Dear Pink Elephant.
From the moment that Nick asked me to talk to you about coming out to your parents, I’ve been thinking about what clever, profound, instructive thing I might say. Unfortunately, great wisdom continues to evade me, so I will just tell you what it is like to be a parent and what it was like for me to learn that my son is gay. The great news is that homosexuality is more accepted now than it has ever been and over the past several years, great strides have been made. If you live somewhere other than the Bible belt, it may not be a problem at all. The bad news is that homophobia has not been eradicated and we still have to live with it. Hopefully, these ramblings will help you understand your parents’ reactions, good or bad, to your news.
Becoming a parent is a life-altering event. The innate sense of love and protectiveness is critical for the survival of any species, and we humans have these instincts in spades! As a parent, you gradually realize that your wishes and needs no longer take priority and, for the most part, you don’t mind. The primary mission of your life becomes caring for this child, yet you scarcely have any idea of how to proceed. The sense of responsibility is overwhelming and the commitment to be a “good parent” morphs into an obsessive-compulsive disorder! You make so many mistakes along the way that you cherish the idea of being a grandparent, because by that time, through trial and error, you finally know how to get it right!
… Meanwhile, no sacrifice is too great and nothing is more important than your child’s safety and happiness. Ah, and pride, did I mention that? Nothing is a greater source of pride than your child, and you want the world to love your child and treat him well. Any pain or sorrow that your child suffers is felt and magnified in you. You want, so desperately, to “fix” it.
Is this obsessive behavior good for the child? Yes and no. Is the parent’s ego tied up in the whole process? Absolutely. Is the child and his/her success in life a reflection of the parent? Oh Yeah! Are parents, after all, only human and capable of egos, anger, mistakes and misbehavior? We already know the answer!
So, what happens when this child, that you thought you knew inside and out, that you love more than you could ever express, tells you that he has a situation that irrevocably puts him in danger of ridicule, disrespect, discrimination, rejection, hatred, harm, and HIV/AIDS?
For some of us, the response is complete heart break and terror. The years of total dedication to and protection of this person’s health and happiness are wiped away and he is at the mercy of a hostile and hateful world. The sense of anxiety is paralyzing. There is fear that he will be hurt and rejected or even killed. The ruminations can be endless:
“What will happen to my son?” “Will someone hurt him?” “Will people hate him?”
Some of the most painful and terrifying thoughts are, “What does God think about this?” “What if God really does reject him?” and, “What if he has AIDS and suffers a horrible death?”
Not to be morose, but in some ways there is a death of the son you THOUGHT you knew. There is this new person, with a life you did not know about and whom, after all, you don’t really know. For me, there was a process of grieving for the loss of the son I thought he was and for the family as I knew it.
Grief has many phases and we all respond differently.
There is denial that this simply is not happening.
There is bargaining that this is just confusion, misdirection, and he will discover that he is not really gay. “Perhaps we can fix it…”
There is guilt and torment of wondering what “caused” this to happen. “What did I do wrong and how could I not have known?”
There is a sense of anger and betrayal…”How could you do this to me?” “How could you do this to our family?” “How could you have lied to me all these years?” “Who is this person?” “How could the son I thought I knew…?”
There is grief for the grandchildren that you may not have.
And, because we are social beings and rely on others in our communities for support and approval, there is the question, “What will people think?”
As in any form of grief, we all experience it differently and I certainly cannot say how your parents will respond. Ideally, we work through all of the fear, anger, anxiety, grief and come to acceptance over an undetermined period of days, months or years. The hope is that as we discover our “real” son, that the relationship will be even better, because now there is truth. Unfortunately for some, it takes years and, sadly, for some, it never happens.
What can you do to help your family?
In the best-case scenario, they already know or strongly suspect and will welcome the honesty and embrace you for who you are. In that case you can shred this letter, heave a sigh of relief, and move on. In other situations, one or both of your parents may have great difficulty with the news. In either case, I recommend the following:
Let them know that this is not something you have “decided” to be, and that you have struggled with it for years. Reassure them that your love for them and fear of hurting them has kept you from sharing this with them. Keep reassuring them that you love them. Let them know that you are happy in your life. Let them know what your plans are for the future. Let them know how you deal with hostility or hatefulness and how you have managed challenges, discrimination, and hardship. They need to feel confident that you can handle this. Be open to talk to them. Do not answer questions that are too personal but be willing to be honest and to answer questions when they need answers. Remember, that they may be trying to get to know the “real” you, while letting go of the person they thought you were. There are horrible stereotypes of the gay man and that, most likely, is what they have been taught. They need to know that there are healthy, moral, respectful, loving relationships and that the stereotypes do not represent you.
Their religious teachings may cause them despair and may be the most difficult issue of all. Please try to understand and respect their views, even if you do not agree. If you have a relationship with God, let them know that. Be yourself and be loving and patient. Let them know that you are sorry if they are hurt, angry, or confused and that you understand that it will take them time. Give them the space they need and never stop letting them know that you love them. Be prepared for anger or withdrawal. It may take several years before they can talk about it openly with you. They may take as many years as it took you to “come out” to family and friends, or they may never be public about it. Please respect that, even if it is hard for you to understand. Sometimes, for parents, the thought that people would reject their son or criticize him is simply too hard to manage. Please be prepared for any number of reactions and recognize that it may take years for the relationship to readjust or they may already know and be relieved to have it in the open. Meanwhile, keep letting them know that you love them.
Finally, there is the issue of who else to tell. There are so many people who love you, especially grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Deciding what and when, (or if), to tell them is not easy. Every family is different and I would not presume to guess how your family will respond. The interesting thing is that you may be surprised at who takes it well and who doesn’t.
It has been almost 10 years since we discovered, quite painfully, that Nick had been involved with men. I cried a great deal and went through all of the stages of grief. Because I had several good friends who had died of AIDS, I was sick with the thought that this could happen to Nick. Fortunately, Nick left for college so we had some time to adjust and let the dust settle while we came to grips with some of these issues. When Nick was home, we had many long, honest discussions. He was very open, patient and loving with me, and I attempted to be the same with him. As for my “coming out” as a parent, I was unable to talk to anyone about it for over a year. For this reason, I highly recommend counseling for any parent or for any individual who is coming out for the first time.
Eventually, I told a number of close friends who love Nick and accept his sexuality. For the most part, I am comfortable being out with close friends and family, but it is not an issue that I bring up in conversation with the general public, mainly because I respect his privacy and I don’t think it is anyone’s business. Also, that fierce parental protective instinct lives on, regardless of a child’s age or position in life. There are people, especially colleagues at work, that I would never tell because, if they said something disparaging about Nick, I would be enraged and nothing good would come of it.
At this point, Nick has talked to all of the family and each of us has gone through his or her adjustment. Now, it simply is no longer an issue. If anything, our trials and tribulations have made us closer and stronger. I would say that we are happier and healthier as a family than we have ever been. Nick is loved and embraced for the wonderful person that he is and we could not possibly be more proud of him. He continues to fascinate and amaze me with his tenacity and strength. I love, respect, and adore my wonderful son and consider him a blessing in my life.
So, I hope that this gives you a modicum of useful insight and I wish you and your family all the best as you begin the process of really coming to know each other.