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Clifton Spires is the father of a gay son who walked out of the family home in 1996 after a family row and they've never seen or spoken to each other since. A journalist living in Ohio with his wife and other son he now campaigns vigorously for gay rights and each week on OutUK he reflects on how this affects his life and family. Though it's written in America, we believe the issues he deals with affect the worldwide gay community. Previous columns are archived in OutBack.

When And How To Tell The Parents

As the end-of-the-year holidays approach, many gay, lesbian, transgendered and bisexual people will be getting together with their families to enjoy and/or shudder at the complexities of dealing with their sexual orientations as they relate to their families.

Although my wife and I are not expecting a visit from our oldest son, Rick, who has been a missing person for the past four years, we continue to cling to this season of Hope that he will return. Because of the deaths of my parents and brother-in-law in the past two years, we find that our remaining family --- our son Jonathan; my wife's mother; my sister, her sons and their families; and my wife's brother and sister and their families --- are the gifts life has given us that we cherish most. All of them, plus the many friends we have made in the gay civil rights movement.

At meetings of our local chapter of Parents, Friends and Families of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), we enjoy hearing our friends talk about holiday plans with their families. These friends include gay men and women planning to be with their lovers, parents, siblings and children, or gay=friendly family members and friends who are including a gay loved one in their celebrations.

For many people, these celebrations will be what they are meant to be --- times to rejoice in life and loving commitments to each other renewed. For others, they are times of stress: some gay people will be struggling with whether or not to "come out" to their families; some family members will be struggling to accept a loved one's recent "coming out" announcement. For others, it may be the first time a gay family member brings home his or her significant other, adding a new dimension to the seriocomic ritual known as "Meet the Parents (Siblings/Grandparents/Children/Aunt Minnie/Pet Turtle/Whatever."

From my point of view there are a number of dos and don'ts about introducing the people one cares about to one's sexual orientation and anyone special who is involved in the sexual part of one's life. Although I speak from the point of view of the parent of an adult gay child, I think there are a number of ways of looking at the situations.

When our son "came out" to us, it was somewhat anticlimactic for him. My wife and I had pretty much figured out what was going on with him sexually, had discussed it between ourselves and decided it was his business. Our son, on the other hand, agonized for a long time about how to approach us and had a big long dramatic speech ready. He was prepared for rejection, anger or any number of other negative reactions. What he got were shrugs and "Tell us something we don't already know." While our casual approach was intended to make him feel relief that his sexual orientation would not be a problem for us, I can see now that our casual attitude was unfair to the agony of preparation he had gone through. The "I Am Gay" speech is a serious moment, no matter how casually or flippantly either party involved tries to pretend otherwise. It is an important occasion for the person making the statement because it is his or her opportunity to publicly state that he or she is self-accepting and is exposing his or her belly to the person receiving the information as a gesture of trust.

As I said, my wife and I "knew" about Rick. We recognize, however, that other parents and family members have been caught off-guard by the coming-out speech and may react in any number of ways. Speechless shock comes to mind. This can be followed by some brilliant acting by those who don't immediately know how they feel about it --- "That's nice, dear; here, have another piece of pie" --- or a variety of other emotions, such as denial ("No, you're not! You were on the football team!"), guilt ("I knew I should have bought you more Barbies!"), or anger ("Get out!"). This is what most gay people fear will happen and it would be dishonest of me to say that it might not.

But once the closet door is opened, there is no going back for either the gay individual, the parents or the other family members. In most cases, I have hope that in the long run, love will prevail and little will be changed in relationships other than the gay person in question no longer has to pretend to be an asexual being or "pass" for straight to live up to other people's expectations.

But I won't say that the rest of the process of "dealing with it" is easy for any of the parties involved. For some parents, there are some basic issues: "Will my child end up alone?" is one of the first things that come to mind. "Will she become the victim of a hate crime?" Will he put himself at risk sexually?" "Will they be happy?" And there's always the old saw, "All my friends have GRANDCHILDREN!"

In other words, parents of gay people are pretty much like the parents of everyone else. They can be supportive. They can be pains in the ass. They can be effusively warm. They can fill a room with frostiness. They can be paragons of wisdom. They can be more immature than their children. They can be all of the above at the same time.

Even the most supportive parents of gay children need some time to adjust their thinking. Because all human beings --- parents and children, brothers and sisters, friends and co-workers --- are evolving as individuals, so do their relationships continue to grow. For many parents, having a child with a gay sexual orientation is something they never considered. They may want to hide their heads in the sand in shame. They may want to go out and say, "My daughter's gay and I'm proud!" They may want to do SOMETHING, but not have a clue what that is or how to go about it.

While I'm think about the holidays, here's two pieces of advice: Make sure you've come out before you bring your gay lover/partner/boyfriend/girlfriend home for the holidays. And if you're staying overnight at Mum and Dad's and you haven't gone through the Vermont domestic partner legalization process, it's probably common courtesy to ask if it's all right for you and your companion to share a room rather than bunking separately. For some parents, an unmarried couple is an unmarried couple, even if the reasons which cause them to be unmarried result from a discriminatory society. Likewise, parents and other family members should remember that gay couples are denied marriage/domestic partnership privileges in 49 states and should be willing to be flexible on certain issues.

The best advice I can give a gay person who has recently come out to the parents is don't expect anything. "Que sera, sera --- what will be, will be," as Doris Day used to sing for Alfred Hitchcock. Your parents will do what they're going to do, just like you will. You may want them to join a group like PFLAG so they can discuss their feelings, but they may not be the support group type. You may want them to give you feedback on what you've told them about yourself, but they may not want to --- remember, they may not know yet how they feel, or even worse, they may know how they feel but don't want to hurt your feelings by saying so. It may be enough that you've come out and the issue is out in the open if anyone wants to discuss it. But no one may want to. It could be a case of, "So you're gay and you want me to deal with it. OK, I'm dealing with it. I'm doing nothing."

The other thing for gay folks to remember is that the first thing you say to yourself when you get up in the morning and look in the mirror is not, "Hi, "I'm (insert name) and I'm gay." Likewise, the first thing that goes through your parents' minds when they look at your photograph is not "That's my kid, the gay one." If they're like my wife and I, it's "That's our son, the older one, the brother of our younger one."

Whether shopping on line, going to the mall or making gifts at home during these holidays, remember love and acceptance always are the best presents from one family member to another, whether celebrating Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Yule, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Year's or any other tradition.

Published 27th November 2000


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