Gay teensHomosexual children who grow up in a predominantly heterosexual culture inevitably will have different life experiences and social pressures than their heterosexual peers. As Ritch C. Savin-Williams says in Mom, Dad. I’m Gay. “Sexual orientation does not necessarily dictate the essence of what it means to be human, but it does serve to demarcate some aspects of development,” for both biological and psychosocial reasons.

In his book, Savin-Williams, professor of clinical and developmental psychology and director of graduate studies in the Department of Human Development at Cornell, says, “[A] consequence of growing up nonheterosexual amid heterosexual family members, close friends, and societal institutions (e.g., schools and religious organizations) that presume and prescribe exclusive heterosexuality, sexual-minority adolescents are challenged to negotiate between being true to self and becoming what is expected of them. This task permeates their daily lives in ways not encountered by heterosexual youths when they express their sexuality. The consequences may be negative, such as increased levels of emotional distress and substance abuse, or positive, such as feelings of specialness or creativity.”

It’s the negative consequences, of course, that parents should worry about, and the positive ones they should nurture.

By the Numbers

According to Mental Health America, gay teens hear anti-gay slurs (“homo,” “faggot,” “sissy”) about 26 times a day, or once every 14 minutes. One study found 31 percent of gay youth had been threatened or injured at school in the last year. And four out of five gay teens say they don’t know one supportive adult at school.

Additionally, 22 percent said they skipped school in the previous month because they felt unsafe there, according to another study. Thus their academic achievement suffers. One quarter will drop out of school, more than three times the national average for heterosexual students, so their economic viability suffers. And the FBI says 17.6 percent of hate crimes are motivated by sexual orientation.

The worst-case scenario is that of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers student from Ridgewood, who jumped off the George Washington Bridge in 2010 after his roommate used a web cam to broadcast Clementi’s same-sex encounter over the Internet.

With all this in mind, what can you do if you’re the parent of a gay teen?

“Adolescence is a difficult time for all kids,” says Steven E. Tobias, a coauthor of Raising Emotionally Intelligent Teenagers and a Morristown-based psychologist. “They’re identifying and establishing social relationships. Their moods can be volatile. Adding more stressors makes it more difficult.” These difficulties may manifest in declining grades, social withdrawal, a change in eating or sleeping patterns, moodiness, or irritability.

“Parents have more influence than they realize and more impact than they realize,” Tobias says. So how you react to the fact that your child is gay “will play a strong part in the teen’s self acceptance. They still need and want parental approval, even though they may not show it.”

If you sense your teen is going through a rough patch, he says, “Go out to lunch or for a walk to give him time and space [to open up to you]. Create an environment of acceptance and love that’s like a vacuum he can fill when he’s ready.”

"Make it okay for a girl to be masculine and a boy to be feminine."

If You’re Unsure

Many parents realize early on that their child is gay. Tobias says, “Parents usually are attuned to their kids. They gradually come to an acceptance of [their homosexuality]. Usually it’s not a shock. It’s more apparent in boys than girls.”

Others, though, may harbor unconfirmed suspicions. “Some teens unfortunately are very good at hiding things and might be worried about their parents accepting them,” Tobias says. Initiating a discussion “depends on your relationship with the child. Some parents can come out and ask and the kids won’t take offense. Some might deny it. Teens have to push their parents away sometimes to establish their own identities.”

One way to broach the subject, he says, is by asking something like, “Have you thought about relationships? Is there anybody you like?” You then can find ways, verbal and nonverbal, to express your acceptance.

“Even parents of straight kids have trouble talking to their kids, especially about sex. Talk about what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate for people to say and do,” Savin-Williams says. “For me, the issue is sexism, not homophobia. Somehow make it okay for a girl to be masculine and a boy to be feminine.”

Of course, “communicating with teenagers isn’t very time-efficient; they don’t always talk when it’s convenient for you,” Tobias says. “Late night is often good. Make time to hang out and talk. When their defenses are down, they’re more communicative.”

A parent may not be the first person a child comes out to. “Most kids today first come out to a best friend. Mom and Dad are at the end of the list, followed by grandparents,” Savin-Williams says. Why?

“Kids want to really make sure,” he says. “They test the ground, see how people’s reactions pan out. Parents are the most important to them.” Fortunately, he adds, “Most parents don’t reject their gay kid.”

One Mother’s Story

Author Jodi Picoult wrote last April in the Daily Mail Online that it was only when her son Kyle brought her his college-application essay to read that her mother’s intuition about his sexuality was confirmed. “Did I know that Kyle was gay before he came out in his essay?” she said. “Well, I’d had my suspicions since he was 5. But it was his discovery to make and share. I wasn’t surprised, but I was so happy for him—for being brave enough to be true to himself, and to admit that truth to his family…

“Learning that Kyle was gay didn’t change the way I felt about him. He was still the same incredible young man he’d been before I read that essay. I didn’t love him any less because he was gay; I couldn’t love him any more if he weren’t. In the aftermath, I saw him blossom, finally comfortable in his own skin, because he wasn’t living a lie any more. Yet, as a mother, I had my worries—not because of Kyle’s sexual orientation, but because the rest of the world might not be as accepting as our family. Because one day, when he least expects it, he’s going to be called a ‘faggot.’ Because—simply due to the way his brain is wired—life is going to be more complicated.”

Sites & Sources

  • Mom, Dad. I’m Gay. How Families Negotiate Coming Out, by Ritch C. Savin-Williams.
  • Raising Emotionally Intelligent Teenagers: Parenting with Love, Laughter, and Limits by Maurice J. Elias, PhD, Steven E. Tobias, PsyD, and Brian S. Friedlander, PhD.
  • PFLAG—Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays will hold its national convention Nov. 3–6, 2011, in Washington, DC.
  • The It Gets Better Project offers positive role models for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth.
  • The Trevor Project has crisis and suicide-prevention services for LGBT and questioning youth; 866-4-U-TREVOR (866-488-7386).
  • GLSEN (The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network) works to ensure safe schools for all students.

Carol Lippert Gray is the editor of Raising Teens, a New Jersey Family publication.