Now more than ever, gays and lesbians are coming out to their parents — and they're doing it when they're quite young. In the families I researched for the book Coming Out, Coming Home: Helping Families Adjust to a Gay or Lesbian Child (www.comingoutcominghome.com), kids came out to their parents, on average, at age 17, with some coming out as young as 14.
This is a good thing — a sign of progress — and it should be applauded. Indeed, it makes sense that gays and lesbians want to come out to their parents. Research findings suggest that for openly gay kids, having a strong relationship with parents is good for their mental health and self-esteem, and may inoculate them from suicidal feelings, substance abuse, and risky sex. For the youth in my book, coming out to their parents (who were not rejecting) gave them a sense of relief and helped solidify their identities as gay men and lesbian women — and some parents found that a son or daughter's coming out actually made their families closer and stronger than ever before.
However, despite all of these benefits, sometimes it might not be a good idea for gay or lesbian (or bisexual or transgender) people to come out to their parents. Yes, you read that right — this openly gay writer is actually recommending that sometimes it is best to stay in the closet — and here's why.
Despite the evidence that Americans are getting more tolerant of gay and lesbian people, parents still reject their children when they come out — ejecting them from their homes and ceasing all financial support. Some even react with violence. Other parents may feel as if their children died — and they no longer recognize the person they raised from infancy. Kids (and adults) who are considering coming out may have a hard time understanding and coping with these reactions.
So, as you can see, the decision to come out is rarely easy and must be approached with caution. Here are some guidelines to help you decide.
Consider NOT telling them if:
1. They often say things that are anti-gay or homophobic. Have you overheard such remarks — perhaps in reference to someone else? Gay issues, such as bullying, same-sex marriage, and the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," have been regular media topics as of late. What have you heard your parents say about these issues?
2. They have threatened to hurt you if they ever found out you are gay. Sometimes parents might suspect and mistakenly think their threats will "scare you straight." However, such threats should be taken seriously and factored into your decision of whether or not to come out.
3. You are financially and physically dependent on your parents. If you come out, what is the likelihood that your parents will throw you out of the house and/or withdraw all financial support (including money for college)? If the chances of this happening are strong, you might want to consider "holding off" until you have finished school, are financially independent, and have your own place to live.
4. You would be devastated if they reacted badly. Could you handle it emotionally if they had a negative reaction? Don't do it if you haven't developed a tough enough skin to hear initial statements, such as "You know, now you are going to hell!" or "I would rather you told me you were a murderer." (Yes, some parents say crazy things like this out of initial shock and worry for you — they often don't mean it and regret it later.)
5. Your "gut" says not to. This is a good time to trust your own "inner wisdom."
Remember, this isn't a race. Putting it off for now is a decision you can always change in the future. However, if, after carefully considering all of these cautions, you decide to take the plunge, here are some guidelines:
Before you tell them:
1. Have a worst-case scenario plan. If you are young, and they kick you out of the house and refuse to support you or pay for college, be sure to have a disaster plan to fall back on. Where will you live? How will you get the money you need to live away from home in case you need to?
2. Gather your supports. Assemble a network of sympathetic friends, relatives, and, if you are still in school, counselors and teachers — people to lean on if things get bad. Let them know you are planning on telling your parents, and that you'll need them to be available for temporary housing, a listening ear, and emotional support through the process.
3. Decide that you will be OK no matter what happens. (You will!)
When you tell them:
1. Pick a good time and place. There may never be "the perfect time," and if there is one, you might lose your nerve and let the opportunity pass — that's ok, don't sweat it. However, do not tell them in the midst of an argument or a family crisis. You don't want to look like you are doing this to hurt your parents. Also, don't do it during an important family occasion, like a wedding, funeral, or holiday celebration — you don't want to complicate things by stealing anyone's thunder.
2. As you come out to your folks, tell them you love them, and that you seek a close, honest, loving relationship with them. (That is why you're doing this, right?)
3. Reassure them that you are happy and healthy. Don't try to argue them into accepting you (that rarely works). Instead, show them you are happy and healthy. Among the parents of 65 gay and lesbian youth I interviewed, seeing their children were contented and doing well seemed to assuage parents' feelings of worry, guilt, and mourning.
4. Don't expect them to adjust right away. Parents need time to deal with their self-blame, mourning, guilt, and worry. Sometimes when we come out, we expect our parents to go from 0 to 60 with lightning speed. (Remember how long it took you to get used to the idea that you were gay or lesbian?) Keep this in mind, and give them at least a quarter of the time it took for you to adjust.
5. Get them educational resources. Try to convince them to contact Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), a support group for parents of gays, lesbians, bisexual, and transgender persons. Their website includes lots of excellent resources (www.pflag.org), as well as information on meetings at local chapters.
And most importantly....
Hang in there! If my personal, clinical, and research experiences are any indication, there is a very good chance that things will get better with time — even with parents who initially say those hateful things. In the meantime, stay optimistic and take good care of yourself — and give yourself credit for having the courage to take the risks necessary to live your life honestly and openly.