Guest Author - Kathy J. McCleaf, Ed.D.
So, you think your teen is gay. Are you asking yourself if you should do anything? Or worse, is this turn of events something that you that fostered? Should you confront him/her or wait until sexual orientation is brought up in a discussion? These are usual questions to ask even if you don’t think that your child is among the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Educators Network (GLSEN) reported, ¾ million youth that question their sexual orientation during adolescence, and discover themselves in the minority. The reality is that most every child considers segments of their sexuality at some point during adolescence, whether gay or straight. For many individuals, it is not until they are well into adulthood that full disclosure to self and others becomes a visible part of an individual’s integration with their non-heterosexual identity.
As every child comes of age and develops a better understanding of their sexual orientation, they will rely on the multiple messages that they have received from those closest to them – family, teachers, clergy, friends and, of course, the media. Most of these messages are viewed through the lens of our heterocentric American culture. The language of heterocentricity makes the assumption that each child will have heterosexual or opposite-sex attractions and romantic interests as they mature.
Included in this plethora of information, your son or daughter will absorb ideas and beliefs that can span the spectrum of useful to non-productive, even harmful information that can derail a young life. Building a foundation of healthy sexual knowledge for your family can begin by creating an environment that is non-judgmental. Intentionally including time set aside time to seek and share credible resources to answer questions that may present themselves can start an open line of communication.
Parental roles should set the stage for understanding and recognition that one’s sexual orientation is not a choice. Reframing your view to be inclusive of all orientations allows for your child to flourish. Youth can direct developmental efforts towards figuring out, who they are, centered on more pressing issues of academic, social, emotional and spiritual development. Worrying about who knows what about who during those rough teen age years can be tiresome at the least and self-esteem eroding at the worst. Eliminating shame from minority status as a young gay, lesbian or bisexual teenager can help take away one of your child’s concerns if they know they have supportive adults in their lives with whom they can confide when they are ready to disclose.
One of the most important understandings you can recognize is that your child is the same child that you knew before you had any notion or they surprised you with the news. It is not unusual for parents to begin their own process of identity expansion around new found information about their child’s sexuality. Wondering what other family members will think or questioning the reactions of others plagues many adults as they themselves go through a similar coming out process.
Remember these feelings are only lending a small insight into what many if not most sexual minorities manage every day. A key lesson to learn from this is to recognize the need to respect your child’s process of disclosure. It is their story to share, when they are ready. You should not be the town crier for your child, but you can most certainly affirm and demonstrate appreciation for the trust they demonstrated in you when they chose to disclose and risk a rejection from someone important to them.
Sexuality discussions may be difficult even in the broadest sense of the birds and the bees. You must decide to educate yourself with good sources of reliable information. Two books that are on the shelf at most bookstores and can be found on amazon.com include Ritch Savin-William’s Mom, Dad, I’m Gay: How Families Negotiate Coming Out published by the American Psychological Association and a second book published in 2005 titled, The New Gay Teenager. Both of these books give some of the most current research available in layperson’s language for helping families understand both the joys and challenges present in negotiating a full and integrated life as a family with a sexual minority child.
Other national organizations that can help provide resources include PFLAG (Parents, Friends and Families of Lesbians and Gays), GLSEN ( Gay, Lesbian and Straight Educators Network) and local chapters with partner organizations that offer guidance and social support as families and teens come of age as young sexual minorities. General links to sites for sexuality questions for all teens can be found on Rutgers University’s, Sex, etc. website and Columbia University’s, Go Ask Alice website. Both sites reflect responses from credentialed experts; you can begin to seek answers from the professionals that are linked throughout this article.
Good luck! This is a wonderful time to watch as your child begins to use the decision making and communication skills modeled in the adult relationships around him/her. Do the best you can to open those doors for questions to be asked and answers to be discovered together. Remember, it is okay to not know all the answers or to share that you may have made different decisions if you had the wisdom you have now as an adult. And lastly, the answer to your concerns about what you did to cause your child to be gay. Nothing. Nothing that you said or did caused your child’s sexual orientation to be non-heterosexual, the same goes for your impact on the sexual orientation of your heterosexual children! Go forward, with pride and celebrate the gifts of having a gay child.
Columbia University. (2008) Go ask Alice relationship website. Retrieved on July 10, 2008 from http://www.goaskalice.columbia.edu/Cat8.html
Rutgers University. (2008) Sex, etc. website. Retrieved on July 10, 2008 from http://www.sexetc.org/
Savin-Williams, R. C. (2005). The new gay teenager. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Savin-Williams, R. C. (2001). Mom, dad. I'm gay: How families negotiate coming out. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Guest Editor Profile
Kathy McCleaf, Ed.D serves Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Virginia as a faculty member in the Department of Sociology/Social Work. She holds a B.S. and a M.S. from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia and an Ed.D. from University of Phoenix, Phoenix, Arizona. Dr. McCleaf’s research examines sexual minority youth, their identity development and how they acquire and manage challenges across the lifespan. Studies in health and the interdisciplinary field of human sexuality are the focus of her undergraduate course offerings.
In the off hours during the academic year she spends her time writing, researching, fly fishing, and enjoying the company of family, friends, and her big yellow lab, Ringo. During the fall and spring, the height of trout season, you can find her at the nearest coldwater fishing spot throughout the beautiful state of Virginia.