ABOUT COMING OUT
Coming Out to Your Parents
KNOWING WHAT TO EXPECT
Most Follow Typical Stages
The purpose of this is to inform gay and lesbian young adults about the process most parents go through when their child's homosexual orientation is disclosed.
The stages to be explained are:
- Expression of Feelings,
- Personal Decision-Making
- True Acceptance.
The process assumes that you have wrestled with the issue of whether or not to come out to your parents and that your decision is affirmative. The approach and suggestions offered in the following are based on the assumption that you suspect one or both of your parents will be understanding, if not supportive, given adequate time.
This pamphlet may not be helpful if you have serious reservations about their ability to cope and you suspect they could sever their relationship with you.
They Go Through Stages Differently
A caution: Each family is unique. Although most are likely to follow the stages outlined here, allow some latitude for your own parents. The illustrations and suggestions given here will be drawn from conversations with parents who have attended the Philadelphia Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays meetings.
Few parents are "model" cases that perfectly fit the following description. Knowing what to anticipate and how to respond in a helpful way will enable you to take the big step with some degree of knowledge and support.
QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF
Be Clear in Your Own Mind
Are you sure about your sexual orientation? Don't raise the issue unless you're able to respond with confidence to the question "Are you sure?" Confusion on your part will increase your parents' confusion and decrease their confidence in your judgment.
Are you comfortable with your gay sexuality? If you're wrestling with guilt and periods of depression, you'll be better off waiting to tell your parents. Coming out to them may require tremendous energy on your part it will require a reserve of positive self-image.
Do you have support? In the event your parents' reaction devastates you, there should be someone or a group that you can confidently turn to for emotional support and strength. Maintaining your sense of self-worth is critical.
Are you knowledgeable about homosexuality?
Your parents will probably respond based on a lifetime of information from a homophobic society. If you've done some serious reading on the subject, you'll be able to assist them by sharing reliable information and research.
What's the emotional climate at home?
If you have the choice of when to tell, consider the timing. Choose a time when they're not dealing with such matters as the death of a close friend, pending surgery or the loss of a job.
Can you be patient?
Your parents will require time to deal with this information if they haven't considered it prior to your sharing. The process may last from six months to two years.
What's your motive for coming out now?
Hopefully, it is because you love them and are uncomfortable with the distance you feel. Never come out in anger or during an argument, using your sexuality as a weapon.
Do you have available resources?
Homosexuality is a subject most non-gay people know little about. Have available at least one of the following:
- a book addressed to parents
- a contact for the local or national Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays
- the name of a non-gay counselor who can deal fairly with the issue.
Are you financially dependent on your parents?
If you suspect they are capable of withdrawing college finances or forcing you out of the house, you may choose to wait until they do not have this weapon to hold over you.
What is your general relationship with your parents?
If you've gotten along well and have always known their love -- and shared your love for them in return -- chances are they'll be able to deal with the issue in a positive way.
What is their moral societal view?
If they tend to see social issues in clear terms of good/bad or holy/sinful, you may anticipate that they will have serious problems dealing with your sexuality. If, however, they've evidenced a degree of flexibility when dealing with other changing societal matters, you may be able to anticipate a willingness to work this through with you.
Is this your decision?
Not everyone should come out to their parents. Don't be pressured into it if you're not sure you'll be better off by doing so -- no matter what their response.
THEY'LL EXPERIENCE LOSS
Parents and Children Switch Roles
When you come out to your parents, you may find your parent-child roles reversed for a while. They will need to learn from your experience. As your parents deal with your disclosure, you must assume the "parenting" role by allowing them time to express their feelings and make progress toward new insights.
This will not be easy. You'll want them to understand and grasp this
important part of your life right away.
It will be easy for you to become impatient. You'll need to repeat many of the same things. Just because you've explained something once does not mean they heard it. Their understanding will evolve slowly -- painfully slowly -- at the beginning. Their emotional reactions will get in the way of their intellectual understandings.
Allow them time and space.
Consider your own journey; you've been working on this issue for years! Although the issues your parents will work through are similar to those you've dealt with, the difference is that you're ahead of them in the process. Be patient.
Separation And Loss
Many families take the news as a temporary loss -- almost as a death -- of the son or daughter they have known and loved. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross describes the stages related to the death of a loved one as denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Just as in grief, the first reaction of parents of gays and lesbians centers around separation and loss.
I remember one morning when my son was fixing breakfast at the stove, as I sat at the kitchen table reading the newspaper. I looked at him and wanted to say, "I don't know who you are, but I wish you'd leave and send my son Ted back."
Parents experience loss when their child comes out, but it probably will be only temporary.
Not An Absolute Progression
Although the stages described here apply to most people, they are not an absolute progression for everyone. Sometimes a stage occurs out of order; occasionally one is skipped. Some progress through the stages in three months, others take years.
A few -- often due to self-pity -- make no progress at all. In any case the initial feeling is usually one of loss.
Most parents think they know and understand their children from the day of their birth. Even though they cling to old stories -- and sometimes evidence confusion in telling some of them -- most remain confident that they know what's going on inside a child.
They lose the perception they once had of their child and don't yet know if they will like the real person who is replacing that idea. Those who experience the biggest shock when their child comes out probably are those who suffer the greatest feeling of loss and rejection.
It's not that they separate from the child as much as it is that they
feel their child has willfully separated from them.
A Traumatic Discovery
They sense the separation -- which you've probably been aware of for years -- for the first time. It's a traumatic discovery. With understanding and patience from all parties, that relationship can be restored. In fact, in most cases it improves because it's based on mutual honesty.
STAGE 1: SHOCK
If They Have No Idea About You
An initial state of shock can be anticipated if you suspect that your
parents have no idea what you're about to share. It may last anywhere from ten minutes to a week; usually it wears off in a few days. Shock is a natural reaction that we all experience (and need for a while) to avoid acute distress and unpleasantness.
Explain that you haven't been able to be completely honest with them and you don't like the distance that has occurred over the years. Affirm your love for them. Say it more than once. Although they may not initially respond positively to your profession of love, it will penetrate in the hours when they are alone and thinking about it.
Remind them that you are the same person today that you were yesterday: "You loved me yesterday, before I told; I haven't changed since then. I'm the same person today that I was yesterday."
Some Parents Already Know
Occasionally, a parent will experience no shock at all: "I always knew you were different; I considered this as a possibility. It's O.K. I love you. You'll have to help me understand and accept the reality."
Sometimes they say, "We'd known for a long time because of a letter you left on the table last summer; we've been waiting for you to tell us." In these instances your task will be considerably easier, as they've already worked through some of the stages on their own.
STAGE 2: DENIAL
A Shield from Threat
Denial helps to shield a person from a threatening or painful message. It is different from shock because it indicates the person has heard the message and is attempting to build a defense mechanism to ward it off.
Denial responses take many forms: hostility ("No son of mine is going to be queer."), non-registering ("That's nice, dear, what do you want for dinner?"), non-caring ("If you choose that lifestyle, I don't want to hear about it."), or rejection ("It's just a phase; you'll get over it.").
Their perception of your homosexual orientation will be distorted by the messages they've received and accepted from our homophobic society. The manner in which the denial is expressed can range from a serene trance to hysterical crying or shouting. Many parents take a middle-of-the-road approach; they cry frequently.
We Thought He Was Confused
My wife and I were sure that our son had been caught up in some form of gay liberation activity that appealed to him because it seemed dangerous and exciting. We thought the media coverage about homosexuality probably attracted him and that he lacked maturity to know what he really wanted.
We insisted that he go once to a psychiatrist to deal with the anger
that had been building for over a year. We agreed to visit the doctor,too, in a separate session. After two or three visits by Ted, the psychiatrist shredded our defense mechanism of denial:
"I've counseled many gay young adults and I'm convinced that this is no passing fancy; to the best of my knowledge, your son is gay."
If They Want Counseling For You
You might be ready to suggest the name of a counselor or two if your parents think that counseling will help to clarify their confusion. It would be advisable to suggest a non-gay person, because your parents will want an "unbiased" view.
If they press for you to see a counselor, suggest that they match you session-for-session. They may resist on the grounds that they don't need help; underneath, however, they'll probably welcome someone to talk to.
Your parents may need some help in separating what's "normal" from the "norm." It's probable that they'll think homosexuality is not normal. You can help them by explaining that although homosexuality is not the norm, it is what is natural to you. Point out that all of creation has exceptions to the norm; while most people are right-handed, some are left-handed; although most people have two eyes of the same color, some have a different color in each eye.
They need to begin to understand that although your sexual orientation is not in the norm, it is a natural and honest response for you.
Breaking Through Denial
If their denial takes the form of "I don't want to talk about it," you should take a gentle and cautious initiative if they haven't changed in about a week. Gently raise the subject when they appear relaxed: "Dad, I've been wanting to talk to you about this for years; please don't push me out of your life. I can no longer bear the burden of lying to you. I love you and want you to continue to love me in return." Personalize your message as a way of penetrating their defense.
There's no need to tell them more than what they ask. Volunteering information about experiences will make them build stronger defenses. Answer only what they ask for; they'll get to other questions at another time. Because they'll experience awkwardness in framing their questions, you may need to clarify the question before providing a response.
One Parent May Be Slower
Be ready to deal with your parents individually, if necessary. Most couples react to this disclosure as they have to other shocks; one takes the lead and moves toward resolution ahead of the other. Don't be upset with the slower of the two.
It is not infrequent that couples have dysfunction in their own relationship when this occurs. The one who seems to adapt more quickly may suggest that his/her spouse is actually enjoying the agonizing; the one who moves more slowly may think the other is far too accepting of the situation.
Parents who move at different rates may experience tension, whether expressed or unspoken.