While hosting my radio program, "Let's Talk with Dr. Gail Gross," I received a phone call from a father who threw his son out of the house when he came out as being gay. The father was crying on the phone, and to get to the heart of the matter, I asked him a question: "Do you love your son?"
The father opened up immediately and said how much his son meant to him and how fearful he was that his son was now unprotected on the street. He told me that the schism in this relationship left him bereft and broken. I asked him what his son meant to him, and if, in fact, he believed his son could be defined solely by his sexuality. "No, of course not," he said, as he explained how wonderful his son was, how many interests they had in common and how sorely this father missed his son.
I reminded the father that his son was still his child -- a part of himself -- and that the role of every parent is to support his/her child through the individuation process. Meaning that as a child grows to adulthood, that child discovers who he/she is as that inner voice, and that vocation evolves into his persona and destiny.
Who we are meant to be
Psychologist Carl Jung described this event as individuation: the coming to wholeness of the person we are meant to be, not the person that society, or even our parents, wish us to be, but the authentic us that lives within the core of our being. If a person is forced to live a life that is inauthentic, and unnatural to his/her psyche, it kills the individual spirit and challenges the sense of self. However, if a child is allowed to be who he/she is, supported by family, that child then has the chance to find his/her true gifts and develop into a full, authentic adult.
On the other hand, family rejection lowers the self-esteem of our children and it is from that place of fear, humiliation and shame that a child may turn to drugs, alcohol, prostitution and even suicide. The feeling of being an outcast, not fitting in and letting our parents down, is a terrible burden for a young person to carry. When a child declares his/her sexual orientation, the very act carries the unique texture of something difficult and uncomfortable. After all, heterosexual children don't feel the necessity to declare their sexual orientation.
Support your child's path as his/her own
Valuing your children's choice in coming out, to be themselves and supporting their path, wherever it may lead, is what parenting really is about. It is the wise parent that acknowledges the power and impact of their child's tender struggle and, no matter what, advocates for that child. Our children are not our replication, nor are they reflections of us, but rather, their own unique selves. If parents can open to who their children are and love them for that, then this coming out step, though stressful, can precipitate a far deeper relationship between parent and child. By recognizing their own humanity, parents have a great opportunity to confront their own feelings honestly, while listening to the deeply emotional challenges of their children. This will allow the child to live honestly and find genuine relationships with both themselves and others.
During this process, parents and children alike should remember to have empathy for one another. The child who is coming out is confronting the entire breadth of his/her history and fear of rejection, not only from family, but also from peers. Yet, if this child is supported by family, that child can be liberated. Then all of the energy that was used to suppress who he/she really is will come back as creative energy so that he/she can live life more fully as a whole person.
Seek outside guidance
Counseling and psychotherapy are great tools for parents and children to reach for at this juncture. Counseling can create the supportive environment necessary for the coming out process. A good psychotherapist or counselor can address the questions that challenge mom and dad. Until sexual orientation is understood, parents may question their relationship and the home environment that they fostered. They may grieve the loss of their expectations and the future that they imagined for themselves and their child.
Therapy will help parents recognize that by letting go of that conceptual framework, they have the opportunity to journey with their child into the future of his/her choice. Life is a collection of memories and when we let go of the past, we realize that all we really have are the memories we are making now in the present. By embracing our child and his/her reality, we will get reacquainted with that son or daughter hidden in the shadows.
Further, support groups are available for parents and children who are in transition. By taking advantage of this, parents and children can connect with others who know how they feel, because they live there.
Come together and grow together as a family
As the family talks their way through this chaos, they come to recognize that sexual orientation is really not a choice, and just a small part of who we are as human beings. If a person has been critically damaged in a car wreck and can no longer have sex with their mate, are they still a man or a woman, husband or wife? The answer is yes. We are not our labels; we are the self that resides within. We can't be described or defined by our sexual orientation.
In the final analysis, by valuing our children and advocating their choice to come out, we move through a phase of emotional instability into the safe space of a mutual and loving family. Children grow up, and parents remain parents. By being the kind of parent that can be counted on, we legitimize our rights as parents to parent, to always share our feelings, and to be the resource and lifelong support for our progeny.
Life is an adventure -- take the journey together.