04/10/2013 01:03 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Is it Easier to Come Out to Mom or Dad?

Magic Johnson has publicly come out that his son is gay I purposely use the term, "come out" because when a child comes out of the closet, some parents immediately go into the closet with the secret that they have a gay child.

Another father made the news in support of his gay son in March in the Advocate in a reprinted a letter which went viral and was posted on an equal rights organization FCKH8 Facebook page.

I feel emotional reading this letter from a father to his son and hearing how Magic Johnson led the conversation in a very warm and supportive way to his son. These young gay men are lucky to have these fathers. Their very open and accepting position as fathers is crucial for gay sons mental and emotional well-being.

All men need blessings and validation from their fathers. As gay men, we especially need blessings from our fathers for being both men and gay. The time comes when you go from boy to man with your father, and telling your father you are gay can be one of those times.

Gay men tell me that coming out to dad isn't as easy as coming out to mom. They say they feel mom will be more supportive and they are often correct. Usually the same sex parent has a more difficult time with the news than does the opposite sex.

I wish I had the same experiences these gay men had with their fathers.

I knew I was gay throughout my childhood in the 1970s. When I was 18, I told my family I was gay. My therapist, though helpful in other ways, had led me to believe my gayness was the result of a smothering mother and a distant father. So I dutifully blamed my mother for being overprotective and told my father it was his fault for leaving us to start a new family when I was three years old. Little did I know how wrong this was at the time.

My father's initial response was to tell me that he would pay for a female prostitute in order for me to have sex with a woman. I responded that I would accept his offer if only the prostitute were male. He never made that offer again, and today I laugh when I think of that memory.

I wish I had a similar coming out process as the son of Magic Johnson. I finally found a therapist who honored and validated my gayness as natural and normal and discredited the parental influence theory, which today is seen as outdated and useless. My family and I were finally able to heal.

Over the years as a therapist I have heard parents say thing to me about their gay and lesbian children such as:

"I would rather my child be a murderer than a homosexual."
"It's all my fault! What did I do wrong?"
"They can change, but they don't want to."
"Why did he tell us this? Is he trying to hurt us?"

Homosexuality has many issues attached to it -- religion, sex and politics to name a few. Some questions I ask my clients about their families to get a sense of how they might react to their sexuality are:

• Does your family talk about sex? If they do, is it too much, inappropriate, or within normal limits in your judgment? If they don't, what happens when the subject of sex comes up?
• How religious -- if at all -- is your family?
• How does your family deal with change? Tell me about the three most recent changes in your family and how the family members dealt with them.
• What are your family's politics? Are they more focused on the fiscal and/or social parts of their politics? Have you seen this affect your family and if so, how?
• How does your family deal with differences among other family members? Are they open-minded and accepting, or closed and rejecting?

Helping families build bridges across such a turbulent, difficult topic is no easy task. To effectively facilitate this process, I help my clients know their family dynamics and issues as well as their personal judgments and agendas.

It is important to establish ground rules for discussing homosexuality among family members. The subject is charged for many reasons, as the examples in this chapter have shown. Emotions run deep, reactivity runs high, and individuals regress to primal coping mechanisms, relying solely on the reptilian brain, which operates only on survival. Family members will do or say whatever it takes to get relief.

Given all this, rules have to be established for the family to engage in healthy communication about the disclosure of being gay. Following are some you can use:

• Keep the dialogue about being gay or lesbian going, even if it makes family members uncomfortable. It is easy for the gay or lesbian family member to give up if the rest of the family does not want to talk about it or stops talking about it. This usually just means that people don't know what to say. You can prompt parents to keep talking to their child about the child's homosexuality with curiosity, asking things like, "What does gay mean to you?" or "When did you first discover you were gay?" or "If I said anything before I knew that was negative, I want you to know I am sorry." Whatever comes up for the family members, they need to be encouraged to keep talking.

• Take time-outs. Everyone needs to have permission to say when and if they are overwhelmed and unable to continue the conversation. Everyone needs to agree to take a time-out and agree when the conversation will continue. The time-out should never be more than 24 hours, or family members might have a tendency to avoid it for much longer and months could go by.

• Within the dialogue, feelings should be addressed and revealed only in nonreactive ways and through "I" statements such as "I have feelings about..." or "I am worried about... " In other words, if one or more person is having an overreaction, the conversation should stop immediately and only be resumed when reactivity can be contained. Emotional safety is the number one priority for all within these discussions. If someone no longer feels emotionally safe, they need to be able to express that and ask for the family member talking to state his or her thoughts in a different way or take a time out.

• Validate one another's points even if they are different from each other. It is easy to say that what someone is saying "doesn't make any sense" or is "completely ridiculous." Teach the family to refrain from making such statements and instead say, "What you have said makes sense from your point of view." This is not agreement, but it does not negate what the family member doing the validating is thinking. The family member will have a turn to share his or her side of things. The issue here is for all individuals to hear one another out and to be validated and accepted for what they think even if they disagree.

• Teach the family members how to stay emotionally connected and empathize with one another. For example, a gay son or daughter might say, "It must be scary to think about my going to gay bars in areas you don't think are safe." A parent might say, "I imagine you feel angry that my religious beliefs make it hard for me to accept your homosexuality."

I would like to end this article with a story from the Talmud:

A king had fallen out with his son. Very angry, the son left his father's castle and created his own kingdom, many miles away. Over time, the king missed his son and sent a messenger, asking him to return, but the son declined his father's invitation.

This time, the king sent the messenger back with a different message: "Son, come as far as you can, from your kingdom to mine. And I will meet you the rest of the way."