Jonathan L. Tobkes, M.D. and Wesley C. Davidson

When Your Child Is Gay

Parenting a Gay Child

What parents need to know

Posted Jul 29, 2016

I always considered myself a liberal.  I grew up outside of New York City, the melting pot, attended college and worked in New York, yet when I found out my son, James, age 13, was gay, I reverted to "not in my backyard."  Suddenly, I went into denial mode; how could he be?  He had a girlfriend whom he said he was going to marry.  Although he didn't particularly like contact sports, he didn't exhibit the gay stereotypical image: lisp, rainbow colors.  How would he know he's gay, if he never had sex with a girl?

So What's This Uneasy Feeling I Have?

Back then, 1991, I didn't realize I was in denial.  According to co-author of When Your Child Is Gay, Jonathan L. Tobkes, M.D., denial is the most common initial reaction of parents to the jolting news that their child is gay.  When I interviewed straight parents for When Your Child Is Gay, they used words such as fear, shock, helplessness, stress, and extreme sadness to describe their experiences with denial.  Some even recounted feeling numb for awhile.

Why do parents who are normally accepting of their children go into the denial zone upon learning that their child is gay, bisexual, even transgender? In hindsight, I think I was shocked because I had expectations for my son's life: he would grow up as I did, marry the opposite sex, and produce grandchildren.  He would lead a traditional life from the time he was a strapping baby boy.  Being gay was not part of that plan and this fact was hard to reconcile.  

His love note, found by snooping, would alter my expectations for him.  Dr. Tobkes, affiliated with New York-Presbyterian/Cornell Weill Medical Center, explains that "parents employ defense mechanisms to cope with a reality that they perceive as threatening or damaging to one's self-image or world concept."  Most parents, attests Dr. Tobkes, who is in private practice in Manhattan, do not expect their child to be gay.

Like most parents, I wanted to resolve my denial.  But how?  I didn't know any other straight parents of LGBT kids. There was no one to mentor me.  I first consulted a therapist to explore why I was thrown off-kilter by my son's sexual orientation.  Dr. Tobkes says that insight is the most crucial ingredient needed to effect change.  You need to know and understand that you are employing denial.

Ways to Resolve Denial

A therapist can help you beyond avoidance.  However, be sure you pick a gay-friendly one from an organization such as the American Association of Psychiatrists that has a division of gay therapists from which to choose.  

Of course, it is most helpful to get advice from those who have worked through the conflicts of denial and can impart their knowledge to you.  They will be empathetic and understanding and in turn will contribute to your understanding of what it means to be the parent of a gay child.

One support group in which you will definitely find like-minded parents who have answers is PFLAG, the nation's largest organization uniting families, allies, and people who are LGBTQ. There are chapters throughout the United States. At PFLAG, you will find parents who have similar feelings, thoughts, and reactions to having a gay child.

When I was dealing with denial, I surrounded myself with positive people who were caring. I couldn't be around people who judged me, thought being gay was a "lifestyle" that could be changed or thought that homosexuality was wrong. I didn't want to listen to their viewpoints or argue my defense.

Not only did a therapist help me ultimately communicate better with my son, but also I got conversation starters from such books as Always My Child, by Kevin Jennings, Ph.D. with Pat Shapiro, M.S.W. (New York: Fireside Press, 2003). This book takes a parent through a day in the life of a gay child.

As a parent with no role models for having a gay child, I didn't expect to know how to parent a gay child. You may say that parenting is parenting, but the straight parent of a gay child has to deal with additional issues such as bullying, possible low self-esteem of their child, discrimination, to name a few. The gay child has most likely gone through the same issues that you are now experiencing: denial, fear, guilt, shame, anger, loss, to arrive at acceptance. 

In future blogs, we will tackle those subjects, just as When Your Child Is Gay (Sterling, 2016) does.

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