Modern dos and don'ts for parents of gay kids coming out
Two new generation gays share their top five tips
This article was originally published April 11, 2017 and was updated June 1, 2020.
More gay people are coming out and coming out earlier than ever before in this country. According to Statistics Canada, the number of same-sex families standing up to be counted shot up 42.4 per cent between 2006 and 2011. These increasingly open examples of a normalized homosexual adulthood are giving young gay men and women the courage to be honest and open about their sexuality, and are changing the opinions of the people they are coming out to. However, even for modern, progressive parents, there are blunders that can cause unnecessary and often unintentional hurt. Coming out is a crucial juncture that can often make or break the child-parent relationship. But don't worry parents! I've got a big gay guide to help you out. I got together with two new generation gays (Marie and Scott) at Canada's top secret gay headquarters (Starbucks) to get their take on modern dos and don'ts for parents with gay kids coming out. These are their top five tips.
DO: Foster a positive LGBTQ atmosphere
Homosexuality comes in all shapes and sizes. Stereotypical mannerisms, dress and interests aren't always a steadfast indicator your offspring is a friend of Dorothy. Little Jimmy can be swishy and end up straight, and just because little Molly loves softball doesn't mean she loves other ladies. Instead, rely on your instincts as a parent. If you feel your child may be gay, one of the most important things you can do is create a gay-friendly environment, you just don't have to be obvious.
As Marie so wisely says: "Create a sense of diversity/openness in your home where your kids can feel comfortable if they are questioning. Instead of assuming someone has a boyfriend or girlfriend, use more gender-neutral terms like 'so is there anyone at the party that you like?' or 'Is your friend so-and-so dating someone new?' Don't assume everyone in the world is straight, and your kids will feel less out of place in your home."
It can be as easy as reacting kindly or expressing affinity toward gay people in the news or on TV too. Scott says: "Casually mention your support of LGBTQ individuals in general should it come up naturally. Don't say anything disparaging that would make your son/daughter hesitate/reconsider coming out."
It's important to remember you can't force someone out of the closet. Coming out and being outed are two very different things. Be patient and let your gay souffle finish cooking before you open the oven door.
DON'T: Say "I still love you no matter what"
This seems like a nice thing to say and it's something you will see a lot of in dramatizations on TV. But as Scott points out there is a subtext: "Saying 'I love you no matter what' suggests that your kid's gayness is something to be overlooked in the name of love. It translates to 'I love you even though you are gay' as if gayness were an illness or aberration." As for a suggested alternative? "How about just 'Thank you for telling me. I love you.'"
DON'T: Make it about you
Coming out is a big deal in a gay person's life. For some, it ends up being the most important moment in their lives. It's a big deal for parents too. Often mothers and fathers need time to adjust, be re-educated and mourn the loss of expectation they had for their kid. But whatever you are going through, your son or daughter is likely going through something more intense and important. Scott gives a prime example telling me his parents were: "...embarrassed I didn't feel comfortable telling them sooner," adding, "They don't trust me as much because they're sceptical that I was hiding a big part of myself before coming out." This is a prime example of making it about yourself. Scott's parents are probably feeling bad that they didn't foster a gay-positive environment and are feeling a little guilty about their son suffering in silence. While their reaction is far better than shipping your kid off to reparative therapy it still puts the focus on them and their issues. Your issues as a parent do deserve attention, but shelving it for a while helps as you and your kids adjust to a new dynamic.
DO: Open a dialogue
This one is key. Getting comfortable with your kid's sexual identity demands conversation but there are some key tips to follow.
It's important to note that sexuality can be a very private thing. Imagine talking in the context of who you would prefer having sex with with your parents. AWKWARD. If your son or daughter doesn't feel comfortable talking to you right away, or if you don't feel comfortable talking about it right away, try consulting another gay person or organization (ex PFLAG).
This is a situation Marie experienced telling me, "Because I was away at school after coming out to my mom, I didn't have the experience of 'living with it' daily so I wasn't aware that she was really struggling with it. But about a year ago she admitted to me that she did struggle with understanding it at first, but that changed when she spoke to other gay people and sought out resources for parents of gay people. They helped her understand that being gay doesn't change who your son/daughter is."
DON'T: Ask if it is a phase
Your gay son or daughter knows who they are attracted to the same way you do. Yes, sexuality exists on a spectrum and yes it can be fluid, but if they are coming to you with this information, it's safe to say they are currently quite sure. Trying to change your child's sexuality is one of the most harmful things you can do. There is a reason conversion therapy has staggering rates of failure and a reason the federal government is moving to criminalize it. It's also important not to look for a reason. Marie says: "Don't assume or ask if your kids' sexuality was "caused" by something. ie: asking if there was a traumatic experience or relationship that caused your kid to "turn," (I think this is very common for gay women to be asked) or if they just "haven't met the right guy/girl yet."
These tips are meant to smooth over some common speed bumps in the modern coming out process, however, not all Canadian kids are lucky enough to have a family open to having a gay kid or open to changing their minds on homosexuality. Luckily this country is replete with resources to help gay kids through a tough time that can sometimes leave them homeless or suicidal. If you are a gay person in crisis organizations like PFLAG Canada, Kids Help Phone, Egale Canada are just a call or click away.
DON'T: Make it about you
One of the most common reactions from parents can be stepping into a closet of their own, feeling the need to hide the fact that their child has just come out. Asking your child not to tell other relatives or family friends about their sexuality, or to withhold the information yourself, translates to one indisputable and damaging sentiment: I am ashamed of you. What you can ask and should ask is if it's OK for you to share this news with others. While conveying acceptance is key, it's also imperative that the person coming out controls who knows and when for a process that can be highly individualistic and sometimes overwhelming.
Ryan E. Thompson is a Toronto based television producer and writer specializing in LGBTQ issues and entertainment.