In my two decades of working with families, I have of course been in situations in which a gay young person decides to come out to his parents. Sometimes this takes place in my office, sometimes not. Whatever the way the young person decides to tell his parents, the decision usually follows a long and difficult period of soul-searching about how or when or even if to come out. I have seen young men and women become severely depressed, anxious, and even suicidal at the thought of telling their parents something that they know will be hurtful to them.
At the best of times, the parents will be accepting--like one mother who responded to her son Derek's confession that he was gay with the reassuring words, "I don't care if you're purple! I love you." This mother had given a lot of thought to her son's eventually coming out. In therapy, she had talked with me openly about the topic and had more or less prepared herself for the day that Derek would decide to come out. Derek decided to first come out to his mother in my office, and have his mother tell his father about it later on.
Derek's father was much less tolerant. He asked me if there were therapists who could make his son more "normal." I suggested to this father that a better course of action would be for him to seek therapy for himself. After several sessions of therapy with an older gay therapist I recommended to him, this father eventually decided that he didn't want to lose his relationship with his son and became more accepting.
At the worst of times, the parents will insist that the young person go to a so-called "reparative therapist" to try to change his sexual orientation. One young man named Jason told me that on the day he came out to his parents, they made an appointment for him that very day with a "reparative" therapist. After a two-hour meeting with this therapist, Jason became suicidal. He refused to see the therapist again. Over the next few months he fantasized about ways he could kill himself. If it weren't for a suicide hot line for gay young people, Jason said he would have killed himself.
This weekend, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law legislation that will help young people like Jason. The new law, known as Senate Bill 1172, prohibits attempts by psychiatrists, psychologists, and other therapists to change the sexual orientation of patients under age 18. "This bill bans non-scientific 'therapies' that have driven young people to depression and suicide," Brown tweeted. "These practices have no basis in science or medicine." Brown echoes the thinking of many mainstream groups of psychiatrists and other mental health professionals that hold that "reparative therapy" is ineffective and dangerous to the mental health of teenagers.
Following California's example of trying to cut down on teen suicide, New Jersey lawmakers are already drafting similar legislation. Meanwhile, the new California law faces legal challenges from two Christian legal groups.
To this day, Jason's parents are in denial that he is gay. Jason's father comes from a culture in which homosexuality is punishable by death, and he says he will never accept it in his son. Jason now goes to an out-of-state college, and when I last saw him during his summer vacation he told me that after he gets out of college he never wants to see his parents again. He is still very hurt by their attempts to "repair" him and feels deeply the psychological scars their rejection left on him. I advised him not to burn any bridges with his parents but to adopt a "wait and see" attitude in case they changed their views.
When twenty-year-old Jocelyn told me that she wanted to come out to her single mother because she wanted to live openly with her girlfriend, I had no hesitation in counseling her to do so. I knew her mother to be a liberal, accepting, and strong woman. Her reaction when Jocelyn came out to her in my office was just what her daughter had hoped for. She told Jocelyn that she loved her and accepted her the way she was, and she made every effort to welcome Jocelyn's girlfriend into their family.
Privately, Jocelyn's mother told me that she wished that her daughter was straight instead of gay, because she thought that being straight would make Jocelyn's life easier. But she had chosen to accept what she knew was not in her power to change. After all, she told me, parents have to accept many things about their sons and daughters that they wish were otherwise. Parents have to accept that their child does not have the talant ro be a musician or the skill to be a doctor. They have to accept that their child chooses not to marry or not to have children. Being gay, she said, was just one of these things. She was grateful that Jocelyn was getting good grades in college and planning to go to graduate school. "We parents want the best for our kids, but we can't have everything," she said philosophically.
I think that this mother's words capsulize something very important for parents whose son or daughter comes out as gay. Think about all the good things about your child--his kindness, loyalty, capacity for caring, intelligence, or artistic talent. Think about about his courage. The suicide rate among gay teens is alarmingly high--about five times as high as suicide rates among heterosexual teens--because they fear rejection from family, friends and society. The California law addresses a public health issue and underlines the need for parents to understand the stakes of not accepting their child as she is.