“Every gay person must come out.
As difficult as it is, you must tell your immediate family.
You must tell your relatives.
You must tell your friends, if indeed they are your friends.”
Harvey Milk’s historic call to LGBTQ+ people in the 1970s to come out of the closet was predicated on the logic that, until straight Americans put names and faces to queer people, and realize that they are friends, relatives, and coworkers, the LGBTQ+ community would continue to live in the shadows, forced to the margins of society. If Milk’s impassioned cry could be considered a call to the “first coming out,” I am here to propose that it is time for a new wave of disclosure in the extended LGBTQ+ community.
It is time for the “second coming out”—a coming out by the parents of queer kids.
So, let me be a clarion in this new movement: I am the unabashedly proud father of Beth Sherouse – activist, writer, PhD, gardener, flyfisher, protector of abused hounds and abandoned queer youth, and a strong voice for the queer community, of which she is a member.
Beth bravely “came out” to me one afternoon about ten years ago when the two of us were driving to Lowe’s to pick up some gardening supplies for a project in her back yard. Of course, as do most parents of queer kids, I already knew that her sexuality was not straight. Had I been more astute, and less cowardly myself, I could have relieved her of the burden of that conversation several years earlier. I waited in the shadows while she took the role of the adult.
Over the ensuing years, Beth’s mother and I have been vigorously schooled by her in all things LGBTQ+. We have struggled to learn new vocabulary, new ways of describing various waypoints along the spectrum of sexuality and gender. We have gradually taken up a reserved form of activism for the LGBTQ+ community, and have, in the process, gained courage to clearly voice our unwavering support of marriage equality and other fundamental civil rights for those in the queer community. As we have cautiously emerged from our own closets, we have gained the following insights I hope may help other parents come out with more confidence than we might have first exhibited.
1. Your child’s place on the broad spectrum of sexuality is not about you.
In engaging other parents of LGBTQ+ kids in conversation about their reluctance to “come out,” I find that a common denominator among most is a fear that the knowledge among others of their child’s sexual identity will somehow reflect negatively on their parenting—that others will judge that they could have in some way parented differently (read “better”) to “prevent” their child’s divergence from the path of heterosexuality.
In a word, parents, get over yourselves! The fact is that parenting has nothing whatsoever to do with whether or not a child discovers themself (yes, I’m experimenting with new nomenclature here) to be sexually non-binary. The challenge is not to the quality of your parenting. The real challenge is whether you will take up the fundamental responsibility of every parent to love and support your child unconditionally.
2. Don’t try to fix what isn’t broken.
The pseudoscience of conversion therapy was born of the misguided and misdirected belief that queer kids need fixing. They do not. They are not broken. They are not flawed, and they most assuredly did not “choose” to be born queer—any more than their straight friends “chose” to be born straight. They merely find themselves at a different place along the broad spectrum of sexual identity than the majority of others.
A tragic truth of recent decades is that a horrific torrent of pain and sorrow has been unleashed on the world through parents’ attempts to remake their queer kids into some image of what they themselves view as “normal.” Queer kids need a safe, affirming place to explore their growing sexual awareness. They do not need “fixing.” What they need most from their parents is unconditional love, unambiguous support, and wise counsel.
3. Create a home that is “queer-friendly.”
It’s imperative that parents today create homes in which children learn from the earliest age an acceptance of queer folk. Negative, prejudicial or hateful comments by parents about queer people create almost insurmountable obstacles to honest and age-appropriate conversations with children about sexual orientation and gender identity, and further complicate the already-terrifying prospect for queer kids of coming out to their parents.
Most adults have queer friends, and most families have queer family members. Make certain these individuals are included in your social circle, are welcome at your family gatherings, are introduced to your children, and are never the subjects of derision in your home.
4. If your friends cannot support your queer child, get new friends.
At its core, friendship is an unconditioned relationship of mutual respect, support, and affection. If persons in your life whom you consider friends cannot offer you and your queer child unconditional support, then these individuals fail to attain the minimum standards of what constitutes a friend. As difficult as it may be, you should distance yourself from these individuals, as your relationship with them will be strained at best, and could, in fact, become toxic to your emotional health. Beyond distancing yourself from such persons, you should clearly inform these individuals why you are terminating your relationship with them. It is, for them, a teachable moment, and you should make the most of it.
At the same time as you turn from these unsupportive relationships, you should seek out new relationships with individuals who have made it clear that they are supportive of your child and of you as the parent of a queer child. I can assure you that you will find these new friendships more sincere, more open, and more affirming. Join a local PFLAG chapter and attend their meetings. You will find a room full of potential new friends.
5. If your religion holds no place for your queer kid, then change your religion!
Note here that I draw a clear line of distinction between faith and religion. I am of the Christian faith, but I changed my religion decades ago when it no longer aligned with my view of the inclusive and compassionate nature of the Christian gospel.
I was brought up a Southern Baptist—my old religious identity—but I am no longer a Southern Baptist, because that bigoted denomination has, for most of my lifetime, denied the fundamental worth and dignity of certain groups of persons, in particular, persons of color, women, and those in the LGBTQ+ community. I remain a Christian—my faith—because I view the person and teachings of Jesus as inclusive and compassionate at their core.
If your religious beliefs, or the religious community of which you are a member, compels you to view your queer child with shame (or worse), leave it, and don’t look back. The obligation of parents to love, nurture, support and encourage their children is absolutely fundamental to true faith, and any religion that perverts this obligation is false religion.
Find within your faith, whatever it may be, the core teachings of love and inclusion—be assured they are there. Then seek out a community of faith that affirms these teachings, and affirms your obligation as a parent to love and accept your queer child.
6. Find a way to demonstrate your support.
I do not do bumper stickers. I do not post yard signs. I do not participate in protests. For the most part, I do not outwardly advertise my political views. I do write letters to the editor of the local newspaper, and willingly share my opinions in conversations when it seems appropriate (and, in the current political climate, safe) to do so. Thus, it has been difficult for me to find ways to offer support to the LGBTQ+ community. Only two years ago did I attend my first Pride event—the local Saturday Festival in our city’s downtown park.
I suppose the Pulse nightclub massacre was a watershed for me as well as many others. I live about 40 miles from Orlando, and the local Pride Week was already scheduled to begin on the Monday following the shooting. I knew it was time to take another step into the light. The opening Pride rally was scheduled for that Monday evening at a lakeside park in our city’s center. My wife and I went. The crowd was remarkable—thousands turned out, including city leaders, local clergy, and leaders of law enforcement. The sense of unity and shared grief was nearly overwhelming. Later that week, we attended an ecumenical Pride Week religious service (which, I am thrilled to report, was hosted this year by the church my wife and I attend), followed by the celebratory Festival on Saturday.
I relate all of this to suggest that parents of LGBTQ+ persons can make a significant show of support by simply showing up at such events. Spotting friends and coworkers in the crowd at such events immediately spans a gulf without the need for contrived or awkward conversation. Find a Pride event in your area, and attend.
And, hey, if you’re into bumper stickers, slap a rainbow on your car.
7. Step up and step out.
Even as LGBTQ+ youth continue to be challenged to undertake the difficult task of coming out to friends and family, parents of queer kids continue to wait in the shadows and leave the full burden of starting this conversation to their kids. It is past time for parents to step out and into the light of day—to be the adults in this critical dialogue. Just as Milk insisted that straight folk needed to realize that they already knew queer folk—that they already worked, played, and worshiped alongside queer folk—so, too, do straight folk need to realize that they work, play, and worship alongside the parents of queer folk. They need to be shown flesh in order to understand that parents of queer kids are like all parents—struggling to do a good job, and to live “out and proud” as do their courageous queer children.
Family photo provided by Neil Sherouse