Several years ago (I can’t remember the exact time or place) my daughter announced that she liked girls.
Why can’t I remember the exact time or place? It wasn’t that big of a deal to me. It didn’t feel like the bombshell announcement that it might have been in generations past, though she was a little bit nervous about finally saying it out loud. And then she waited for my reaction ... which I honestly can’t remember. Probably it was like, “Oh, really? OK.” (At least, that’s what she guesses it was. See, we really can’t remember.)
And when my son finally announced almost two years ago that he was dating someone who was transgender, I remember feeling like it was about time those two actually made it official. It’s been a great first romance for both of them.
Of course, I had questions for both of my children, and I had to rearrange my vision of their futures. But I also had to be careful not to try to predict what their futures would be. After all, no kid in middle school or high school can really see themselves as married or having children. Worrying about if anyone would be making me a grandmother one day couldn’t be the focus for them or for me. (They both have since reassured me of their desires for children one day.)
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Strong Family Alliance, an Austin-based nonprofit organization, is for parents just like me who are wondering, “OK, my kid just came out. Now what?”
The group, started by Janet Duke in 2016, years after her own daughter’s coming out, provides a website of resources for parents about how to manage their own reactions and their own questions, and how to best support their kids.
This year, the day after National Coming Out Day on Oct. 11, Strong Family Alliance is creating a second day: National Parents Coming Out Day on Oct. 12.
As Duke explains, “There’s a thing called a second closet,” she says. The first closet might be the kids coming out to their parents, but “a second closet is when the kid comes out to the parent, but the parent is keeping them on the down low.”
The parents don’t want to talk about it, especially not to friends and relatives.
“Parents are going through their own journey,” Duke says. “Usually kids have been thinking about it for years before they tell their parents, but for parents, it’s a complete shock. They may not have been thinking about it.”
Parents often worry. They worry that their kid will have a harder life, that their child might not have a happy life. Strong Family Alliance tries to be a resource for those parents to dispel some of the worry. It also tries to dispel myths some families might believe based on their own backgrounds.
Those parents might be worrying that they as parents did something to cause this to happen. Or that their child might need to have this fixed, that it can be cured or that their child could cause someone else to “turn gay.” Strong Family Alliance tries to provide research-based information about understanding children’s sexuality.
A parent’s reaction to their child’s coming out is incredibly important, even if they are really struggling with how this news fits within their own beliefs.
A study by the Family Acceptance Project in 2009 found that LGBTQ children who come from highly rejecting families are 8.4 times as likely to attempt suicide than LGBTQ children who come from families with low levels of rejection.
“The stance you take can buffer them,” says Shailagh Clarke, a psychologist and board member of Strong Family Alliance. “You can save your child’s life by simply loving your child.”
The first thing kids need to hear from you is that you love them, because their first worry is that you won’t love them anymore.
“Kids are worrying about, ‘Will my parent be disappointed or be shocked?’” Clarke says.
It’s important for parents to reassure their child that they love them and this doesn’t change that.
“Many parents do not appreciate when a young person comes out to them that it’s an act of trust and love,” Duke says.
Parents should thank their kid for trusting them with this information, and they should also respect that this is their child’s information to share. An important question to ask is, “Who can I tell?”
Some kids aren’t ready to be fully out and parents have to respect that. Kids might not want you telling the other parent or their grandparents or the neighbor down the street. They also might not be ready to tell their friends or their friends’ parents.
“They should get to tell who they want, when they want,” Duke says.
The kids will land on how “out” they want to be, and you get to follow their lead.
Even if your kid doesn’t want you uttering a word, parents can still show support by standing up for the LGBTQ community if someone makes a homophobic comment. You can say something like, “I don’t think that’s funny.” You don’t have to say anything about your child. It’s just not acceptable language.
You can be a role model by surrounding yourselves with people of different backgrounds and sexualities.
You can create a safe haven for them to bring friends, not just those that are of a romantic interest. “It’s really, really great that they feel their home is a space place,” Duke says.
You can also connect them to their school’s gay, straight, lesbian alliance, or take them to an Out Youth event.
If you’re struggling with this information, Duke says, “Be compassionate to yourself.” Acknowledge your fears and concerns, and work through those.
Also know that while kids typically were coming out after starting college or older, they are now coming out at younger ages, such as 12, 13 or 14, Duke says. Be ready for it, even if you don’t think your child falls into this end of the spectrum.
Find more resources at strongfamilyalliance.org.