When a child “comes out” as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT), the reaction of their parents and other family members plays a critical role in their well-being. What’s the right thing to say? What if this situation contradicts your family values? How do you deal with the gamut of emotions you might be feeling? These and many more questions run through the minds of parents – and their responses directly impact the acceptance or rejection felt by their child. The risks of rejection for LGBT children in coming out are great. In families where there is a lack of support, LGBT children and teens have higher rates of suicide attempts, sexually transmitted diseases, substance abuse and homelessness. As a result, it is crucial that parents of LGBT children work toward supporting and accepting their kids.
The coming out process
The process of coming out as LGBT is personal and different for all children and teens. The experience is daunting – often filled with fear, anxiety or embarrassment. When a young person tells you they identify as LGBT, they are entrusting you with their inner most emotions and experiences. It can also be a time of great joy, pride, relief and courage. Most LGBT youth want to come out in their own way and in their own time. Be careful not to “out” them by exposing them without their consent. Wait to tell additional family and friends until your child is ready.
Deal honestly with feelings
As a parent, finding out your child identifies as LGBT can be uncomfortable and confusing. Parents may have a fear of saying the wrong thing, try to hide their emotions or may express their unsupportive feelings openly. In order to come to a place of support and acceptance, parents need to process their feelings honestly. It is also very important to bear in mind how your reaction may be interpreted.
For the parent that finds the LGBT world new territory, get the facts! Understand the difference between sexual orientation (who we are attracted to) and gender identity (inner sense of gender). Your teen likely understands the distinction and is up to date on the lingo. Learn the right terminology to be able to communicate about these topics with your child. Also, educate yourself on school, local, state and national policies and laws regarding LGBT individuals.
Talk and listen
Having conversations with your LGBT child or teen can be difficult. You may feel awkward or worry about saying the wrong thing. Follow these conversation tips:
• Ask respectful questions: When did you know? How can I support you?
• Be honest: Tell your child if this is new for you.
• Be reassuring: Let your child know that you love them no matter what, but that you may need time to digest this information.
• Discuss any risk concerns or bullying problems they may be having.
• Talk with friends and family when your child is ready. Let your child decide how and when this will occur.
A father of an 11 year old transgender female relates this story about his experience on the subject: “We were leaving a doctor’s office where there had been some awkward questions about the male box being checked on forms when my child looked and dressed like a girl. In the car I asked, ‘Wouldn’t it be easier in these types of situations to just dress like a boy?’ Without pause she replied, ‘It wouldn’t be easier for me.’ My advice to parents – recognize that this is who your child truly and naturally is, and then get to work building a support structure for them.”
Parents should understand that children who identify as LGBT don’t do this as a choice, rather it is naturally just a part of who they are. Focus on the strengths of your family – the common beliefs, values and culture you still share. Parents should work to become allies in reducing the risks their children face. Remember that your child is seeking acceptance and support. If you feel unable to provide this, find someone that can act as a mentor or support person for your child.
Finally, if your child comes out to you as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, realize how difficult this conversation must be for them. How you handle this information sets the tone for the course of relationship together. Remember that this is the same child you have always loved – and during the emotional time of coming out as their true self, your son or daughter needs to see this love from you more than ever.
PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays)
Family Acceptance Project: Free Supportive Families Booklet
Human Rights Campaign