When a teen comes out
Zach Lundin considers himself lucky. It was relatively easy, he says,
to tell his parents he was gay. His folks are open-minded, and Zach's a
student at Lakeside School, an independent school in north Seattle that
celebrates diversity and emphasizes acceptance and tolerance. What's
more, Zach adds, "My mom's a hairdresser; I was raised around
homosexuality my whole life."
But even for Zach, now a high school junior, coming out was far from stress-free. He was 14 and he'd already come out at school. It was becoming increasingly difficult to live openly and freely in class but keep up a clandestine existence at home. His relationship with his parents had started to decline ("there was such a huge aspect of myself they didn't know about"), and his schoolwork began to suffer.
So he opted for honesty. "My mom had a little trouble at first," Zach says. "And my dad thought it was a phase. For a few months, he'd point out attractive girls. Finally I said, 'Look, I don't like girls. Sorry.'"
Zach's struggles would no doubt sound mild -- enviable, even -- to other gay and lesbian youth whose quests for support from families and schools remain elusive at best; destructive at worst.
For even in the age of "Will & Grace," "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" and Sheryl Swoopes, coming out's still a considerable challenge -- particularly for teens.
On the one hand, the social and cultural climate for homosexuals has become more tolerant. Take, for example, Marysville-Pilchuck High School in Marysville. Five years ago, when students wanted to form a Gay-Straight Alliance, or GSA -- a student-run club that provides a safe place for students to meet -- the principal insisted on running it, claiming she didn't want to put anyone else on the staff in such a difficult position. This year, there's a new GSA and a new principal at the school -- and English teacher Anna Kruse is the adviser.
"The reaction to the group has been much more positive, and the level of acceptance is better," Kruse says. "We've become more open about sexuality."
Today's gay and lesbian community is more visible, which makes young non-heterosexuals feel they are not alone, says Christopher Martell, an author and clinical associate professor of psychology at the University of Washington. "The whole dialogue over gay marriage would have been unheard of 20 years ago," Martell says.
And resources are everywhere. Seattle Public Schools, for example, encourages all its high schools to either form GSAs or provide some form of student support groups for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning students. Seattle-area support organizations for gay and lesbian youth include the Washington GSA Network; Lambert House, an activities and resource center; PFLAG, Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transgenders; and GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.
The increase in visibility and support has made it easier for teens to come out at younger ages, according to Caitlin Ryan, a researcher and clinical social worker at San Francisco State University. Kids today typically come out between ages 14 to 16; in the '70s, young people came out between ages 19 and 23, she says. "Historically, there was great cognitive isolation about homosexuality; information was not available," Ryan says. That information, she adds, helps kids figure out -- earlier -- what it is they're feeling.
Yet society's has changed just so much. Cruel epithets still echo through school halls. Kids snicker "fag" and "that's so gay." GSA signs at Marysville-Pilchuck High still get ripped down. And there are parents -- even educated, upper-middle-class, "Will & Grace"-watching parents -- who still reject their kids when they reveal that they are gay. "The reality some students face is that it's still not OK to be out," says Ann McGettigan, executive director of the Seattle Counseling Service.
While liberal regions of the U.S. have become more moderate, conservative areas have become more entrenched in their churches and in traditional mindsets, says Pepper Schwartz, University of Washington professor of sociology and author of Everything You Know About Love and Sex is Wrong. "Conservative churches preach against gay marriage," she says. "They make it an issue."
Homophobia continues in many schools
And not every school is as open as Lakeside. At Marysville-Pilchuck High, several members of the school's Gay Straight Alliance are struggling. One gay student fights depression, says Kruse, while another is transferring to an alternative school.
At one public high school in Seattle's south end, coming out is still unthinkable, as an outreach team from Lambert House learned. "The school nurse told us it's not at all safe for kids there to be openly homosexual; they'd be beaten up," says Ken Shulman, Lambert House executive director.
It wasn't safe for Wendy Wartes' son, Ruslan (now in his 20s), to come out at his Woodinville high school, either. Wartes and her husband adopted Ruslan, an exchange student from the Ukraine, after he graduated from that school. "The atmosphere there was not welcoming to gays," Wartes says. "Ruslan was hearing gay slurs all the time."
It's not unusual for kids to decide against coming out in an academic environment that puts up with slights and insults, according to Beth Reis. Reis is co-chair of the Safe Schools Coalition, an organization that works with schools to help them become safer places for gender non-conforming students as well as heterosexual kids.
Just a handful of educators know how to address sexual diversity in schools, Reis notes. It helps when a school's administration and staff have been trained in ways to manage harassment towards gay students. And it helps when there's a GSA or other supportive clubs for gay students on campus. Better still, Reis says, are schools that offer curriculums that teach about gender and sexually diverse families.
But even in the most progressive environments, kids still get harassed -- including kids who are not homosexual, but come off to their peers as gay. "A girl might be too athletic, a boy might like arts; students often walk a very fine line," Reis says. "Most of them spend unnecessary energy paying attention to how they walk, talk and sit, to avoid being tormented. That energy could be going to academics."
According to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, a national 2004 poll found that 66 percent of high school students use homophobic language such as "that's so gay" to describe something that is wrong, bad or stupid; and that 81 percent of students report hearing homophobic language in their schools frequently or often.
Even though Washington State enacted the Anti-Bullying Act in 2003, (it includes bans against verbal, written or physical acts based on gender and sexual orientation), "the culture of homophobia continues," Ann McGettigan says.
Researcher Caitlin Ryan has found that gay and lesbian youth who were harassed and victimized in school are more likely to attempt suicide and have substance abuse problems as adults.
One boy, she remembers, was tormented from kindergarten through high school for being gay. Called names like "faggot" and queer," he became anorexic in middle school and nearly died. "He changed schools, which helped -- but he still had to interact in the community with the other kids," Ryan says. Ultimately, he attempted suicide.
In fact, according to studies cited by Safe Schools Coalition, youths with same-sex orientation are more than twice as likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. And mental health experts note that lesbians, gays and bisexuals have a higher incidence of anxiety, panic and depression than the general population.
Expect 'tense, awkward moments'
Alex B. always knew that he was gay. "It was clear in elementary school that I wasn't liking girls," the Seattle teen says.
It took him awhile to mention this to his parents.
"I was stressed out -- just dreading it," he says. One day, his parents discovered a pamphlet about sexuality that Alex, age 12, had left out.
Like many parents who learn their children might be gay, they told Alex this might just be a phase. "They were kind of upset," says Alex, now a high school senior. "It was a really awkward subject and neither of us knew how to react." They didn't broach the homosexuality subject again for a year.
Slowly, the family began some wrenching start-and-stop conversations. "I made clear this is who I am," says Alex. "It was a long, uncomfortable process. But I know very few people who have not had tense, awkward moments with parents."
McGettigan of Seattle Counseling Service was in her 20s when she came to terms with her own homosexuality. She was unable to tell her father, and it was five years before she could level with her mother. McGettigan ultimately wrote her father a letter, the only way she felt comfortable "coming out" to him. In the end, he was more accepting than she'd expected.
Parents worry about child's safety, future
Parents have their own set of fears when their kids tell them they're gay. Typically, they are afraid their child won't find a place in the world -- that he or she will be an outcast, Ryan says. "They worry, 'he won't have a partner; he won't be accepted by other people; he won't fit into the family,'" she says.
All parents carry scripts in their minds of what they want or visualize for their children, Pepper Schwartz says. But when a child comes out as a homosexual, "parents have no idea what it might mean for their child's future."
Parents also worry about their child's safety. "They're afraid their kids will be hurt or injured," Ryan says. "And that fear is realistic; while there's not a high likelihood of murder, victimization is common."
When a child reveals that they are gay, the family often goes through a "coming out" process as well, says Barbara Clark-Elliott, a past co-president of a Seattle PFLAG chapter. "Sometimes, family members go into the closet and won't tell anyone," Clark-Elliott says. "Then they have to decide, who is it safe to tell? 'Will my preacher understand? What will her grandmother think?'"
And there are the families who just can't accept a gay child. Plenty of parents -- many of them upper middle class -- reject their kids entirely, according to Ken Shulman. "One third of the gay kids we saw last year at Lambert House had been thrown out by their parents," he says. "They're cut off from family, they're homeless and are told 'don't ever come back.'"
Kids fear losing family's love
That's one reason experts counsel young people to carefully consider their home and school environment before committing to coming out as a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender teen.
"If your school is a dangerous place, if you are pretty sure your family would kick you out or beat you up...know that you are entitled to walk the journey at your own pace," advises Reis in "Coming Out," an article she wrote for Safe Schools Coalition. "Nobody else gets to decide for you when the costs of silence outweigh the risks of openness."
On the other hand, supportive families can act as a kind of buffer -- and help bolster their child's ability to cope with an outside world that has yet to fully embrace homosexuality. "Youth from accepting parents are at much lower risk overall and do better as adults," Ryan says.
How can parents be supportive? For starters, they can reassure their child that their feelings for him or her have not changed. "How a parent responds when learning about a child's sexual orientation is very personal, but it should include 'I love you no matter what,'" Reis says.
Mercer Island mother Kay Edelman managed to verbalize those thoughts a few beats after the shocked silence that ensued when her 19-year-old daughter told her she'd had a date with someone "new" the night before: Marianne.
"I was just blown away," Edelman remembers. Her daughter had been in a relationship with a boyfriend in high school. "I told her, 'I need to process this.' Then I called my husband, crying."
It's all right for families to admit this scenario is not one they'd expected or envisioned, Schwartz says. As Edelman observes, "I don't believe, if given a choice, a parent would say, 'Great! I always wanted a gay daughter.'"
At the same time, parents shouldn't deny the reality their kids are feeling, Schwartz adds. "Don't tell them, 'it's just a phase.'" Says Ryan: "If your child tells you, 'I think I'm gay,' there's a pretty good chance they are."
Don't feel guilty if you're not immediately accepting and welcoming, Shulman says. "This is rarely the case. There's always some emotional impact parents have to deal with. It's OK to cry about it with your kids, as long as you're not blaming them for hurting you in this process."
And, he adds, give them a hug. "Kids fear, most of all, that they're going to lose their parents' love. I don't think parents can say 'I love you' enough."
Linda Morgan, ParentMap's contributing editor, frequently writes on education issues.
When a teen comes out: Tips for parents
- Thank your child for being honest.
- Acknowledge it may have been scary for them to tell you.
- Ask your child if she or he has any books, pamphlets or reading material that will help educate you about what it's like being young and gay.
- Call your local PFLAG Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transgenders chapter.
- Go to a PFALG meeting.
- Find some books to read for parents of gay kids.
- Recognize that it's important for your child to maintain control over who knows and when they find out.
- Ask the child if the he or she wants help telling another parent or other members of the family, or if the child wants those people told.
- Recognize you'll have to go through a "coming out process" of your own as a parent of a gay child.
- Make sure child knows they are still treasured, valued and a member of the family.
Source: Ken Shulman, executive director, Lambert House
- GLSEN Puget Sound
- Washington GSA Network
- The Point Foundation (offers scholarship opportunities for exceptional students, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity)
- Lambert House
- Seattle Counseling Service
What NOT to say if your child tells you he or she is gay
- Don't say it's just a phase.
- Don't act like it's too repulsive to talk about.
- Don't say, "You're just doing this to hurt me."
- Don't tell them they need to go to counseling to get cured. This doesn't work - you can't change someone's sexual orientation that way.
- Don't throw your child out of the house or threaten to take away college tuition.
- Don't say, "What did I do wrong?"
- Don't act like it's a catastrophe.
- Don't assume you won't have grandchildren. An increasing number of gay people are adopting or using in vitro fertilization or surrogates.
Source: Ken Shulman, executive director of Lambert House
How to create an accepting home environment for your child
- Explore your own feelings about homosexuality. Become aware and educated.
- Introduce the idea that there are all different kinds of families.
- Read stories about two moms and two dads. Add in information about gay and lesbian families.
- If you see your child is different from other kids, let your child know he or she can talk to you.
- Make sure your child has friendships with adults other than their parents. Kids need to have lots of resources around them. Sometimes that person can be present during a difficult conversation with parents.
Source: Ann McGettingan, executive director of the Seattle Counseling Service.
- Fairchild, B., and N. Hayward, (1981) Now That You Know. Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich
- Bernstein, Robert A. (1995) Straight Parents, Gay Children. Thunder's Mouth Press
- Borhek, M.V. (1993) Coming Out to Parents: A Two-way Survival Guide for Lesbians and Gay Men and Their Parents. Pilgrim Press
- Isensee, R. (1992) Growing up Gay in a Dysfunctional Family. Simon & Schuster
- Cantwell, M.A. (1996) Homosexuality: The Secret a Child Dare Not Tell. Rafael Press
- Owens, R.E., Jr. (1998) Queer Kids: The Challenges and Promise for Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Youth. Harrington Park Press
- Griffin, C., M.J. Wirth, and A.G. Wirth (1986) Beyond Acceptance. Prentice-Hall
Originally published in the January, 2006 print edition of ParentMap.