Telling your parents you are gay is not an experience people take lightly – whether you are on the giving or the receiving end of the news.
As it is, parents and children often experience difficulty in seeing each other as sexual beings and when parents have to deal with the added information of their children’s homosexuality, all sorts of other issues come to the fore.
Receiving this news is often a profound shock for parents, says Glenn de Swardt, Manager of the Clinical Services for The Triangle Project, a gay, lesbian and bisexual support group. Not only do parents often have to cope with their own and society’s homophobic ideas, but they have to rethink the ideals they had for their child.
Mothers often have some idea of the truth, as they are often more closely in tune with their children on an emotional level. But it still comes as a shock to have your suspicions confirmed. Parents also see their children as extensions of themselves and this forces them to rethink family relationships.
Although a lot less homophobic than twenty years ago - South Africa now has one of the most progressive constitutions in the world as far as gay rights are concerned - our society, of which parents form an integral part, still has very stereotypical ideas about what it means to be gay. Parents often wonder whether their children are going to become clones of Liberace or Martina Navratilova. The truth often lies very far from this.
Parents need time to mourn
“Parents need time to mourn the loss of what they had hoped for their children – a stable marriage and children” says De Swardt. “They need the space to go into shock and to come to terms with the news they have received. Coming out is a long process for a child and parents also need a lot of time to work through this.”
"Where did we go wrong?"
It is not unusual for parents to experience a deep sense of shame and a very real fear of what relatives, friends and colleagues will say. Many parents examine themselves, their own relationship with their spouse and ask the universal question, ”Where did we go wrong”. The answer is most probably ‘nowhere’.
Parents worry about their children leading a life of what they perceive as unstable and alien to their own experience. The life of a lonely social outcast is what many parents envisage for their homosexual child.
The truth lies very far from this, as there are thousands of happy gay couples in South Africa. With heterosexual marriages having only a 50% chance of success, being straight is not always a guarantee for happiness.
Both parents and children do not always have contact with or access to positive gay role models and for this reason often jump to conclusions that may be very far from the truth, like it will merely be a matter of time before your son gets AIDS.
10 Tips for parents of gay children
Remember that this is still the child you love
Children do not choose this condition
Give yourself time to make peace with the idea – give yourself time to mourn if you need to.
Be honest about what you are feeling as it will give your child the opportunity to do the same. If you are worried, it is because you care and mean well. You might worry less if you inform yourself better.
Treasure your child’s individuality and her right to make choices
Remember that you want, above all else, for your child to be happy, not to lead a life of secrecy of which you form no part
Feel flattered that your child trusted you enough to tell you – it means he wants you to remain a part of his life. And as he is unlikely to have a wife and strings of children, will very likely be able to give you more care and attention in your later life than would otherwise have been possible.
Your child is not doing this to reject you
Other people are often far less prejudiced than you expect them to be. Statistically they are very likely to have either gay children, siblings or other relatives.
“It is not always a wise idea to tell parents,” says Glenn de Swardt. “In homes where violence occurs or if conservative parents are likely to react very strongly by doing things such as kicking schoolgoing children out of the home, it is often better for the child to keep quiet.” But in most cases it is wiser to be honest – just choose the right time.
And even if you feel at sea, remember the words of Oscar Wilde: “Ordinary riches can be stolen, real riches cannot. In your soul are infinitely precious things that cannot be taken from you.”
The Triangle Project (Tel.(021) 448 3812) also has counselling facilities for parents and families who are having difficulty coming to terms with having a gay child or sibling. The Gay and Lesbian Helpline is also available from 1 pm to 9 pm. daily on (021) 712 6699.
(Susan Erasmus, Health24, updated June 2010)
Many teens worry about this issue. Our gay, lesbian and bisexual expert gives advice.
Gays happy for new Facebook option
The history of Cape Town Pride
Spot yourself in our Pride 2011 gallery