Coming Out as Gay to your Kids

by Cherie Verber, M.F.T.

“Coming out” to your children is but one more step in the lifelong process of coming out. Gay and lesbian individuals begin this process early or late in life, when they first begin to recognize that part of who they are as individuals is being attracted to someone of the same sex. That inner realization is not totally complete until the person is able to acknowledge, accept, and then embrace oneself as an integrated individual, part of whose identity is being gay or lesbian. As all of us who have been through that process would be quick to acknowledge, that is not something that takes place over night. In fact, for many, it follows an “in/out” course, even in acknowledgment to self, depending on the number and strength of internal and external stressors challenging that “Out” position.

Once we are comfortable in our sexual identity, we are still faced with little and big decisions every day regarding whether and when to identify ourselves as gay to others. By the time people decide to have children as single or coupled gays or lesbians, this process is probably fairly complete. Through the transition to parenthood, with all that entails, possible enrollment of children in daycare or school, home ownership or lease agreements, and a variety of other mundane activities, gay and lesbian parents have come face to face with many new opportunities for “coming out,” not only as individuals, but as parents.

They have had to encounter a range of responses from others, from encouragement and acceptance to possible open hostility. There are now two layers to coming out—the one about being gay, and the one about a gay person choosing to be a parent. People have questions about the how and why of being a gay or lesbian parent, or strangers stare, or other children’s parents make comments either to their children or within earshot of your own. All of these factors impinge upon our comfort regarding our choices, as well as fueling our parental “Mother/Father Bear” syndrome that wants to protect our children from pain.

If our experiences have been largely supportive, our internal attitudes will be different than if we have encountered prejudice and hostility. While this seems obvious, it is of paramount importance when it comes to talking to our children about our sexual orientation. Pride or defensiveness are possible flavors to the story we share. Children have radar, and nothing to do all day but watch us and figure out what “yanks our chain.” No matter what words we choose to talk to our children about our sexual orientation, we will want to make sure that our own unhealed areas have been addressed, in order not to pass along to our children any of our own internalized homophobia (whether or not we realized we had any!) Not to sound too much like a therapist (an occupational hazard, I suppose, that comes with being one), I can’t emphasize enough the importance of making use of whatever professional assistance one needs in order to clear up any unresolved issues that could transmit to one’s children.

The discussion about coming out to one’s children will, of necessity, address all of the above. Another important factor to take into consideration is whether or not you are living as either a single or coupled gay or lesbian from the moment your child is born or adopted or only come out later in the child’s life.

Let’s assume, however, that we are speaking of the situation in which you give birth to your child or adopt him/her as an infant or toddler. Coming out at other developmental stages will be covered in other essays. Children are born with clean slates, and lack preconceived notions of what is “normal” or even typical in family structures, lifestyles, adult caregivers, and pretty much anything else in the universe. Your task as a parent will be to help your child develop a concept of “family” that is open to any and all variations. This will begin very early in life, with a liberal use of the word “family” when speaking of various configurations of people living together in neighbor homes, people you see at the mall or restaurants, etc.

Careful selection of story books that you read with your child will also help. Fortunately, children’s literature today reflects a wonderful awareness of social issues, cultural differences, family lifestyles, and other subjects that once might have been considered taboo. Casual observation of the fact that Billy’s family includes Grandma, a dog, Billy’s step-sister who visits on weekends, a mommy and a daddy, while Mary’s family consists of just Mary and her mommy, or Juan’s family is two mommies and 2 kids, and 2 cats, while the neighbors next door have only two grown-ups in their family, and so on., helps a child just assume that families have different configurations. “Birth family,” “adoptive family,” “step-family,” and “family of choice” (when the kids get older and can understand such words) are the kinds of vocabulary additions that should be staples in any open-minded family, and perhaps even more so in gay/lesbian families who want their children to understand that “different” is not “bad,” and, in fact, might sometimes even be preferred!

For children, “Family” is the important concept. Parents, adult caregivers, grandparents, etc., are components of the unique place that each child calls home. When I ask children to draw a picture of their family at one of the first therapy sessions we share, it is always significant to notice who they see as important to include. Stereotypes are dashed in the face of their experience. A cousin or other favorite person who doesn’t even reside in the same house may be included in the picture, and a parent who isn’t “present” to the child might be forgotten, or the child might explain that there isn’t room on the paper for him/her. Ouch! The family pets are often drawn before siblings.

Children’s perspective is their own, and all kids define family around whom they love and who loves them. The most important people who love them are their parents, and as long as you love your kids and care for them, they will be accepting of that love and love you back. Minor details like your race, weight, hair color, gender or sexual orientation just don’t register on their radar screen!

Another important underpinning to the discussion of Mommy or Daddy’s orientation is deliberate exposure of the children not only to single parent vs. dual parent families, but to families with two daddies or two mommies. Most gay and lesbian centers can connect families with other gay families, and group picnics, outings, and so on, provide children with the opportunity to observe families that look more like their own. With all this as a foundation, when the time comes that your child goes to school, watches television, reads books or hears people talk about families, he/she will have a gut level understanding of the idea that yours is just one kind of family.

Your child will come to understand that, while most families probably have a mommy and a daddy, there are huge numbers of single parent families, and quite a few with two mommies or two daddies. A matter-of-fact discussion explaining that probably more often than not, the people who fall in love and desire to live together and make a family are of different genders, but some people (like yourself) fall in love with someone of the same sex and decide to make a family with that person. That’s pretty much all a young child needs to hear and understand. When and if your child does encounter someone who tries to tell him/her that it is not natural or right or normal or whatever to have two parents of the same gender, you can help your child understand that perhaps that person just hasn’t experienced this type of family before. That doesn’t make the person bad or wrong, just uninformed or inexperienced. So there is no need to attack or criticize that person—just a need to let them get to know you and your family! It is love, after all, that makes a family. Love is a good thing!

Of course, there is always the possibility of children encountering bigots. Whether the prejudiced person rejects us because of race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, social class, or any of the myriad other reasons some choose to reject others, the underlying goal is the same: teach your children that when someone draws a circle to place you on the outside, simply draw a larger circle that takes them in! Practicing that kind of tolerance, openness and respect for all around you will make it as natural for your children as brushing their teeth or saying “Thank you.” That is why the single most important aspect of coming out is the part that includes coming out to yourself, and working with a skilled therapist who can help you heal any parts of your experience that have resulted in low self esteem. When it feels perfectly natural to you, you will not need fancy words or someone else’s coaching to just know how to have that conversation with your child. Share the story of your love…of your partner, of the world around you, and of this marvelous child you are privileged to call your own. So many people to love, so little time. Let’s just get started!

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