"Mom, Dad, I'm gay!" Your brave, wonderful, beautiful child has spoken the words out loud that somewhere in the back of your mind you already suspected. This moment of honesty is the beginning of a journey that can be challenging for both you and your child. But with a little awareness, openness, some practical tools and support you can both grow through this experience, creating an even closer and more supportive family connection.
Let's face it, the coming out process for LGBT adolescents can be a terrifying moment, not only for the teenager, but also their family and friends. It is a time of high emotions that can run the gamut from confusion, shock, disbelief, rejection and anger, to acceptance, peace, understanding and concern. It is important at this potentially fragile time for both you and your teen to be kind to each other and create room for this new information and identity to be processed.
Adolescence is a time when sexual thoughts and feelings become intense and sometimes confusing. For gay teens they can be doubly so. Realizing that their feelings and desires are different from their friends can create a pressure to fit in and keep their sexual orientation secret. They can fear rejection, discrimination and even violence. It is important to create a space of safety and acceptance in the home so they can explore and come to terms with their feelings.
As a parent, be aware that saying "I'm gay" is just one step in the process of coming out. For the adolescent, accepting their own sexuality is a multi-layered experience with many stops and starts along the way. The process of coming out usually begins with the sharing of feelings with a close friend or family member. Although coming out is a normal step in the development of a gay or lesbian adolescent, many different issues can come to the forefront for your child including:
• Questioning their sexual identity. Am I gay, lesbian or bisexual?
• Who can I trust in this process?
• Will my family and friends accept this new information?
• Am I ready to be sexually active?
• Will I be safe sharing this information with others?
With all of these questions and others filling a gay teen's thoughts, it may be challenging to come out in a well-thought-out and structured manner. The coming out conversation may be a reaction to other issues or may be presented in a confrontational manner.
At first your teen may not even be sure of their sexuality and struggle to define their experience in a clear and concise way. They are busy exploring their own confusion and comparing themselves to other teens to figure out what their new "normal" is. For some kids this process of discovery moves quickly as they begin to be comfortable in their new identity while others may travel through a darker journey, which can lead to isolation and a negative self-concept.
As parents, it is important to create a supportive environment for your LGBT teen to speak about what's going on inside them. Although it may be challenging for you to have this conversation, it is just as hard for them to share this new identity with you because they are often still questioning their own feelings. So what can you do to make this conversation a little easier for all of you?
• Stay calm. This is probably a moment of shock for all of you. Leave space for it to sink in without having to react immediately.
• Be supportive and let them know how much you love them for exactly who they are.
• Be patient with them as they explore what being LGBT means to them.
• Let them know that you understand how hard this conversation is for them.
• Don't expect them to have all the answers about what it means to be gay.
• Know that your own personal beliefs may be challenged in this moment but it is still the same child you've always loved sitting across from you.
• Explore any issues or concerns about their personal safety at school, encouraging them to speak with you or a safe adult at school regarding teasing, bullying or harassment.
• Explore community resources for both education and social connections.
• Consider family therapy or individual therapy with a qualified counselor who works with gay teens and their families during the coming out process.
• If you have questions about sexual orientation, educate yourself. The Internet is a great source of information on the subject from trusted sources like The Trevor Project, The Human Rights Campaign and many others. There are also many books available on the subject. Most cities also have a local chapter of PFLAG (Parents & Friends of Lesbians And Gays), which offers a variety of resources, support and information.
It can be a challenge to be open and available for your gay teen during the coming out process because you will be simultaneously trying to address your own fears, concerns and emotions. You have probably projected a future dream for your child filled with traditional visions of weddings, a house with a white picket fence and grandchildren. Realizing that this dream may not come about in the manner you anticipated can create feelings of disappointment and loss. Have conversations with your spouse or a close trusted friend who can lend a supportive ear during this process.
Parents may need help for themselves while going through the coming out process with their gay or lesbian teenager. Working with a therapist who specializes in assisting gay teens and their families can be of benefit in relieving parents' fears and stress. Therapy also provides a forum for parents and teens to ask questions, gather information and ease their emotional distress in a neutral environment.
One of the biggest concerns of any teen in the process of coming out is whether their parents will accept them for who they are. Listen to their feelings as they share this new part of themselves. Although it may feel uncomfortable for all of you at first, acceptance of their newly shared identity can develop over time, creating a stronger family and a more open relationship based on truth and understanding.