4 ways to be a better parent to a gay child
“Mom and Dad, I’m gay.”
How would you feel if your child said those words? Shocked? “I had no idea. I can’t believe it.” Validated? “I always thought it might be true.” Afraid? “What will their life be like now, out in the world?”
Today in America, somewhere between 3 percent and 4 percent of people identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT), according to a Gallup survey.
When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled same-sex marriage the law of the land in June 2015, it capped a decade-long shift in Americans’ attitudes about the LGBT community. A majority of Americans now support same-sex marriage, and 92 percent of LGBT adults report society has become more accepting of them.
Despite these gains, LGBT people still face social stigma and discrimination that put them at greater risk for poor mental and physical health. This is especially true for young people. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports LGBT youth are more likely than their heterosexual peers to suffer from depression, attempt suicide, skip school due to fear for their safety, abuse drugs and alcohol, and engage in sexually risky behavior.
A closer look at the risk factors shows the critical importance of teens’ lives at home:
- Gay and lesbian children whose families reject them are significantly more likely to attempt suicide, experience depression, use illegal drugs, and have unprotected sex, Pediatrics reports.
“Teens and children who come from supportive and loving environments do better in general,” says Nisha David, MD, of Cape Obstetrics and Gynecology, an expert on LGBT and adolescent health.
If you know your child or loved one is gay, are wondering about his or her sexual leanings, or simply want to help your child battle life’s challenges, follow these four guidelines.
1. Teens usually find it very stressful to question their sexual orientation and discuss it with others.
Joe Lima, Board Member, PFLAG of Cape Cod
Many gay and lesbian adolescents struggle to come to grips with their attraction to the same sex. That was the case for Joe Lima, 47, a board member of the nonprofit PFLAG Cape Cod, which offers education and support for parents, families and friends of LGBT people.
Lima remembers feeling attracted to boys in middle school and thinking, “‘Is it just me? Could I be gay?’ I refused to admit I was gay because I couldn’t be like those people you hear [others] hate or are disgusted by. I hoped I would outgrow it.”
PFLAG Cape Cod President Amy Mesirow vividly recalls the day her own son, then 15, came out to her and her husband: “He had tears streaming down his face as he told us. He said he thought it would be the worst thing in the world to be gay.”
When Dr. David hears from anxious teens questioning their orientation, she counsels them not to feel pressure to decide anything right away. “Teens want to be sure themselves before they tell other people,” she said.
For all teen patients—gay, straight and questioning—Dr. David uses open-ended questions to spark discussion about sexual health. She advises about safe-sex practices to protect against sexually transmitted diseases and looks for signs of dating violence or abuse by asking if patients feel emotionally safe with their partners.
2. Talking with children about LGBT issues is tough for parents, too, so it helps to seek information and support from others.
Amy Mesirow, President, PFLAG of Cape Cod
PFLAG Cape Cod holds monthly meetings in Brewster and Falmouth, along with a support group in West Barnstable specifically for parents of transgender and gender-non-conforming children. All gatherings typically feature a speaker, film or other educational component, followed by a confidential support-group discussion. “It’s an opportunity for people to learn from each other. People feel better knowing they’re not alone,” Mesirow explains.
After her son came out, the PFLAG community helped Mesirow get informed about gay issues and bravely face her new parenting challenge. The meetings also helped her process her emotions, which ranged from fear (for her son’s safety, future job prospects, and acceptance in the community) to sadness for her family.
“My husband and I felt we were mourning the loss of our dream for our child’s future: the whole white picket-fence existence, having a wife and kids and home,” she said.
Lima turned to PFLAG in the early 1990s after struggling to tell his Portuguese-Catholic immigrant parents he had fallen in love with a man.
“There were cultural, religious and generational factors that made it difficult for me to come out to them. I was concerned they wouldn’t take it well,” he remembers.
After gaining advice and encouragement from other families of gay and lesbian people, Lima mustered up the courage to be honest with his parents about his new relationship. They were surprised by his news but expressed their love and support.
Dr. David says that, without a doubt, it’s normal for parents of LGBT children to feel uneasy or confused, but they should listen to what their kids have to say, withhold judgment and show a willingness to learn.
For guidance, PFLAG National offers these online publications:
- Our Daughters and Sons: Questions and Answers for Parents of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth and Adults
- Be Yourself: Questions and Answers for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Questioning Youth
- Our Trans Loved Ones: Questions and Answers for Parents, Families, and Friends of People Who Are Transgender and Gender Expansive
3. Be careful what you say around your child, and challenge your assumptions.
Parents should be aware of day-to-day things they say at home that can impact their children’s willingness to approach them for tough conversations. “Kids are always listening,” Dr. David cautions. Here are some tips:
- Avoid cracking jokes, using slurs or speaking disparagingly about LGBT people in front of your child.
- Don’t assume your child is necessarily straight. For example, a parent who teasingly asks a young boy if he has a girlfriend “sends the message he should be interested in members of the opposite sex and he’s out of place if he’s not,” Lima says.
- Don’t assume all gay people behave or sound in stereotypical ways. “The people who are very feminine females or very masculine males often have the hardest time coming out because people don’t expect it,” Dr. David has found. “Parents wonder how they missed the signs—a lot of times there aren’t any signs.”
4. Choose to be a positive part of your child’s future.
Today Mesirow is an ardent straight ally of the LGBT community and says meeting gay people who are “living happy, productive lives” (some who are married with children) has brightened her outlook for her son’s well-being.
Lima speculates he might have moved out of Massachusetts if he hadn’t come out to his parents. Instead, he still lives on the Cape, happily married to the man he introduced to his parents two decades ago.
“If my siblings and parents never found out they had a gay brother and gay son, I know their attitudes would not be as evolved as they are today,” he says.
Dr. David believes “times have changed and [living an openly gay life is] probably not going to be a roadblock the way it might have been years ago.” She adds, “your kids want to hear that you love them, you accept them for who they are and who they’re going to become, and nothing will change their relationship with you.”
PFLAG Cape Cod
Cape & Islands Gay and Straight Youth Alliance
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Human Rights Campaign: Resources to Support LGBT Youth
The Trevor Project: Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention Services for Youth