When I discovered that my 13-year-old son “Alex” was gay, I went through a range of emotions:
First there was Denial: “He’s just experimenting – trying on different identities.”
Then Guilt: “If only I hadn’t let him play with his sister’s Barbie dolls in the bird bath to make ‘Hot Tub Barbie.’ What was I thinking?”
Fear: “What if my son gets AIDS? What if he’s bullied? What if he gets fired from a job because of prejudice?”
Shame: “People will judge me as a parent if this secret gets out.”
Loss: “Why me?” Does this mean I won’t have a daughter-in-law or grandchildren?”
The Gamut of Emotions
It’s normal to feel worried, upset, embarrassed, shocked, and uncomfortable. Some parents go the other route and find themselves relieved (that explains why he “hangs out” with girls), pleased (good for him that he knows himself and has the self-confidence to share this important part of his self with us), ambivalent (I’m happy that he feels close enough to us to reveal his sexual orientation, yet I fear that the road ahead for him will be paved with potholes) or confused (How do I parent a gay child without role models? We’re a traditional family!).
It’s important to keep in mind that your child has probably already dealt with parallel feelings that you’ve just went through as he/she struggled to come to terms with his/her sexual orientation.
Any of the above feelings can be overwhelming. One minute I thought I was dealing with everyday parenting issues when suddenly I found myself lacking appropriate skills. The secret is, I later found out, to meet your feelings head-on; otherwise, they will disrupt your ability to parent. So, how do you parent your gay teen?
Additional Responsibilities for Straight Parents of Gay Children
Raising a gay child is not the same as raising a straight child. While parenting any teen is difficult, parents of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) teens have additional hurdles that run the gamut from overcoming your own prejudices and expectations to reaching a place of acceptance.
Gay kids report bullying in school at a greater rate than their heterosexual friends; GLSEN (Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network) states that gay teens skip school at least one day per month. If GLBT teens aren’t loved at home and accepted unconditionally, they are at greater risk for substance abuse, depression, even suicide.
Ways to Support
You are not being a Helicopter Parent if you hover over your gay child nor are you being co-dependent! You may want to seek LGBT-friendly help to guide you through the process of understanding both what you and your child are going through.
Here are a number of ways to support your child:
- Understand that you cannot change who your child is. You can’t make him/her straight.
- Remember that your child is still the same person you’ve always loved.
- This isn’t about sex. Sexual orientation doesn’t necessarily mean a child is sexually active. It’s about whom you’re attracted to.
- It’s o.k. to tell your child that you don’t have all the answers, but that you will learn.
- Most importantly, offer your child unconditional love.
Advice from a Doctor:
Jonathan Tobkes, M.D., a psychiatrist who sees many LGBT teens in his New York City practice, suggests the following:
- Seek individual or family therapy. Individual therapy may help you understand your own feelings and family therapy will help open a dialogue within the family.
- Talk with a family member, or trusted friend, who has “been there” and can offer advice and support based on experience.
- Find a support group like PFLAG (Parents of Lesbians and Gays). A support group will help you feel part of a community and supply answers to your burning questions.
- Read as much literature as you can with the focus on dispelling stereotypes of the LGBT individual.
Dr. Tobkes adds that parents are wrong in the belief that they “caused their child’s sexuality.” Playing with Barbie does not make a child gay. In fact, he warns that parents should not jump to conclusions about their child’s sexual orientation too early on.
“There are many children, who identify later in life as heterosexual, who play with toys that are typically of interest to the opposite sex. It’s just everyday imaginative play. Parents should only be concerned about gender confusion if their child consistently wants to be the opposite sex and/or mentions feelings of “being trapped in the wrong body.”
Wesley Davidson is an award-winning writer. She has two adopted kids, ages 25 and 30. She has written articles on health and childcare for such publications as Good Housekeeping, Adoptive Families, American Baby, and Modern Bride. In her blog Straight Parent Gay Kid, Ms. Davidson offers support to straight parents who face issues involved with raising gay kids. And yes, she does hover before landing on her feet!
Dr. Jonathan Tobkes holds a faculty appointment at New York Presbyterian-Weill Cornell Medical Center where he teaches and supervises physicians in training. He practices psychiatric medicine in New York City. Visit his website. Ms. Davidson and Dr. Tobkes are collaborating on an advice book for straight parents of gay and lesbian children.