Coming out to my parents was the hardest thing I have ever done. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know how to say it. I wasn’t even sure if I could force my brain to physically form the words and allow my mouth to say, “I’m gay.”
I think about my own parents — and the fact I’m a parent too — when I reflect on the fact that how parents respond to their child’s coming out can mean life or death. In fact, recent research from The Trevor Project has shown that having just one supportive adult can significantly reduce the risk of suicide among LGBTQ youth.
Coming out is an incredibly vulnerable experience. I find it hard to come up with an equally or more vulnerable thing for a human being to do. For a child, teen or young adult, it’s likely the most vulnerable they’ve felt in their entire lives. I felt that way even as a grown woman.
For me, coming out to my parents was so hard to take on, I had my older sister talk to them for me. Then I waited for a response. I wasn’t sure whether I would hear anything from them at all.
I had a million scenarios in my head. I thought my parents would judge me. Tell me it was wrong. Tell me it was just a phase. Tell me I was no longer welcome in their home. Disown me. I thought at the very least our relationship would become distant.
Most of all, I worried I would forever lose the people I loved and admired my entire life.
I was 37 years old when I came out to my parents as gay. I was a parent myself and still married to a man.
I was financially independent of my parents. They didn’t pay my bills or keep a roof over my head. But my relationship with them was still so incredibly important to me. And them not knowing about such a big part of me was increasingly becoming an unbearable weight to carry. I talked to my mother almost daily (and still do). There was no way to not tell them.
Thankfully my parents responded with love and support. The weight off my shoulders was tremendous. It felt like breathing again after being held underwater for months. I could finally see what the other side of coming out looks like. Despite their conservative views and a Southern Baptist upbringing, my parents were on my side.
October 11 is National Coming Out Day. It’s a day when many people in the LGBTQ+ community choose to share their truth publicly. Many of those people are teenagers, living at home at the mercy of their families. On the other side of this day, there are likely a number of parents grappling with how to respond to their children. While there is no textbook right way, there is a wrong way. Rejecting your child, kicking them out, telling them it’s a phase, seeking anti-gay therapy can all lead your child down a path that is far worse than them simply loving someone of the same gender.
A 2017 report from Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago found that LGBTQ+ young adults are 120% more likely to experience homelessness than heterosexual or cisgender youth. They are 190% more likely to use drugs and alcohol than heterosexual youth. They are also almost five times more likely to attempt suicide.
So, how should you respond if your child comes out? Your response can be simple. You love them. You always will. And that love is unconditional. They need to hear this.
Here are a few other things to do — and not to do.
Tell them they will be OK.
A child deserves to feel safe. Your child is looking to you for that security, for the security of knowing that everything will be OK. And they will be OK because you are their biggest supporter. Even if you don’t fully understand the how and the why behind their sexuality, that’s for you as a parent to figure out, which may take time. But at this moment, your child needs to know they will be OK because you will be beside them.
You can’t ‘pray away the gay.’ Don’t go there.
People can’t change their sexuality any more than they can will their eye color to change. Don’t ask your child to change who they are. The fact is, anti-gay therapy practices simply don’t work. The American Academy of Pediatrics says, “Therapy directed specifically at changing sexual orientation is contraindicated, since it can provoke guilt and anxiety while having little or no potential for achieving changes in orientation.”
It’s not a phase. And even if it is … so what?
Don’t diminish your child’s actions in coming out. Don’t say they are too young to know about sexuality. Would you challenge your child if they told you about a crush on the opposite sex? No one ever asks a straight person how they know they are straight. You just know. Sure, there could be cases where a child is simply questioning their sexuality and may actually be heterosexual. But if a child is saying they are bisexual, gay, lesbian, queer, transgender, pansexual or asexual … those words have taken courage to speak aloud. It’s something they likely have long considered saying. If they do turn out to be straight, so be it. They will live knowing they explored that side of themselves and had the support of their parents along the way.
It’s never too late to accept your child.
Some parents may feel because they didn’t respond “the right way” the first time, it’s too late to go back. It’s never too late. It may take time to accept their sexuality. Even if you don’t get it right the first time, it’s never too late to come around and offer support. Maybe you rejected your child when they came out to you 10 years ago. It’s still not too late to call them and rebuild that relationship.
Coming out is a process.
You don’t just come out once. It’s ongoing. I continue to feel a bit of apprehension when talking to friends and colleagues about a new relationship, because it feels like coming out all over again. Again, the vulnerability appears. Your child may face tough days at school where they are bullied for being gay. Your child may have the nerve-wracking task of attending prom with their same-sex partner, or introducing you to a new relationship. Be aware that there will be hard days for your child. That’s why therapy is a great avenue, for parents and children alike.
If you are struggling to accept your child, seek out an LGBTQ-friendly therapist for both of you. An organization called PFLAG (which credits itself as being the extended family of the LGBTQ+ community) is a wonderful resource.
He writes to his mother, “I know what you must be thinking now. You’re asking yourself: What did we do wrong? How did we let this happen? Which one of us made him that way?
“I can’t answer that, Mama. In the long run, I guess I really don’t care. All I know is this: If you and Papa are responsible for the way I am, then I thank you with all my heart, for it’s the light and the joy of my life.”
Your child being gay has nothing to do with who you are as a parent. If anything, credit yourself with raising a child brave enough to speak their truth.
There’s no one specific to blame for the fact I didn’t realize I was gay until my mid-30s, aside from a heterosexual normative society that pushes male/female relationships on children from the moment they are born. Blue and pink. Mickey and Minnie. Ken and Barbie. Looking back on my life, there were many signs I was gay … but they were overlooked by everyone in my life, including myself. I am grateful to see it now. I feel so much better living as my authentic self and continuing to feel the love of my family. Give that same gift to your child. Because hiding who you are can eat you alive.
Parents, if you need more tips, take a page from my mom and dad’s playbook.
My mom said, “I loved you before you were born so why would I stop now?” My dad said, “Your daddy is with you.”
And with those words, I knew I would be OK.