Life can only be understood backwards but it must be lived forwards (Kierkegaard).
To begin to tell the story of the 65 gay and lesbian families I interviewed for the book Coming Out, Coming Home: Helping Families Adjust to a Gay or Lesbian Child(www.comingoutcominghome.com) it makes the most sense to start at the end--because there is good news about how families can eventually become more open, warmer, and closer after it is learned that a child is gay or lesbian. Parents can go from feeling rejecting,guilty, mournful, and frightened to not only accepting but prizing their gay or lesbian child--and for kids, especially gay kids, nothing feels better than to bask in the warm glow of a parent's love and approval.
But how is this possible? How can families, particularly parents, go from sadness to celebration? Well, the process is not easy, nor is it fail-safe. Not all families reach the point where their relationships are stronger and closer than ever before-but some do, and the stories of some of the parents and children in my book reveal how:
1) Parents who eventually became the most accepting had found a confidant-someone whom they could trust to listen to their dark feelings ofanger, guilt, grief, and loss. These mothers and fathers confided in a trusted friend, a gay acquaintance, or an open-minded relative, and some went to a special (and quite wonderful) support group for parents called PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gayswww.pflag.org ) Talking to these knowledgeable, nonjudgmental people helped parents navigate a minefield of painful emotions and realize that it was not their fault that their children were gay, and that their sons and daughter could still live happy, productive lives. These important allies gave parents hope--- but at the same time warned them that if they did not learn to accept their gay children, they ran the risk of losing them forever.
2) If kids were on-target with their life goals, succeeding in school, developing mature friendships and romantic relationships, and maintaining good connections with those within the family circle, this seemed to go a long way to reassure parents and help them adjust. Many of the mothers and fathers in this book described that although they were dismayed to learn their children were gay, when they realized how well their children were doing and how happy they were, they began to think "How bad can it really be?"
3) When the kids weren't rejected by their parents, they felt grateful. They had a newfound gratitude and respect for their mothers and fathers which led them to express warmth toward them--a warmth that, when received, was also returned by their parents, even initially disapproving parents--and this created a mutually reinforcing, reciprocal effect that led eventually to a renewed parent-child closeness for many of the families.
What didn't help?
1) When children acted "too gay" meaning that they showed mannerisms of the opposite sex. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with a young man who walks, talks, and dresses effeminately or a girl who is butch--but this stuff still makes many of us cringe. We (parents included!) want boys to be boys and girls to be girls. Sometimes this cross-gendered behavior understandably causes parents to worry that their children will be targets of discrimination, hostility, even violence, and this can get in the way of their adjustment and acceptance.
2) When kids seemed like they were struggling, parents were likely to attribute their problems to their sexual orientation, which in turn would get in the way of parents' adjustment. Sadly, a small number of the youth described in the book were like unmoored boats bobbing about on a rough sea; they seemed lost and directionless, either failing out of school, or not getting or keeping a job, largely due to their crippling depression. Some were traumatized by years of peer harassment. For others, coping with being gay or lesbian was just too much-and these troubled kids were referred to professional psychotherapists.
Nevertheless, if you are a parent in the throws of discovering your son or daughter is gay or lesbian-or if you are a child who is contemplating coming out, or have just come out and your family is reeling-don't despair--there is hope! Not only can your family adjust but a renewed or new closeness is indeed possible. As eloquently stated by one of the parents interviewed for Coming Out, Coming Home:
If a person chooses to...having a gay child and really working with it can be the biggest growth experience of your own life because it forces you to stretch yourself...to stretch your understanding of people...of what love is. I just think if you really go with the flow it is a lesson in compassion and courage. And you watch your child come out and blossom into a wonderful person with a relationship and all that stuff that is normal-and you realize--this is a privilege.
There is a lot more to say about how parents get to this point-which will be described in subsequent postings. In the meantime-those of you in coming-out families need to hang in there and stay hopeful. There can be a warm, bright light at the end of the tunnel.