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

Don't Ask, They'll Tell

Don't know your child's sexual orientation? It doesn't matter.

As I relayed in When Your Child Is Gay: What You Need To Know (Sterling, 2016), I found out that my son was gay from a note with our son's name entwined with another boy's, surrounded by a heart. I accidentally found that note in his room when I was cleaning.

I never questioned him about the heart I found on the sly. How would I have brought it up? Suppose I was wrong? After all, he had a crush on a girl in his class.

I had suspected at times that he was gay. He only had girls to his thirteenth birthday party. He preferred gentler sports. He was always concerned about how he looked and followed fashion. Were these stereotypical thoughts from a straight mother? You bet, but it was ingrained through the culture's binary system and ideas about how males were "supposed to" behave.

As it turns out, our son didn't come out until he was 17, was on his own, and brought a boyfriend to visit. Had I asked him if he were gay when he was 13, he probably would have defensively said "No!" He had to work it out and work through his denial. I'm glad I muzzled myself.

Susan Berland, the mother of a gay son who coaches parents of LGBTQ kids, caution, "It's not a good idea to ask. Let your child come to terms with it first and then come out. They need space to work things out."

It isn't your place to put a sexual label on your child. Don't try to force your child's identity out of her or him.

According to my co-author, psychiatrist Jonathan Tobkes, "Gay children feel incredibly vulnerable when coming out to their parents, and it takes time to work up the courage to do this."

It also takes trust. Children usually come out to the safest person. "I have worked with parents who have been angry at their child for having waited so long to come out to them," Tobkes says. "Some parents may misconstrue a child's delay in coming out to them as a lack of trust between them. These parents berate themselves with the notion that they have failed in some way."

It's not a failure on the parent's part. However, your child may fear your rejection and probably knows that he is disappointing you and not meeting your expectations. If you want him to come out so that he will seem happier in his own skin, you will want to create a safe and supportive environment at home.

You can do this by making your home a place where your values about LGBTQ people are known:

  • Talk about families that are different from you.
  • Teach them that Love is Love. Talk about finding the right person to love and not necessarily a member of the opposite sex.
  • Create a sense of diversity by using gender-neutral terms: "So is there anyone at the party you like?"
  • Don't say anything disparaging. Model acceptance by not using gay slurs and never telling gay jokes.
  • Watch gay-themed shows together such as "The Fosters" and "Will and Grace." How do they depict gay people?
  • React kindly to gay people in the news or on television. Don't stereotype the LGBT community.
  • Show support for LGBT causes.
  • If you know LGBT couples, invite them over so your child will see that he won't lead a lonely, isolated life. By doing this, you can take out some of the worries ahead of time.

"The best way you can help your child not to feel rejected is by remaining involved in the details of his or her life and by not avoiding topics that may make you feel uncomfortable," Tobkes says. "Avoidance of certain areas sends a tacit message that you may not be accepting of these things. Ask your child how she is feeling on a regular basis."

Listen and don't ask questions. Hear and acknowledge without distractions. Validate.

When your child does come out, give him a hug and tell him you love him and that you're proud of him to divulge his true self. I have a problem with the sometimes recommended phrase "I'll love you no matter what"; it implies something terrible is going to happen. A simple "I love you" should be sufficient.

"The most common mistake parents make is conveying unfiltered negative emotions to the child at a critical time when they need to reaffirm their love and acceptance," Tobkes stresses.

Kids who have come out and are rejected by their parents have higher incidences of suicide, substance abuse, promiscuity, and depression, as reported by The Family Assistance Project at San Francisco State. If you can't accept your child' sexual orientation, work on your issues privately. If your child seems unhappy, find out if he or she is being bullied or experiencing self-hatred. He may need to consult a mental health professional as well.

Although you're eager to know your child's sexual orientation, don't pry. In a way, you have an advantage by not knowing; it gives you more time to prepare for the day (if ever) when he does reveal he's gay.


About the Author

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.