When basketball player Jason Collins came out
recently, he broke a huge barrier in professional sports in North America. He called on his inner courage to tell the world. It's exactly what every kid who has ever said those words to his or her parents has had to do. And for some families, hearing that their son or daughter is gay is still a very big deal.
For some Christians, learning that their son or daughter is gay can create a real crisis. For Anna Schubert*, not so much. "We'd done a lot of learning and growing earlier, when friends in our church had come out. I am so grateful to those friends, who were willing to answer our questions and help us understand who they are, because when our daughter came out, we were really clear about the fact that our priority was to love our child."
It still wasn't easy for her daughter, Becky, to tell them, but Anna had known there was something important on her mind. "When she has something heavy to say, she tends to work up to it by just hanging out in the room with me, not saying anything. That day, she was there a long time before she finally came up close beside me, pulled her hoodie right up over her head and blurted out, ‘Mom, I think I'm gay.'" By then Anna had imagined all sorts of possible crises, so her first reaction was relief. "She asked me if I would tell her dad. It bothered him a little that she didn't feel able to tell him herself, but he just went over and gave her a big hug and said, ‘I love you.' "Becky loosened up then," Anna remembers. "Once she said it and saw that we were OK, the struggle was over for her, and she quickly became comfortable with who she was
When kids come out of the clost, parental response matters
Not all kids get that family support, at least not right away. "I've seen everything from parents embracing the child on the spot to saying, ‘Pack your bags and get the hell out.' I've seen others run away from home because of parental responses," says Margaret Myers, a registered marriage and family therapist who specializes in counselling lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals and their families. When parents react out of their own shock, disappointment or fear, the consequences can be very painful. "Often children come out to their parents because they are in need of support. They are very vulnerable at this time and the parents' reaction is so critical. Things can be said that take years to heal," says Myers.
It was 14 years ago, but Catherine McDonnel* still regrets a decision she made when her then-16-year-old son, Josh, told her he was gay. "We had kind of suspected he might be," she says. "But my husband had been quite verbal about saying antigay things – I don't know, maybe in denial of his suspicions. And because of that, I suppose, I suggested that Josh wait a bit, until after Christmas, to tell his father. "That was not fair to my husband, Gregory," she acknowledges, "and it turned out very badly."
Catherine did talk to a friend about her son, and that friend left a message about it on the answering machine that was picked up by Gregory. He was hurt, and Josh, who had been wanting to tell his dad, was furious at the friend. So the whole family was in angry turmoil that wasn't even directly over Josh being gay. "I felt terrible about it," Catherine says. "It was all my fault." As it turned out, her fears about her husband were largely unfounded. "He was wonderful," she says. "He said, ‘Josh is my son, and I am going to be there for him no matter what.'" Catherine readily admits that she was upset by the news. "Mostly, I was fearful for Josh's safety. The thought of people despising him or wanting to hurt him, without even knowing him as a person, was terrible to contemplate."
Those fears are very common, says Francine Proulx-Kenzle, president of PFLAG Canada, a support organization for Canadians struggling
with issues of sexual orientation and gender identity, and for their families, friends and colleagues. "The differences in parents' reactions are as numerous as people," she says. "But very often they feel afraid for their kids, wanting to protect them from the hostility they may encounter." It's hardly surprising; we're all aware that however much progress has been made (and much has been), there are still plenty of people out there with hostile and even hateful attitudes, and far too many places in the world where to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer (LGBTQ) is to be at constant risk. "Those who have not been in touch with the gay community may have more fears," adds Proulx-Kenzle. "When they discover that there is a rich and supportive community out there, that is very reassuring."
Myers agrees. "Parents of gay children worry about their kids' safety and well-being, especially about rejection and bullying in â€¨high school," she says. "They wonder if they will be able to have happy lives – to find mates and be accepted." She notes, though, that as more celebrities and successful adults come out, and more positive depictions of same-sex relationships become common in popular culture, "parents see that their children can be OK in the world."
Parents of LGBTQ children may need support
For some parents, the journey to acceptance is tougher. "There can be a grieving process to go through," says Myers. "You have to let go of what may have been your dreams for your child. Sometimes there is guilt or blame, a feeling that you've done something wrong to cause this." Anna and her husband had two issues to work through. Worry for their daughter was one. "We wanted to protect her; we hated (and hate) the thought that someone might hurt her over one part of who she is. But we also had to adjust our own expectations, particularly around marriage and children, and how both of these, while still possible, would not be traditional for us. We needed to settle those thoughts for ourselves."
Anna has a suggestion for parents who are struggling. "Find people you can trust who you can talk through your worries and struggles with. You need a sounding board, but you shouldn't lay your struggles on your child." Anna says a teacher they know who was involved in her daughter's school's gay-straight alliance was very helpful. "The most poignant thing she said to me was, ‘This is 10 percent of who Becky is. The other 90 percent is the same as you believed yesterday.'"
Talking to a counsellor or getting support
through an organization like PFLAG Canada can help a great deal. "You become more comfortable as you talk to parents who have been there," says Proulx-Kenzle. She acknowledges that it can be hard to reach out when you're upset. "Sometimes the prospect of going â€¨to a support group is overwhelming. She says many parents who contact PFLAG Canada start by just talking to a volunteer on the phone or meeting for coffee.
If there's one message everyone interviewed wants parents of LGBTQ children to remember, it's that your child is still your child. "Josh belonged to a support group for a while, and some of the kids were in a bad place: kicked out of the house, rejected by their families," remembers Catherine. "My heart broke for them. To be rejected by your family is a terrible thing to go through."
"Our job as parents is to love our kids," says Anna. "I don't have to engage in religious debates about it. It's not up to me to judge. I have to love my kid and make sure she gets through life in one piece."
The transition to being the "parent of a gay child" can be an easy shift in mindset or a long, hard journey. What's at stake – a lifelong rich and loving relationship with your child – is more than worth fighting for, even if that fight is with your own attitudes.
Just ask Catherine. Today, Josh is a happy 30-year-old in a long-term relationship with his partner, Ryan. "We have a great relationship with him, and with Ryan as well," says Catherine. "Josh is a wonderful man, and we adore him."
Family support crucial for LGBTQ kids
When parents react to a teen's disclosure with rejection, more than the relationship is at stake. "LGBTQ kids suffer a higher incidence of depression, anxiety, pain and suicide," says therapist Margaret Myers. But recent research shows that parental support is a powerful mitigating factor. One study found that LGBTQ youth with highly accepting families had higher levels of self-esteem and social support in young adulthood, and a lower likelihood of experiencing depression
, substance abuse, suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts. By contrast, teens with low family acceptance were more than three times as likely to report both suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts
"Family support is crucial," says Francine Proulx-Kenzle, president of PFLAG Canada. "When young people come out, they are crossing â€¨a bridge, and it may be a scary transition for them, but with their families behind them, they feel more safe and confident."