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Jonathan L. Tobkes, M.D. and Wesley C. Davidson
Jonathan L. Tobkes, M.D. and Wesley C. Davidson

Why Some Parents Experience a Child's Coming Out as a Loss

... and how they can productively alter their perceptions.

Many of the straight parents I interviewed for When Your Child Is Gay: What You Need To Know expressed having felt disappointment in learning that their child was LGBT. It was as if they were mourning the loss of the child they thought they knew.

They may not have seen their children's sexual orientation before the coming out, or perhaps they suspected it but wished to deny it. The majority of the parents were caught off-guard; it was as if suddenly their dreams for their biological children to carry on the family name, or have a wedding with someone from the opposite sex, were all dashed. (Of course, an LGBT child can now marry and adopt or parent.)

Initial Feelings of Loss

My own feelings of loss were associated with our son James, once out, now being a member of a minority group. Would he be beaten up? Would he be fired at his job if his supervisors found out that he were gay? Would he have to live in a gay-friendly neighborhood? Would he have to be guarded in his mannerisms and not display any affection toward the same sex in public?

I was not alone in my worries. Natalie, 63, a mother from Long Island, found out that two of her three children were gay. "It took a big toll on me emotionally," she says. "It changed our life greatly. I lost weight and was drained all the time." Natalie felt that it was a loss to the family genetic pool and kept wondering if being gay was a choice.

New Jersey mother Judy Appelbaum, 56, felt that after her son Ryan came out, she would face a lifetime of loss. It took her a year to get over the news after an initial reaction of "not in my backyard." She attended PFLAG meetings for a short time and realized, as she told me, "There are many flavors of ice cream." She now maintains that, "If you love your child, you don't have to choose between what makes them happy and what makes you happy."

Parents Aren't the Only Ones Mourning

LGBT children feel a sense of loss, too. In most cases, they know they are disappointing parents who had expectations for them that included a "traditional" life. It's a loss for both that needs to be acknowledged and resolved so they can progress to greater communication as well as understanding.

Richard Ogawa of Seattle figured out he was gay in college. He was nervous about disappointing his traditional Japanese parents who were dependent on their children to translate English when they emigrated to the U.S. Richard came out to his mother first, in a letter. She was upset, as she regarded his orientation as a choice. But later, she realized that Richard was happy not to keep hiding who he was, and this made she and her husband happy.

Richard told me, "Perhaps if every parent toyed with the possibility that any of their children could be gay, it would change the way they raise their children. Gay children are no different—so little of their sexual orientation has to do with who they are as a whole."

"It is rare to work with parents of a gay child who have not struggled with the feeling of loss at some point in the process of accepting their child as gay," my co-author, Jonathan Tobkes, M.D., points out. "It is healthy, normal, and generally unavoidable for parents to have fantasies about their child's future."

Three L's for Grieving

Tobkes identifies three losses that parents are grieving and notes that "a preconceived wish may be at the heart of the loss."

  1. Loss of a Traditional Life. "It is not the parent's place to impose specific life visions on their children," Tobkes says. "When your child comes out, you should ask him how he envisions his life and what his dreams are. Don't interrupt with assumptions or a million questions."
  2. Loss of an Easy, Safe Life. "Parents come to me in a state of mourning," Tobkes says. "Yet what they are actually grieving is the loss of their child's safety and innocence. Parents feel sad that their gay child has lost the possibility of having a life without significant difficulty." Yet Tobkes has found that "gay people tell you they are happy with who they are and feel that they have emerged on the other side of coming out as strong, sensitive, and resilient individuals."
  3. Loss of a Child. Having a gay child is not a loss of a child altogether. Your son or daughter still has the same attributes. As Tobkes warns parents, "Telling a child he is not part of the family anymore is the hardest one to remedy. At a critical time, parents should be reaffirming their love and acceptance. Parents must realize that their children are not extensions of themselves, but are autonomous beings with their own set of dreams and hopes."

Once parents adjust their expectations, the future looks better for both them and their child. And then their initial disappointment is no longer regarded as a loss.

About the Author
Jonathan L. Tobkes, M.D. and Wesley C. Davidson

Wesley C. Davidson is a journalist who researches straight parents of LGBT children. Jonathan L. Tobkes, M.D. is a psychiatrist in New York and supervises residents at Weill Cornell Medical Center.