When Your 15-Year-Old Son Says “I’m Gay”

The boy looked extremely young in the video that was streaming over YouTube.  In it, he said that he was sixteen and that it was about the year since he told his parents he was gay.  He heartbreakingly tried to hide the pain on his face as he described how his father pretty much dismissed and ignored the issue and how his mother grew mean towards him – even calling him a “faggot” in an apparent attempt to shame him into straightness.  I wanted to reach through the laptop screen and give the poor kid a hug.  While my family always showed love and support for me, I definitely remember the loneliness of what it is to grow up gay.  Even worse, while he showed remarkable maturity for his age, you could see small seeds of bitterness sprouting towards his parents.

I didn’t really come out to my parents until I was much older, but if I had been around more gay people growing up, I imagine it would have happened fairly early like the kid in the YouTube video.  Kids are coming out much younger these days because society’s growing approval of homosexuality makes them feel safer and less ashamed.  This is actually a good thing.  The sooner a kid can acknowledge his sexuality and deal with it, the less “closet time” they have to endure – even if they never decides to publicly come out.  Closet time is not productive time…at all.

So what do you do when your 15-year-old son tells you that he is gay?

Things To Do Immediately:

  1. Give him a hug
    Immediately.  Kids (and, well, grow-ups, too) can be terrified to tell you that they are gay.  Even if you have shown nothing but love in the past, in their mind this changes everything and there is always the possibility of rejection.
  2. Tell him you love him no matter what
    Be as clear in this as you possibly can and use that “What I Say Is Absolute Law” face that only parents seem to possess.  This is no time to assume that “he knows how I feel”.  This is game time, people.  Time to step up to the parenting plate and take control of the situation.  By letting your son know that no force under heaven or hell could make you stop loving him you are adding stability to his world which is in turmoil and setting a foundation of love that he is really going to need in the coming years.  Your home needs to be a refuge for him; he has already been hit with a thousand different voices arguing over his situation and that is just going to get worse.  You really need to establish yourself as a person of safety for him.  That starts here.
  3. Put your own feelings on the backburner
    You might not have any gay friends or really have had any experience with gay people.  Honestly, it may creep you out a bit.  You may also be overcome with sadness for the pain that your son has already felt (and will yet feel) because of his sexuality.  Your world has probably been turned upside down along with his.  Why your son?  All that will have to be addressed later.  Your son will be hyper sensitive to any level of discomfort that you express.  If you have to keep repeating in your mind, “he’s still my son, nothing’s changed”, do it.
  4. Talk about it (once the crying stops)
    He might not say much in the initial conversation (or he may talk for hours), but he probably hasn’t really discussed it much with anyone.  Especially if you’ve had a safe and loving household in the past, you are likely to be the first people he has come out to.  Talking allows him to express himself in a way that he likely has never done before, but also shows that you aren’t scared of the issue.  If you feel you cannot discuss the issue without showing signs of discomfort, then tell him that you don’t have to talk about it then (not that you don’t want to talk about it), but you will tomorrow (or Sunday, or whenever, but there should be a definite time and it should be soon – this will help him feel as though you aren’t avoiding it).
  5. Go for ice cream
    Or to a movie or mini-golf or whatever you like to do together.  This will let him know that life goes on-your family-goes on and as far as your relationship goes, nothing has changed.

Things To Do In The Next Few Weeks:

  1. Talk
    You should probably have a couple of conversations in the next few weeks.  Ask questions and don’t be scared to ask personal questions if you feel it is appropriate.  This will help him once again feel like you aren’t uncomfortable with the issue and therefore aren’t uncomfortable with him.  It also encourages honesty.  Be honest in return…but tactful.  Encourage him not to dwell on his sexuality, but make it clear you are always available to talk if he wants to.  Always.
  2. Suggest counseling
    After the initial conversation, there is a bit more flexibility in your dialog with your son. It’s now okay to admit that you don’t know and understand everything when it comes to homosexuality and may need professional help in finding out more.  If you feel there may be a need for counseling (even if only to encourage dialog), suggest it.  Make sure that your son knows that you aren’t suggesting counseling in order to “fix” him (especially if he mentions feeling “broken” or “messed up”).  Counseling probably shouldn’t come up in the initial conversation so he doesn’t feel like you are going into “damage control”.  Suggest going as a family (parents+him).
  3. Suggest talking to the bishop, if necessary
    If your son reveals any sexual transgression, recommend that he talk to the bishop.  Do so gently, but firmly.  Make it clear that his sexuality does not exempt him from keeping high standards or obeying family rules.  This shows that you don’t equate his sexuality with sin and neither should he.  In the next few weeks, it would be appropriate to reaffirm the Law of Chastity in an “it applies to everyone, even you” way.  Be careful and find out all the facts, however, in order not to equate any possible sexual abuse experienced by your son with sinful behavior on his part.

Things Not To Do…Ever:

  1. Don’t say “you’re too young to know” or “it’s just a phase”
    If he is talking to you about it, trust me, he knows.  He has already spent years (I know, he’s only fifteen, but still, years) dealing with the questions and confusions.  Even though I didn’t allow myself to think it until I was in my late teens-early twenties, I first had the anxiety-filled suspicion that I was different before puberty and by sixteen the thought of it would send me to the bathroom to vomit.  Trust me, he knows.
  2. Suggest that anything “made him gay”
    This includes playing with dolls, not playing sports, not being there for him, being too smothering, tv, friends, movies, soy, etc.  This places the thought in his head that his sexuality could have been prevented and the guilt-trip that this will send him on will be Trans-Siberian (i.e. big-time guilt).
  3. Call him names
    Ever, ever, ever.  What the crap was the matter with that woman?
  4. Talk to other people as if he is straight
    You by no means need to broadcast your sixteen-year-old son’s sexuality on the internet, but the minute you respond to your nosy neighbor asking why your son doesn’t date much with “he hasn’t found the right girl yet” you are sending mixed signals.  You may be trying to respect your son’s privacy, but likely he’ll feel that you didn’t believe all that business about loving him no matter what and that you are actually ashamed of him.  Trust will be lost.  Discuss with your son how to address the issue.  Maybe the most appropriate answer to nosy neighbor ends up being, “mind your own business”.
  5. Fail to stick up for him
    Sure, you son may be in drama club, choir, cheer squad, and dance club which makes you wince as polish your football state championship ring, but your kid should never hear you belittle his talents or interests to others.  I wasn’t the most athletically inclined growing up, but I often heard my parents praise my academic accomplishments or “creative abilities”.  They encouraged my talents, even if they weren’t necessarily the talents that were valued by others in the community.

What if it is “too late”?  What if your son came out years ago, ending in a huge fight with everyone getting it wrong, big time?  The good news is that there are very few things on this earth that you can’t recover from – and this isn’t one of those things.  The longer the time has passed, the longer it may take, but you can still let your gay son know that you love and accept him, which will make sure that fewer and fewer videos like the one mentioned above appear on YouTube.


Note: Most of the time, I write specifically about homosexuality as it relates to gay men.  I do this simply because that is the perspective with which I am the most familiar.  Most of what I write applies to gay women as well, but I don’t have any lesbian friends (that I know of) and I am uncomfortable to speak for a group that I have so little experience with.  So, I guess what I am saying is, if I am ever off base, Samantha, feel free to bust me on it.  K?

Posted in Essays, Favorite at November 2nd, 2008 by Clint. Trackback URI: trackback
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24 Responses to “When Your 15-Year-Old Son Says “I’m Gay””

  1. November 2nd, 2008 at 11:40 am #Dichotomy

    I was all grown up and moved out when I came out to my parents, so some of this didn’t quite apply, but they did a lot of things right.

    One of my favorite stories from Carol Lynn Pearson’s No More Goodbyes is of a young man who came out to his mom right before his parents were about to leave for a weekend trip. She stayed strong for him, then broke down in tears after they had left the house. Her husband (the boy’s father) wondered what was the matter.

    I could not speak to answer his questions. Finally I had to make myself say the words: “I have something to tell you that is so hard and that will hurt you. Kerry told me that he is gay.” Almost immediately Robert turned off the highway and into a shopping center.

    “What are you doing?” I asked.

    “I need to find a phone,” he said. “I will not have Kerry worry a minute longer about what his father’s reaction will be.”

    I hope that my kids are sure enough of my unconditional love for them that they will be comfortable coming to me with anything they struggle with, and I hope that I will always be able to react appropriately.

    Thanks for the excellent essay!

  2. November 2nd, 2008 at 12:15 pm #Lisa

    Thank you.

    There’s something in your words and in your blog that’s just so affirming – and not just about our gay sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, friends…just as a whole, affirming.

    Thank you for that.

  3. November 2nd, 2008 at 1:44 pm #Bravone

    Clint,

    I literally cried when I read your post. I don’t do that very often. It touched me on many levels, my own situation, my gay brother’s rejection from the family, and “what if” my sons or daughter ever came to confide in me.

    Thank you so much for the council. At the appropriate time, I will share it with my parents in the hope that they will yet reach out to my brother.

    Thank you. Thank you.

  4. November 2nd, 2008 at 1:57 pm #TheFaithfulDissident

    Clint, this should be made into a pamphlet and distributed by the Church (or someone) to parents. Seriously.

    If anything, the tofu industry will be happy that people will have no reason to fear giving their kids soy. :)

  5. November 2nd, 2008 at 6:29 pm #Paula

    Clint,
    This was an excellent post. I hope I can always have the kind of relationship with my children that will allow them to trust me with whatever the issues that plague them are. With that in mind, I believe your general guidelines would apply to many different situations.

  6. November 2nd, 2008 at 6:52 pm #tatum

    i like your blog. thank you for your thoughts.

  7. November 2nd, 2008 at 6:58 pm #Mohointx

    My parents handled it amazingly well, but I will admit that my Dad slipped and asked about anything in my past that would have “made” me gay… kinda a bit too early though. I still give them an A+ though for how they handled the news.

    Great entry!

  8. November 2nd, 2008 at 7:55 pm #Ezra

    As always Clint, you’re amazing. I admire your eloquence and ability to hit the nail right on the head.

  9. November 2nd, 2008 at 8:53 pm #Alan

    What Ezra said.

  10. November 2nd, 2008 at 11:33 pm #Ron Schow

    Clint

    I just read your blog for the first time tonight. I admire the wisdom of your posts and encourage you to continue in your efforts. Yours is a valuable perspective because you so firmly embrace both being gay and being Mormon. May your tribe increase.

  11. November 3rd, 2008 at 12:30 pm #Kengo Biddles

    Thanks for posting this, Clint. It’s great.

  12. November 3rd, 2008 at 1:07 pm #Karene

    Amen to everything that’s been said. Your perspective is invaluable. Thanks for what you’re doing here!

  13. November 4th, 2008 at 2:47 am #Cody

    Great advice, Clint.

  14. November 4th, 2008 at 5:56 pm #Carolyn

    I was actually talking with my husband about this a few days ago. I only have one son and he is only a baby but I’ve been wondering a lot lately how I would react if he were to come out to me. Specifically, I’ve been wondering how I would let him know that I still loved him.

    And although this is only a slight possibility in the far far future, it was comforting to read your advice and find that I could agree whole-heartedly with your approach. I’ll be thinking now about how I can apply it to my relations with grown friends who come out to me.

    Because sometimes I’ve really screwed those up. They’ve been forgiving saints, just ignoring me when I say and assume dumb things and cause them hurt.

  15. November 5th, 2008 at 11:10 am #Kay

    I’m a lesbian, and I wish to god my parents had read this before I came out to them.

    I love them, very much, but I came out at the age of 15, and I’m now 20, and still dealing with my mothers comments on it being ‘just a phase.’

    Like you said, when I came out, I was SURE.

    Thank you. I am going to spread this around now :-)

  16. November 5th, 2008 at 8:51 pm #TrevorM

    God Bless you. Well said.

  17. November 5th, 2008 at 9:52 pm #Clint

    @Dichotomy – I have no idea where I read it, but I like the quote, “You can’t influence whether or not your child is gay, but you can influence whether or not he tells you.” As long as they know that they can tell you anything and it won’t affect your love for them, I think you’re all set.

    @Mohointx – I kind of came out to my parents as I was coming out to myself, which happened more in stages than all at once. While there were some confusions stemming from poor communication, never along the way was I ever given reason to doubt that they loved me.

    @Carolyn – As long as you treat them with the same amount of love and respect as you did before they told you, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about. Just ignore the dramatics… :-)

    @Kay – I’ve learned to be gentle with people who ask “How do you know you’re gay?” They often aren’t prepared for an honest answer to that question. :-)

    @Lisa, @Braveone, @Paula, @tatum, @Ezra, @Alan, @Ron Schow, @Kengo B., @Karene, @Cody, @TrevorM – No, thank you. :-)

    Did I miss anyone??

  18. November 7th, 2008 at 10:47 am #djinn

    I’ve been thinking about this post ever since I read it a couple of days ago; the tone, the tenor, is all wonderful, except for that idea lurking in the background, certainly implied by the idea that you haul your son (or daughter) off to bishop and the following line: “In the next few weeks, it would be appropriate to reaffirm the Law of Chastity in an “it applies to everyone, even you” way.”

    Paraphrased aren’t you saying: “We love you, but you lost the lottery and we expect you to be celibate for the rest of your life, and if you’re not, all bets are off.” Kinda sucks. I read that a huge portion of Gay mormons leave, not surprisingly, so a parent with a gay child might consider that the kid will decide to live a normal life, to have a normal relationship with someone, which most likely involves leaving the Mormon church. I don’t see anything in this post that indicates any sort of acceptance on the parents’ part of this almost certain eventuality. It seems to me, from the child’s standpoint, not much has changed. You’re still going to reject them, just a little later.

  19. November 7th, 2008 at 11:39 am #Scott (aka Dichotomy)

    NOTE: The following is absolutely not Church-approved, but it’s a path that some have taken to escape the dilemma that djinn points out, so I thought I’d mention it:

    I know at least a few gay Mormons who have still tried to live the spirit of the Law of Chastity, while at the same time not denying their orientation.

    That is, they have dated (others of their own gender) but have kept their physical interactions within the guidelines that any non-married member of the Church would be expected to follow. Eventually, they have found someone with whom they wanted to spend the rest of their life, but with whom they still maintained standards of physical chastity until after a commitment ceremony of some sort. They have translated “no sex before marriage” to the nearest equivalent that fits their situation, and done the best they could to keep the commandments.

    So depending on how flexible the parent is willing to be with his/her interpretation of the law, perhaps reaffirming the Law of Chastity doesn’t have to be a delayed rejection.

  20. November 7th, 2008 at 11:46 am #djinn

    If the parent up front explains it like you just did, then that would be lovely. I have never heard of such a thing happening. Does it?

  21. November 7th, 2008 at 3:43 pm #djinn

    OK, I’ve thought about this some more. It seems to me, with the very visible Prop. 8 campaign (gays can’t marry) in California, coupled with prop. 102 in AZ (gays double plus can’t marry) that the lovely idea of Scott (a.k.a. dichotomy) seems quite unlilkely.

  22. November 7th, 2008 at 4:26 pm #Scott (aka Dichotomy)

    I’m not talking (necessarily) about the Law of Chastity as it’s understood in the Church (i.e. no sexual relations until marriage, then only with husband or wife). If same-sex marriage isn’t an option, then obviously living the Law of Chastity to the letter is going to mean lifelong celibacy for a gay member of the Church.

    Even if (when?) same-sex marriage is legal, if the Church doesn’t recognize it as valid, it’s easy to make a case that the Law of Chastity still prevents same-sex intimacy even in a legal marriage. (The actual wording of the LoC in the temple is “legally and lawfully wedded”–some have suggested that “legally” means according to civil law and “lawfully” means according to God’s law).

    But (and again, I want to emphasize that this isn’t compatible with Church doctrine or policy) a person might perceive that the spirit of the LoC is intended to preserve sexual intimacy as a special act that is to be kept between lifelong (or eternal) partners. If one feel comfortable interpreting it that way, one might choose to keep the LoC by abstaining from sexual relations until that lifelong partner is found and a commitment of some sort is made, whether it be a legal same-sex marriage or an unofficial (but still very binding, in the eyes of many who have had them) commitment ceremony.

    If one chose to follow that course, one would not be living in harmony with Church policy, and would likely be subject to excommunication or other disciplinary action if local priesthood leaders felt obliged to initiate it. It would be between the individual and God to determine how such a course would be viewed from an eternal perspective.

    Back to the main topic of the post, a parent who has given this considerable thought and who is extremely open-minded and somewhat spiritually “liberal” might tell his/her son: “I hope that you will maintain the morals and standards that we have taught you and that we believe in as members of the Church. If you choose to date other young men, I expect that you will still adhere to the Law of Chastity and keep your interactions clean, just as you would if you were dating young women. Save physical intimacy for when you have found someone who you are willing to commit your life to.”

    (It would take a great deal of open-mindedness to most LDS parents to even consider the possibility of their son dating other young men. In some cases, though, it’s possible that strictly enforced celibacy would push the young man off the edge into the stereotypical “gay lifestyle” with all of the risks and perils associated with it.)

  23. November 9th, 2008 at 5:59 pm #djinn

    So, like I said, though well-meaning, for all but a handful of folks, the beautiful advice above only says I love you for very small values of love. I think this is very sad; poor kids.

  24. November 11th, 2008 at 12:06 am #Troy

    Don’t say, “I’d rather see you dead.”

    My parents and I have traveled light-years since that phrase was uttered and I saw my life flash before my eyes.

    Yeah, the key is to keep talking even if that sometimes turns into yelling and long-distance hangups. My parents display genuine support 25 years after I came out. It took a lot of talking, tense family gatherings, periods of silence, some spirited arguing and some blessed intervention from a very talented Bishop to help bring things to the point they are now.