“My son is gay.”
Over the years, friends have spoken those words.
“My daughter is gay.”
Some spoke so low I could barely hear. Some cried.
Can this reaction stem from homophobia? Absolutely. Is homophobia the only power-source for this reaction? Absolutely not.
Sometimes parents need time to adjust. My friends knew that the problem was in their assumptions, not in their daughter’s or son’s sexuality. These people are loving parents, LGBTQIA allies. In fact, one couple — shaken and tearful — is same-sex.
When we meet our children either at birth or at adoption, we bring a book’s worth of unconscious expectations. Sooner or later, our kids tend to kick those assumptions to the ground. Two super-athletes produce a poet; two physicists sire a basketball player; two parents raise a gay child.
As moms and dads, we find that different issues derail us. One musician is fine with a gay son, but horrified when he wants to be a surgeon instead of a violinist like his dad. A Republican mom brags about her surgeon daughter, but is appalled when the young woman votes a Democratic ticket. An English professor is proud of his Democratic son, but deeply ashamed when he drops out of a prestigious Ph.D. program to become a chef. When our children catch us by surprise, we lose our balance.
At that point, a complex and nuanced journey begins. The first steps toward resolution lie in accepting that as parents, we are unfailingly human. We need to have a bit of empathy for ourselves as emotionally ungainly, intellectually clunky. Our initial reactions may be politically incorrect, or even clash against our own core values – not necessarily because we are bad people, but because we are irrevocably human.
The problem is not when adjustments are challenging, or even excruciating. The problem is not when a surprise brings us to tears. Rather, the problem is when parents refuse to adjust. When parents get stuck in their initial reaction, their mindset can cause a rupture in their relationship to their child. The problem worsens when parents try to shove the responsibility onto their children — try to force their son to squelch down an important part of his identity, their daughter to recreate herself in the image of parental expectations. The problem is not when an adjustment is needed; the problem is when the need is ignored.
We’re all emotionally imperfect. We can be decent to the bone, and still shock ourselves, ambushed by our “wrong” feelings. However, once we recognize our feelings, we can adjust and change. Owning those feelings — even the feelings that are ugly — is a crucial part of human decency, and of parental love. All of my friends rebuilt their views of their daughters and sons, to match their children’s true selves.
Development is a lifelong process. We help our children grow, and they help us do the same. When they surprise us, we may react in a ways that cause damage. We can get stuck in hurt and anger, or we can stop, regroup, and begin the process of forgiving each other.
Forgiveness is an essential piece of this process, as is apologizing for the hurt we cause those we love. Parents, there’s no shame in apologizing to your daughters and sons; in fact, there’s tremendous integrity. If your initial reaction to your child’s coming out is hurtful, please do apologize. If you need help getting past your reaction, allow your sons and daughters to guide you. Your children may be angry at you, feeling you let them down when they most needed support; you may be angry at them, for waiting this long to tell you something so important, or for shaking up your view of them. Sometimes, we all need to stretch to find forgiveness – forgiveness of ourselves for our wrongness, of our parents for their mistakes, of our children for knocking us to our knees.
My advice: Turn to each other, keep working, call a friend for perspective, talk to a professional. If you feel stuck, push forward. Don’t give up.
When you’re ready, even if you’re a work-in-progress, place your arms around each other’s shoulders — poet, lesbian, surgeon, straight, chef, Republican, scientist, professor, gay, athlete, Democrat.
Daughter, Father, Son, Mother.
Amy Kaufman Burk is an author, blogger and mother of three grown children. Her first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, was written in reaction to seeing gay students bullied in high school, and follows one family’s journey after their daughter comes out. Her second novel, Tightwire, includes a strong friendship between a gay man and a straight man, as well as two women, a couple raising 2 children, who become role model parents to the main character. Amy’s blog has several posts in strong support of LGBTQ+. Check out Amy’s website to find links to her blog and her novels on Amazon.