What I Wish My Parents Had Said When I Came Out As Gay
By Kevin Naulls, CBC Parents Staff
Photo © eaz_ag/Twenty20
Oct 11, 2019
I didn't come out to my parents the way I wanted to.
I was too terrified to tell them, mostly because I grew up Catholic. And because my parents are homophobic.
I was so Catholic, I could sit, stand and genuflect on command. I could smell a first reading of St. Paul to the Corinthians coming from a mile away. And I was awarded a medal for being an altar boy. A medal.
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As for my parents being homophobic, I had many reasons to suspect this as a child. My father said "faggot" and "queer" (pejoratively) with abandon, like, for example, when a ref made a bad call during a hockey game. Meanwhile my mother would indicate people she thought were gay by making a limp wrist gesture to me, her child. These people weren't allies, and they were the last people I'd ever want to come out to.
So, at first, when I was finally ready — on my 20th birthday — I began coming out to everyone but my family. Eventually, I attended my first gay bar with a friend and I slowly started to feel like I was getting to know the real me. I felt OK that my parents didn't know and may not ever know. I was starting to feel so comfortable, I put a postcard for a future gay party in my pant pocket and took it home.
Coming Out To My Family
My father did my laundry, and he found the flyer in my pocket while collecting my dirty clothes. I was still sleeping when he did this, and he shook me awake and said "what is this?"
Completely out of it, I said "It's nothing, I just found it and put it in my pocket." I then drifted back to sleep, but not before my dad shook me again and said, "Kevin, what the f—k is this? Are you gay? If you're gay you can tell me."
Frustrated, mostly because I was trying to sleep, I slurred, "Fine, I'm gay. I'm going back to bed." He went completely silent and left the room. It wasn't ideal.
What To Do: Let Your Child Talk, And Be There to Listen
When I woke up later, I realized that it was going to be uncomfortable. My mother told me to leave my father alone, because he didn't want to talk.
"If your son or daughter comes out to you, please listen. Hug them if you can't find the words."
If you have a child who is coming out to you, I wouldn't recommend this. It's not comforting to immediately be made to feel like you've done something wrong.
I can also tell you that actively not talking to your son or daughter during an extremely sensitive and vulnerable moment is the easiest way to make a human being feel like the loneliest person in the world. I awkwardly moved around the house, alone with my own thoughts.
What To Do: Ask Them How You Can Help
When I finally saw my father, he was crying with his head hanging. My mother had been crying, too — her face, tear-stained.
Again, I wouldn't recommend this as an approach to the coming out experience. When a child is coming out, it should be prideful, happy. As parents, you might find it confusing or surprising, and that's fine. But if this is the case, this is a good opportunity to listen to your child, to find out what they need. Ask questions like, "how are you feeling?" and "what can I do to help?" It's really that simple. That would have been a lot better for me than what came next.
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What To Do: Celebrate Your Child’s Future
After the tears and the silent treatment, one of the first things my father said to me was, "You're going to die of AIDS." This prompted my mother to tell me about someone who lived nearby who was "dying from AIDS." For context, I'm from Toronto, lest you think I'm from a small town where this might "make sense." To be honest, I don't think this behaviour should make sense anywhere.
"If you need to process things because the news makes you angry or sad, that isn't a weight to put on the shoulders of the person coming out."
Here's another tip: Scaring your child back in the closet is not something I would recommend to parents, either. I knew of HIV/AIDS, of course, but I hadn't had penetrative sex yet. But because I wasn't really getting support, and instead being told how I would die (instead of, say, how great it will be to live), it only made me feel even more like who I was was something bad, or to be feared. Which, when you're a person who has already lived in the closet feeling these things, is not ideal.
What To Do: Trust Your Child
Granted, not all coming out stories will be this intense, and I hope they aren't, but it's important to see how bad they get to avoid being insensitive to the needs of a child who is probably scared and confused, but really wants to come out because holding it in is work. Sometimes it's too much work. Sometimes the weight of that work results in tragedy. But it doesn't have to, and that's where you come in.
It got worse for me. My parents couldn't handle it, and on a number of occasions I was asked by my dad, "are you sure?" Again, not recommended. When someone is coming out — forced or willingly — they are sure. Someone isn't going to turn around and say, "You know what? You're right. I've thought about it and I was totally influenced by that gay character in that show. It's just that guy in that show gets to wear all the coolest hats."
What To Do: Just Be There
Being there for someone coming out shouldn't be this difficult. Maybe it's against your religion to be gay, but what is more important? Your child or your religion? If it's your religion, maybe what happened to me next is going to be a blessing for your LGBTQ child, who wants to be themself but doesn't have the environment to thrive.
"You simply need to be there. To listen. To offer tenderness. To be joyful. To celebrate. To love."
As a parent or a caregiver, friend or family member of someone coming out, you simply need to be there. To listen. To offer tenderness. To be joyful. To celebrate. To love. If you need to process things because the news makes you angry or sad, that isn't a weight to put on the shoulders of the person coming out. That is work that you need to do yourself, and it is extremely unfair to make someone's coming out about you. Because it's about them. Because it was about me.
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What To Do: Love Your Child
Shortly after I came out, I was told to leave. I was poor, scared and I had to fight for years to make sure I had enough money to live and go to school. I went hungry often. Eventually I found a surrogate family of friends and lovers. And like so many gay people before me, I don't have a relationship with my parents, and haven't for over a decade.
This doesn't need to be a repeating pattern for the LGBTQ community, but it is very much, to varying degrees, a popular story arc in the LGBTQ experience. If your son or daughter comes out to you, please listen. Hug them if you can't find the words. Because, let me tell you, shame lingers.