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How to react to child who ‘comes out’

A favorite cousin recently was married in her father’s backyard to the woman she had loved and lived with for more than a decade. It was a very festive occasion, though not one that could have happened this year in the state in which my cousin lives. Last week I looked at the wedding pictures – two radiantly happy brides; one could only hope that all married couples maintain the commitment these two have already shown.

I asked my cousin’s father the question as to how he had dealt with the news that his daughter had “come out of the closet,” to tell him that she wanted a relationship with a woman rather than a man – sometimes this happens during adolescence, which has brought about many earnest conversations in my office.

Linda’s father told me that he had suspected that she might be lesbian during her teen years, but that he had not had certain evidence before Linda took him aside to confide in him, after she had completed a long Army tour serving our country. He indicated that it had been a unique experience, likening it to what he might have had if she had brought home a sweetheart of another racial group.

Knowing him as I do, I am sure that he hid any surprise he might have felt and was as supportive then as he has been ever since, welcoming her partner – now wife – into the family with wide open arms.

How long had Linda known she was lesbian, and how might she have been supported if she were not the self-confident, vibrant young woman she was by the time she “came out”? Adolescence is difficult for both heterosexual and homosexual youths, and the sexual orientation-based epithets encountered by many, if not most, LGBTQ (Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning) youths adds to the heavy burdens teenagers face. What could he have done then to ease those burdens – what could you do if your child or grandchild tells you she or he is homosexual?

A promise of unconditional love is a good start. A pledge to help him or her maximize “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” regardless of sexual orientation would be the next step, but beyond those platitudes, what comes next?

Since my cousin was a teen, there have been some advances and some retreats. Better is the public’s acceptance of gay people’s rights and contributions. The recent film, “The Imitation Game” shows where we were in the 1940s. After mathematician Alan Turing makes arguably the most important contribution to the Allies’ war effort by solving the Germans’ Enigma code, he is hounded into an early suicide by “hormonal therapy” to change him from being “queer.”

Before 2004, no state permitted same-sex couples to marry. By 2015, 38 states do, and very few people believe there is any validity to hormonal or any other therapy to change a homosexual into a heterosexual.

On the other hand, bullying, always a risk for homosexual youth, has found new modes of expression in electronic forms. Facebook posts, Twitter feeds and hate email are added to the arsenals of hateful open remarks, and are often anonymously sent.

So arming his child against the prejudices of others would have been an important parental support. There is strength in numbers – just realizing that an estimated 8 million Americans are gay or Lesbian may be helpful. Recent studies suggest that between 2 and 6 percent of American high-schoolers are gay, meaning that in the average Albuquerque high school of 1800 students, there would be about 70 lesbian or gay students.

Chances would be good that there would be a chapter of the Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (pflag.org) or a similar support group at her or his school. PFLAG’s site has an excellent set of questions and answers for the adolescent or family member at pflagabq.org/answers.html. If he or she is at UNM, the LGBTQ Resource Center would provide excellent support, and similar groups provide support around the state.

And they need support: yours and others’. Gay and lesbian youth are two to seven times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual adolescents. They are more likely than heterosexuals to have had forced sex and to have had multiple sex partners, which increases the risk of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV-AIDS.

These outcomes, as well as use of alcohol and illegal drugs, are more likely when parents react negatively to their children’s preference for the same sex.

Should my cousin’s father have suspected his daughter’s sexual orientation earlier and asked? According to PFLAG, “It is seldom appropriate to ask anyone, ‘Are you gay?’ Given social norms of our time, anyone could be frightened by the directness of question. BUT, if people feel secure around you, and want you to know, they will tell you in their own good time.” My cousin’s father had made her feel secure around him, so when the time seemed right to tell him, she could comfortably expect his unconditional love and support.

“I might add,” my cousin’s father wrote after reading what I’d written, “that we as parents of gay children have work to do regarding a lifestyle that the vast majority of us parents have no experience with. Thus, we, as parents, very likely will be uncomfortable being around our child and their same sex boy/girl friend or their group of gay friends. It takes time and awareness and ‘getting accustomed to’ and in the end finding out that they are fellow human beings.”

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