Keeping Lines of Communication Open with Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Teens

The notion that one of their children could be lesbian, gay or bisexual comes as a surprise to most parents. "It just couldn't happen to me," many might say. We don't know why some people are gay, lesbian or bisexual, but we do know that sexual orientation is a fundamental part of a person's identity with ramifications far beyond the choice of sexual partners.

Research is still out on the causes of homosexuality. There's a biological component for some people, but probably not for all. Most families who have a gay, lesbian, or bisexual child also have relatives who are members of this sexual minority, suggesting a genetic predisposition.

In an ideal world, families would talk together about sexuality from the time children are very young. And if they talked about both straight and gay sex with equanimity, the stage would be set for the day when lesbian, gay and bisexual teenagers would feel comfortable "coming out" to their parents.

But, in the real world, sex is a tough subject for many families to discuss together. So when a teen -- who has struggled all his or her life to understand what it means to be gay, lesbian or bisexual -- finally speaks those words at home, parents are usually stunned.

And that's OK.

It's unrealistic on the youth's part to think parents will just suddenly say, 'That's fine, I love you, I'll accept you just as you are." After all, they're asked to react in a matter of minutes or hours to something the teen has taken perhaps a decade to come to terms with.

When the chips are down, the most reassuring thing a parent can give is a genuine response. When mom and dad say they don't understand, that they're surprised, even shocked, they're being real. Kids don't want parents putting on a facade, as long as underneath their surprise and confusion, the child gets the message that they are loved no matter what. These families work through the initial distress and confusion in time.

And time is what most parents need. Time to adjust to the news and to reflect on the child and their history together. While most parents say they are surprised when their child comes out, upon reflection, many acknowledge that they'd sensed for some time that their child was different.

Sometimes it's just "vibes," nothing in particular. Other times parents may be set to wondering if a son shows little interest in rough sports, while favoring more artistic pursuits. Or similarly, if a daughter is more assertive and independent than her peers or perhaps doesn't like to dress in feminine things, parents may ponder the behavior.

Usually what parents pick up on aren't the most blatant stereotypes of gayness -- extreme gender non‑conformity or atypicality. These are only characteristic of a small minority of lesbian, gay and bisexual people.

For some parents, who have sensed that their child marches to a different drummer, it is a relief when their son or daughter opens the door on this aspect of his or her life. In any case, once the door is open, it's the parent's job to keep it ajar.

It's absolutely devastating to kids if parents, having gotten the news, manage to never bring up the subject again. The child's worst fear is that his or her sexual orientation, this central core aspect of the self, will be totally ignored by the parents.

So it's up to the parents to send the signal: it's OK to talk, and keep on talking over time, neither making their child's sexual orientation into "THE ISSUE" or trivializing it. It doesn't matter if the parent feels confident or not in how to go about these chats. Just fumbling along is fine. It's OK to admit the conversations sometimes aren't easy, that you don't know the answers to some tough questions, that our culture is hard on sexual minorities, and so on. Simply being available is what counts.

One way to signal availability is by taking the initiative with questions such as, "What's happened since our last talk?" "How do you feel? Do you feel more comfortable?" "Have you found any gay, lesbian or bisexual friends?" "Who else is supportive of you?" "Is there any one who you find particularly attractive?"

If the child is really distressed about this or any aspect of her or his life, it is up to the parent to help find a qualified professional, not for the purpose of "conversion" to heterosexuality, but to assist the child in coping with whatever is troubling him or her.

Parents can help teens tackle the issue of their sexual orientation with relatives and family friends. Whom do you tell and how do you tell them? Chances are there are other family members who were gay, lesbian or bisexual and it's a good idea to make connections for the teen with those who have been been loved, accepted and held in high esteem within the family.

If your family is religious, parents can erect bridges between their children and their church, synagogue, or temple. Sometimes it's productive, and comforting, to talk together with a supportive minister, priest or rabbi.

What does a person's sexual orientation mean in terms of the professions they might choose? This is a legitimate question to talk over with your child. Some occupations aren't friendly to sexual minorities and acknowledging this is important.

What a parent is doing by these conversations is bringing the child's sexuality into the extended family part of the child, into the religious part of the child, into the aspiring professional part of the child, and so on. Bringing the child's sexuality into all other aspects of her or his life is a task young people can't do all by themselves. If parents can initiate these kinds of conversations during adolescence, then they can take credit for a job well done.

What's a parent to do when they sense the child wants to come out at home but can't bring herself of himself to do it? The ideal time for a family to tackle this subject together is when the child is in middle adolescence, somewhere between the ages of 14 and 16. If your child is in this age group and not talking, you can broach the subject by, instead of directly asking, "Are you gay?" saying, "My Aunt Martha was a lesbian and she lead a very happy life." Or by remarking to the child, "Anytime you'd like to talk about girlfriends or boyfriends I'd like to do that." Or even,"You know if it turned out you were gay that would be fine with me." Even if the teen denied it, parents can leave the subject open by responding with, "Whatever is fine with me."

Children will often try out the news with a close friend first, then confide in their mothers. Sometimes well‑meaning mothers try to hide this information from the fathers, but that's usually a disaster in the making. Unless there is a very good reason it's not a good idea for one parent to keep this secret from the other.

Source: Ritch C. Savin‑Williams, Human Development and Family Studies, New York State College of Human Ecology, Cornell University. Parent Pages was developed by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County. HD 70


Anna Steinkraus
Family & Community Development Program Coordinator
(607) 272-2292 ext. 145

Last updated January 15, 2015