It’s a tender topic affecting more and more families today. What to do when your child comes out. It’s something we could use a little perspective on for how to navigate this situation.
Dr. Liz Hale shares her advice for what you should do and say when your child tells you they’re gay.
What to Do When Your Child Comes Out
There are two key points to keep in mind:
- Be keenly aware that you currently have LGBTQ family and friends, young and old, both married & single, who you do not YET know are LGBTQ.
- Be keenly aware that often in the same sacred spaces and places you feel safe and secure, your LGBTQ friends and family feel terrified and hopeless.
Liz’s family learned about unconditional love from an aunt, Great Aunt Bea (her father’s aunt) who lived to be 100. She passed away just last year. When she was 99, not that long ago, Liz stopped by her house and the front door was unusually locked so she rang the doorbell hoping someone was home who could come to the door and let her in because she knew her aunt was not mobile enough to do so. Aunt Bea lived with Liz’s cousin and her family.
Liz didn’t recognize the young man who answered the door. There was an awkward exchange. He seemed uncomfortable with her; and she was puzzled about why she couldn’t place him in the family because he introduced himself as, Joe, another family member’s son.
Liz’s great aunt and her sat down and visited for a bit and then Liz asked her, “Oh, by the way, who is Joe?” And my Aunt Bea very matter of factly said, “Oh, well you know Jill, right?” And Liz said, “Yes, of course.” Jill is her 22-year old granddaughter, Liz’s cousin’s daughter, who also lives in the home. And she said, “Well, Jill is now Joe. And I just love that kid to death.” She. Didn’t. Miss. A. Beat.
Joe knows Liz’s aunt’s faith and the faith of their family. She doesn’t need a neon sign to be reminded of that. A child who knows what a parent believes and yet knows that that parent/grandparent still loves him or her, regardless of the future the child has just endeavored to describe, knows more about the love of God than any other person on the planet! This profound moment actually forms the basis of a greater family unit. There is a unity, a loving message, that in this family circle no one will be left out.
Liz didn’t know that this family member, who was assigned female at birth, was now transgender. But it’s not an easy thing to share. There are birth announcements and gender reveal parties for the very early stages of life and even before life begins. But there are no formal words or celebrations for this transition. It’s done more quietly and privately. And it is often unsupported.
It was within that same week that Joe and Liz met up again at his brother’s wedding and she was finally able to say, “Joe; please forgive me for not recognizing you! I did not know that you were you, my dear cousin!”
Liz admits she felt ashamed. She’s pretty sure she was in tears. She didn’t do anything wrong but was terrified that somehow she had. By not recognizing him Liz feared that she had hurt him. And perhaps that’s part of the conversation we need to have. Will you help me understand your world and be patient with me for being unknowing in mine? Tell me who you are. Trust me to love and accept you.
Joe went on to have hormone therapy and then the actual top surgery which isn’t very common but something that he was thrilled about. For Joe it made all the difference in how he felt in his own skin. His external world finally felt more in-sync with his internal world.
Pay attention to sudden changes in your child’s behavior. Notice if your child suddenly starts staying home from school; or is spending long periods of time in their room; pulling away from the family; becoming non-functioning. Inquire about these changes. The worst thing to do would be to do nothing or to pretend nothing is happening.
Sit with open hands. Look for opportunities to engage with your child. You want to neither press nor oppress. You don’t want to press them into a direction they are unsure or unready for and neither do you want to ignore or suppress their experiences. It’s a bit like the egg in the nest. You can’t force open that egg, but you can trust that something is happening underneath; and you can keep the egg safe and you can give it time and you can give it space.
One wise mother opened up a dialogue by saying, “Do you ever feel that how you feel on the outside doesn’t match how you feel on the inside.” The child said, “Yes.” That opened the door to more. Children vary with their readiness. Some will say very little and some will say a lot.
Family counseling can ensure that a child doesn’t remain isolated. Mental health support for the entire family is often a gift to give yourselves.
The first signs of puberty can cause distress to a young person questioning their orientation. Another loving and insightful mother gently said to her daughter as they were driving in the car, “I’m wondering if becoming more of a woman is going to bug you?”
Love and trust your children. Find some way to trust them. We don’t know God’s plan for them. We do not fully know His ways.
Ask open-ended questions and then sit back and listen and listen and listen some more.
- When did you first become aware of feeling like this?
- What were you afraid might happen when you told me?
- What has it been like for you?
- What’s been the hardest part about this?
- What’s been the surprisingly easiest part about this?
- Who are you most afraid will find out about this?
- What are you most troubled about in being gay?
Liz asked one of her friends, Emily, on Facebook, do you want your family and friends to ask you and/or your son questions now that he has come out and announced that he is gay? Her answer; “Yes! I wish they’d ask us questions.” Sadly too often we err on the side of not wanting to be intrusive. So we try so hard to not make our loved ones feel uncomfortable that we don’t ask questions and come across seemingly uninterested in that person’s world. Talk about loneliness and alienation.
A parent needs to find someone to listen to them so they can in turn continue to listen to their child. Parents have to get their cup filled and refilled.
Parents are often devastated by the news that their child is LGBTQIA+. It is not what they expected or dreamed about for their child. And often parents feels pulled between the love of their child and their belief in their faith.
Liz’s dear college friend had her first gay experience on her mission and then returned home and married another returned missionary. Over 20 years later, their marriage ended after she had an affair with a woman.
That friend loves her faith. And she would love a relationship with a woman. She desperately wants both. And all Liz says she can do is sit with her in this disparity and listen and learn and love her. She’s doing so much good in the world; she has the most loving heart of any one Liz knows. She gets hard things. She has learned about sacrifice. And obedience. And penalties. She is trying to decide where she goes from here. She is without guile or judgment of others always seeing the best in them.
Study from the best healthy resources and publications you can find without the anxiety of judgment. When you listen you will learn so much. Liz remembers the moment she was struck with a tiny jolt of reality for someone I knew who was a single gay male in the LDS faith. He said to me, “Our straight female friends can go out and date and hold hands and can kiss and cuddle and everyone thinks it’s so cute. But I can’t go on a date and do that. No one is going to think I am cute or worthy if I kiss or cuddle or hold hands.” Liz says the comparison hit her. She had never looked at it that way. Her heart ached for him. It doesn’t seem right or fair or possible even.
Science is fascinating. Even with XY chromosomes a uterus can appear. Or with XX chromosomes there can be the beginning appearance of testes. And that’s just a brief blip on the screen. We are complicated beings. We are the way we are and there must be a reason why. Why am I the way I am with my idiosyncrasies and characteristics?
We do not live or grow in nice tidy boxes. We are complicated. Life is messy. Even confusing. We don’t have answers. But we must be kind without exception.
It seems that every dispensation of time has had outcasts due to differences. There continue to be groups on the outside teaching us to be inclusive and accepting. We have an opportunity to better love and listen and learn as we expand our hearts and minds.
Everyone wants to be heard, loved and understood. Be willing to say to someone who is different than you are, “Life is much better with you in it because you are teaching me how to open up my heart, my mind, my understanding. You are helping me to better love.”
We are not perfect people but we can love more perfectly.
Many suffer in plain sight in a white shirt and tie on Sundays. Some of us are gathered together in pews at church but completely out of reach. Difference and diversity have always been and will always be.
We all wear signs that say, “Help me with me.”
Research has demonstrated that increased family rejection is linked to increased suicide, depression, illegal drug use, and homelessness among our LGBTQ+ youth.
Not that long ago, conversion therapy and reparative therapy was practiced, which was psychotherapy aimed at changing a person’s sexual orientation. Change needs to happen. But not that kind of change. Change needs to come from inside us in how we respect and respond and include others. Change is necessary. Change is required inside all of us. Where is one area you can change and adjust as you extend yourself to your family members or friends who are LGBTQIA+ or have children who are? Let’s do something to better ourselves and to learn from those around us who are these beacons of bright light and diversity.
Fan the flame of your faith.
Be true to the faith you DO have.
Spiritual ambiguity. Make peace with it.
The eternal story is still unfolding.