More than once, I have sat in my office struggling to understand what is disturbing an entire family about their young adult. Upon meeting the young adult, for this conversation, 17-20 years old, male or female, I am struck by how loving and devoted this wonderful family is – but also, more deeply, wondering, what is bothering them?
It might take just one visit, or it might take several weeks, until this lovely youngster will burst into tears and stutter the words "I’m gay," usually followed with "I have never told anyone this. I'd rather die than say these words."
I share this story because my witnessing to this event is so rarely told.
My private practice sees the nicest individuals, couples, and families, and my community is child and family-centered: there really are no bad parents (I know, a bold claim!). If anything, we are an overly engaged, self-scrutinizing, uber-attentive group of parents!
After decades in social services, I recognize bad parenting; either neglectful, abusive, mentally ill, or critically authoritarian. But, my writing here today is about the (typical?) kind and open family that only want the best for their child - the untold story of the gay young adult that feels self-hate, that lives in terror of being found out, despite of his embracing community.
No reasonable parent wants their offspring to suffer...and the truth is that a parent intuitively knows that life as a gay person is harder than living as a heterosexual. It may not be that forever, and many adult gays would say that they are fully at peace with their journey towards acceptance and harmony, both within themselves and within society at large.
Presented to me is a loving family with a super terrific kiddo, a college student, sometimes bouncing back from college, or still in high school - their mood has shifted.
Mom or dad might think their child is increasingly depressed or "dark" - often they wonder if they are using drugs, doing something illegal or unethical. But no: we are talking about a child with prior good grades, active and engaged with others, often with a practicing family faith, a child who uses no drugs and holds a promising future.
I want to be normal
Everyone will talk about me
I’ll never have a family
I want to disappear
I want to die
God will be mad at me
My parents will be devastated
I don’t want my teammates to know
Many of us imagine it must be so easy to come out these days with the growing societal LGBTQI rights and vocal support groups. Or, perhaps when you read about the suicide of a gay student you imagine that their family had rejected them, or they were bullied by peers, yet, in my experience this is often not the case.
The parents of the confused/inquiring/not yet “out” are wringing their hands, losing sleep and stressed at work, wondering why their child won't open up to them - What can I do to make him or her happier? Where is the child that I knew and loved just a year ago?
Those parents have said, in front of me to them, "I love you as you are." And, I will share this assurance with young people, as they burrow down in unnecessary fear and worry- "In time, most parents are able to fully accept their kids as they are. Sometimes in the blink of an eye. Your folks will surprise you!" but that encouragement will initially fall on deaf ears.
When I hear of a college superstar, or a sweet kid from the community - bright and shiny with everything to live for - taking his own his life, for no apparent reason, with never a bad day, my first thought is often gosh, I hope you did not end your life because of a secret.
The stages of coming to terms with one’s sexuality typically follow:
1) Denial: I don’t want to be gay, I’m not going to be gay, push it down, ignore it, it will go away.
2) Confusion: What is happening? Why do I like her? How am I feeling? Is this intimate attraction? Of those two, confusion or befuddlement is easier to handle than the self-loathing of denial, often accompanied by depression, panic attacks, avoidance.
3) Dialogue: This next stage is moving into some sort of dialogue with a loved one; a therapist, best friend, teacher. This is the toe-in-the-water exercise as we begin to unpack the assumption that we will be rejected and harshly received. At this stage, one feels out his/her immediate circle for direction and future support; a trust-building phase. (As a reminder, there are free and anonymous online and texting support services, e.g. CRISISTEXTLINE). Part of an intelligent, measured plan moving forward, during this delicate stage of development, is enabling him/her to live in their skin...let’s find a way just for today. May I add, in my experience, any clergy that have been a part of this child's life can be supportive as well, contrary to popular belief (I have seen this first-hand, time and time again). As a devout once said to me on this topic, "We are made in His image and likeness, are we not?" Furthermore, to quote Father Gregory Boyle, echoing the contemplative Eckhart Meister, any talk of God that does not comfort you is a lie.
What does it feel like? Who cares about you? Who can support you? Parents and family are usually much more accepting than kids give their parents credit for! We’ve all been there - the night of the fender bender, when you don’t want to call dad, or come home with the horrible grade. Parents adapt and forgive, like the old wise oak tree.
Most young adults do not hope to be a caricature of a gay person, the typical movie or television version and possibly the only one they may know. And they surely don't want to shake up a system or make new laws that protect their well-being.
Again, remember this young adult has probably spent his or her whole life hearing remarks about gays. Man, those ring in the ears for an eternity. Numerous choices have been made along the way to hide the secret - protect the secret at all costs. Three painful examples that have stayed with me; getting the exact opposite (one imagines) of a “gay” haircut, making a point of not being friends with someone that he/she might possibly find attractive, and, choosing homophobic friends to remind one “not to be gay.” This is wasted energy for what should otherwise be an incredibly productive age and stage of life.
An alcoholic will go to great lengths to convince himself and others that he does not have a drinking problem. A young adult coming to terms with it with his or her sexuality will go to great lengths to convince himself and others that he is not gay. My office, the counselor's office, is usually the last house on the block. For many families it feels like admitting failure (not!) to walk in and have a conversation with a stranger about the very worst thing happening in your life and paying for it moreover, such is the desperation.
I am convinced that crime and violence would be reduced across all spectrum. Pockets of exceptional difficulty to come out exist, e.g., the military culture, Latino and African community, conservative religious groups. My simple hypothesis is that greater personal self-acceptance will reduce social deviance, risky behavior, and psychopathology (greater acceptance will not increase homosexual orientation, just as shame does not a straight person make).
I’m here to tell you that it is not easy coming out. Rare is the 19-year-old that wants to shout it from the rooftops; he's usually horribly lacking in self-confidence and those leanings that he’s held probably since kindergarten (as told to me repeatedly). Young adults should be solely consumed with ideas about their future instead: where to go over the upcoming summer, choosing a college, getting pizza for dinner, making a little money, volunteering somewhere, building that resume.
The same person that has dear gay friends will feel great grief and confusion over her own child's coming out. The well-meaning heterosexual parents might wonder if kids these days aren't "just experimenting." Perhaps - "She was vegan last month," and "Changes her hair color every other day… Now this.”
I get it!
I don't doubt that sexual trends can manifest as sexual disorientation, that depression and isolation may make for false “try on suits” - but, I am referring to something very different here; a young person that cannot shake his shame over what he or she feels deeply, to be true. Sometimes the goal is to simply get through high school, or move away, so that confining persona can be shed, and one can begin to live with ease and comfort, without impending doom for what others may think or say.
Inaccurate, preconceived beliefs and ideas that pushes the young adult further into themselves are deadly. The parents of the dead athlete, the talented musician, or the funny writer, so loved, would give anything to tell their handsome son, their beautiful baby "I loved you before you were born. I love you no matter what. Let's talk."
PFLAG: For Families and Loved Ones