Coming Out for Children of Same-Sex Attracted Parents.
My son Ben was travelling home with a colleague from work and a discussion of parents came up. Eventually, he disclosed his fathers were gay and (coincidentally) his colleague disclosed her mother was lesbian. This lead to a conversation between Ben and me about how he negotiates the coming out process as a child of a gay dad. I have discussed this at public events since, which lead to a counselling referral of two young people with gay dads.
The fathers referred the children to me as they were having issues with how/when to tell friends they had gay parents. Although I have now finished counselling with them, I know the importance of this issue for children of queer parents. Much of the research focuses on the wellbeing and achievements of children in queer families; see this article in The Age (http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/tick-for-samesex-families-20130605-2npxf.html) for example, yet there is little about the coming out process.
Children of queer parents have to negotiate the processes of coming out. In some cases they are faced with a rejection by friends, acquaintances and potential partners as individuals as well as facing the rejection of their parents and families. Their coming out can lead to the rejection of not just them, but their whole family can be affected.
I became a non-traditional parent in many ways. Firstly I was gay; secondly I was a foster-parent, not a birth-parent. When I first started fostering I was required by the service I was fostering through to disclose to the young men who came to care that I was gay (and in a relationship). The service was required to tell birth-parents their children were being placed with a gay man as well. Although I never experienced rejection, I know one young man was concerned about living with a gay man although this concern was short-lived, and I was welcomed by two birth-families into their lives. After this policy changed I simply began introducing my partner (who was a man) when a foster child arrived, without saying the words, “..and we are gay.”
I treated my sexuality as a normal fact, as did the young men in my care. This was helpful in one case where a new young man came into my care and raised the issue of me being gay with the others in the family household who all normalised the situation with a “so what”. I am also aware that a couple of them were teased at school for being in the care of a gay man – but this was relatively short-lived.
Ben’s friends at secondary school knew I was gay, as Ben says, “no one could keep a secret.” Not that he wanted to keep it a secret. Ben does tell a story of one mate who was uncomfortable about being around me because “he’s gay.” “But really it didn’t worry me,” according to Ben. Ben chose to attend agricultural college in central western Queensland after he finished secondary school. Ben tells his story, “This was a little harder. It was country Queensland. I worried about who I’d tell. Some of them [other students] could be quite homophobic. But in the end it wasn’t really an issue. “
I never really gave much thought to the impact of my sexuality on the young men in my care until Ben came home one day with the revelation that he too had negotiated the closet and coming out too. Boy, was I happy, I thought he was (finally) coming out – a day to celebrate (I still say to him that being straight is just a phase he is going through – our family joke). But no, he was referring to a realisation that over the ten or so years of being “my son” that he too had to negotiate the coming out process on a daily basis – just like his dad! This set us on a path to see what research was available about children of gay parents coming out.
Research about Children of Gay Parents
Abbie Goldberg, whose research focuses on children of same-sex parents, has identified two factors which influence children coming out about their parent/s: when the parent/s disclose their sexuality and the parent/s openness about their sexuality. Some children grow up knowing their parents are same-sex attracted. There is no one coming-out event. The parents’ attraction is openly discussed and integrated into life.
Sex and sexuality were always openly discussed in our house and is to this day. Ben was always encouraged to be open with his sexuality and to be responsible in his choices. “Sex became normal and not taboo. I could ask and talk about anything and learnt about respect. I learnt to accept people for having diversity in sexuality. I also knew sex was healthy.”
Through her research, Goldberg also found a group of children who had known since childhood. They read the signs basically: love gifts from the partner, or frequent visits from their parent’s “special” same-sex friend. Jas, a 25 year old daughter of lesbian friends, said that her experience was a combination of “figuring it out” and eventually open discussion:
…As mum was unable to articulate her experience to us because she was still grappling with it, we were left to “figure it out” by noting the constant visits between the two of them, the lack of any male love interests, her partner staying in the same bed, glimpses of affection between the two etc. However because it wasn’t acknowledged for the first year or so, there was an element of secrecy and for myself this allowed me an opportunity for denial. When mum started to identify as same sex attracted and would take us to pride marches or Midsumma festival however, this required a “coming out” process for each of us in terms of acknowledging that we were children of same sex parents within a public space.
For others, it was found that they knew since childhood but it was never acknowledged. For example, dad always slept with John. Another group consisted of children who had known since childhood, but because of their parents’ level of disclosure, it remained secretive. These are just some of the factors which influence the experiences of children and their own coming out processes.
Juliet Hart and colleagues in the United States reported that for young people in school, having an ally/ies, whether friends, school counsellor, supportive teacher or other “queer-friendly” person/people was a the biggest determinant of whether they would disclose their parents same-sex attraction. Hart and colleagues noted that younger children often talked about their parents, but during middle school years (where they learnt discrimination) the disclosures stopped until late secondary school and early adulthood.
The reasons children of same-sex parents decide to come-out, according to Goldberg’s interview-based study, can be varied. These might include education and activism – education of others in the friendship-acquaintance circle of the children and/or activism about LGBTIQ issues. Other participants in her research suggested they used the coming out process as a “litmus test” for the potential of someone becoming a friend or even a potential partner. Goldberg also found, like many gay and lesbian people, coming out (as a child of same-sex attracted parents) was about creating an identity and authenticity.
Other people, rejected the idea their identity was connected to their parent/s identity and did not disclose their parents sexuality unless necessary. For a minority in the study there was also a lack of disclosure related to shame about their parent’/s’ sexuality.
For children who remain in the closet there seems to be a conflict between the socially-sanctioned hate towards same-sex attraction (homophobia), whether forced-internalised or from others, and the love for their parents. Julie Hart and colleagues found children “in the closet” reported words like scared, worried and ashamed. These young people used “being secretive” as a way to cope.
Our children also experience queer hate/homophobia, just like we do. This, according Goldberg, is one reason children disclose their same-sex parentage. Goldberg reported that some of her participants felt “pushed to disclose” in response to unacceptable remarks, while others used their coming out to fight “homophobia in their partner’s family. Goldberg also found that other participants, like many of us, sometimes chose to remain silent and other times came out. The determining factor was the likely level of acceptance.
Being out of the closet was reported to engender pride and sense of wellbeing, according to Hart and her co-researchers. For some of the young people in her study, having same-sex parents was considered a normal state of being, with some becoming advocates for “the cause”.
Children of same-sex attracted parents, like their parents, sometimes face similar issues. These children are sometimes likely to face teasing about their parents’ sexuality, like two of my sons did. As with the broader LGBTIQ community this teasing (which is a form of homophobia) can lead to poorer mental health. Abbi Goldberg and Julie Anna Smith have also suggested that lack of legal recognition of our relationships may also impact.
Coming Out as a Child of Same-Sex Parent/s
Jas tells her story about how she and her sister come out as a child of same-sex parents:
[My sister] and I were talking about this yesterday – we spoke about how we liked to let new people know about mum and [her partner]. Without ever having discussed it before, we figured out that we had both chosen the same approach – by dropping the fact into a regular conversation early on in a new relationship/friendship and then continuing on seemingly oblivious with whatever we were talking about earlier.
We found that this garnered the best responses – the most honest and definitely the most amusing! It also helped to normalise the situation –there was no point making a big song and dance about it because it feels like a normal part of life for us and therefore not something that requires lengthy, serious discussion.
This whole concept of children “coming out” is particularly apt – because I was being interviewed on Joy FM about this issue around the same time I agreed to have drinks with a guy. I have had to let him know in advance why I would be leaving the date early. This then led to him asking me what I was be speaking about on Joy FM –hence the “I have two mummies” talk, which as mentioned before, is not an approach I generally choose to take!
However as with most people I have encountered the response was one of intense curiosity. Although there have been times with men who find out I have two mothers – a dash of innuendo and subtle/unsubtle jokes about lesbian MILFS!
Jas and one of her sisters share a similar story about coming out. The sharing of their mothers’ relationship is normalised within a context and not made an issue. It is of interest to note the level of disrespect some men have responded through inappropriate jokes whether subtle or unsubtle.
Jas and her siblings attended events like Midsumma as proud children of lesbian mothers and openly acknowledge both women as their parents. For Jas, an upcoming hurdle she often thinks about is how to manage her wish that her mother’s partner walk her down the aisle, alongside the wishes of her father and familial expectations that he be the one to take part in this symbolic event. This is yet another issue children of same-sex parents sometimes have to negotiate.
As same-sex parenting increases we need to be mindful and provide support to our children. This includes to provide a loving home to build their resilience and to support them in their own coming out. According to Goldberg, early communication is key to assisting children to deal with issues about their parents’ sexuality. Always remember that our children, like us, have to negotiate the continuum of coming of coming out.
Goldberg, A.E. (2007). Talking about family: Disclosure practices of adults raised by lesbian, gay, and bisexual parents. Journal of Family Studies, 28, 1, 100-131.
Goldberg, A.E. & Kuvalanka, K.A. (2012). Marriage (in)equality: The perspectives of adolescents and emerging adults with lesbian, gay and bisexual parents. Journal of Marriage and Family, 74, 134-52.
Hart, J.E., Mourot, J.E. & Aros, M. Children of same-sex parents: In and out of the closet. Educational Studies, 38, 3 227-281.Acknowledgements
Thank you to Ben, my wonderful son for being part of my story in so many ways.
Thank you Jas for participating and being a wonderful “niece”.
Ms Linda Kirkman (@lindathestar) for her editorial guidance.