When my adult kid Harry first told me he felt like a girl inside, I’d never even heard the term gender identity. And clearly neither had he, because he was only two years old at the time. I had a convo that night with Harry’s dad about what that might mean for our toddler. As a teenager, Harry came out to me as bisexual and then again as gay, but it didn’t feel like my place either time to talk to Harry’s dad until he had. Harry did tell his dad right away. But what if he hadn’t? Then what would I have done?
A reader at My Kid Is Gay (formerly The Parents Project) posed that same question. When she wondered if it was unusual for a child to come out to only one parent, the editors at the site asked if I’d contribute some advice. Here’s the mom’s question, followed by my thoughts on how to handle her dilemma.
“My adult son told me he was gay almost one year ago. He has not told his father or brother and has not mentioned it again. I love him so much and I am so proud of who he is and want to be supportive, but I don’t think he wants to talk about it. Is this normal?”
I was divorced when my son, then a high school freshman, came out to me. I don’t think he planned it, as the subject arose while we were dining out. Before leaving the restaurant I asked him to please tell his dad, too. Even though his father and I weren’t together, I didn’t want his dad, who also loved and supported him unconditionally, to feel excluded from knowing such an important part of our child’s identity. I have a feeling you want the same thing for your family.
While it may not be the “norm” for an adult child to come out to only one parent, a Pew Research Center survey on the coming out experience indicates that sharing one’s sexual orientation with family members can be a gradual process, often taking several years to unfold. That surprised me, but the article includes many personal comments from LGBTQ adults that help explain how difficult it is to come out to parents and siblings. It also backs up what I’ve learned from my lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer friends and family: Coming out to one’s parents as an adult can be terrifying.
I don’t think there’s really any one “right” way or time to come out to family. Everyone has to do it in their own time, and that’s when they feel comfortable and safe. The fact that your son told you but not his dad or brother may mean that he feels closer to you and anticipated that your response would be filled with the love, pride, and support you mention above.
In addition to courage, coming out requires a tremendous amount of energy.
He may be worried about his dad or brother’s reactions, wondering if they’ll be as immediately accepting as you were. Based on beliefs or assumptions of your husband’s views, your son might anticipate his dad will have a hard time dealing with the fact he’s gay. Or maybe your sons have a close relationship and he’s afraid his brother will be angry he wasn’t the first to know. He might just fear being devastated by a negative reaction of any kind.
In addition to courage, coming out requires a tremendous amount of energy. Perhaps your son has decided to take things slowly with coming out to his dad and brother, or is still wrestling with how to tell them. Maybe the relief he felt telling you was enough for now, and he’s just not ready to move forward with telling other people. Only that “now” has become a year later, and it’s creating some stress for you. I’m sure that in a marriage built on trust you want to be able to talk openly and honestly about your children with your husband.
You didn’t say that your son expressly asked you not to tell your husband. Maybe he assumed you would; maybe he really wanted you to. Maybe you believe that’s his truth to tell, and you wouldn’t dream of sharing that without his request that you do so. On the other hand, maybe he has no intention of ever telling his dad or brother.
I realize I’ve presented you with a whole lot of maybes. But the bottom line is that all of these unknowns are creating stress for you. Until you have a conversation with your son, you can only keep guessing. And I think that after almost a year, there’s nothing wrong with asking your son to help you understand why he hasn’t come out yet to his dad and brother.
Assure him you know the how and when of coming out is up to him, and that you understand it can take time.
Ask him if you can come over for a heart-to-heart talk, or invite him out for lunch. Explain that you assumed he wanted to tell each of his parents individually, and the fact that he hasn’t done that after almost a year is confusing to you. Assure him you know the how and when of coming out is up to him, and that you understand it can take time. You can also communicate how you feel being the only parent who knows about his sexuality.
If he says he’s just not ready, ask him if he’s wanted all along for you to tell your husband, paving the way for him to have a future father-son dialogue down the road. If he says “no” and isn’t comfortable with that, again, ask him to explain. If it’s because he wants to be the one to tell his dad, then honor his wishes. But ask him for some sort of timeline, because not being able to share in your pride for him with his dad is placing you in an awkward position within your marriage.
Coming out to family is about acceptance and wanting a closer relationship with loved ones.
If he’s worried that his dad may reject him, ask him to explain those thoughts and feelings. If you know your husband loves and supports your son unconditionally, and is by no means anti-gay, assure him of that. If you don’t think your husband has ever considered the possibility your son is gay, express that, too. You can probably agree it might take some time for his dad to process the information, but that he does love him unconditionally. You could even offer to be present when he tells his dad and/or brother. It might make it easier for him to say something like, “I’ve shared something about myself with Mom and now I want you to know, too.”
Coming out to family is about acceptance and wanting a closer relationship with loved ones. And if that’s what your son wants—and I have a feeling he does—then I’m sure the two of you can come up with a coming out plan. There may never be that perfect time, but with your love, support, and assurances, I’m sure you can find a way that makes your family closer and stronger and your lives fuller.
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