STAGE 3: GUILT
They'll Feel They've Done Wrong
Most people who deal with homosexuality initially perceive it as a "problem" and ask: "What causes it?" They think if they can locate a cause, then a cure is not far behind.
For me, the question became introspective: "What did I do wrong?" Whether I viewed the cause as genetic or environmental, I was clearly to blame. I questioned the kind of male role model I had provided; I examined my masculinity.
For a while, no matter which angle I viewed the situation from, I believed I was the primary source of the problem. It was a feeling I was too ashamed and saddened to share with anyone else. Although both parents usually feel guilty, the parent who is the same gender as the child probably feels it more.
Then one day, my wife said: "I don't think it's reasonable for you to take the blame; you raised two sons, one gay and one straight. There must be other factors involved."
Single Parents Feel Extra Blame
It's not uncommon for single parents to heap extra blame on themselves because of an earlier loss, separation or divorce from their spouse: "I knew I failed you; I just couldn't be both mother and father at the same time."
When parents feel guilty, they are self-centered. They are not yet concerned with what you've been through; in this stage they're too wrapped up in themselves to attend to your concerns.
Because they are your parents, they may not be able to admit to you their sense of guilt. To acknowledge that feeling to you is like saying, "I've brought this horrible thing to you; I've made you different. Blame me." That's not a comfortable position for parents to assume.
Tell Them It's Not Their Fault
You can help them in a variety of ways. Assure them that you don't
believe the cause is as simple as they see it. Tell them that there are many theories and that the origins of homosexuality are not known.
Provide them with a book to read that is addressed to parents (an excellent paperback is "Now That You Know; What Every Parent Should Know About Homosexuality," by Fairchild and Hayward; Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1979).
A book may appeal to them at this point because it can be viewed as an authority. Have the book ready to give them; don't send them to a gay bookstore to find it for themselves.
They may be ready to talk to a trusted friend now; some may seek out a clergy person. It will be difficult for you to attempt to steer them away from a person of their choosing who you think may not be helpful. If you know an agency that has assisted other families in a helpful way, have the agency name ready.
A gay-oriented agency may be able to help them, but they'll resist going to the "enemy camp" for help. Provide the phone number of the local Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays or give them the name of some other parents who've agreed in advance to talk to them. Don't expect them to respond immediately to these suggestions; their shame and guilt may hold them back. Providing this information is like planting a seed that may take time to bear fruit.
STAGE 4: FEELINGS EXPRESSED
They Acknowledge Their Emotions
When it's clear that guilt and self-incrimination are unproductive, parents are ready to ask questions, listen to answers and acknowledge their feelings. This is the point at which some of the most productive dialogue between you and your parents will take place.
Now will pour forth the full range of feelings: "I'm disappointed that I won't have any grandchildren." "Please don't tell anyone in the family; I'm not ready to face this issue with anyone else." "I feel so alone and hurt; I believe I was better off not knowing" "How can you hurt us this way?" "I wish I were dead."
Since living in a homophobic society has forced you to experience many of the same feelings (isolation, fear of rejection, hurt, confusion, fear of the future, etc.), you can share with them the similarities in the feelings you have experienced.
However, allow them ample time to express themselves; don't let your needs overpower theirs. If they haven't read a book or talked to other parents, suggest again that they pursue one of those avenues. Offer to read and discuss a chapter in the book with them or to go to a parents' meeting with them.
Anger And Hurt
Our son Ted had cautiously suggested earlier that we meet his lover Dan. Initially, we had no interest in that suggestion because when we stopped blaming ourselves for what had happened, we began blaming Dan. I was angry that this catastrophe had befallen our home; was sure it was going to ruin our lives. I had always felt we were good parents, hardly deserving of this. My anger toward Ted was seldom expressed to him, but it was there for me to deal with.
Anger and hurt are probably the most frequently expressed feelings. They are often surface feelings that seem spiteful and cruel. In order for your parents to make progress it is better that they say them than bury them and attempt to deny their existence. They will be hard for you to handle. You may be tempted to withdraw, regretting that you ever opened this issue.
Hang in there, however; there's no turning back now. When they begin to express these feelings they're on the road to recovery.
STAGE 5: MAKING DECISIONS
The Fork in the Road
As the emotional trauma subsides, your parents will increasingly deal more rationally with the issue. It's common at this point for them to retreat for a while and consider the options that lie ahead.
It's like reaching a fork in the road that has a number of paths from which to choose. The choice each person makes is a reflection of the attitude he or she is ready to adopt in dealing with the situation.
Both parents may not necessarily choose to take the same path. A number of factors will influence which path is chosen. Reading about homosexuality and talking to other parents will probably encourage them to take a more supportive position. Their religious orientation will play an important part. The general liberal or conservative position they usually hold will also have some bearing.
The importance of the restoration of their relationship with you is a major factor. A variety of factors will affect them as they formulate a compatible posture for dealing with this. Three kinds of decisions will be described:
Most parents continue to love their child in a way that allows them to say "I love you," to accept the reality of the child's sexual orientation and to be supportive. In fact, now that the relationship between parent and child is on a level of mutual honesty and trust, most parents say their relationship is better than it ever was. All parties begin to feel better about what has happened.
Although they may have had some glimpses prior to this time, supportive parents are increasingly aware of your needs. They become concerned about the problems that you have to face. Although we'd had some glimpses prior to this time, my wife and I became more aware of our son's needs and what he'd been through. In fact, we were amazed that he had handled all the tensions and problems as well as he did for all those years.
Our awareness and love for him soon involved us in offering to begin solving some problems in an effort to reduce some of those tensions: a single room at college would enable him to live his life without having to offer excuses or explanations to a roommate. Dan was invited home more often and gradually became an important member of our family. When Ted told his brother, we were able to talk to Louis and support Ted.
This Far And No Farther
Sometimes parents respond by making it clear it's an issue that no longer requires discussion. Although they can discuss the matter, they are quite fragile in dealing with it. They have progressed this far and wish to go no further.
This does not necessarily reflect a negative attitude toward you. They know their limits and don't want to be pushed beyond them. Although you need to respect that stance, you can still make efforts to reach out to them.
Let them know that you love them -- in word and deed. Cautiously let them know some things that you do related to your sexuality; i.e., gay groups you're involved in (community center, religion, athletics). Make it a point not to let them drift away from you.
Introduce them to some of your friends; meeting other homosexual persons (in small numbers) will help to break down the stereotypes they may hold.
In some instances your sexual orientation can be the staging area for constant warfare. Everything you do and say is viewed as a symptom of your "problem." The hours you keep, your language, choice of friends, vocational selection, school grades, etc. (However, in reality, it may reflect a parent's feeling of personal inadequacy.)
As long as this condition exists, both parent and child are in a no-win position. Generally speaking, if one parent assumes this extreme a position, the other parent may have difficulty choosing a role that is far from it. When relating to their children, parents are often outwardly supportive of each other -- even if behind closed doors they don't completely agree between themselves.
I'm convinced that most parents who attend a parents' meeting or who enter into personal conversation with a supportive parent greatly increase the chance that they'll not remain negative. If they won't attend a meeting, maybe they'll meet with some parents at a quiet restaurant. If all attempts fail, don't let the situation get you down. Find a parent substitute or friend to whom you can turn for support.
A word about relapses is important. Problem-solving and changing personal attitudes often can be diagrammed as two steps forward and one backward.
It's not at all uncommon for parents to slip back a step or two to rehash something you thought was behind you. Allow them time to rework it. It will be disappointing to you when this happens, but it's the way change usually comes about.
STAGE 6: TRUE ACCEPTANCE
Not All Parents Get This Far
Some parents get this far. Most may love their child without finally accepting the child's life. Many reach the point where they can also celebrate their child's uniqueness. These fortunate ones view homosexuality as a legitimate expression of human sexuality.
When asked if they wish that their child could be changed, they respond, "I'd prefer to change our homophobic society so my child could live his life without rejection and fear."
Parents at this stage face up to their own guilt, that they are a part of a guilty society, a homophobic society. They reflect on the gay jokes they've told and laughed at over the years. They begin to understand the problems they unknowingly created for their child. This coming to terms with themselves may lead them to view the oppression of all gays and lesbians in a new light.
They begin to speak out against the oppression; they talk to friends about the issues involved as a means of educating others. They support gay friends of their son or daughter; they attend parent meetings to help other parents. In short, they become committed to a cause and find a way that is comfortable for them to make a positive contribution. Some do it boldly, others work at it quietly.
Our Own Story
About two years prior to knowing about Ted, we began to sense that our son was drifting away from the family. We thought it was simply a stage he was going through; as soon as he completed this "stage," he'd come to his senses and his life and ours would come back together.
In an effort to help him we tried at different times to reach him. One month we'd try to be his friend, interested in what he was doing and allowing him considerable latitude. When that didn't work, we tried bringing him to his senses by being confrontive and demanding. To our mutual frustration, nothing worked.
My wife became increasingly aware that we were "losing" him. What we thought was a typical teen-parent communication gap seemed to be getting out of hand. We knew he was unhappy and were frustrated that we were unable to help. It never crossed our minds that his being gay and our lack of understanding related to the problem.
I've often thought about what has transpired since then; I've looked upon it as an unplanned journey. It was thrust upon us; we'd hardly have signed up for it if given the option of choosing something else.
Unplanned, however, does not mean unwelcome. Today we can say "We're glad we know." We've been able to support our son on his journey. We hope that he can say, "Unplanned, but not unwelcome."
Adapted by Tom Sauerman with permission from a pamphlet produced by the Federation of Parents & Friends of Lesbians and Gays, Inc. (P-FLAG).