As of this writing, 37 states and the District of Columbia have legalized gay marriage. So your kid comes out—what’s the big deal? It’s 2015, and the proverbial closet door is open wider than ever. But while things are more accepting than ever before for the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning or queer) community, generally estimated to be up to 10 percent of the population, some prejudice does, unfortunately, persist.
Parents often worry that being gay will make their child’s life harder. There is a higher percentage of depression, suicide, and self-harmful behaviors for youngsters who are coming out, says Ilene Rabinowitz, MD, a White Plains child and adolescent psychiatrist. And while people feel freer now to explore their sexuality, she says, “How can there not be a stigma when you are stepping into a group of people that, just by virtue of their sexual orientation, have to fight for their rights? It’s not easy.”
And yes, that stigma remains—including here in Westchester. “I’ve experienced incredibly liberal, open-minded people who fight for equal rights across the board,” says Judy Troilo, executive director of The LOFT, an LGBTQ community services center in White Plains. Yet, she says, “when their own child comes out, they surprise themselves.” Troilo urges parents to remember that “there’s nothing wrong with your child.” But there is a choice, she says, “for the child to deny who they are and not be happy or for the child to be happy.”
Your son or daughter sits you down for the big talk. Maybe you’ve had an inkling this day would come, or maybe you’re totally surprised. Either way, it’s a seminal moment in both your lives. “When kids first disclose,” says David Diamond, a New Rochelle High School administrator and advisor to its Gay-Straight Alliance, “the most important thing for parents to do is to listen and reassure them that they are loved and cared for.”
You can never go wrong with “I love you, and I support you,” suggests Santo Barbagiovanni, program director for Center Lane, an LGBTQ youth program of Westchester Jewish Community Services.
But do try to tread gently before you say much more, advises Rye Brook native Daniel Newmark, 22, who came out at the end of his senior year of high school. “If you have concerns about your child having a harder life, think for a while before talking about it with him,” he says. “If you are not supportive, it can be very harmful.” And no matter what you say, “listen,” advises Mel Siegel of Purchase, father of a 32-year-old transgender son. “Then listen some more. Be empathetic, and put your own needs aside at first,” he says. “Think how difficult it is for them.”
In addition, try to follow your child’s lead, recommends Rabinowitz. You might ask something like, “What do you want us to do with this information? How can we help you?” You’ll also want to calibrate your response to your child’s age. “Your job for younger kids is to protect them, so try to hold back any extreme emotions, like crying,” she says. “Whatever reservations you have should be kept behind closed doors and brought out as they need to be.” Try to encourage the youngster to come out to one adult at school. “If bullying or any other undesired event does happen,” explains Diamond, “you don’t want them to have to deal with disclosing at the same time.”
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Local organizations that support and promote the LGBTQ community
Provides counseling for people 13 to 21 years old who are coming out, with regular drop-in hours in Yonkers, White Plains, and Peekskill
Offers counseling and substance-abuse treatment specifically for LGBTQ individuals preteen and older
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GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network)
Gives support and training to students and their schools’ Gay-Straight Alliances
Provides educational offerings, advocacy initiatives, a dedicated help line (914-948-4922), and full social calendar
Lambda Peer Support Services, Inc.
Provides ongoing and short-term discussion groups and other programs
Mosaic of Westchester
Promotes the full integration of the LBGTQ community into Westchester Jewish life
PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays)
Pronounced “p-flag”; offers a support group for parents and other relatives on the second Monday of every month from 7:30 to 9:30 pm in White Plains
A full-day annual conference that draws 5,000+ attendees for educational workshops about LGBTQ youth
Westchester County LGBTQ Community Liaison
Connects LGBTQ citizens to county agencies and services
Parents of older children, says Rabinowitz, might say something like, “‘I’m happy you have come to a decision and that you felt comfortable coming to me. Of course I accept you. Unfortunately, you may not find that everywhere.’” The child will feel supported if a parent is on the level with him or her, she explains. “It’s as if you’re saying, ‘Okay, I got this; it’s a little bit of a hot potato, but I am here with you.’”
So what shouldn’t you say or do? “Try to avoid asking, ‘Are you sure?’ or saying, ‘This is just a phase,’” suggests Rabinowitz, as that implies that being gay is a medical condition. And, “never scold a child or be angry with them,” says Barbagiovanni. “This process can be very difficult for your child, so if you don’t have anything positive to say, don’t say anything.” But, Rabinowitz adds, “It’s perfectly okay to come back to your child after that first discussion and say something like, ‘I was thinking about what you told me, and here’s another thought.’ It’s the beginning of opening the dialogue.”
As the old flight-safety announcement recommends, “Put your oxygen mask on first before helping others,” because you won’t be able to help your child if you aren’t also attending to your own needs—and that starts with being kind to yourself. “Parents may be confused and disappointed and even grieving, so they have to find compassion for themselves first and foremost before they can hear or support their child,” says Lourdes Font, a retired social worker from New Rochelle whose daughter identifies as queer or “open to sexual identities” and is a lesbian. Self-care also means giving yourself time to adjust to your child’s news. “The young person has been dealing with this for however many years,” says Diamond. “So it’s unrealistic to expect the parents to go from zero to 60 and come up to speed as fast as their child might want them to.” You might think of coming to grips with this “new normal” as a process. “It takes time,” adds Font, “especially in the beginning when you might be in shock, overwhelmed, and think you’re supposed to ‘fix things’ for your child right away.”
You should not be afraid to embrace your own struggle, if you are struggling. “While you want your child to feel loved and accepted no matter what, it’s important at the same time to allow yourself to struggle,” says Linda Barat of Mount Vernon, mother of a 25-year-old gay son, who came out at 16. “If you are having doubts, reach out to someone who may help you understand the process better for support and guidance,” recommends Barbagiovanni of Center Lane. “Your child coming out can open up a whole new world—and a community of people who really care about each other,” adds Barat. “And that can be a blessing.” But before you confide in a friend, ask your child’s permission, suggests Diamond.
Educating yourself and reading whatever you can is an important part of the journey. “It’s difficult for someone to understand something they are not themselves,” says Troilo of The LOFT. As retired social worker Font explains, “You first have to understand it in your own mind intellectually before you can talk to your child intelligently.” Educating yourself allows you to educate others as well, and to advocate for your child and others. “I don’t go around announcing it, but, if it comes up in conversation, I acknowledge who my child is,” says Barat. “It’s important for the parent to come out as well,” she adds, “so that other people can feel comfortable asking you a question.”
Many parents are reassured when they realize that being gay is just one facet of their child. “The sexual orientation often becomes larger than life initially, and parents forget that their wonderful child has not disappeared,” says Font. “But your child’s sexual identity is only one piece of who they are and not the totality.” And while your child is the same as he was before he disclosed to you, you might have to alter your expectations. “Your child is still your child. But the movie you have in your head of him might have to shift,” says Ellen Falb-Newmark, Daniel Newmark’s mother. “They can still get married and have kids, but you might have to recast the movie with a future son-in-law rather than a daughter-in-law.”
Finally, be proud of your child. “You have to give every person who comes out credit,” says Falb-Newmark. “Look at the amazing courage that it takes for someone to feel so strongly that they are willing to go against the norm.” The LOFT’s Troilo adds, “There is nothing wrong if you have a child who is able to say ‘I am gay,’ or whatever. It means that you have raised a child who can think for and express themselves, and that’s something to proud of.”