COMING OUT TO YOUR PARENTS AS GLB
Telling people that you are lesbian, gay, two-spirit, bisexual, or queer can be both a rewarding and a difficult process.
A good place to start is to work through the following questions: Try to be completely honest with your answers, this will help you face particular anxieties or fears you may have, as well as to recognize the supports that you might have around you.
Note: There are a lot of different words that people use to self-identify their sexual or romantic orientations, some are more familiar such as lesbian or gay, while others are newer such as two-spirit or pansexual. The list also grows and changes every day so throughout this pamphlet we use LGB* to refer to lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual, polysexual, asexual, genderqueer, intersex, two-spirit, queer, and questioning individuals. If you are, or think you are transgender, please grab our “Coming out as Transgender” pamphlet!
- When did you start thinking of yourself as lgb*? What did the words mean for you then and what do they mean to you now?
- How long did it take for you to be comfortable with your sexuality?
- What do you think the words lesbian, gay, bisexual, or asexual mean to each member of your family? Your friends?
- Who in your family do you think would have the hardest time accepting your sexuality?
- Who in your family do you think would have the easiest time accepting your sexuality?
- In what ways would your relationship with your family change after you came out?
Coming out is a difficult decision to make and only you will know the right time and process for yourself. Trust yourself.
Coming out: Things to Ponder
Everyone’s reaction will be different: Every family and every individual person is different. Most people will go through the phases covered in this resources while some may remain in one phase longer than another, or skip a phase altogether.
Understanding takes time: When you decide that you are ready to come out, you may expect your parents or friends to understand and accept you right away. This is perfectly normal, but unfortunately, sometimes when we disclose things to people, they have a harder time than we expect. Think: how long did it take you to come to terms with your sexuality? It will probably take your parents and/or friends just as long or even longer. They may need you to teach them about what coming out means to you and why it’s important to you. Further, you will need to be respectful of their feelings because they, too, will have to go through the process of coming out, only in this case as the parents and friends of an LGB* child.
Try your best to be patient: You may become impatient. You may need to answer the same questions or explain yourself over and over again. Try not to get upset; your parents and friends may need more time than you expected to understand and to adjust. They may be emotional during the process and it may feel like they are taking forever to understand, but remember, that you are well ahead of them in terms of dealing with your sexuality.
Your patience will be appreciated
Some people won’t know what to expect from you or how to deal with the “new you.” For some people, shock and anger are reflections of their feelings of loss. They may withdraw, failing to realize how this affects you.
I remember one morning when my son was fixing breakfast at the stove, as I sat at the kitchen table reading the newspaper. I looked at him and wanted to say, ‘I don’t know who you are, but I wish you’d leave and send my son Ted back.’
Understanding and patience on both sides will increase the chances of your relationship being as good as or better than it was before you came out. The more trust, honesty, and mutual respect on both sides of the equation will produce better results for all involved.
Stages of understanding
There are many stages of understanding. Although these five stages will apply to most people, there is no guarantee that your parents and friends will experience all of these reactions. No two people will move through the stages at the same speed or in the same way as every individual and every family is different.
1. Shock. Your parents may have no idea that you are lesbian, gay, or bisexual so your coming out might shock them. This is a natural reaction to new or unexpected information. Their sense of shock may last a few minutes to days or even weeks.
You may want to tell them that you have not been completely honest with them and that this has put distance between you and them. Tell them that you want and need to be honest. Tell them that you love them. Say it more than once.
At first, your parents may not respond positively. If so, they likely need time and space in order for your disclosure to sink in. Don’t be afraid to remind them of the following: “You loved me before I told you, and I haven’t changed. I know it doesn’t seem so to you right now, but I am still the same person. I just want to share all my life with you and not just a part of it.”
Occasionally, a parent will not be shocked at all. They may say, “I always knew you were different and I thought you might be lesbian, bisexual, or gay. It’s OK. I love you but I will need you to help me understand and accept this” or “We’ve known for a long time. We’ve been waiting for you to tell us.” Telling them in these cases will be much easier because they will have already worked through some of the stages on their own.
2. Denial. Denial is a defense mechanism. It protects us from unknown situations. It is different from shock because it is a refusal to really hear what is being said, and comes through as a hasty or knee-jerk reaction in response. Denial can be expressed in a variety of ways:
- Anger: “No kid of mine is going to be queer!”
- Uncaring: “If that’s what you choose, I don’t want to hear about it.”
- Ignoring: “That’s nice dear. What do you want for supper?”
- Rejection: “It’s just a phase, you’ll grow out of it.”
“My wife and I were sure that our son had been caught up in some form of gay liberation activity that appealed to him because it seemed dangerous and exciting. We thought that the media coverage about homosexuality probably attracted him and that he lacked maturity to know what he really wanted. We insisted that he go to a psychiatrist. We agreed to visit the doctor, too. After two or three visits, Ted’s psychiatrist shredded our defense mechanisms of denial, “I’ve counseled many gay young adults and I’m convinced that this is no passing fancy; to the best of my knowledge, your son is gay.”
You may want to suggest that your parents seek counseling. If they tell you to see a counselor, suggest that they match you session for session. Having an outside person to talk to is always a good idea, both for you and for your family and friends.
Your parents might think that being bisexual, lesbian, or gay is not normal. You can explain to them that being heterosexual and/or cisgender are the most common sexual orientations and gender identity, but not the only ones. In fact, there are many, many other orientations and identities out there that don’t often get talked about in larger society. Point out that not everyone is the same—some people are right-handed and others are left-handed; some people are scientific and others are creative. Hopefully these examples will help demonstrate to them that diversity doesn’t have to be threatening! However, whatever you choose to say, you need to emphasize that, by coming out, you are making a conscious choice to be true to yourself.
If their denial takes the form of “I don’t want to talk about it,” you may want to reach out to them again in a gentle and cautious manner in about a week. You might say something like the following: “Dad, I want to talk to you about this. Please don’t push me out of your life. I love you and want you to continue loving me, but I need to be honest too.”
Be prepared to deal with your parents separately. This allows each of them to process what you’ve revealed to them at their own pace. Again, your coming out is a big issue and it will help if you are considerate of their need to process through it at their own pace.
3. Guilt. When parents feel guilty, they are focused on themselves, not on you. They may be too wrapped up in blaming themselves to see that you are a happy person or that you have new issues to deal with. Many parents see being lesbian, bisexual, or gay as a “problem” and ask things like “what causes it?” As such, they may think that it is a result of poor parenting. Be prepared to remind them that they raised you to be honest and that you’re being honest. You will need to be ready to teach them and to support them. An example of how you could do this is: “The truth is nobody knows for sure what makes people gay, lesbian, or bisexual, so there is no point in blaming yourself or anyone else. What’s important now is trying to come to terms with everything—and I want you to know that I’m here to help you as much as I can.”
You can help them come to terms in a variety of ways:
- Have a list of books they can read or websites they can refer to. These allow them to learn in private, at their own pace.
- You can encourage them to contact places like the Avenue Community Centre for support. The ACC can also put your parents in contact with PFLAG (Parents, Family & Friends of Lesbians and Gays). PFLAG members have been through what your parents are going through and can give them support and answer questions, parent to parent.
- Check out the ACC’s collection of pamphlets for your parents’ reference and other resources explaining what it means to bisexual, gay or lesbian.
4. Feelings expressed. When it’s clear that guilt and self-blame are not productive, parents may want to ask questions, hear the answers, and accept their feelings about the situation. This is when you and your parents will have the best talks. This is also when their feelings will come out, such as things like, “I’m disappointed I won’t have grandkids”; “please, don’t tell anyone else”; or “I feel so alone and hurt—I think I was better off not knowing.”
It may seem hateful and cruel at the time, but feeling angry and hurt are the most common feelings that many parents experience when their child comes out. However, it is much worse if you don’t talk openly about everyone’s feelings and make some effort to deal with them. You may feel like you should pull back and that maybe you shouldn’t have told them, but you need to be true to yourself and to those you love, so hang in there! Remember, once these feelings come up and you and your parents deal with them, you will be able to move on because acceptance is closer now than it ever was before.
5. Personal decision making. As your parents go through these phases, their ability to cope with the situation will improve. There are several ways in which your parents may decide to come to terms with your sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Here are three possibilities:
- Everything you do and say is seen as a symptom of your “problem.” In order to remove the “problem,” your parents may try removing you (i.e. refusing to let you live with them anymore). Oftentimes, it is only one parent that feels this way. If one parent takes a negative position, the other parent has trouble taking the opposite stance. This type of situation can make home life very difficult; be sure to have a back-up plan (such as friends and other family members you can live with) if you think your parents may take this stance.
- Sometimes parents will only accept your sexual orientation and/or gender identity to a certain point. They will treat you with love and respect but, when it comes to your sexual orientation and/or gender identity, they will want to avoid it or deal with it at an arm’s length. Do not take this as a rejection of who you are; some people have great difficulty in dealing with a GSD child. Know and respect their limits on this. Gently and slowly, you can still continue in your efforts to reach out to them.
- Most parents, after adjusting to this new knowledge, will be as accepting and loving of you as they were before you came out. They will become more and more aware of your needs and the problems you face. There is a chance they will become pro-GSD allies. Some will even feel that your relationship has improved due to the honesty, trust, and mutual respect you have demonstrated to them.
These are only three of many possibilities, from worst-case scenario to best-case scenario. You know your parents best and will be able to consider their likeliest reactions. As stated above, you may need to be prepared for the worst, such as by moving out to stay with other family members or friends. No matter what happens, stay true to yourself as you continue to reach out to your parents while also knowing your limits.
6. True acceptance. Some parents get this far. When asked if they wish that their child were straight and/or cisgender, they respond, “I’d wish that society was more accepting of GSD people so that my child could live without fear or the possibility of rejection.” Parents at this stage begin to understand the problems that they have unknowingly created for their child in the past.
Parents at this stage begin to re-think how they have treated GSD people before your coming out. Some will become active in fighting against homophobia and heteronormativity. Others will talk to and educate their friends and other family members about GSD issues. Some will open their arms and homes to their children’s GSD friends. Others will reach out to help other parents accept their children being GSD. In short, they’ll become committed to fighting for GSD rights and acceptance in whichever ways they feel most comfortable.
“About two years prior to knowing about Ted, we began to sense that our son was drifting away from the family. We thought it was simply a stage he was going through. In an effort to help him we tried at different times to reach him. One month we’d try to be his friends. When that didn’t work, we tried bringing him to his senses by being confrontational and demanding. Nothing worked. It never crossed our minds that his being gay and our lack of understanding related to the problem. We now look on it as an unplanned journey. Unplanned, however, does not mean unwelcome. We’ve been able to support our son on his journey. Today we can say, “We’re glad we know.”
Throughout it all, remember that we are here for you!
The Avenue Community Centre offers a number of programs and services to help people of all ages navigate the coming out process. The biggest service we offer is peer counseling either over the phone or in person for you, your parents, and your friends. Come visit us today! You’ll find our contact information on the back of this booklet.