What I Wish My Parents Had Said When I Came Out As Gay
By Kevin Naulls, CBC Parents Staff
Photo © vesnoi_/Twenty20
Oct 8, 2021
This story was updated as of October 7, 2021
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 even awarded a medal for being an altar boy.
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 when a ref made a bad call during a hockey game. Meanwhile my mother would point at people she suspected were gay, and make a limp wrist gesture to me.
I didn't know what allyship meant, but even so, I knew these people weren't allies, and I decided they were the last people I'd ever want to come out to. Their attitudes also made me feel like the world would be just as hostile. And for many, it absolutely is.
So, at first, when I was finally ready — on my 20th birthday — I began coming out to everyone but my family. After way too long hiding who I was, and some dangerous situations that tend to happen when you're trying to act on who you are, but don't have the reference or support to handle it.
Newly out, 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, because he sometimes kept odd hours, 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.
Nowadays, you can see some really charming — and sometimes cringey — coming out stories on social media, complete with supportive parents choking back tears that eventually flood their face.
That's not what I needed back then, but what actually happened wasn't ideal.
I just needed kindness.
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 feel like you've done something wrong, simply because you've made the decision to feel comfortable in your own skin.
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, I'd look at this moment as 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.
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.
"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."
For many people living their life in the proverbial closet, fear is already present. There's the fear of losing friends and family. There's the fear of not belonging as they march the halls of their school. There's the fear that they could be harmed in some way, simply because their sexuality doesn't align with what some of the world deems acceptable.
It can be easy to assume that society has evolved to a place where everyone is accepted, because of the increasing visibility in a lot of TV shows and movies. But not everyone lives in an idealized town on Netflix.
Visibility matters, but so does personal action. Change doesn't happen without work, and sometimes that means taking a purposeful and uncomfortable look inside ourselves to figure out why our attitudes are the way they are. Where do they come from?
As parents, if you choose to punctuate a person's fear of coming out with your own negative attitudes or shortsightedness, think about it this way: when has piling fear on top of fear ever made a situation easier for someone?
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 I think 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 a queer TikToker. But I really just liked their clothes!"
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? Period.
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.
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 many, many 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 well over a decade.
That's a particularly difficult part of this whole story, because it's loss. And loss is horrifying when it's unpreventable, and it's no less so when it's preventable.
So when you're out a family, you then need to find a new one, like I did. But I don't want to romanticize, because finding your chosen family or families takes time. And during that formative period, there are hiccups. There are dangerous situations. There are low moments.
"In that moment, they may feel alone and scared, left to pick up all the pieces."
Sure, there are wins, and there is excitement and joy, but it's a challenge. And challenges can often be made less of a hardship with a good support behind you.
When family is removed, because of an unwillingness to support someone for their identity, a person is kind of shot right back to day one. At least it felt that way to me.
In that moment, they may feel alone and scared, left to pick up all the pieces. It's character-building, sure, and I think people like to say that to dismiss the difficult conversations that arise with subjects like this, but I would have sacrificed some of my endless character for a little bit of love.
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 child comes out to you today, or any day, please listen. Hug them if you can't find the words. If you need to do the work to feel OK, do the work. But please don't make them the villain.
And if you need some support of your own, PFLAG is a great organization. I wish my own parents had been cool enough to drop them a line.
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