It’s one of those conversations that’s always a watershed moment. When someone is gay, bisexual, transgender, or otherwise LGBTQ, there comes a time to tell the family. I’ve never met an LGBTQ person for whom this conversation was no big deal. For most, it’s somewhere between anxiety-producing and terrifying. Will they hate me? shame me? be disappointed? reject me? If I’m true to who I am, will I lose my family?
For the parents, it’s a big deal too. Sometimes it’s a confirmation of something you’ve kind of known for a long time. Other times it’s a lightning bolt, completely out of the blue. Your kid is suddenly, obviously, a sexual being, and in a way that may be very different from your own sexuality and from what you expected for your child. The news can rock your world.
So if your kid says “Mom, Dad, I’ve got something to tell you…,” you may be tongue-tied. It’s understandable to stumble around about what you want to say. But there are certain things that can maintain (even strengthen) your relationship and help your child through the coming-out process.
“I love you no matter what.” This is the one, essential thing to convey. If you’re so rattled you can’t manage anything else, please at least reassure your child of your love.
Tell the truth about how surprised you are (or aren’t): “Oh, honey, I’ve known for years” or “I’ve wondered” or “This is sort of a shock to me; I’ll need some time to get my head around it.” Whatever your reaction, it’s legitimate, and you might as well be honest about it. But please keep it to your own feelings, which is very different from blaming or shaming your child.
“I’ll help you get through this.” For some people, the coming-out process is a lonely one. Even if your child has a supportive network of LGBTQ friends, there’s still the rest of the world (and the family) to think about. It may not be clear yet what kind of help you can provide, but it’s comforting for your child to not have to face things alone. Your help is likely to be needed most if your child is relatively young.
“Whom can I tell, or shouldn’t I tell?” This news belongs to your child, not you. She may want your help telling the family, say, or she may not be ready for anyone else to know. There may be certain people she particularly doesn’t want to know yet. (If it’s not obvious to you why she’s not ready for those people to know, ask.) Honor her request for confidentiality. Exception: This is big news for you, too, and it’s reasonable to say that you need to be able to discuss it with one or two trusted people. If possible, get her agreement about who she’d feel comfortable knowing.
Later, once you’ve had a chance to absorb the news, you can return the conversation. What has the experience of realization and coming out been like for your kid? How does this all relate to the family and the community? You might want to talk about things like:
“I appreciate your telling me.” Acknowledge that it takes courage to come out. Some kids never tell their parents; they just drift away from the family or live a secret life. Your child coming out to you is a vote of confidence that you’ll handle the situation in a non-hurtful way, which is really quite a compliment.
“How long have you known?” Some LGBTQ folks have known since forever; others may have felt vaguely different for a while but only recently sorted out their orientation or gender identity—or are still sorting it out. Just be curious about what the process has been like so far for your kid.
“Who else knows?” Likely, many current friends already do. Young people often come out to their friends before their families. The reason you’d want to know whom he’s already told is to assess how much support he has in coming out. If he hasn’t told any/many friends, why not? Has he told only other LGBTQ people, or is he completely out at his college or other community? How supportive have people there been? Do people from his past (say, high school) know? Does he want them to know? It’s also possible that he long ago confided with a relative or adult friend of the family (and swore that person to secrecy). The key: What supports and resources does he already have?
“How can I learn more about all this?” After your child comes out to you, do some research. There is tons of information on the internet about different sexual orientations, gender identity, and the coming-out process. What sites has your child found helpful? What you learn by doing some research is important—but even more important is that you’re making the effort to find out more about your child’s world. It’s especially supportive to join a group like PFLAG that supports and advocates for the LGBTQ community.
“How can I help? Are there resources you need?” Especially if your child is young, she may have questions. She’s probably already found internet forums on orientation and gender identity. She may or may not be interested in joining or forming a group of like-minded peers, such as the Gay-Straight Alliance. If she’s still confused about her orientation or gender identity, she might want therapy to sort that out. (Not to change it, mind you—just to become clearer about it.)
“Help me learn the language.” Some forms of LGBTQ use vocabulary that you might not know or that’s different from what you use every day—terms like “mtf” (male to female trans), “genderqueer,” (people who feel that their gender is not clearly male nor female or whose felt gender changes over time) or “PGP” (preferred gender pronoun). Make an effort to learn the terms your child finds most accurate or helpful. This can be complicated and you won’t always get it right, so it’s reasonable to expect your kid to be patient with you. But do try.
“How shall we handle this with the extended family?” Families vary in their openness to LGBTQ issues. In some families, your child’s coming out would be quickly accepted; in others, it might create hurtful drama. Explore the dynamics with your kid. Who in your larger family is most likely to be an ally? Who might need a quiet, private conversation and some time to think about the news? Who is so reactive and judgmental that when the time comes, you simply won’t let his/her opinion get to you? What are the best ways to approach various people? To whom would your child like to talk personally, and whom would he rather you tell? when? Always remember that the process belongs to your child, not to you. Let him take the lead and choose the timing.
If you’re really struggling: For some parents, having a gay or transgender child is not only an adjustment, but a crisis. You may have deeply held beliefs that homosexuality is wrong; your faith may say it’s an unforgiveable sin. How can you reconcile that with your love for your child? Can you love your child—actively and with kindness—although you disagree profoundly? Does learning about your child’s journey change what you believe?
If your child’s coming out creates a huge clash within you that doesn’t settle down after the shock wears off, talk to someone. Meet with your own pastor and/or other clergy about religious views of sexual orientation and gender identity. Find a therapist who will help you explore your thoughts and feelings. Talk to other parents who’ve been through the coming-out process, either people you already know or parents at PFLAG or a similar group. I hope fervently that’ll you’ll find a way to handle things that doesn’t cost you your relationship with your child.
Remember that the coming-out process isn’t a one-time conversation. Parents and young people who’ve been through it stress that orientation and gender identity merit many conversations over years. Coming out to you is a specific event, but being LGBTQ is part of who your child is, for the long haul. If she doesn’t bring up sexuality periodically, you can. Be curious about what it’s like to be out in the world as LGBTQ. Ask about her dating and relationships, just as you would if she were straight and cisgender. Some of your child’s experiences will be different than yours, but others will be the same. Crushes, longing, loneliness, passion, heartbreak, and love happen to everyone; it’s wonderful if your child trusts you enough to talk with you about those feelings.
Coming out can be a growth process for you and your child. As one parent puts it: “The experience will change your relationship with your child, and you may well be awed by your son’s/daughter’s courage. If you let it, your world view of what’s ‘normal’ or ‘acceptable’ will broaden.” Your kid is still the same kid as always, but you may find that you can talk even more deeply about the things that really matter.
[In honor of National Coming Out Day on 10/11, this is a reprise of a post than originally ran 1/9/16.]