I’m a straight/cisgender mum of two. Not especially qualified to give advice about this topic as I have never had to come out to anyone myself. My whole life people have just assumed that I’m straight and a girl, and I always was. I’m going to tell you what I know, from my experiences working with LGBTQ young people, and from LGBTQ friends of mine, about ways to be a better parent to LGBTQ young people. And as a parent I’ll be listening to the advice too. The quotations in italics are all from LGBTQ friends of mine (unless indicated otherwise).
First things first. If you have a child who tells you that they are LGBTQ, then you are very fortunate because it means they trust you. Lots of children avoid telling their parents because they are terrified.
‘Coming out at 35 to my dad was the hardest thing because my mother had always said ‘There’s something wrong with these people’ throughout my life and she still has a major issue with it. My dad’s response was fantastic, he said as long as I was happy then he was happy. It’s so difficult when a parent sees what you do as a choice and refuses to accept that you’re just being yourself. My mother still feels great shame and speaks in a low voice when she talks about it.’
‘My mum refused to talk about it, then I basically said one day that what if I meet someone and we marry and everyone I love would be involved, including my kids, however, you wouldn't be there. How sad that would be? She broke at this and we talked for the first time. I'd known I was Gay since I was like 10 and at 40-something I'd finally got the guts to tell her.’
So, before your child gets to the stage of coming out to you, there is some important groundwork to be done.If you have never talked to your child, of whatever age, about gay people or trans people, then do it today. Begin that conversation.
‘Talk about it long before the children do.’
‘For me coming out was so much more difficult than I ever thought it would’ve been because people having partners of the same gender was never really talked about.’
‘I never came out to my mom. She died young but I still regret it. Yet it took years for me to come out to my dad. He knew, I knew he knew, but still we couldn't talk about it. And it's because he never made me know explicitly that it was going to be ok when I finally worked up the courage to tell him.’
Don’t wait until they bring it up. If it’s not an open topic of discussion in your house they won’t bring it up until they have to.
Make sure your language isn’t unintentionally homophobic or transphobic. Don’t share or laugh at jokes about gay people or women who ‘look like men’. Your kids may well be listening to hear how you feel about them. ‘It is important for people to know that they should not speak in language that makes us feel defective.’
Tell your children that it’s fine to be gay or transgender. That you’d love them whether or not their future relationships looked just like yours.
‘The single most important thing anyone can do in a family is be very, very clear from the children are tiny that (a) there is no issue with being gay in this household (b) ensure this is backed up by having everyday diversity represented in books, films etc without question.’
Start at any age- the earlier the better. My children have known since they could talk that some boys like boys and some girls like girls. But also- repeat it over the years. The message that kids tend to get from society is that it is generally better and ‘normal’ to be straight and cisgender.
‘The only reason [coming out] was not a traumatic or particularly eventful part of my life is because the groundwork was already set. I was told very, very young that as long as I was happy my parents were not really bothered if I was a lesbian.’
And that leads nicely on to….What to say when your kids actually do come out? Most kids want to hear ‘I love you.’ For some this will be enough. Lots of kids don’t need a big talk about it, and they definitely don’t need to be contradicted or to have all your anxieties and fears on display (‘But what about having babies?’ ‘You might get bullied!’ ‘Will you still wear a dress to your auntie’s wedding?’) It is normal enough for you to have those fears (remember- you have also grown up with the idea from society that it’s easier to be straight and cisgender!) so don’t beat yourself up- but do talk to some experts about your fears rather than offloading them onto your child.
There is a list of helpful organisations at the end of this article.
‘Be aware of how your questions and queries can impact on a young person. There may well be question about health and so on, but someone I know who came out to his parents found those quite difficult, even though it was probably just his parents trying to process and understand. Finding a third party you can discuss those "processing" questions with might be good.’
Tell them they’re lovely and you love them.
Give them a hug
‘When I was coming out to my granny she started the conversation by asking if I was seeing anyone, male or female. When I said no she said ‘Well, you’ll find your Prince or Princess and they’ll be lucky to have you. It made it so easy.’
Tell them you’re pleased that they’ve opened up to them. Use the opportunity to talk about relationships in general- the main thing being that they know they are worthy of respect, and that they are kind to other people. This is something which is missing from a lot of discourse about LGBT kids, but consent is a huge issue for young people in general- children should be aware that they can expect to be treated well and to treat others well in return. Talk about what that means, because it is far more important than the gender of the person they want to go out with.
Tell them you’re worried about what their granny (or anyone!) will think. You might have that worry but it is yours to deal with, not theirs.
Laugh or tell them not to be silly. Chances are they’ve worked up a lot of courage to tell you.
‘Don't over or under react. Acknowledge that your child has just told you something that has taken them a lot of courage to do so recognise that and make sure they know you understand that, but don't over react either, being LGBT isn't better than being straight so don't make it seem that way, I hate that line "I've met loads of gay people and they're all lovely".’ (Think of Catherine Tate’s ‘Our John’s a Gay Man Now’ sketch!)
Don’t tell them they’ll be fine because they can have a partner and maybe get married some day and have babies, just like you. Not all LGBTQ people want to have this life, and this is fine. Everyone is different.
‘As a straight person I have had a lot of learning to do about gender, gender identity and sex and how they vary and are different to how I was taught or how I perceived things. Openness, honesty, removing expectations (that the girl will grow up, marry a man, have babies, or that the boy will grow up, marry a girl and have babies), promoting inclusivity, supporting all people, making it clear that no matter what is said it is never wrong, and showing respect for how a person feels is the best I can do for my queer brood.’
I think one of the main anxieties about having your kids come out is that it is a signifier that your kids are entirely separate people to you. They are different to you. They have different feelings. Their lives might end up being very different. But this is something that all parents have to deal with at some stage- they need us and they need our support and our affirmation and love, but they also need to be allowed to become themselves as separate from us. Nobody finds this easy, but if we allow them to grow and we give them the love and support they need, then hopefully we get the privilege of watching them become happy and fulfilled humans.
A straight parent friend of mine says:
‘When people have questioned me about the boys being gay and how I got my head around it, I always said, “You don’t have to understand them, you just have to love them.’
Thanks so much to all my friends who shared their experiences with me for this article. I have so much to learn from you.
Here are some parent-friendly organisations which you can contact to get some support. They are there to support you and your kids and will have everyone’s safety at heart.
The Rainbow Project
Organisations which can support LGBTQ people of faith and their families:
One Body One Faith
Shirley-Anne McMillan runs the Gay Straight Alliance after school club at Shimna Integrated College. Her Young Adult novel, A Good Hiding, was published in 2016.Tagged with: gay teen, what to do when your son is gay