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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.

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An Open Letter to Matt Moore

By now, you’ve probably seen the story about Matt Moore, a Christian blogger who was spotted on the gay hookup app Grindr after he wrote about his choice to no longer engage in sexual behavior because he believes sexual behavior between two people of the same sex is sinful. Much of the coverage has been focused on the hypocrisy of his public writing versus his private actions, and I think some of that coverage has been unfair. Mostly he’s been identified as a member of the “ex-gay” movement, which seems at least factually incorrect. If you’d like to read up on this story, I suggest beginning with Zinnia Jones’ piece about it, since that’s where the recent story begins.

Dear Matt,

I’m not sure exactly where to begin. I don’t want this letter to seem hurtful. Honestly, I watched the video you posted to youtube last night, and looked at your twitter feed, and my impression is that you’re a person who’s hurting an awful lot right now. I don’t want to add to that, but there’s some more that needs to be said, and I don’t see a lot of people saying it. I prefer getting the harder stuff out of the way first, so that’s where I’ll begin. If you read this, the stuff at the end is more pleasant than the beginning. So at least there’s that.

I’m glad that you’ve spoken out about being mislabeled as an “ex-gay.” You, and I, and just about everyone out there knows that’s just a hurtful fiction. It’s snake oil, and it’s being pushed on vulnerable kids and young adults, sold to their scared families. It makes their lives more difficult, and every year it drives some gay kids to take their own lives before they’ve even begun.

Here’s the tough part, though. What you’re doing is just as hurtful. Unlike the “ex-gay” folks, you aren’t lying about it. And I don’t think you intend to hurt them, so if we’re comparing morality, you’re a lot better than the “ex-gay” charlatans. But the dead teenagers are just as dead, Matt. And your writing contributes to a social structure that devalues those kids, tells them they are less than everyone else. This is why some of the coverage of your story has seemed gleeful — lots of folks feel that by discrediting you, young lives are saved. A confused mother who reads your writing isn’t going to understand the nuanced difference between “not acting on homosexual feelings” and “not being gay anymore.” She’s going to read your posts and decide that if her gay kid just works hard enough, just loves God enough, he can live the life she wants him to live. And that kid loves his mother, and he probably loves his church, and being gay is cloaked in mystery and fear for him, so he’s going to try his hardest. And he’s going to fail. Of course he’s going to fail! You’re telling him that he needs to live his entire life alone, that he must never know love. And it’s going to make him feel like the reason he failed is because he just didn’t love God enough. And if he just doesn’t love God enough, doesn’t that reflect on his value as a person, within a social/religious structure that places loving God at the very top of its priorities? It’s like Cinderella going to the ball. Her sisters get to go, and so does she. She just has to pick all of those lentils out of the ashes first. An impossible task, designed to let her know how much less value she has as a person. But gay teenagers can’t talk to birds, so they have to do it all alone.

Unavoidable in all this talk is the idea that love is sin. That somehow, the very best of us is the very worst. I’m not religious anymore, but I try to be a good person. I have varying degrees of success, like anyone else. My ten-year relationship with my husband, though filled with compromises (like any relationship), is not a compromise. It is the very best of me. My marriage and my children are what I have to show for my life, really. They aren’t asterisks — “Mark is a great guy. Too bad about that gay marriage and the children he and his husband raised in sin together.” But that’s what you’re saying, isn’t it?

All right. If you’ve gotten this far, I’m done with the tough part, and can move onto the pleasant part.

I’d like to invite you to come to Massachusetts and spend a day with my family. You certainly won’t see a perfect family. I’ll try to clean up, but my house will still look like a mess. I’ll vacuum, but you’ll be brushing dog hair off your clothes for days after you visit. My kids are sweet, but they will cry about ridiculous things, and probably fight with each other, and each of them will have at least one tantrum. They can’t put on a show for guests. We are who we are. I’ll make dinner, and it’ll be fine, but it won’t win any awards. What it lacks in quality, I’ll at least try to make up for in quantity. You won’t go hungry.

After dinner, you’ll finally get a moment of peace. Austin and I will put the kids to bed — there will almost certainly be some more screaming at this point — and then the house will be quiet. We can go into the living room — I suggest keeping your shoes on, because legos are hazardous — and have a chat. Austin and I are pretty much open books, and we’d be happy to tell you just about anything you’d like to know about our life. We’ve had plenty of practice talking about our lives with relative strangers during the adoption process.

When you leave, I’d like you to take some time to think about my family. Once you’ve done that, I’d ask you to identify the parts of my life that you think make God unhappy, and the parts of my life — if you can find any — that you think make God happy. No tricks, no gotcha.

It’s an open invitation, Matt. No time limit. I can probably even convince Austin to use some of his frequent flier miles for you, if you need. We don’t use them for very much these days.

Sincerely,

Mark