Miranda: There may be no harder life situation for a teen than to be gay and at the point of coming out to your family. The overturning of Proposition 8 in California shows how far society has come in accepting same-sex relationships, but many gay teens and young adults still struggle to find social acceptance. While being “normal” may be overrated in the long run, as teenagers it’s what we strive to achieve. Being openly gay throws an extra variable into that plan, as teens deal with accepting themselves, then trying to find acceptance among their parents and peers. It’s a difficult task.
We each have different relationships with our parents or guardians, so it’s hard to predict how any given parent will react to this news. Coming out is a delicate process, especially with parents who are uncomfortable with the idea.
I suggest you start out slow and ease them into it. Remember that this is big news for them, requiring a shift in how they view their child, and how they will continue to view him or her for the rest of their lives.
Parents are supposed to love their children unconditionally. Unfortunately, things aren’t always so idealistic. For a gay teen, the fight to be accepted for who you are is often a tough, uphill battle with parents. So try to give them time and patience to come around. Be ready to stand up for what they may view as your “decision” to be gay. The phrase “hope for the best, and expect the worst,” comes to mind.
There are many resources out there for help, and researching your local area support groups can be a huge aid as well. Being honest with your family is a huge step, and a hard one to take, but undoubtedly necessary and worth it in the long run.
Dr. Wes: In my 19 years of practice, we’ve come a long way as a society in understanding and accepting gay relationships. Polls indicate that for the majority of under-30s, being gay or straight is really a nonissue. For the rest of society, this trend is either wonderfully liberating or horrifically offensive. For reasons I cannot fathom, we’re sitting around in this country right now debating the wisdom of something as noncontroversial as birth control, so we can assume the issue of gay rights is far from settled in many people’s minds.
I agree with Miranda. The worst thing a parent can do in confronting a gay son or daughter is to condemn them for making a “bad lifestyle choice.” The real choice is whether to be open and honest about one’s orientation, not whether they experience it as real.
At the same time, there’s a growing movement among teens and young adults that leans away from labels of “gay” and “straight” and toward attraction to a given person, regardless of gender. I’ve increasingly met young people who are dating a same-sex peer but would not call themselves “gay.” They simply fell in love with that individual and do not feel encumbered by any one sexual expression.
It is my well-honed gut instinct that this is the shape of things to come, as this generation rises from young adulthood and takes control of the world. Whether you see this as a cause for hope and joy, or fear and loathing, these distinctions will become much less prominent in my lifetime.
So my best advice to parents on this topic sounds a great deal like my best advice on most topics: Try to remain calm. Your teen is learning who she is. She may act as though she’s sure, but she isn’t and the more you push against that exploration, the more she’s likely to galvanize her resistance and quit exploring.
The second worst thing you can say to someone coming out is that he is “just going through a phase,” so I do not mean to imply that teens and young adults are incapable of knowing their own minds. I’m simply speaking from experience. Many teens are quite certain of their sexual orientation at 14 and remain so throughout adulthood. Others struggle mightily to figure it all out. And many are quite certain at 16 and then quite certain again at 21, even though they’ve changed orientation 180 degrees.
Nothing in adolescence is so much a “phase” as it is a journey and one that comes without a clear map. Please try and remember this if your son or daughter asks to have this difficult conversation.
And did I mention, “try to remain calm”?