Perspectives on the topic of “Coming Out” – the parent, the teen and the professional.
Parent Story by Colleen Toohey Porter
My son, William, is a 23-year-old college graduate living and working in Toronto, Canada. He has extremely close and wonderful relationships with his dad, his brother, sister and me. He is a true and loyal friend to many, many people. He is a writer, capoeira performer and sings in a band. He speaks a little German and Swahili. He loves to travel, eat spicy food and drink beer. And, he’s gay.
William’s sexuality, or that of his brother and sister, was not something my husband and I focused on. It just didn’t matter to us. But it did to him. When he was going into seventh grade, we moved from our home in western New York to Cleveland. Along with the normal, expected challenges kids have with a move, he seemed to really be struggling. We started to notice that our once sweet, funny, engaged boy was becoming sullen and withdrawn. He racked up hundreds of minutes on our phone plan calling his best friend back home. He moped around the house and seemed utterly miserable. We couldn’t stand it.
One evening, William, his dad and I were in the kitchen and we began talking, rather awkwardly at first, probing him about his sad state of being. “Is it that you miss home?” “Is something up at school?” Nothing. Then I said, “Is it because you’re gay?” Wow, there it was. Finally, we said it out loud. He was kind of stunned for a minute and then said, “Yeah. I am gay.” The simple act of being able to say it to us brought him great relief. We hadn’t realized that the formality of telling us had been troubling him so deeply. He was worried about us and how we would handle the “news”.
Honestly, it wasn’t really news. Some people say that a mother knows when their child is gay. In our family, we all knew and even joked about it from the time he was a little guy. It never really mattered. But we hadn’t given him the chance to voice it.
Soon after we talked, we could see and feel the change in him. He had the freedom to be exactly who he was, and being gay was a part of it. High school was tough, so he chose a post-secondary education option year at CSU, applied to the University of Toronto (a very gay-friendly town) and went off to school. He’s been dating a wonderful guy for over a year, which he says is like ten years in gay!
One of the biggest worries you have as a parent is how to protect your child from the sticks and stones and names that will hurt them. You won’t always be able to intervene when others treat your kid badly. And in all of this, that was our biggest concern, how cruel and insensitive others would be to him because of who he is. In the end, all we could do was let him know our love for him, exactly as he is. Sometimes it’s just that easy.
Parent Story by Jim Buccini
One afternoon, my wife called and said, “The school called, and they’re worried about Jimmy, and he needs to talk to us.”
I couldn’t understand. Why would the school be worried about Jimmy? He’s an A student, popular and respected by his teachers. It was a 45-minute ride, and I was worried that something had happened to my son. It was the longest ride I ever took.
When I got to the school, I went to the room where the guidance counselor and youth minister were waiting with Jimmy. My wife and I sat there, stunned, and asked Jimmy, “What’s the matter?” I never saw Jimmy like this; he was upset and in deep pain.
After a few minutes, his guidance counselor encouraged Jimmy to talk to us. He sat there for another few minutes, and the words were not coming out, only some tears and anguish on his face.
Finally he blurted, “I’m gay.”
With that said, a ton of bricks fell on me. My wife reached out to him to let him know that it was okay and that we loved him. I looked at him with tears in my eyes and said, “There are only two things you need to know: one, you are my son, and two, I love you.”
Jimmy hugged us, and he looked so relieved that we were supportive. He indicated that he was the same Jimmy.
It was comforting to see that Jimmy was happy in our support, but I was hurting inside. The hurt wasn’t because he was gay; I was worried about the world. How would people treat him? I couldn’t be there everyday to protect him. What would my friends and family say?
For the next several weeks, I was confused and preoccupied with Jimmy being gay. Nothing changed between Jimmy and me; our relationship was strong. He was out, and I was worried. One thought kept me focused: He’s my son and I love him.
Eventually, I did tell family and friends and was relieved by their reaction. Everyone accepted Jimmy. They told me they knew Jimmy and that his being gay didn’t matter. They loved Jimmy. Our daughter, Michela, who is three years younger than Jimmy, has been very supportive and an ally to the Gay-Straight Alliance throughout her college years and her career.
Jimmy has been out for over 10 years, now. My wife and I are extremely proud of him. He earned his Masters in Social Work from Syracuse University and worked for a year at a counseling agency. He is now enrolled at Divinity School at Yale University and resides in Connecticut with his partner.
I hope someday that there is equality for everyone and that sexual orientation won’t matter. I hope someday that people won’t have to “come out.” I hope someday that everyone will be accepted for who they are.
Parent Story, Anonymous
Our son attended a liberal arts college in Ohio. Recently, Michael told us that he was gay. He told my wife before Christmas when he was home on break. He waited to tell me when we were driving back to school a month later. Fortunately, he was driving.
I don’t remember my first words but I think his announcement that he had a boyfriend was met by at least a period of silence. We talked a little about his boyfriend but the conversation soon turned to religion. We are Catholic. Michael has three siblings who married in the Catholic Church and have given us grandchildren. We expected Michael to meet a nice girl, fall in love, marry and have children. All our hopes, dreams, and expectations for Michael changed in an instant.
I know I talked to Michael on the remainder of the drive about God, religion, what problems I thought he would face in his life, bigotry, etc. What I was thinking was, “Why is this happening to us?” That night, Michael went out with friends and my wife and I were finally able to talk. We were both worried about his future on a moral and a practical level. We wondered if it was our fault that Michael was gay. We didn’t talk a lot about it with Michael before we returned home.
We did a lot of research. We found that a person is not gay as a result of their environment nor is it a choice. People are born homosexual (or heterosexual for that matter). This helped us. We also found that the Church states that it is not a sin to be gay but that the Church believes homosexuals are disordered. This did not help us. Our son is not disordered. He is a loving, kind, young man who has had many successes in his life and is well liked and respected by both young people and adults.
My wife read an article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer about an organization named PFLAG Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. We called the president and after a long discussion, we decided to attend one of the meetings. This was one of the best decisions we have made.
PFLAG has helped us tremendously. We have met parents who have traveled the same road that we are on now. They have shown us that it is a process. We have met gay couples who are in loving relationships and are very happy. We have also met young people who have come out to their parents and have not been accepted. We try to be supportive of them and their parents in the same way others helped us.
My wife and I have told some members of our family and some of our friends that Michael is gay, however, Michael has not told his siblings yet. We believe this is part of Michael’s journey. He has told some friends and everyone at his college knows he is gay. The people we have told accept Michael for who he is. He is still Michael. Being gay does not change that.
We have met Michael’s boyfriend several times and he has stayed at our home on occasion. We are lucky that Michael has a boyfriend. We have seen at PFLAG meetings how gay couples can be happy and loving in long-term relationships. We have also seen that many things need to change. Gays deserve the same protections and rights that heterosexuals have. We hope that Michael will obtain all these rights during this lifetime and that he will always be accepted for who he is.
Teen Story by Dana Buzzelli
I came out at 16, shortly after I discovered I was gay. To me, coming out was all about being true to myself. I totally rejected the idea that I should hide how I felt, as if it was wrong or horrible. I also wasn’t comfortable with lying about who I was or who I loved. However, my strong feelings on the subject didn’t exactly prepare me for how difficult stepping out of “the closet” into the big, bright world would be or how deeply it would affect me and those around me.
I came out to three distinct groups: my friends, my school and lastly, my family. I told my friends individually, and their responses varied from confused to unsurprised. Regardless of their initial reaction, all my friends eventually accepted me. They all became completely comfortable with it; in their eyes it was just part of who I was. My honesty really strengthened our friendships, and their support became an invaluable resource for me for years to come.
Coming out to my friends was one thing; coming out to the rest of my high school was another. My girlfriend and I decided that while we wouldn’t shout from the rooftops, we also wouldn’t hide that we were dating. My high school is rather conservative, and being the first openly gay couple wasn’t very easy. My girlfriend and I faced discrimination and harassment from both students and faculty. We got detentions for hugging and homophobic comments hissed at us behind our backs. I remember the helpless anger I felt when I realized that my school wasn’t going to do much to help us. The frustrating thing was that we weren’t trying to make a splash or a sensation; we just wanted to be treated like any other people and any other couple. Fortunately, after a few months, things started getting better, and slowly, people became more tolerant.
Once I had come out to my friends and my school, I started feeling more and more uncomfortable that I had not yet told my family. The main thing holding me back was fear of my parents’ reaction. They were open and accepting people, but I still doubted they’d be thrilled that I wasn’t “normal.” I prepared many different speeches in my head and was waiting for the right opportunity. Unfortunately, my school administration eliminated that opportunity by informing my mother after a parent wrote a letter to the school, complaining that her child had to be “exposed” to my girlfriend and me. When I got home that day, my mom met me at the door, looking concerned. I braced myself, but she sat me down and told me she loved me no matter what and that while she wasn’t happy with the way she had to find out, she wanted me to know she would support me. I was overwhelmed by my mom’s reaction, and it brought us closer than ever.
While coming out at such a young age was difficult, I have no regrets. I can be myself, knowing that the people I love support and accept me. I also became closer with my family, especially with my mom. The most gratifying aspect, however, was seeing the positive impact on others. During high school, many students, some of whom I had never before met, thanked me for giving them the courage to come out and showing them that it was possible to persevere.
Now that I’m out of high school and looking back, I’m glad I came out when I did. It helped me see the world a little differently and made my skin a little thicker. And, I can only hope that it has helped my friends, family, school and community become a little more tolerant and aware.
Teen Story by Elizabeth Perts
When I was 14 years old, I came out to my family and friends. My decision came from a desire not to hide part of my life, and an awareness that if I didn’t do it soon, I never would.
At the time, I was writing a report for school, with gay adoption as the subject. After my brother stated his position against it on our ride home from the library, I decided to talk with my mom. She told me that she would love me, even if I was gay. I had to try my hardest not to cry, and I forced myself to bite my tongue until I could think more about that statement.
I kept to myself for the rest of the day. When everyone else was asleep, I snuck downstairs and typed an email to my mom, telling her that I was gay and that I hoped she meant what she had said earlier. It was the scariest thing I had ever done, and I lay awake all night wondering if there was any way I could take it back.
My mom took three days to talk to me about it. The conversation was awful and did not go the way I had hoped. She told me that she loved me no matter what, but that it was probably just a phase and not to tell my friends or anyone in our religious organization. I spent the entire conversation trying my best not to cry. When my dad came home, all he did was walk into my room and ask if it was a choice or not. I said no, it wasn’t, and he nodded, said he loved me and left me alone.
For several weeks, my mom acted like I would grow out of it. I felt worse than I had before, knowing my sexual orientation was now out there and not knowing what to do.
When I told my dad that I would be coming out to my religious organization with or without their support, he took care of it for me. He called the organization leader and talked to her about it. She set up a meeting with me.
I was told that I could not remain in the organization if I was gay. If I wanted to stay in the assembly, I would have to hide my sexuality and never talk about it, or I would be forced to leave. For a 14-year-old girl, this was extremely hard to handle. For the next two years, after I got home from events, I hated myself for following their rules. I felt like they were making me ashamed of myself, and I had almost no confidence.
When I was 15, my dad and I convinced my mom to go to a PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) meeting with us. When I was 16, I finally worked up the courage to come out to my friends in the organization, but it took me until I was 18 to actually discuss how difficult it was for me and for people to realize that I was still me, even if I was in a relationship with a girl.
Teen Story, Anonymous
My first mistake was coming out to my mother. Now, this is a woman who doesn’t handle change well and thinks being open-minded is eating baked chicken instead of fried. I first came out to her when I was 12. Through her overly-dramatic tears, she basically told me that she didn’t believe me. So I came out at 13… and again at 14. This time, she FINALLY removed the veil of doubt that she’d been married to and listened to me. We argued for about a month, and then she kicked me out.
Taking care of myself at 14 was probably one of the hardest things I had to do…that and pass physical science. I left her house and went whereever bouncy balls go when they get lost; to a friend’s, a cousin’s, another friend’s, a boyfriend’s, and foster care. Now I’m back with my mom. All in all, taking care of myself made me much stronger, which, now in hindsight, is a good thing.
I also came out to my best, straight male friend, of whom I had absolutely no physical attraction to, whatsoever. He looked me in my eyes, in front the apartment building he lived in, both of our twelve-year-old brains at full attention and said, “You still my boy. I don’t care.” So, we walked to the playground and talked about Tekken 3. I’m sure he was more interested in my fighting skills with Nina and Xiayou than the boys I liked.
There’s no surefire way of knowing who will feel what when you come out or what they will do with those feelings. But I do know this; it will be the best load off of your back. I definitely felt better afterward.
Professional Perspective by Dr. Jes Sellers
Patience and a willingness to understand are essential if people are to change the way they think, feel and relate to gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender family members.
She sat in silence, staring at the floor in a circle of parents and family members eager to listen and help. She was frightened. Her best friend the only one with whom she had shared her secret sat next to her. The secret? Her daughter is gay. Fortunately, her friend knew that such a secret brings isolation and despair, so she turned for help from Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), a national non-profit organization that helps struggling individuals and families find support and the path to acceptance and love. It was there that she sat, in the same room with her peers, to talk about her child’s sexual or gender identity. Just being there seemed an affront to this mom’s long-held beliefs that homosexuality was wrong unacceptable and abhorrent. When her turn came to speak, she did not look up and did not utter a sound, but tears welled up in her eyes. This was sufficient for all in the room to know that she was beginning her journey where most parents do: with tears.
It is not easy for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender teens to come out either; their journey often begins with tears, too. The adolescent pressure to fit in collides with the need to be honest with friends and family. They struggle to accept themselves, they worry who might find out and they are often bullied or ostracized by clubs and groups in school, just as Lizz experienced from her religious organization. Sadly, LGBT youth are at greater risk to commit suicide than their straight peers. In a 2008 study from a Midwestern city, researchers found that LGBT youth experienced a higher frequency of teasing, depression and thoughts of suicide; they were vulnerable to drug use. The study also found that a positive school climate and parental support helped protect them from depression and alcohol use.
The following quote illuminates the paradoxical process for the straight parent and the gay child: “When a child comes out of the closet, the parents go in.” Indeed, this mom was afraid of “coming out” to a PFLAG support group in much the same way that these young people are afraid to “come out” to friends and parents. Upon learning the news, most parents begin their journey toward acceptance by going through the stages of loss fashioned from the writings of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross: Denial, Anger, Bargaining and Depression. Finally, they arrive at Acceptance. LGBT teens go through similar stages.
But based upon experience, I would add another stage: Enrichment and Gratitude. In the end, some parents and gay teenagers, no matter where their journey began, can assert that their lives have been enriched and that they are grateful for having a gay child or for being gay. It may be difficult for some to achieve, but moving beyond acceptance to enrichment and gratitude is indeed a lovely destination.
Jes Sellers, Ph.D is a psychologist and Director of Counseling at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and co-founder of PFLAG-Cleveland, www.pflagcleveland.org