When parents learn they have a gay or lesbian child, they very quickly realize they are now living in a world that stigmatizes not only their children but also themselves. Suddenly, these parents are involuntarily drafted into a club whose members are disparaged. For the 76 parents I interviewed for the book: Coming Out, Coming Home: Helping Families Adjust to a Gay or Lesbian Child (www.comingoutcominghome.com), this was their first bitter taste of the injustice of stigma--and it was eye-opening in ways that were painful and frightening.
Courtesy stigma is experienced by those who are friends or family of the stigmatized and according to stigma expert Patrick Corrigan, there are two types of courtesy stigma: vicarious stigma, or the suffering parents feel empathically because their loved one is suffering, and public stigma, which is the stigma family members experience because they are thought to be to blame for their loved one's stigmatizing condition. These two types of stigma were actively in play for the parents I interviewed. When asked "What was the most difficult thing about having a gay or lesbian child?" most parents (close to 2/3 of the parent sample) gave replies that described their struggles with stigma.
Sometimes parents were sensitive to the possibility of being harshly judged for having a gay or lesbian child; like this father of a lesbian:
Yes, I am hiding it. I only tell people I want to tell, who I know are gay or people who are important in her life who she wants me to tell. Will I tell my boss or the people I work with? No. I never will... yes, there is still a stigma about being gay and I can't tell general society.
Take note of this next mother's painful dilemma:
I have a new friend at work and I just want to tell her. I just kind of want to try it out on her. But I haven't yet. I don't think the moment has been there yet. I was at lunch with a girlfriend last week and it is a girl I have known for a number of years and she said something about a mutual acquaintance of ours, a single woman and she says, "You know, did you ever think she was gay?" And I said, "Yeah, I did." And she said, "I don't care." And I said, "Well I certainly don't care." And I thought that was the opportunity to say, "I certainly don't care because my son is gay." And I thought I missed that opportunity. I could have tried that out on her and saw what happened. I still feel like I might lose some friends over this. I would be a little more upset if I would lose some family. But I also think that I underestimate people. People that love me should love me and love my son. But I am still afraid. I hope I wake up and someday think I am ready
Parents worried that others would blame them for their child's homosexuality. In these circumstances, parents feared becoming stigma's direct target. This Latina mother of a gay male described:
I think the hardest part is people finding out...because you have to deal with people who want to find fault with you. With members of the church, I don't know how they would react to that. I still realize there is a stigma to having a gay child. Somehow I might have done something wrong. I am not saying I don't feel good about Carlos being gay, I feel good about telling the people he wants me to tell, and the people I am comfortable talking to--my good friends. But have I told anybody I work with, any of my employees, or my clients? No. It is my choice, but I am not ready because I still have those feelings that somebody important to me might be turned off.
Other parents reported experiencing the stigma vicariously. Like all good parents, they wanted to protect their children. When they heard anti-gay hostility from others, they were reminded of the stigma their children would encounter. As remarked by this mother of a lesbian:
I learned who to talk to. I would become more aware of people's comments about gay people and then decide who I might not want to reveal her identity to. Or I would just be quiet in a situation. It is hard.
If you are a gay, lesbian, transgender, or a bisexual (LGBT) person, or someone with a concealable disability, the thoughts and feelings of these parents must seem familiar. LGBT people along with others whose stigmatizing conditions are hidden from public view have to decide on an almost a daily basis to whom to disclose their distinguishing characteristic. Having to scan their environments and find ways to determine who will be accepting and who won't are frequent exercises for LGBT people and many others. Once parents of lesbian and gay people are aware of their children's sexual orientations, they learn that they too must find ways to manage the stigma.
Managing Stigma: Learning Society is Simply Wrong
For members of minority groups to be mentally healthy and strong, they must develop the ability to be critical of the society in which they live. LGBT persons must question the prevailing views of sexuality and gender, and eventually understand that they are excessively narrow. In my psychotherapy practice, my most distressed gay clients are the ones who cling to the notion that being gay is shameful, perverted, and indicative of weakness. In their minds, the treatment gays and lesbians receive is justified and proof of how wrong they are for having same-sex attractions. Parents of gays and lesbians, like their children, must be able to withstand the slings and arrows that come with living in a world that persecutes those who challenge its restrictive norms. In order to develop and maintain good self-worth, gays, lesbians, and those who love them must grow to learn that some of the established ideas are just plain wrong.
Managing Stigma is a Family Affair
Since stigma is something the entire family must face, it is good grist for family discussion. Although I did not interview siblings for my book, during the research, and in my clinical practice, I have become aware of how young brothers and sisters face jeering taunts from peers who accuse them of being gay or lesbian because they have a gay brother or lesbian sister. Lesbians and gays, their siblings and their parents must find ways to handle the effects of discrimination and prejudice, so a discussion of these topics which includes the entire family could prove enormously beneficial. Family members can conjointly brainstorm and strategize ways to handle stigma. Through family discussions, members can decide who gets told about the child's sexual orientation. How will the child make the decision as to whom to disclose? How will the parents? How will family members handle the challenges of discrimination? Or, what should one do when overhearing or being told an anti-gay joke?
It must be remembered that sons and daughters usually realize they are gay or lesbian a lot sooner than their mothers and fathers know they are parents of gay children. Many youth have had to find ways to survive the verbal and physical assaults of their peers. Therefore, it is likely that they will have developed some coping tools forged from the fire of these painful challenges. Thus, by the time they come out they will have expertise they can share with their parents. In my own practice, I have coached children to talk to their parents about their own experiences with discrimination, whether from employers, teachers, school administrators, or peers. I have found that it can be quite effective if children can share with their parents their successful stigma-busting strategies. When young LGBT people talk about their experiences with their families, this could spur fruitful discussions that can have the beneficial side effect of helping families recognize and appreciate the children's competence. When parents recognize their child is able to competently negotiate a world that stigmatizes homosexuality, they are reassured--and can even grow to admire, their proud, resilient lesbian and gay children.