From Metro Parent Magazine October 2002
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Parenting A Gay Child ó Parents and Schools Work Towards Understanding
By Gina Carrier firstname.lastname@example.org
Pam Hazlett of Rochester Hills remembers the day her then teenage son Christopher told her he was gay. Hazlett, who has two sons, said Christopher was 15 at the time, and decided to tell her and her husband right before he went to bed for the evening.
"He said, 'by the way, thereís something you both should know, Iím gay.' Since then, weíve really learned to pay attention when Christopher starts a sentence with, 'by the way,'" Hazlett joked.
She admits she didnít feel much like laughing the evening her son "came out," a term used to describe the process of telling friends and family about oneís sexual orientation. In fact, she went through a lot of emotions that experts say is very common for heterosexual parents.
Hazlett and her husband both assured Christopher that they loved and accepted him and that would never change, but she also said she sobbed that evening. "I literally had visions of wedding and grandchildren passing me by, and of course thatís the big mom thing."
Psychologists say that sense of loss is real for most heterosexual parents coming to grips with the fact that their son or daughter is gay. Margaret Buttenheim, a psychologist at the University of Michiganís Center for Child and Family which counsels families of both gay parents raising heterosexual children and heterosexual parents raising LGBT children, said it's about recognizing that although your child may be like you in many ways, he or she is also their own person and very different from you in many ways.
"If youíre a heterosexual parent, you have as a long-standing fantasy that you're raising boys and girls who are going to go on and reproduce, and do it the same way youíve done it. So thereís a loss of a fantasy that you might not have ever known, or considered to be a fantasy," Buttenheim explained.
In addition to losing that particular dream she had of her sonís future, Hazlett said her tears also represented fears and concerns for Christopher because of how society discriminates against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
PFLAG for Support
To help her work through those and other issues, Hazlett turned to the organization PFLAG: Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. This national group works to support and educate family and friends of LGBT people, and as an advocacy agency, tries to end discrimination and fight for equal rights. PFLAG has four chapters in Southeastern Michigan: Royal Oak, Ann Arbor, Downriver and Genesee County. There are currently more than 300 members in metro Detroit.
PFLAG began in the early 1970s over a mother's outrage after her son was attacked during a gay rights protest demonstration in New York and she witnessed the policeís failure to intervene. After that incident, Jeanne Manford marched with her gay son in New Yorkís Pride Day parade and was approached by many gay and lesbian people who asked her to speak to their parents. After that experience, she started a support group in 1973 and since then itís grown to 460 chapters throughout the U.S. with more than 80,000 members.
Jerry Langdon, co-president of PFLAG Detroit says the group's main goal is to offer support to parents to let them know theyíre not alone, "And secondly, to educate them. Most parents feel like it's their fault, that they did something wrong. Thatís what they were trained to believe," Langdon said.
PFLAG Detroit meets at 2 p.m. every second Sunday of the month at Lutheran Church of the Master in Troy. Langdon explained that parents or family members attending for the first time, meet separately with two other parents to talk privately about their feelings and concerns. After they feel more comfortable, they can join regular support groups which usually include 8-10 people.
"For every child who comes out of the closet, thereís a parent that goes in because they have to tell their parents. They have to tell their brothers and sisters. They have to tell their families and friends at work," he explained.
Pam Hazlett knows first hand that parents also experience a coming out after learning that their son or daughter is gay. Her advice to those kids: try to be patient with your parents. "Kids should know that however long it took them to get to that point, they have to give their parents some time, too, to go through the same conflicts, worries or fears that the child did," she said.
Keep Communication Lines Open
Experts say the best advice for both heterosexual parents and their gay child is to listen to each other and communicate openly through the whole process. 17-year-old Sean Moore has tried to live by that advice. He came out to his parents a little over a year ago, just before his 16th birthday. Moore had been struggling with telling his parents for more than a year.
"I was mentally thinking, 'I need to do this because itís the only way Iím going to be myself.' But every time I wanted to do it, I would look at my parents and think, 'Oh, I guess Iíll do it some other time,'" he said.
In Mooreís case, his parents took the initiative. "We were having a discussion about driving and being responsible and what that meant," he recalled. "And they asked me if there was anything else I wanted to share about myself with them. So I basically affirmed their questioning. Telling them I was gay went very well. It was such a relief of emotions. I was just happy and overjoyed."
Moore also believes that what can really help young people struggling to come to terms with their sexual identity, is if parents express how they feel about homosexuality.
"Letting a kid know without saying it, that you're supportive of that kind of decision by bringing up conversations about gay rights and things like that, and just talking about the issue and having a positive attitude about it, lets a kid know that his parents are accepting of the issue which means theyíre probably going to be accepting of him," Moore said.
Yvonne Parks says that kind of life lesson really paid off for her several years ago. Her daughter Tanya, who is now in her late 30s, came out when she was 21. Parks said Tanya recalled a conversation they had when Tanya was 14-years-old. Parks was preparing her two daughters for a visit with their grandparents. She told her girls that unfortunately, Grandma and Grandpa were sometimes prejudiced and they might say nasty things about people's religion or ethnicity, and she also "threw in" homosexuality.
"I remembered a comment my dad made about homosexuals when I was a very young child and an incident later. My message to my girls was, 'this may be what your grandparents think, but it's not what we think,' so they could still love their grandparents and I wasnít putting them down. Tanya remembered that, and she reminded me of it many years later when she came out to me," Parks said.
Psychologist Buttenheim also encourages parents to include homosexuality when theyíre talking about sex in general. "Kids are watching their parents' attitudes very closely, so when parents talk about sex as simply a heterosexual act, a child is carefully listening to see how receptive their parents would be about their experiences."
Discuss Diversity at Home
Talking about gay rights, or including the topic of homosexuality in discussions about sex education, are just two ways parents can initiate conversations about sexual orientation. Tracy Hobbs, a psychologist for the Lake Orion School District, said by doing this, it also lets kids gain insight into their parents' belief system.
"It helps pass on the values of respect, understanding differences and diversity to your child, and you frame it in the context that in society today, we see many different kinds of families," he suggested.
On the flip side, children are also profoundly affected by what they donít hear parents say. So if parents purposely shy away from talking about homosexuality, it sends a message to a child that her parents think it's wrong, according to John Corvino, assistant professor of philosophy at Wayne State University, frequent speaker on homosexuality and gay issues, and writer for Between the Lines, Michiganís gay and lesbian weekly. Corvino said there are people who adopt a "donít-ask, donít-tell" attitude where they may be supportive quietly, but donít want to publicly acknowledge homosexuality or share how they feel about it with their children.
"That creates a sort of culture of silence, and what that does is communicates the message that homosexuality is literally unspeakable, not to be talked about, itís an embarrassment, something you hide, and of course, thatís a terrible message to be sending to people," he said.
Gay-Straight Alliances at School
Teaching young people about diversity and respect for others is also a lesson schools are providing in greater numbers. In the past few years, many Detroit-area high schools have started Gay-Straight Alliances, or GSAs. These clubs provide opportunities where gay and straight students meet to offer each other support. They also work to fight homophobia among peers and to build tolerance.
Lake Orion High School has one of the longest running GSAs. In its four and a half years, the club has organized a student symposium to bring in guest speakers, and sponsored A Day in Silence. This activity had students quiet throughout the day, distributing cards that read they represented the voices of those silenced by prejudice.
School psychologist Tracy Hobbs says the GSA has really made a difference in the attitudes of many. "Students have said that when someone says, 'oh thatís so gay!' or 'oh, what a fag,' that kids will speak up and respond, 'hey, thatís not cool.' So it's kind of heightening the awareness of the issue."
According to the 2001 National School Climate Survey by GLSEN, Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network, 83 percent of LGBT youths are harassed at school because of their sexual orientation. 21 percent report that they have been physically assaulted, and 69 percent say they donít feel safe at school.
Hobbs says it's statistics like these that make GSAs so necessary. "They provide a lifeline for gay kids in schools because so many of these students tend to be isolated. They are kind of an invisible minority, like if youíre the only Jewish kid in your high school and something happens at school that you're teased about, or an issue comes up, you have a family to go home to that is like you, and supports you for that identity. You know, gay kids certainly donít have that luxury."
Joe Glazer, an English and Social Studies teacher at Rochester Adams High School and the faculty adviser for its GSA, says derogatory words and actions make a huge impact on all teenagers, but especially gay teens. "When you hear people rallying against you, it's one of the things that shapes your identity, and really pushes kids to the edge, ending their own lives if they think thereís no one to talk to."
The Link to Suicide
In fact, statistics show gay teens are more likely to be pushed towards drastic measures than their heterosexual classmates. In August 2001, a study published in the American Journal of Public Health reported that teenagers with same-sex attractions were twice as likely as their heterosexual counterparts to attempt suicide.
Glazer, whose brother is gay, said he knows how real this can be because he saw what his brother went through. He says it's everybodyís responsibility to make schools safe. "In the late 70s, there were a few people in this building who made the environment safe. I teach with some of them now, and theyíre just beautiful people. I tell them, 'you saved my brother's life.'"
Sean Moore, who will be a senior at Rochester Adams this year, says the GSAs are an absolute necessity. "The main thing is to create safer schools where everyone can go and learn; somewhere youíre not afraid of being gay and having on your mind, 'I'm going to get beat up between classes because Iím gay.'"
Glazer adds that the GSAs really are a win-win situation for everyone involved. He says they help gay students get much-needed peer support and they help enlighten those who are prejudiced by providing information and teaching them to accept others.
More parents seem to be on board with public school efforts to make schools safer for gay kids. According to a December 2001 survey by Lake Snell Perry and Associates, 86 percent of parents favor policies to protect LGBT students from harassment and discrimination. Another 80 percent would like to see sensitivity training for teachers to help them deal with anti-gay harassment. And slightly more than half, 51 percent, want positive information about gay people included in middle and high school English and social studies classes.
According to the 2000 U.S. Census, there are 15,368 gay and lesbian households in Michigan. There are no statistics available regarding the sexual orientation of young people.
Philosophy professor Corvino said there have been a number of different studies on what causes a personís sexual orientation but the scientific jury is still out. "Some research suggests womenís sexuality tends to be more fluid than menís but it's unclear whether thatís for biological or cultural reasons. What seems clear, is that in many people, especially men, sexual orientation is fixed at an early age, which is not to say that we can readily detect it, much less influence it. And," he added, "the cause of homosexuality should be irrelevant to gay rights."
Corvino said one of the biggest misconceptions people have is thinking of homosexuality as a kind of rebellion against family values, religious convictions or social norms. He says LGBT people want very badly to be a part of those institutions.
"They love their families. They care about their communities. They hope
and dream and love just like everyone else. Itís important for parents to
remember that when their children are coming out to them, these are still the
bright, wonderful, loving, vulnerable, unique individuals youíve lived with and
cared for all their lives."
óGina Carrier of Grosse Pointe is a freelance writer and the mother of two young children.
RESOURCES FOR PARENTS AND CHILDREN
PFLAG: Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays
Metro Detroit chapter (248) 656-2875
Affirmations Gay and Lesbian Community Center
GLSEN: Gay Lesbian Student Education NetworK
HRC: Human Rights Campaign
* Suggested reading for parents of LGBT children from PFLAG Detroit:
Straight Parents, Gay Children: Keeping Families Together by Robert A Bernstein. Thunderís Mouth Press, 1995.
Beyond Acceptance by Carolyn Griffin and Marian and Arthur Wirth. Prentice Hall, 1986.
Family: A Portrait of Gay and Lesbian America by Nancy Andrews. Harper San Francisco, 1994.
Homosexuality: The Secret A Child Dare Not Tell by Mary Ann Cantwell. Rafeal Press, 1996.
* Reading materials for LBGT Youth:
Am I blue? Coming Out from the Silence by Marion Dane Bauer, editor. Harper Collins, 1994.
Being Different: Lambda Youths Speak Out by Larry Brimmer. Grolier, 1995.
The Journey Out: A Book About Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Teens by Rachel Pollack and Cheryl Schwartz. Puffin Books, 1995.
When Someone You Know Is Gay by Susan and Daniel Cohen. Dell, 1989.