Some parents feel shame at first after their children come out. I know I did. I wasn't ashamed of our son, but did feel ashamed that our family wasn't mainstream anymore. I felt "less than" other families and longed for our old standing within our community.
However, as other parents have learned, by integrating their child's sexual orientation into their own lives, the family can ultimately be proud. One example is Marilyn Cusack, thirty-nine.
After having three sons, Marilyn's mother prayed for a little girl. A Presbyterian Sunday School teacher originally from Ohio, her prayers were answered! What she didn't receive were the coping skills for raising a child who would later identify as a lesbian and make faces at the thought of wearing dresses--less Sara Crewe in A Little Princess than Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Marilyn knew she was different as far back as the third grade, when she had crushes on girls. However, she couldn't label that feeling until she was eighteen and realized she was a lesbian.
While in youth fellowship, she asked her leader why homosexuality was considered sinful. The teacher, who seemed uncomfortable with the question, couldn't answer Marilyn, but when Marilyn graduated from high school, the teacher gave her a book with biblical passages about homosexuality. Marilyn found the book depressing and shameful.
In high school, Marilyn dated boys, although her relationships were always platonic. At that point, she was not out, and because she was a jock, she was known as a tomboy. Another girl in her high school was suspected of being a lesbian, and rumors focused on that girl--not Marilyn, who was relieved although she felt a tinge of guilt for not sharing the brunt of the homophobic slurs.
Marilyn presented as a trim, attractive blonde, neither a "femme" nor a so-called lipstick lesbian, nor "butch" (masculine, usually with short hair and no makeup). Her looks often deceive potential mates, as they initially think she's either heterosexual or bisexual, and sometimes she becomes, regrettably, "the experiment."
She attended a community college in Florida, but after a semester decided to go into the military, as her parents had done. Now, living on her own, she knew that the different feeling she had had all along could be labeled: She was a lesbian. As an army private, she was happy, but she also feared for her safety because she might be found out. Her then-girlfriend was about to enlist. After ten months, she decided to leave, as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was in effect, and Marilyn knew that she and her girlfriend couldn't keep their love a secret. She went home.
Marilyn thought she was doomed. Her mother was sympathetic about Marilyn leaving the army, until she found out the real reason for Marilyn's withdrawal. Her daughter's "friend" was more than a friend! Marilyn had to come clean.
Like many straight parents, Marilyn's mother went into denial mode: "It's just a phase. You'll date again; you haven't found the right guy!" Marilyn, like her mother, wished it was a phase and that her orientation would go away.
But she knew it wouldn't. "I had imagined my life with a man," Marilyn confided. "I felt horrible being the only girl in the family and being a lesbian. I see friends happily married with children, and I'm upset sometimes that I don't have the same things."
Despondent, one night Marilyn contemplated suicide, but her thoughts were interrupted by a phone call. She took it as an omen not to self-destruct.
Marilyn moved out of her family's house in 1998. Today, she has a successful power-washing business and a girlfriend. "I feel much better being out and not lying to people. My sexuality does not define me."
It took Marilyn's mother a while to accept Marilyn's orientation, but she came around. "My mother made it very clear that she loved me no matter what. That's what I needed to hear." According to Marilyn, "Communication is key between parent and child. You have to sit down and talk, answer the hard and uncomfortable questions, and parents have to ask them as well."
Children who throw their coming-out in their family's face and present it as a one-sided conflict often experience difficulties. Parents and siblings need the time to digest the situation. "The gay or lesbian child did not ask for this and has most likely gone through a hell of emotions to sort it all out. It's no one's fault, it's the way we are made. Parents have to realize this," Marilyn advises. However, it can take time to digest new information, and a child introducing her sexuality to family and friends can expect the best results if she approaches the topic as respectfully as possible.
Here are some examples of questions or conversation starters you can use with your child to demonstrate that you are interested in this aspect of his life and are not ashamed of having a gay child.
"How do you feel about being gay?"
The best way for you to help your child work through her own shame is by making it clear that you yourself are not ashamed. I have found that shame tends to be contagious. There are ways in which you may be perpetuating your child's shame without even realizing it. Your children--both gay and straight--need to know that you are unambiguously on their side and willing to protect them.
"Who have you told so far that you are gay, and how have they reacted?"
It is rather likely that you are not the first person in whom your child confided about his sexuality, so you should make an effort to get brought up to speed. Your child will feel understood and supported if you convey your understanding of this difficult process and will appreciate your support as a parent.
"How has being gay affected your life, and has it changed your vision of your future?"
I spoke in previous chapters about not making assumptions regarding how your child's life will unfold simply because she is gay. A neutral, nonjudgmental way to initiate this conversation is to say something such as, "It's so great that, in this day and age, gay people can have all of the things in their lives that straight people can have, like legal marriage and families of their own. Have you given any thought to what you want for yourself? We will support you in any way we can to help you accomplish whatever your heart desires."
"Who haven't you told yet, and what is your plan?"
Your child may want to discuss strategies for coming out to other friends and family members. It can be particularly hard to share the news with older family members from a different era. You may say something like, "Have you thought about telling Grandma? If you'd like me to help you figure out how to do that or to be there when you tell her, just let me know. I would love to help make that easier."
Excerpted from When Your Child Is Gay: What You Need to Know by Wesley C. Davidson and Jonathan L. Tobkes, MD, Sterling Publishing. Out June 7.