When you’re a dad, parenting questions often come up that you struggle to find an answer to. Since other parents are the worst and Google will send you down a rabbit hole of paralyzing, paranoid terror, we’re here to help by putting those questions to the experts. This is “Basic Dad,” an advice column for dads who feel stupid about asking for basic advice.
The Very Basic Concern
For a variety of reasons, I’ve suspected for a quite a while now that my oldest son might be gay. I’ve never really asked him about this and he’s never brought it up to me, so it’s remained this kind of unspoken thing over the last few years, and frankly, I’m not sure what I should do about it.
More than anything, I want my son to be happy, and I want him to know that his family will support him no matter his sexual orientation. I haven’t directly asked him about this for a few reasons. One is that I don’t want to embarrass him by putting him on the spot, and I don’t want to force him into a conversation that he may not even be ready to have with himself yet, much less to talk to others about. I also have heard that it’s best to let the kid decide this thing in their own time and that they’ll come to you when they’re ready.
If I have to wait for him to be ready, that’s fine with me, but when or if he finally does come out, how exactly should I react? I know that I don’t want to shame him or anything, but to be perfectly honest, I don’t know what the hell I’m going to say in this conversation and I don’t want to botch what I’m sure will be a difficult moment for my kid.
Basically: How should I react if my kid comes out to me?
The Expert Advice
Al Vernacchio, sexuality educator: When a young person decides to come out to you, you’ll want to think of the groundwork you’ve laid. How a young person comes out to you — or whether they do at all — will be heavily influenced by your past words, attitudes and actions regarding sexual orientation. You’ve already done things that will make it easier or harder for this moment to happen, and because of this groundwork, you’ll want to own your part in this, for good or ill.
It’s also important to remember that coming out is a process and not an event. Coming out opens the door for many more conversations about exactly what this means for the young person and for your relationship with them. It’s a beginning, not an ending, and because of that, you should be thankful. Consider it an honor that the young person has come out to you. Thank them for trusting you. Celebrate their figuring out something important about themselves and the strength it took to tell you. Be proud of them.
There are some things that you’ll want to be careful of as well. For one, don’t assume their experiences will be negative. Not every LGBTQ person is in for a lifetime of difficulty and strife (no more than a straight person is). Rather, you should focus on all the good things that can come from this moment, and not all of the things you’re worried about. Also, don’t say, “Are you sure?” This is dismissive of all the work a young person has done to ready themselves for this conversation. They’re sure enough to talk with you about it. This is a moment for encouragement, not doubt.
Finally, don’t think that they’ve changed or treat them like they’re someone different now. Coming out isn’t announcing something new, it’s acknowledging something that’s always been there and is now understood. It’s not a reinvention of self, it’s an affirmation of self.
Matt, who came out to his parents years apart from each other: The easy answer is to just be accepting.
For my story, in my freshman year of college, my sister found my journal and she told me that I had to tell my mother that I’m gay or else she was going to do it. Shortly thereafter, I received a text from my sister saying that she had told my mom. After that, I flipped out on my sister and when I finally did talk to my mom, she said that she had already known that I was gay, and fortunately, she was very accepting of me.
Because of my sister’s actions, I lost out on the experience of telling my mother, and I’d say to a parent of a gay child that it’s really important to understand that this is something the kid has to do on their own terms. Even if you suspect a child is gay, I probably wouldn’t directly ask them. Instead, I’d just make clear that you’re accepting of gay people in general, and hopefully you’ll set the stage for them to come to you later.
Thankfully, my mother understood this and didn’t tell my father I was gay for the next eight years until I was finally ready to tell him for myself. What finally changed things for me was when I started dating my boyfriend, who I am still with today. I had known that this relationship was one that was going to last, and I wanted my dad to be a part of that relationship, so I knew I had to tell him at that point. One day then I went home and decided to tell my dad. We were alone and sitting outside, and I just came out and said it.
Thankfully, he too was very accepting of me. He had said that he was never sure about my sexuality, and that people had asked him if I was gay, but he never said that I was or I wasn’t. He also asked questions like how long I’d known I was gay, and he asked questions about my boyfriend. We had a nice, one-on-one talk that was very open.
For me, when I finally told my father, it was this huge weight lifted off of my shoulders like something I’d never experienced before. So I’d say it’s important for a parent to understand that your kid telling you this is definitely them at their most vulnerable, and it’s them asking for your acceptance. You should also understand that, for them, it’s probably one of the biggest things that they’ll ever do in their life, and to appreciate that and acknowledge that to your child.
Most importantly, you should understand that your kid is telling you because they want you to be a part of their life and I’d acknowledge that and be grateful for it.
Lori Duron, mother of two and the blogger behind Raising My Rainbow: I had witnessed a horrible version of coming out when my brother came out to our parents. There was crying involved, and he was told that he would go to hell and that he’ll never be happy. Not to mention, he was told that he would get AIDS and that he’d die of AIDS. So, when I became a parent, I never wanted to assume the sexuality of my own children. For example, on Valentine’s Day, there’s always that one big special valentine in the box, and I’d always ask them if there was “anyone” they wanted to give the special valentine to; I would never say, “Is there a girl in class…” or anything like that. I always left it open.
Now I’m the mother of two boys, the oldest is 15 and he’s a cisgender boy and our youngest son, CJ, is 12. CJ came out as gay in the fifth grade, and he now self-identifies as gender non-conforming and a member of the LGBTQ community.
I’d say that if your child comes out to you, the number one problem I see is the parents making it all about themselves. My tip is that when someone comes to you and tells you their sexuality, it is absolutely not about you. You can certainly have a reaction, but in that moment when your child is coming out to you, it’s all about them and it’s about them knowing that you love and support them no matter what and no matter who they are with. This is a big deal because so many kids and young adults fear that when they come out to someone that that person will leave them or think differently about them or not love them as much.
That said, you are going to have moments in private where you to come to terms with all sorts of things. You’ll have to let go of expectations as this does shift your reality a bit. For me, when my brother came out, a part of me did wonder, “Was everything a lie up until now?” and no, it wasn’t. It was just that I didn’t know that about him. That’s it.
During this process, you’re going to have a lot of different emotions, sure, but these are not always to be conveyed to the person who came out to you. For example, a lot of people worry that because their child is gay that they’ll never have grandchildren, and people get so hung up on that. But, for one, they can absolutely still have grandchildren, and secondly, gay, straight or whatever, a lot of people don’t want to have children and they shouldn’t be forced to for the sake of their parents. Again, this issue of grandchildren is all about you, not about the person coming out, and that’s the most important thing you have to remember during all of this. No matter what you’re feeling or what expectations you had, don’t make it about you.
Cheryl Dumesnil, writer and LGBTQ activist who is raising two sons with her wife: For some advice on a gay parent who wants to come out to their child, I’d first say congratulations, you’re taking steps toward living a more authentic life and deepening your relationship with your children.
Now, preparing for this conversation looks different for everyone, but here are a few tips that may help. First, get comfortable with the topic. If you’re open, honest and confident in this conversation, your kids are more likely to follow your lead. However, if you’re visibly uncomfortable, they’ll absorb that, too. So think through what you want to say, and maybe even say it out loud a few times, until you feel at ease with your words.
I’d also consider your children’s ages. A three-year-old is going to process information differently than a 13-year-old, so you want to offer age-appropriate information with age-appropriate language. Also, keep it simple. Think of your initial conversation as the first of many. Offer the information you want your children to have and ask them if they have any questions, feedback or concerns. Again, their responses will vary, in part based on their age. A three-year-old might shrug and go back to finger-painting. A 13-year-old might want to ask if you’re dating someone or when you became aware of your identity.
You’ll also want to stay open. It may take a while for kids’ questions, ideas or concerns to bubble to the surface. So let them know that you’re available to listen whenever they want to talk. In a week or so, if they haven’t revisited the conversation, do a casual check-in. If they still don’t want to talk, that’s okay. Don’t push, just remind them that you’re available.
Many LGBTQ parents worry that their children will face adversity because of the parent’s sexual orientation or gender expression. Maybe they will, but remember, kids face criticism and harassment all the time — for having the “wrong” hair, the “wrong” clothes, the “wrong” body type, the “wrong” abilities, the “wrong” interests. Our job as parents isn’t to erase adversity but to help our children learn how to deal with it. On that note, studies have shown that an LGBTQ parent’s self-respect, honesty and pride have a more powerful influence on a child’s life than the homophobia that lurks in the world. We can help our children develop resilience against homophobia the same way we help them develop resilience against any other form of adversity: We teach them to love themselves, to trust in their families and to believe we best serve the world when we live from a place of self-acceptance, honesty and authenticity.