My son is gay!

My 17 year old son has recently told me that he thinks he’s gay. I’ve actually had suspicions for a little while but now that he’s actually come out and said it, it’s knocked me for six. I’m certainly not anti-gay in any way but when it’s your own son, I guess it puts a rather different perspective on the whole thing and to be honest I’m desperately hoping the whole thing will turn out to be “just a phase”. He’s a teenager – surely that’s a confused age in his life and he’s still discovering his sexuality.

I am relieved and pleased he felt comfortable enough to tell me. Apparently he’s also told four of his closest friends at school (one of whom happens to be a girl who has an older brother who is gay) and, according to him they are “all cool about it”. However, two important people who don’t know yet are his father and his older brother.

He says he is really nervous at the idea of telling his brother. They have always been close, but they went to different schools and don’t have any friends in common and his brother started university last year. His stepfather has been marvellous about it – really kind and helpful and supportive but my ex sees our sons irregularly now – trying to manage the diaries of two teenagers and an adult is a nightmare. So I’m really worried this is going to lead to arguments and accusations.

I did talk to the family doctor. He was sympathetic, but he only depressed me by saying if my son chooses this lifestyle then he should be aware that it will be a very hard path to follow. I must admit I’m hoping that he’s just experimenting with the idea. So I don’t want to give him the wrong advice which will simply push him more in that direction. At the same time, I don’t want to lose his trust by saying or doing the wrong thing if this is the way he will go. I so want to give him the support and help that he needs.

You’re starting off brilliantly, so feel reassured by that. He trusted you and came to you – that’s a real compliment and you need to feel pleased at that.

Facing up to the fact you have a gay child is a process that can be difficult and painful. It feels like mourning; you have to face up to the assumptions you made about them and their future and your part in their future may no longer be possible. Most parents imagine/accept/expect to have grandchildren at some time and to have their sons or daughters bring home partners they will relate to and enjoy a lifestyle they can understand. A parent may have to mourn what they see as a loss – none of this will be as expected.

But your doctors expectation is way out of line – out of date, antediluvian even. In fact, first option I might suggest is finding a GP living in the 20th let alone 21st century! For a start, you don’t choose to be gay. It’s not a ‘lifestyle’ and it’s not a choice. The evidence suggests what makes you gay is a complex mix of genetics – but no one gay gene – and multifactorial environmental issues.

But far more important than that is the fact that being gay simply isn’t that much of a deal anymore. Oh yes, maybe in your GPs day male gay sexual acts were illegal so being gay was fraught. If found out you could be hounded to death and homophobia was a real and frightening aspect of daily living. “Gay” is now a casual term of opprobrium in schools and many young people can be hideous about it. But times have changed so much. Laws against all discrimination mean workplace and higher education discrimination is rare and to be frank, it can be cool to be gay. As you say, he has four best friends who are fine about it and I bet it’s not an issue in his school and won’t be at uni or in work. So this “it’s going to be a hard path” is nonsense.

And changes in society also mean the two big losses that parents of gay people faced may no longer be out of reach – a wedding and a family. Most mums particularly mourn the idea of never watching their son or daughter plight their troth in an extravagant celebration where you get to wear the Mother of the bride or groom gear. Well – update! Now, you can. And that moment when you holds your son or daughter’s baby – also, update! Now, you can and not an adopted child, a child of their blood. Let’s face it, your straight son or daughter may not keep to the script either but the point is that whatever the sexual orientation of your child, you now have equal chance of having those fantasies fulfilled.

This “just a phase” thing is something I think from our 50 years ago. Somewhere along the line it entered into the collective consciousness, along with the idea that the testimony of women and children was not to be trusted (we can thank Freud for the latter and I suspect the former too!) It’s a total misunderstanding of the facts. Yes, teenagers do thrash around exploring and experimenting, trying to sort out who they are and where they stand. And yes, the teenage years are the ones in which sexuality among many aspects are focused on and explored and so their sexual orientation may come up, and out, at this time. And yes, some young people explore orientation and draw back from expressing gay feelings. But not necessarily because “it’s a phase”.

What I know happened in my day was that gay men and women might have tried or started to come out and realised that their parents, friends and society at large would make life so ghastly the best thing was to go back in the closet. Their orientation wasn’t changed; their behaviour was. And that’s where you get the families in which a Mum or a Dad finally snaps after years of marriage and having kids to either have a gay affair, or actually come out and leave a family they’ve been struggling to stay in for years. If, that is, they make it that far. Suicide is also an option for people who go back in the closet having peeped out and been convinced they better accept it’s “just a phase”.

You’ve ‘had your suspicions’ for some time. Of course you have, as had he. Most gay men and women will say they first became aware they had feelings for their own sex over feelings for the opposite sex in primary school. Optimum age seems to be about 9 – it can be younger. By the time they are teenagers, they are usually pretty certain. As, frequently, are friends and family, although they may be in denial.

I do also have to say that sexuality and sexual orientation is also a very complex and shifting issue. To my mind, and to many others, sexual orientation isn’t a clearcut on/off, straight/gay thing. Think of it as a continuum. At one end of the continuum are the men and women who will only ever be attracted to members of their own sex. At the other end, the men and women who will only ever be attracted to members of the other sex. And then there are the great majority strung along the line. In the middle, true bisexuals who swing both ways, straight or gay 50% of the time. Some men and women will be solidly one or the other but capable of at least being attracted to their own or the other sex. Some will be less fixed.

Now – that seems to contradict my stricture about it’s NOT a phase. Because yes, he may sometime down the line find himself attracted to a woman, IF he’s actually nearer the middle than towards the end point. But I wouldn’t count on it and I think it’s really important for you to recognise it’s not about choice and it’s not about your influencing it. And, of course, it’s not about where you are on that line as being ‘better’ or more desirable than being in another place.

So – where does that put you? You can’t give him ‘wrong advice’. Nothing you say or do is going to affect his sexual orientation. The only thing – THE ONLY THING – you can affect is how he feels about himself, how he feels about you and telling you, how he is supported in telling the other members of his family. So far, you’re doing fine. But you needs to stop seeing this as about you. You didn’t ‘make him gay’. You can’t ‘unmake’ him gay. What he needs from you is simple acceptance. He’s your son – same as he ever was. He needs your love and approval, same as he ever did. That’s all.

What you needs is some support to go on supporting him. There is a very good group for parents of gay and lesbian young people called FFLAG

It’s really good; it offers local groups and contacts and also speaks out and acts to defend and enhance the human and civil rights of lesbians, gays and bisexuals.

You do have to grasp the nettle soon about his Dad, and his brother. There is some evidence to suggest gayness runs in families – it’s one of the aspects that supports the gay gene argument but as I said, that’s complex and multifactorial and the jury is still out on the details. But the evidence suggests if you have one child who is gay the chances of another being gay is enhanced.

But, if Mums find it hard to let go of their fantasies about their children and facing up to the new reality of their child, dads have it too – and in spades about a son. Mums will struggle with the “Is this my fault, what did I do or not do?” Dads will too. Both may also have a horrible thought; “What does this say about my own sexuality??” And if it’s a son, Dads may well go into frantic, furious denial of a violent sort to push that idea away. And of course, a non resident Dad may have even more reason to feel guilty, scared and thus to need scapegoats and to attack even more. His brother may feel the same – need to push him away to ‘preserve’ himself. Or not – he may actually be the one in the family to show most support; who knows?

My feeling is that keeping it a hidden secret does several, very harmful things. It says you’re ashamed of your son and who he is. It means when it does come out – and believe me, it will – those kept in the dark not only have to contend with the revealed secret but that you kept it from them. they may feel insulted you didn’t trust them, humiliated other people knew first – all sorts of conflicting and difficult feelings which will only serve to muddy the waters and make it harder to concentrate on the real issue.

And most important, it will deny them the opportunity to know your son as he is, and to have a relationship with the real him based on love, trust and truth. That’s what most people kept out of the loop often say hurt them most. Yes, maybe they may have reacted badly and unhelpfully, but they weren’t given the chance to grow and come up to expectations.

I’d strongly suggest you visit FFLAG for help and support for yourself, and in telling his Dad, and his brother. I think they will help you come to terms with the new reality and not to see it as an automatic sentence of hard labour and pain. Mind you – FFLAG do have some pretty awful tales to tell. But it’s not as your GP says or necessarily as their worst case scenarios say anymore. And many of their stories are so inspirational and reassuring! The key is that we all have to pull together to fight discrimination and the fight begins in our own hearts and the hearts of those around us. Good luck!

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