Dear Fellow Blindsided Parent,
You now have a secret that is burning a hole in your heart — your child is gay. I’m writing to you because you’re on an unexpected journey with very few road maps. And likely you are as anxious to keep the secret (so you can still blend in), as you are to share it (so you won’t feel alone).
Knowing how alone you feel, I’m going to share 9 things I learned from my journey on being a parent of an LGBTQ young adult. The hardest thing I learned was that (spoiler alert): it’s not about me. Yup, still learning that one, plus (at least) these 8 other lessons, which turn out to be meaningful in parenting all my kids. Since this letter is written to you, another parent on that journey, and it focuses on your experience rather than your child’s, don’t let that confuse the main message! It’s not about you.
What is the journey about? It’s about learning and listening to your child’s experience, holding them close and saying, “Let’s go together and see what this means.” And if you’ll grant me a spiritual ear, it’s about God saying the same to you, since you are God’s child, created in God’s image, and loved dearly. Just like your child.
When my daughter came out, it kicked off an unprecedented time of emotions, questions, and feeling alone. I did not see it coming, and I didn’t know when (or if) we would ever share it with others. My worldview ‘encyclopedia’ didn’t yet have an entry for gay Christian, and I soon found myself wondering if she would choose her identity over her faith, or if I would have to choose between my child and my church.
It was a full two years before I discovered a short book by Susan Cottrell that addressed all this. In some cases it was word for word what I had felt, asked, and written — it made me wonder if Cottrell had somehow accessed my journal. I keep extra copies of this book called, straightforwardly enough, “Mom, I’m Gay,” to give to other parents who contact me on the backchannel of that confidential red phone. Despite how highly I recommend the book, before giving it away, I cover it with one of those junior high paper book covers, because it’s usually read in secret. I have wanted to tuck a personal letter inside that summarizes my experience of living out its contents.
This is that letter, along with favorite quotes from Cottrell’s book. Please go buy it. And then tuck this letter inside:
1. Put relationship first: “Let’s go together and figure out what this means”
First, make a clear decision to stay in relationship with your child. This wording seems harsh, but it really needs to be the cornerstone going forward. We’ve heard and read too many stories where kids get kicked out of the house, silenced, or shamed, as if a parent can “tough love” it away. This kind of initial reaction might feel to the parent like a form of love, but it’s likely more about the parent’s unwillingness to enter in.
The coming out call can feel like a semi-truck whose sides are painted with “Mom/Dad: I’m Gay” barreling down the highway toward you. Your first thoughts may be to run out on the road hands waving, to stop it or force it off the exit before it reaches your comfortable spot in the world. Or if it can’t be stopped, can we at least cover up the painted sides of the truck for awhile?
The problem is, they have been covering up the sides for quite some time. They are finally ready to trust you with it, and if you force the truck off the road, your child will go with that truck. You don’t have to understand it all! It doesn’t have to make sense to you yet, you don’t have to figure out how to tell Grandpa on the first day, and you don’t need to articulate to them what a Christian radio preacher told you about this.
What’s needed most is to know that you will be together as you figure all that out. Hold them close. Tell them the same thing you did when you used to tucked them into bed every night: I love you. If the first response wasn’t ideal, make the second one better.
Repeat after me: Let’s go together and figure out what this means.
2. Focus on what you can control
This is not like the non-negotiables of the toddler years (“You can’t hit your brother”), where parents make the decisions and don’t budge. It’s hard for most of us parents to grow with our kids into the more negotiable teen years, figuring out which decisions are ours to make, and which are theirs? You may still enforce what time they come in at night, but you simply cannot decide who they are attracted to. It’s not in your control. Treating their sexual orientation as your non-negotiable decision will not go well. You didn’t cause this, and you can’t stop it.
You’re not likely to talk your child out of being gay, but it is possible to talk them out of confiding in you.
For awhile my wife and I each wondered if (hoped?) other factors might come into her life to change her orientation. Even though she was already 18 and away at college. Maybe she just hadn’t met the right boy yet. Maybe she had been influenced by movies or friends. Maybe she had been hurt by a boy and saw this as another way. But none of that made sense — she had never really dated, and had some very close, quality guy friends. Plus, we had done our evangelical best to protect her childhood. (looking back, going without LGBTQ role models only served to increase shame and isolate her more).
It turns out she had also hoped for a change in orientation. Being straight would be so much easier. Perhaps your child is just beginning to accept that it won’t change, as they finally begin to tell people — and at that very point, parents are tempted to start the battle anew. A lot of harm has been done with so-called change-therapy — kids walking away thinking they are failures or not praying hard enough or just don’t have enough faith.¹ This sets the focus in the wrong area. This too gave a spiritual insight into a broken part of me: I so wanted the world to be a certain way that I wasn’t good at seeing what is.
I wasn’t alone in that. We felt a certain ambivalence as parents, when someone would say they were praying for us in a way that we translated as, we’re praying she won’t actually be gay. This kind of message was meant to be encouraging, but we weren’t able to take it that way. Besides being unlikely and unnecessary, hoping for change didn’t help our relationship with her or with God.
3. Your child is not your counselor
Find others to process with, besides your child. You have a lot of questions and concerns. Maybe your child will be open to discussing their own personal journey — and you should hear all you can from them. But your child is not your counselor, and it’s not fair to work out all your doubts with them. Find a few good friends (and possibly a therapist) to talk it out with. Read books, hear podcasts, and find other parents of LGBTQ (look for a PFLAG in your town). You might even make some new friends (gasp) — finding someone else in your shoes it can be such a relief. We were also fortunate to find many friends within our non-affirming church to walk with us on the journey. But not all friends are ready to, and I was surprised by the energy it took to figure out who was who.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t discuss with your kids, just realize there is so much at stake for them in this topic. Especially in your views on this topic. This is another opportunity to grow into that healthy separation as they become adults; realize you can no longer control their thoughts (never could). Even if you don’t agree with each other, you can still love each other.
The way you’ve viewed sexual orientation over the decades may now find itself up for reexamination. That process can be like throwing half-cooked pasta against the fridge to see if it is ready to stick. Don’t throw your mental fusilli against your kid. They have their own journey to figure out, and you have yours. Focus on loving and supporting them, and work out opinions and beliefs on your own time.
4. It’s not about you!
Sadly, among a parent’s first reaction to the news is, “What will others think?”. Maybe we say, “How could you do this to us?” or “Did I cause this?”, but in the end it all comes back to me, me, me. If I don’t get past myself, I can hardly be in the inner circle of support for my kids — on any subject. We parents roll our eyes about the typical teenager’s self-centeredness and peer pressures, when we’ve rarely grown out of it ourselves.
I certainly was full of self-centered questions when our daughter came out — did I cause this? is she just confused? Is it a phase? What about that sixth-grade boyfriend? I no longer wrestle with these questions as I’ve come to accept that all of this was happening without my influence or understanding and in fact, it isn’t about me at all. (Aren’t we all constantly learning that lesson in every area of life). I’ve come to see her orientation as one more quality among the dozens my daughter has. Thankfully, perseverance and authenticity are also her virtues; she needed both to make peace with this expectation-breaking part of herself.
But while my brain was drawn to what the neighbors or church would say, Cottrell advises me to set it aside: “Your child has taken a big step to talk to you. They were hoping you would listen and respond to them about their life. They did not anticipate the need to please your friends, your extended family, your pastor, and all the busybodies you know. Don’t let this undue burden fall on your child.” (p.9)
5. Bear one another’s burdens
The burden carried by LGBTQ people is quite extraordinary — far beyond understanding and accepting themselves — they also must search for others who will. Each person and place they attend to raises the question, “Will you accept or reject me, once you know?” School-age peer pressure is one thing, but the anxiety from this question threatens the foundational relationships of parents, siblings, church mentors, and adult family friends.
We’ve all heard about worst case burdens — homelessness, suicide rates, and it shocks us.² We all want health for our kids. I had seen trouble building in my daughter’s life, which I now know as the anxiety and depression that comes from burying secrets. Those were difficult, worrisome months when my spiritual laziness actually turned into prayer for her.
In the months after our daughter came out, through conversations and counseling and what I would call unburdening, her countenance changed. At holiday gatherings, extended family members gushed about how much happier she looked, you can see it in her eyes, they said. Sometimes we can help our kids’ health most by getting our issues out of the way. If there is anxiety — and surely there is in telling their parents — can we as parents leave ourselves out of it for awhile? An ER doctor first and foremost treats the patient, withholding judgment of the circumstances around their arrival.
6. Be ready for external change
They’ve weighed the risks of telling us, because our response matters. If you are just getting started on this journey, focus on that response. But as you progress, this section may become more relevant:
After acknowledging the incredible struggle that brought our child to this point, are we willing to walk forward with them, even into our world? Cottrell gives the example of a teenager who comes home unexpectedly pregnant. Do we protect, comfort, and care for this young girl, or do we say, “You brought this on yourself — you take care of it.” Hopefully choosing the former response, we share and bear the burden of our loved ones. There is no need to go on about the rights or wrongs of the situation; it’s “OK we’re here now, where shall we together go from here?”
Cottrell points out (and I have seen) how especially tough this is for kids raised in “wonderful, grace-based churches [where they have] not seen one out gay person, nor one family standing in support of their gay loved one.” There can be inner dissonance as they have heard projections of what those “other” people are like, and think, I’m not like that at all. It’s here again that parents can bear the burdens of their children, knowing full well many LGBTQ kids must face all this without the warmth and support of their extended church families.
Once you’ve heard how much your own child has struggled to hide over the years, it melts you. The thought of someone, especially a young person, hoping to take a secret to their grave draws out parental compassion. Especially when it quickens their desire for the grave. These thoughts of parental regret for not being a safer place, have a way of breaking through the denial. Seeing her anxiety pile on top of depression on top of shame moves you to uncover that semi-truck and let it drive through town. You might even be willing to be seen in her passenger seat. Or walk into a crowded high school gym with her wearing a “Make America Gay Again” hat (just a random example, I assure you).
And soon you look up and realize it’s not just your daughter, but a whole world of kids who’ve lived that secret. The earlier perception of LGBTQ people as “others” is no longer true for your family — now we are them. This potential identity shift is powerful in moving us to change. My wife and I have followed this push to reach out to others who have held ‘the secret’, volunteering and simply listening to the others who no longer deserve that label. Cottrell’s book says you may find yourself becoming simultaneously more compassionate to others and as fiercely protective as a mama bear.
It now seems weird to have formed opinions about the LGBTQ community based on various straight person’s descriptions of it. If I was wrong about that, we wonder, what else have I been wrong about? On the heels of embarrassment for not getting it before, came something I can only describe with the biblical word repentance.
7. Be ready for internal change
Be ready for your heart to change. Don’t let this worry you — change is always happening in life, it’s just that we aren’t always willing to accept it. If you’re a person of faith, ask God for insight. In fact, you could be on the verge of the spiritual growth that you’ve long prayed for, from a completely unexpected school. This news – the news you are facing today – has been the greatest catalyst of my adult life for making my faith my own (our very wish for our children).
Another benefit of this change for me was the gift of losing other people’s expectations. No longer could we masquerade as the ‘perfect family’ (of course we still are — but not in the eyes of some). (See Who You Are for my idea of the perfect family). Like a rich man who learns to live without money, the burden of keeping everyone’s expectations was unexpectedly wonderful to live without. Since views of sexual orientation can be so divisive, it felt like someone had redrawn the boundaries through all the communities in our lives. This redistricting felt lonely, but eventually freeing, as I learned to separate my identity from our close community. Seeing how much I previously relied on group-think, I am becoming a person with my own thoughts, faith, and direction, and who knows, I may finally be starting to feel like the adult I pray my kids will become.
8. You don’t have to figure it out
My main job as a parent is to love my child. My main job as a Christian is to love God and love others as myself (at least this is how Jesus summarized it). How has it become so complicated? For awhile I certainly felt that I needed to research, read, and claw my way to “an answer” for the questions I would surely be asked about how a biblical reading (or evangelical worldview) could jive with anything outside of ‘one man and one woman’. And that researching would come, eventually.
But in the meantime, what should I say to the scared voice on the other end of the phone? Was she actually awaiting my answer? Not at all! She was well aware of the church’s views, having wrestled with them secretly for many years. Her greatest need at that time — for parental love, protection, listening, and empathy — was something I could provide, if I was willing to set some things aside. At times I had to fight my brain on this, and when I couldn’t “set it aside,” I could still compartmentalize: researching on my own, discussing with others, but not burdening my kid with what I had to work out.
Setting aside my beliefs was unfamiliar for me, yet it helped me discover a deeper belief buried underneath: Relationship First. All those ‘intellectual’ beliefs were supposed to be in support of Loving God and neighbor, but somehow the pyramid had slowly turned itself upside down. Looking back, I’m grateful this ‘crisis’ helped me to turn things right-side up again. Cottrell: “I encourage you to set aside what you already know (or think you know) on the moral and cultural issues surrounding same-sex relationships and ask God to show you afresh what is in store for you…Whether you end up supporting [one view or another], something bigger and more foundational is at stake here: How are you called to respond to your beloved son or daughter?”
9. You’re going to be OK
Almost 5 years ago I was in some version of your shoes. I’m still breathing. I still hold close my friends, faith, and family. Each of those went through a challenging restructuring that I did not anticipate. I’m thankful now for this journey, but I questioned God along the way many times; the book of Psalms tells me I’m not alone in that.
My daughter has walked her own journey; I have walked my own journey, and those are two separate things. Neither of us chose the circumstances; both of us had the choice on how to handle it. Well, sort of. For difficult and obvious reasons, kids who find themselves attracted to the same gender must deal with it. Parents may be the only one who can choose to enter in or not. I pray you will enter in. Many have chosen the “la-la-la- I can’t hear you” approach, which robs them not only of relationship but also their own growth. I pray you won’t be one of them, because the rewards are rich and the relationship is worth it.
My long-favorite parenting book is Eugene Peterson’s Like Dew Your Youth. His main point is that the adventure teenagers crave is a gift to the comfort that coddles parents in mid-life. And vice-versa. Each group needs what the other offers, at this particular moment in their lives. This has proven itself over and again in the process of our daughter coming out, but as I re-read all that I’ve learned above, which of it doesn’t apply to any parenting issue? To see if you agree, read over this recap of what I’ve learned:
1. Put relationship first: “Let’s go together and figure out what this means.”
2. Focus on what you can control.
3. Your child is not your counselor.
4. It’s not about you.
5. Bear one another’s burdens.
6. Be ready for external change.
7. Be ready for internal change.
8. You don’t have to figure it out.
9. You’re going to be OK.
I am thankful to have been pushed out of myself — and the expectations of others — along this journey. I wish you the courage to step into the journey ahead, and the continued joy of relationship with your child. They are the same child you’ve always known, and now you know just one more thing about them.
p.s. If you think reading this might help the parent of an LGBTQ person you know, please forward and invite them to reach out to me. You might also enjoy The Haircut: How I got over myself to cut my daughter’s hair short.
♦ weekendswell ♦
1 http://alanchambers.org/exodus-intl-president-to-the-gay-community-were-sorry/. I’ve come to see change therapy as one extreme example of a common practice in some faith communities — we seem to hope that those who manage to retain ‘sexual purity’ will be worth all those who can’t shake the sexual shame. How we handle this is something I’ll be thinking more about – do you have any thoughts?
2 (using acronyms the study uses) 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBT, 68% of them have experienced family rejection (2a), LGB youth attempt suicide 5x more than heterosexual peers, and most challenging to me: “LGB youth who come from highly rejecting families are 8.4 times as likely to have attempted suicide as LGB peers who reported no or low levels of family rejection”. (2b)