Coming out: Tips for parents and families of gay kids
By: Kristin Russo
I’LL ADMIT, I can be an impulsive person. That particular personality streak is likely the reason I came out to my parents over Thanksgiving dinner, back in 1998. I was 17, and although it may seem like a bold move to an outsider, for me it was simply a panic-induced, impulsive reveal – “Mom, Dad, I’m bisexual!” – over the cranberry sauce and stuffing.
Sixteen years later, I wrote the harrowing and hilarious details of my coming out story for inclusion in This is a Book for Parents of Gay Kids, a book of advice for parents with newly out LGBTQ kids that I co-authored with Dannielle Owens-Reid in 2014.
Dannielle and I founded the LGBTQIA youth organisation Everyone Is Gay in 2010. At the outset, Everyone Is Gay was an online forum where we could offer humorous, matter-of-fact advice to young LGBTQ people. Our honest approach, and our fondness for posting pictures of kittens, garnered us more attention than we’d expected, and our work expanded very rapidly.
By the time our first year of work was up, we’d begun touring schools across the nation, speaking to thousands of students about everything from button-down shirts to marriage equality. During that time, we noticed a question asked over and over again, both on campuses and anonymously through Everyone Is Gay: “I’ve come out to my parents. How do I get them to understand?” And so, This is a Book for Parents of Gay Kids was born.
Back in 1998, I had no way of knowing that my mother’s immediate response of fear and confusion was echoed by thousands of people across the globe. All I knew was that my Catholic mom and her extended family were terrified, and resolutely convinced that unless I changed my ways, I would be sent swiftly to the fiery depths of Hell.
There was more to it than just religion, of course. My father wasn’t as concerned with the future of my soul, but he still worried about how I’d fare in a world that is not always welcoming to people who exist outside the accepted social constructs. My mother wondered about how I would ever have a family of my own. My parents were thankful that I kept long hair and still liked painting my nails. There was a lot going on in our household.
THE COMING OUT experience is often presented as something that only the LGBTQ person has to journey through, but I quickly discovered that I was not the only one who had to navigate complicated feelings, new concepts and the opinions of other people. As soon as I came out to them, my parents suddenly had to worry about their own coming-out processes. They were now parents of a bisexual daughter.
Parents and offspring alike need tools to work through the coming-out process. It took me years to figure out where our experiences overlapped, and I’m now going to share a few areas that may help both parties navigate this difficult terrain: PROCESS. I had spent years chipping away at my sexuality before I spoke to my parents. I wondered, I experimented, I wrote journal entries, I spoke to friends, and, even after all of that, I still found my sexuality to be extremely fluid and hard to define.
When I told my parents I was bisexual, I was already far along on my path of understanding myself. They, however, were at day One. This is something we, as young people, often forget. We want our parents to meet us exactly where we are, and we forget that they are just taking their first shaky steps into a world with which they probably aren’t incredibly familiar.
Keeping this in mind will also help with the next point. PATIENCE. Parents are often at a different stage of knowledge and awareness compared with their LGBTQ child, so the next item to highlight is the importance of patience. This is also a two-way street.
It is critical for the entire family to have patience, with each other and with themselves. Parents, you are in a new landscape, and you should allow yourself the time you need to learn, ask questions, talk about your concerns, and begin to understand what it can mean to be an LGBTQ person (and the parent to one). Parents also need to have patience with their child, who has taken a huge step in sharing their identity. That step means they trust and love you deeply, and want to be able to share their life with you. Try to remind yourself of that at every turn.
Young people, remember that time is a critical component of this journey. In the initial stages, the responses of your family members may be fuelled by misunderstanding and misinformation more than anything else. Working to fill those gaps, and remembering that things will likely change as you journey together, will help all of you find much-needed places of commonality and understanding. DISCUSSION. If there is a thesis statement to This is a Book for Parents of Gay Kids, it’s this: talk about it, talk about it, and talk about it some more.
There is no way to understand the complexity of your child’s identity, nor is there a way to understand the complexity of your parents’ experience, without asking them about it. When you ask, be sure to listen, closely and with an open mind, to how they answer.
Being LGBTQ doesn’t mean just one thing, and it doesn’t always remain constant for all time. I came out to my parents as bisexual, but I identified as a lesbian for many years, then began using the term ‘queer’, and now I am also back to the word bisexual, alongside queer.
There is so much to learn in every step of that journey, and so much nuance in each of those terms. I have always worked to remain in conversation with my parents, to help them understand what those words mean to me, and what they might mean to others. I have been so thankful that they’ve responded with more questions. LIMITS. For most of us, coming out is not something that happens all at once. It generally happens in stages, and that means that when an LGBTQ person comes out to their parents, a discussion (see? We are back at discussions again) must happen so that everyone knows each other’s comfort levels.
For example, if you’ve just come out, you may tell your parents you are not ready for your grandparents to know yet. Or, perhaps you are ready for the whole family to know tomorrow, so you’ve drafted up a Facebook post for the occasion. Good on you for communicating, but HOLD THE PHONE FOR A SECOND. Remember a moment ago when we spoke about process? It’s very possible that you and your parents are on different pages when it comes to who knows, and how and when they are told.
The bottom line is that the final decision on these matters always lies with the LGBTQ person; it’s their life, after all, and how they choose to live it is, and always will be, up to them. That said, it is often really great to find a compromise. Maybe you, as a parent, need a few weeks to digest the information and think about how you will handle the questions and comments from your extended family. That is totally fair. If you, the child, can reach a common understanding and make a plan with your parent, everyone will be much happier for it.
COMPASSION AND LOVE. There is a very good chance that both of you, parent and offspring alike, love each other immensely. That is why sharing all parts of our lives together means so much to us; we want to establish and maintain relationships that preserve that closeness.
If this process is one that is causing a divide, or fraught with overwhelming feelings, it can feel like you are out in stormy seas. Love and compassion are the feelings to seek out when you need an anchor.
Parent, your child loves you so deeply that they want to share their life with you, always and completely. Young person, your parent loves you so deeply that they have envisioned a life for you over years of watching you grow, and it may take time for them to recalibrate and readjust to this new understanding of their child.
Be kind to each other, listen to each other, and forgive yourselves if you have moments you wish you hadn’t. You are each other’s family. Sharing in the joys and triumphs that come with this life is the heart of what it means to be family. With patience, conversation, love and compassion, you will get there.
Kristin Russo is the co-founder of Everyone Is Gay and the host and coproducer of First Person, a video series on gender and sexuality from PBS Digital and WNET. She co-authored the book This is a Book for Parents of Gay Kids (Chronicle, 2014) and is co-founder of The Parents Project, a digital platform.
This article originally appeared in Archer Magazine #5.
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