Would Your Kid Feel Safe Coming Out?
There’s this video making the rounds on facebook and twitter. It’s a gay couple’s wedding video, and it’s being shared because people are moved by the speech that one of the men’s fathers gives to his son and his new son-in-law. It’s actually pretty standard wedding fare, as far as I can see, but we don’t hear that often enough in the context of gay people getting married. I’m sure the fact that the dad is in the military is also part of its appeal — I guess people don’t expect a man in uniform to give a loving speech at his gay son’s wedding.
It’s not the speech that I’d like to talk about today, but a moment that comes just before that speech. You can watch the video below. The bit I’ll be discussing begins around the 4:45 mark, if you’d like to skip ahead.
Before I talk about the moment that made me uncomfortable, I feel like I should offer a disclaimer. This is a wedding video, and it’s very obvious the dad loves his son a great deal. I don’t want to sound like I’m criticizing this family. I’m just using this video as an example because it has a moment that I can point out. The problem is pretty universal.
I was scared to tell my dad that I was gay. I was scared to come out to my dad. I was just so down, and he was like, “What’s wrong with you?” … And he looked at me and he said, “What did I do to fail you? What did I do to fail in raising you to trust me?” and I said, “Dad, what are you talking about?” and he says, “Why can’t you tell me that you’re gay?”
So let’s talk about the ways that straight parents fail their LGBT kids. Let’s talk about why a kid might be afraid to tell their parents that they’re gay. This applies to parents of kids anywhere on the sexual orientation or gender spectrum, for a couple of reasons. First, you may or may not know if your kid is LGBT, so you need to apply this advice regardless. Second, even if your kid is straight, if you want things to get better for LGBT kids in general, you need to create an environment where all kids learn that LGBT people are just as good as anyone else, and just as deserving of love, family, friends, community, and respect.
For the purposes of this conversation, I’m going to assume you’re a parent who would want your kid to feel safe enough to come out to you, and that you would want to know if you were falling short of that goal.
First, take a look at yourself.
Are LGBT people ever a topic of conversation in your home? When an LGBT rights issue is in the news, is it likely to be discussed? Think about the last time you said anything about LGBT people. What would the takeaway have been for your kid? Do you ever make jokes about LGBT people, even ironically? Do you feel comfortable discussing LGBT people, or does your voice get a little quieter, like when people are afraid to say “cancer?” A lot of LGBT kids are gender nonconforming. If your son asks for a doll, do you get a pained look on your face, even just for a moment? Did you dress him up in one of those awful “Ladies’ Man” t-shirts, sending the message that you’ve already decided what his sexual orientation is? Do you tell your daughter that there are certain events to which she simply has to wear a dress? Do you talk about your child’s future in a way that makes it sound like you’ve got a specific vision for what that future looks like? If you do, you’re setting the stage for your kid to feel like they will be disappointing you if they aren’t able to provide exactly that picture. If you treat being straight or conforming to gender roles as the default, you’re contributing to an environment where an LGBT child won’t be sure if they can trust you.
If you want your kid to feel safe telling you that they’re LGBT, show your kid that it is safe to tell you. Show them that you don’t have negative opinions of LGBT people. Don’t sit your kid down for an awkward chat and say, “It’s fine with me if you’re gay.” Show them. Show them by the way you live your life. If I asked your kid to tell me what you think about LGBT people, what would they say? If they wouldn’t be sure of their answer, you can be sure that they will not feel safe.
Next, take a look at your family.
No one’s family is perfect, and you can’t control what your family says and does. You can, however, control your response. If your kid hears negative messages about LGBT people at family gatherings, you need to be certain that your kid hears that you disagree with those messages, that you consider those messages to be unacceptable regardless of who is saying them, and that those messages are never again to be repeated in front of you or your kid. If you have a family member who cannot or will not agree to that request, you need to think very carefully about what message you are sending to your kid. Allowing your kid to be subjected to negative remarks about LGBT people — even if you are not the one making those remarks — will tell your kid that you are willing to compromise on issues as fundamental as who your kid is.
What about your friends?
When your kid looks at the people with whom you choose to spend your time, what do they see? Are there any LGBT people among your friends or family? If your kid is LGBT, and when they look around, they don’t see any other LGBT people, how lonely do you think they will feel? If they were to consider coming out, would they be the only LGBT person around? Kids look to adults for models of what adulthood is and what they can be. Without living, breathing LGBT people, your kid is left only with the extremely limited LGBT representation we see in the media. When you went to high school, was it a lot like the high school in Glee? For an LGBT kid, Glee might be the primary example they see of LGBT people. I can promise you that the LGBT characters on Glee are as divorced from the reality of LGBT people as the rest of the characters are divorced from the reality of everyday people.
I’m not saying that you should go out and try to find a new Gay Best Friend. Actually, please do not go out and try to find a new Gay Best Friend. But if you look at your social circle and it seems somehow limited, you need to consider that your social circle might, in fact, be limited. And you may need to ask yourself some difficult questions about why that is the case.
Everything that I said about families applies to your friends, perhaps even more so. You may not be able to choose your family, but you’ve chosen your friends, so their attitudes about LGBT people will tell your kid a great deal.
A limited view of LGBT people — making assumptions about who is or isn’t LGBT based on behavior or appearance, spending time speculating about who is or isn’t LGBT — will tell an LGBT kid that your view of them, your view of their life and their future, is limited.
Take a look at your community.
Do you bring your kid to a church? What does your church say about LGBT people? Are there LGBT people in your church community? If so, are the LGBT people in your church community full participants in all the same rituals and ceremonies as everyone else? Are LGBT members of your church community able to be married in your church? If you expect your kid to participate in a church community that doesn’t seem them as an equal to everyone else, you are telling your kid that you don’t view them as a equal to everyone else. A kid who knows that their parents don’t think LGBT people are worthy of equal treatment is going to be afraid of what will happen if they come out as LGBT.
What is the climate for LGBT kids in your school district? I can promise you that your LGBT middle school or high school student hears the word “gay” used as an insult, probably every day. It may not be directed at your kid, but it is part of their environment. What kind of protections are in place for LGBT students, who are more likely to be on the receiving end of bullying than their peers? Is there a Gay-Straight Alliance or similar organization at your local high school and middle school? You can work to improve the climate for LGBT kids in your school district before your kid is even there. Change takes time, so if you wait until your kid needs the resources of a Gay-Straight Alliance or a non-discrimination policy, you may be too late to provide them. If it takes a year to get the Gay-Straight Alliance up and running, that’s a year that your LGBT kid went without. If you want your kid’s school environment to be a safe one, you may need to make it a safe environment.
You can keep extending this examination outward, in ever larger circles. What is the climate for LGBT people in your town? In your state? What are the priorities of LGBT activists and organizations in your area? In what ways can you help those priorities become reality? Every hard-won victory will slowly improve conditions for LGBT kids.
But you have to start at home. Even if you can’t get your extended family to stop saying negative things about LGBT people, you can make sure your kid knows that you disagree. Even if bigots on the school committee block adoption of a non-discrimination policy, you can show your kid that you were fighting on the right side of a moral issue.
Finally, we need to acknowledge that even if you do all of these things, your LGBT kid still might not feel safe coming out to you. And it may not have anything to do with you. Coming out is a deeply personal decision, and it will happen in the context of your kid’s whole environment — family, friends, peers, community, media, and politics all play a role — and you are just one part of that puzzle. When your LGBT kid does decide to come out, don’t make it about you. It’s not.