeted. One of my lesbian friends was a tomboy as a child and even requested to be called by a masculine name for a while, so it must have been evident to her very religious family that she was gay.
Her mother once told her, “I would rather one of my children be a murderer than be a homosexual.” That comment stuck with her so deeply that she felt unable to come out until much later in life (after her mother’s death.) As a result, she had many years of inner turmoil surrounding her sexuality and sadly, her mother was never able to truly KNOW her while she was alive.
5. Don’t set them up with children of friends/neighbors in hopes that “If they just meet the right girl/guy they will realize they are actually straight.”
Trust that they know themselves much better than you do, and avoid trying to force a shoe on them that does not fit just to please you.
6. Make an effort to get to know others in the LGBTQ community.
If your circle consists mainly of people who look and believe just like you, consider going outside your comfort zone and befriending coworkers and neighbors who are LGBTQ, or join organizations that include queer people and their families. As you get to know them, ask questions and really listen to their stories and their struggles. The better you understand the queer community, the better you will understand your child.
Bonus points: Attend a Pride event with your beloved kiddo and give out Free Mom/Dad Hugs.
7. Read up on both LGBTQ history and current events.
Learn about Stonewall and the Lavender Scare. Review the recent court cases United States v. Windsor and Obergefell v. Hodges, which paved the way for marriage equality in the United States. Consume today’s news with an eye on what is happening related to the queer community and consider how it might affect your child’s life. Discuss these things with them.
Many LGBTQ people I know are parents, including me. These families have been created via surrogate/donation, international adoption, domestic adoption, and foster/adoption. In the city where I live, for example, we have a LGBTQ parents’ group that currently has more than 1,000 members. If your child wants to become a parent they will find a way!
9. If you are religious (and I cannot stress this enough) please choose your child over your religion.
I was raised in a conservative Southern Baptist home, and when I came out my parents initially had an extremely hard time honoring my orientation due to their religious beliefs. We had a period of struggle but ultimately they chose a relationship with their daughter over dogma.
Today they attend a church that is welcoming to my family and they do not tolerate those who preach hate for my community. And they also love my wife like she is their own. What a gift.
10. After they have the courage to come out to you, share in their pride.
When talking about your LGBTQ child, avoid referring to their partner/spouse as their “roommate” or “friend” in social settings. If they are transgender or gender non-conforming, call them by their preferred pronouns whether you are alone or in front of others (even if their preferred pronoun is “they” and you don’t understand that.)
Ignoring their wishes sends the message that you are ashamed of who they are and is deeply hurtful.
One of my happiest moments after coming out occurred when I discovered my mom had shared my truth openly with her friends, despite the very real potential for their judgment and rejection. Turns out 100% of them were unfazed and they love us all the same as they always have. And I know from her actions that my mom sees me, knows me, and is proud of ALL of me. That means everything!
Let’s be honest: most of us harbor secret fantasies that our children will turn out to be little clones of us and will share all of our hopes, dreams, and values. But that almost never happens, and the marked differences that sometimes exist between us can seem scary.
But learning to accept the child you have- as my parents have been able to do- rather than trying to shape them into the child you WISHED to have, will create an intimacy between you that only exists when two souls are willing to truly see one another. And that, my friends, is a beautiful thing.
As Andrew Solomon says in his book Far From the Tree:
Children with horizontal identities alter your self painfully; they also illuminate it. They are receptacles for rage and joy-even for salvation. When we love them, we achieve above all else the rapture of privileging what exists over what we have merely imagined.
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