Always My Child: A Parent's Guide to Understanding Your Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered or Questioning Son or Daughter
By Kevin Jennings, Patricia Gottlieb Shapiro, M.S.W.
The course of your child's future may seem different from what you envisioned, but he is the same person he was before he told you he was LGBTQ. Nothing has changed except that you now know that he is attracted to someone of the same gender.
The things you loved about him have not changed. If you loved his quirky sense of humor, it's still there. If you were proud of her thoughtfulness, she's just as considerate now. Your child's path in life may now be different than you expected it to be, but his character is the same.
Character is not defined by what you are but by who you are: Are you hard working? Do you treat other people respectfully? Do you have integrity? These qualities do not change because your child comes out, but some parents have a tendency to obscure positive character traits in the coming-out process.
I know my parents did. After my father "found Jesus" in the early 1950s, he devoted the remaining twenty years of his life to bringing the gospel to others. My religious upbringing as a Southern Baptist taught me that homosexuals were perverts destined for eternal damnation.
When I was a child, fear ruled my world. Having realized that I was gay from an early age, I grew up terrified of the lake of fire in which I would bum for eternity because of my "unnatural desires." But worse than the fear of eternal damnation was the prospect of Judgment Day. Even though I'd had no sexual experiences yet, I was terrified because of the Baptist belief that wanting to do something was as sinful as actually doing it. The transgressions of one junior high gym class seemed enough to keep God busy for hours: "At 9:30 and 22 seconds, had lustful thoughts about Todd Burton. At 9:30 and 27 seconds, coveted Mike Visone. At 9:30 and 34 seconds, longed for Tripp Winston" and so on. Of course, I didn't share these wicked thoughts with a soul.
Your child, too, has thoughts, fears and experiences at school that you and others may not know about. He may have to contend with friends he feels he has let down or disappointed. His peers may have envisioned his future differently, as you have. Now they may turn on him or taunt him, even though he may not feel that he's changed.
I did not come out until I had moved far enough away from home to feel safe to do so. But I often think back about how different my life would have been if I had been raised in an open, accepting atmosphere. In school I was tormented, teased and beaten. But I never felt I could come home to tell my family why this was happening to me or ask them for help.
Home should be the one place where every child feels safe: where he belongs and basks in love, where he knows he is understood and accepted, whether he's a quarterback poet, she's a young lesbian, or they are struggling to figure out their sexual orientation. Most parents desire this atmosphere for their children; they know that children prosper in a warm, loving home.
But desiring it and creating it are two different things.
Communication, the key to all healthy relationships, is also crucial to achieving this kind of home. Throughout the book, I'll guide you in initiating conversations with your child and show you how to talk to him about the various stages of coming out, and your own process of moving toward acceptance.
Young people thrive when they have a knowledgeable adult - ideally a parent-as their source of information and support. When they feel they can't talk to their parent or be themselves, they can feel alienated and misunderstood. They may try to get attention by letting their grades falter, skipping classes or losing interest in subjects they once excelled in. Alienated children often become troubled children: they strike out in anger, clash with the law, or withdraw into a shell. These crises can be prevented. That is your challenge.
From my workshops with parents and my lectures and involvement with teenagers in schools across the country, I've learned what it takes to make your home a safe harbor for your child. You may have your own definition of a safe harbor, based on your own upbringing, your values and your ideas. What you bring to this process sets the groundwork for what I'm going to tell you.
In this chapter, I'll introduce the four essential keys to making your home safe for your teen. I'll set the guidelines for each of these keys here and refer to them throughout the book. Keep in mind that these are not presented in chronological order. Each is equally important. You will probably do them all simultaneously. They are:
1. Separate your issues from your child's
2. Get the facts
3. Keep the lines of communication open
4. Create an open atmosphere
Separate You're Issues from Your Child's
The first step towards supporting your child is facing your own assumptions about sexual diversity, because your attitudes pervade the home and set the tone. You may still have prejudices, but once you've committed to managing them so that you can be an effective parent to your child, you will be better able to develop an open atmosphere at home for your teenager. Then you will be able to discuss critical issues, such as sexual and emotional health, clearly, comfortably, and in detail. That may sound scary to you right now, but I'll guide you through the process.
One word of warning: Don't expect your child to help you resolve your issues. He has too much going on himself. There's a fine line here: It's important to let your child know you are working on your attitudes, but at the same time, don't expect him to walk you through every phase. This is a very individual process. You will have to gauge how much you share against how receptive your child is to being included in your struggle. We will discuss this in more detail in Chapter 5.
There is a very good reason for developing an open atmosphere at home: If your child feels strong and self-caring, he is less likely to behave recklessly sexually. And, he will want you to be a part of his life, which will give you the chance to pass your values on to your child.
Stuart, a sixteen-year-old straight boy, approached me when I spoke at his school and told me, "In middle school I wanted to be a ballet dancer, but my dad said, You can't do ballet. That's what fags do.' "In high school, Stuart wanted to join the chorus, but his dad told him, 'You can't be in the chorus, that's for queers." With great sadness, Stuart said to me, "My dad is taking everything good out of my life."
Stuart was despondent because he could not pursue his passions. As he gets older, he may defy his father's wishes and pursue them anyhow. But no doubt, his father's negative comments will continue to dampen his spirit and may possibly build a wall between them-whatever he decides to do.
Sadly, Stuarts father may not even be aware of what he is doing, because he is operating from his own unconscious belief system.