What is it like to have a sibling who is gay or lesbian? Based on the little bit of information available, it seems that siblings may share in the stigma of their gay brothers and lesbian sisters whereby they may have to cope with taunts from peers, which include accusations that they too are gay. In my own study of 65 gay youth and their families (www.comingoutcominghome.com), young African American men talked about how their brothers and other male relatives felt they were adding to society's already negative image of black manhood. Like parents, their brothers also felt they had to find ways to handle their peers' homophobic comments and behaviors.
Side by Side: On Having a Gay or Lesbian Sibling by Andrew Gottlieb is a sensitive, insightful anthology consisting of essays written by siblings of lesbians and gays who discuss how they too become objects of abuse and intolerance, sharing in the stigma of their gay siblings. However, like some fortunate parents, people who learn their siblings are lesbian or gay can find ways to grow and gain new perspectives. Several of the contributors to this volume discussed how they formed especially close bonds with their gay brothers and sisters and, like some of the parents in my study, developed new, more tolerant worldviews that enriched their lives. The paucity of available information about siblings of gay and lesbian youth does not mean their issues are small or unimportant.
Sisters and brothers might need help coping with feelings of shame that they have someone gay in the family. They may also need help dealing with peer condemnation and harassment once it is found out that they have a gay or lesbian sibling. Furthermore, they may be anxiously questioning their own sexuality-even if they have no same-sex attractions. A lack of such feelings does not necessarily preclude a sibling from wondering "Could this happen to me too?"
In addition, I have also seen parents with good intentions isolate their gay children's younger siblings, keeping the gay child's sexual orientation a secret and therefore excluding brothers and sisters from family discussions of this topic. Sometimes parents do this because they want to protect their younger children from information they believe they cannot handle. At other times this is done inadvertently when, after the gay child comes out, parents and gay kids emotionally withdraw from the family, leaving siblings to deal with their reactions alone. If the siblings are not aware why the family is in turmoil, they can even feel more confused, isolated, and distressed. In either scenario there is no one left to help the sibling(s) deal with their feelings.
For all these reasons it is a good idea to pay close attention to siblings in families with coming-out gay and lesbian youth. Parents might fear that by telling younger children they might upset them too much or reveal something sexual that the youngsters are not ready to hear. However, there are ways to explain homosexuality to a small child without getting into the nitty-gritty sexual details. For example, "Mary wants to marry a woman instead of a man when she grows up" or "Johnny told us he wants to date other boys rather than girls, and Mommy and Daddy are surprised." Many therapists who have worked with young children, whose prejudices are not yet fully formed, know how surprisingly flexible they can be when it comes to understanding topics such as homosexuality if they are explained in ways that are in line with their cognitive abilities. In addition, since dealing with courtesy stigma might be an issue for brothers and sisters, it would also be a good idea to include siblings in family discussions of how to cope with issues such as societal intolerance and other people's prejudices.
Mothers and fathers might also fear that such information could influence the younger sibling to actually "turn gay." Parents need to be reassured that such concerns are unfounded. There is no evidence that having a lesbian sister or a gay brother can persuade a child to become gay. Furthermore, one gay child in a family does not necessarily mean that others will be as well. However, there is some evidence that compared to families with no gay siblings, if one son in a family is gay, his brothers are statistically more likely to be. In my study there were two families that included two siblings who were gay, and in both cases it seemed that by the time the parents found out about the second child they had an easier time adjusting than they did when they found out about their first child. However, it is possible that some parents might experience exponentially more self-blame, guilt, loss, and worry if they have two or more gay or lesbian children. Hopefully, more research will be forthcoming to provide guidance in helping families with the special challenge of having multiple gay children.