Editor’s note: This question was part of Samantha Schwartz’s application process to be this year’s Double Take student columnist.
Dear Dr. Wes and Samantha: I have a very difficult problem. I’m a 16-year-old girl, and my girlfriend is really my girlfriend. We’re together. But our parents don’t know this, and only a couple of our closest friends know and they would never tell anyone. Our parents think we’re just best friends and that we’re inseparable. We’ve thought about this and we really love each other and we’d like to be out to our families. Our families are both pretty cool about people being gay. But we know that if we tell them we won’t be able to be together like we are now. We won’t have any privacy, and it will be just like if we were dating boys. We can’t stay over at each other’s house and so on. We don’t know what to do. What would you advise?
Samantha: You and your girlfriend need to talk to your parents. Though you may enjoy the privacy you have right now, the longer you keep this a secret, the less respect you will get from your parents once you tell them. Coming out to your parents is a big step, but because they seem like open-minded people and you two seem ready, there is no time better than the present to take this step.
All teenagers, regardless of sexual preference, face the decision of how to handle the physical aspect of a relationship. They have to balance the guidelines given by their parents, the influence of their friends and their own personal views. Now you will too.
You seem to be in a pretty serious relationship. When people fall in love, they do not want to have to hide their feelings. You should not have to hide your attraction to your friend. However, you and your parents should talk about boundaries you both have as you make this change.
What are they comfortable with seeing? Can you hold hands in front of them? Can you give her a hug when she leaves? And yes, there is the privacy issue. How much are they willing to leave you alone?
Having a sleepover with someone you are physically attracted to may be considered inappropriate by your parents. This is normal parental behavior, and you will have to be respectful of that. However, you could ask, for example, that you would be allowed to watch a movie alone together downstairs while your parents are upstairs. This may be less intimate than you are used to, but if you want to build trust, you have to make some concessions.
If you and your girlfriend can both have this mature talk with your parents, you will strengthen your relationship because you will have jumped through this hurdle together.
Wes: Samantha is spot on. To pretend that your friend is only a friend is so deceptive that it cannot help but land you in hot water down the road. If you were concerned that your parents wouldn’t approve of your sexual identity, I’d better understand your reluctance to tell them. I could even support the decision not to come out if you weren’t taking advantage of their naïveté by keeping your secret. For example, if you drop the sleepovers, genuinely act as friends in the presence of your family and carry on your private romance elsewhere, I’d say you are within your rights to privacy. But once you start gaining privileges and access to your girlfriend under false pretenses, you’re acting unethically and creating a situation in which your parents are more likely to act against you down the road. You simply can’t gain their support for any relationship that way.
You describe each family as being cool with the idea of being gay — which makes your choice in this situation even less cool. While parents have limited practical influence in these matters, they do have a right to participate in your romantic life and to give you guidance and support. They also have a right to question your decisions and try and keep you within a certain reasonable and healthy guidelines. They can’t dictate your sexuality, but they can set limits on where, when and to some degree, how you practice it.
As Samantha notes, one of the most basic boundaries is what you’re allowed to do with romantic partners in the home. If you want your family to respect your sexuality, embrace your partner and support you at this critical time of life, you also have to respect, embrace and support their role and the limits they set. Obviously you can figure out ways around this just as many teenagers do. But I’ve been down that road with kids for 16 years. Very few look back with joy on an adolescence spent sneaking around. Some found it necessary because they had dysfunctional or abusive homes, but few are proud of it. Consider that you and your girlfriend have more options in your present situation.
Coming out can be complicated, frightening, exciting and rewarding all in one. If you think your family will be open to you, the next step is obvious. If you prefer to keep things private for now, you’ll have to come up with a more ethical approach than the one your using or face a lot of regrets and hard feelings down the road.
Next week: Is my friend’s anorexia related to depression?
— Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Samantha Schwartz is a senior at Lawrence High School. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.