Nine years ago, at the age of 19, I came out to my parents. I had been out to my close friends and sister for years before that quiet June evening, but it was harder to tell my parents than anyone else in my life. The teen years are often fraught with conflict, burgeoning identity crises, and hormonal explosions. Adding homosexuality to that mix is often enough to derail even the most open parents. Yet, if handled honestly and with grace, coming out for a gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender (GLBT) teen can be an opportunity for greater closeness and even greater respect between parent and teen.
Each coming out story is different. Mine began when I was too young to understand. I always knew I was different from other boys my age. I was lucky in that I grew up with a feminist mother who allowed me to explore gender roles and gender norms at will; I had dolls and played dress-up in pink tutus. As I grew older, I noticed I had different feelings for boys than for girls. I had no idea, at that point, why this happened or what it meant. That is, until my older sister came out as a lesbian when I was 11. Suddenly these feelings, which I’d been starting to notice, had names. And I was terrified! It took five years for me to come to terms with my sexuality sufficiently to tell my closest friends. But when I did, I got lucky again: not one was put-off or hateful.
A Sex Talk with Overtones
The hard part was telling my parents. The thing that’s sometimes forgotten is that talking about homosexuality is, essentially, talking about sex and sexual preference. Sex is often an uncomfortable topic to discuss. To this discomfort, add the fear of not being accepted, and the terror of being thrown out of the home or the family. Luckily, my parents were calm and handled it reasonably well. I knew I didn’t have to fear being disowned or abandoned because my sister had forged the path.
Despite the openness my parents showed me, there were still problems. Naturally, as a heterosexual couple, my parents couldn’t answer all my questions about the hows and whys of gay sex and life. I turned to books (such as the excellent Changing Bodies, Changing Lives, by Ruth Bell; Three Rivers Press, 1998), magazines (such as Out or The Advocate), and the Internet.
These sources of information, however, can’t substitute for real parenting. Teaching a teen to respect himself and to treat his body and emotional well-being with care is essential; the need becomes more pronounced with GLBT youth. The bullying and loneliness many GLBT teens experience daily leaves them open to low self-esteem and depression.
My parents managed to address these issues, sometimes awkwardly. They reminded me about using condoms, being careful, and generally caring for myself. They may not have understood everything I was going through, but they made sure I understood that they loved me and that I was important and valuable to them. This is the kind of support every GLBT person needs from a parent.
Ian Miller grew up in Morristown, New Jersey.