Eric Marcus

How Can I Talk To My Parents?

Filed By Eric Marcus | December 28, 2008 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Living, Marriage Equality
Tags: day without a gay, Ellen DeGeneres, lesbian teen, PFLAG, what if someone I know is gay

More gay folks write to me for advice about how to have a relationship with their parents than just about anything else. And given how a lot of parents deal with their gay kids I'm impressed that their kids want anything to do with them. But we're all human and however hurtful our parents may be when it comes to dealing with the fact we're gay, we still want our parents to love us, know us, and support us--as you'll see in the letter that follows.

In my response, I offer some suggestions for how to start a dialogue, but I'm hoping you'll have some suggestions that I haven't thought of. So if you have suggestions please post them in the "comments" section.

Hi Eric:
I'm writing to ask how you would recommend I approach my not-so-open family. I've never talked to my parents about the subject of gay rights. I came out to them in March of 2007, and the response was... not what I expected. I was aching to tell the whole family, since my college graduation was coming up, and I wanted to be able to behave toward my girlfriend the same way in front of my family as I had been behaving in front of my friends for the last year. My parents, of course, already knew...

...but absolutely forbid me to tell my grandmother. We don't talk much about feelings in my family, but when my mother cries it just tears my heart out.

I ended up not telling my grandmother that I am gay, and therefore caused the family much emotional turmoil for nothing. Well, not for nothing, but not to the end I was hoping for, anyway: I was still in the closet to at least some of my family on my graduation day, and had to act as though my girlfriend was just another close friend I'd made in the last few years of my life instead of the incredible person I'd fallen in love with.

Since then, I've become... not politically active, but at least politically vocal on the subject of gay rights, particularly with respect to marriage equality. I participated in the Day Without a Gay project and volunteered at the local Women's Law Center. I was interviewed for a local news channel. It was exciting to think that I could be having an impact, at the very least with the community service I was providing to the Law Center, at the very most getting attention to the cause of equality and hopefully helping people notice that gay people are just like them: caring, compassionate, and a vital part of any thriving community!

I'm absolutely embarrassed, however, to say that I haven't even brought up the subject of equality or marriage rights to either of my parents since before I even knew I was gay. I feared coming out to my father because of a vivid memory I have from my childhood: Ellen's coming out! I didn't know what gay was, or even that two people of the same gender could possibly have feelings of sexual attraction for one another (though little did I realize, my then-best friend was my very first crush). I do remember, however, that one day when Dad was flipping through the channels, he paused on an interview with the newly-out-of-the-closet Ellen. She said, "There are lots of people out there who think I'm sick!" My dad snorted and said, "Yeah, including me." I was young and didn't realize even what he was referring to, but that memory has stuck with me all these years.

You see my dilemma, I'm sure. I want to make progress on the equality front for gays and lesbians everywhere, but I know I can't do it by canvassing strangers or getting myself on the news. I have to start at home, with people I love and who love me. They need to want equal rights for me, a living, breathing, gay person in their lives with feelings and a stake in the privileges and responsibilities of marriage, before they can ever want equal rights for strangers and the anonymous flag-waving, church-protesting, rainbow-suit-wearing "gay community" that they hear so much tell about in the media and let them affect their choices in the voting booth.

How do I get through to them? How do I help them see that this isn't about them or their beliefs? That it's about justice, equality, and freedom? That it's about me? And my future? And their potential grandchildren? How do I even start a conversation about all that without causing another family melt-down that just leaves me feeling discouraged and wishing I'd never come out in the first place? I want to make it personal and relevant, taking the "I'm My Own Unique and Special Rainbow" approach, but I also want to make it frank and rational, taking the "I'm Just Like You, Except for Who I Love--Not How I Love" approach. What do you suggest?

A detailed script of how the conversation will go with my parents (including facial expressions and blocking) would be greatly appreciated and would give me time to prepare adequate answers to their questions, but if that's not possible (*sigh*), any general advice would be useful. Main points to try to drive home, some potential questions they might have, or arguments they might put up. I know you can't have this conversation for me, but I could really use your help.

--Desperate to Talk

Dear Desperate to Talk:

I wish your family had embraced you in an instant and that they would be eager to discuss your life and your involvement with gay rights. You deserve nothing less. Unfortunately, plenty of families take a lot of time to deal with a gay kid. My family was very much the same. My mother eventually became a volunteer with PFLAG NYC, but it took her 13 years after I came out to her to go to her first meeting. That was a long time ago, so I'm hoping that your parents aren't as slow.

There are a couple of different things you can do to open a dialogue with your parents. But before we get to your parents I want to talk to you about your grandmother. Here's a link to a column I wrote for Newsweek in 1993 that's mostly about my grandmother and my family's wish that I not tell her I was gay. Everyone thought my grandmother was too fragile to learn that her beloved grandson was gay (she was 85 at the time). Well, after a few days of tears she dealt with it better and faster than anyone in the family. We got even closer than we had been and she adored my partner (even though he's not Jewish) and we had many wonderful times together over the years (she died three years ago at 102).

This isn't to say that your grandmother will react in the same way, but she's YOUR grandmother and you deserve to have a full relationship with her. It's not fair for your family to demand that you keep a huge piece of your life a secret from her. Let them try it and see how much they like keeping secrets.

Now, about your parents, I suggest a couple of things. First, if there's a PFLAG chapter in your area, go to a meeting and ask for advice from the parents there. I think you'll find yourself surrounded by an understanding group of parents who have good advice for someone in your circumstances. And have a look at the PFLAG web site. There may very well be some suggested scripts.

Second, give your parents a copy of my book What If Someone I Know Is Gay? (the new edition, which you can find on the home page of my web site). I've got a new chapter in the book specifically for parents, so I suggest putting a post-it on the first page of that chapter. And rather than give it to them in person, maybe you should send it to them gift-wrapped along with a note that says something like: "I'd really like to have a closer relationship and it would help if you had a better understanding of what my life is like..."

The key here is that you want to find a way to start a discussion. It doesn't have to happen all at once (and it's not likely to). You should probably go into this with very low expectations, but with a lot of hope. It's maddening to have to be patient, especially when your parents are acting like children. But that's a given and that's what you're going to have to work with. Fortunately, it sounds like you have a great support network, so however this goes you will be able to handle it.

Keep me posted. All best, Eric

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Eric, that is great advice. We have GLBT people attending our PFLAG meetings who need advice on how to talk to their parents. As the mother of a gay son, I can say that it is a process. It can take a while before parents accept their children - it doesn't happen overnight. It's sort of like peeling back the layers of an onion. Kids need to have some patience. Their parents have just learned that their child is not who they thought they were. Expectations have changed. But I think most parents do not want to lose their children. I hope Desperate is able to start that dialogue with her parents.

Dear Annette,
Thanks for your comment. It's so important to hear the perspective of a parent. As gay children we want our parents to embrace us for who we are instantly--even if it's taken us months or years to embrace and accept ourselves. I hope that more kids will make use of PFLAG and PFLAG parents to help them reach out to their own parents. From my own experience I know that PFLAG parent are more than ready and willing to listen, offer advice, and be supportive. Thanks again. Best, Eric

Dragonslayer | December 28, 2008 4:20 PM

I was 18 when I came out to my mom in 1978. I came home from school and my mom was watching the news on TV. The subject was the Gay Pride parade in San Francisco. I asked my Mom how she felt about gays and lesbians having a parade. She said it did not bother her at all. I asked what if one of her children happened to by gay and she said that as long as we were happy, that that was all that counted. So, I told my Mom that I was gay. At first all she said was " Oh", then she asked me if I was sure and if I was happy. She later questioned herself about anything she did while pregnant, nursing or in bringing us up. I told her that it had nothing to do with her, that it is just the way I am. I met my partner the next summer and it took my Mom 16 years before she would recognize that our relationship was just as valid as my sisters marriage. My Mom passed away in 1999, but before that had accepted my partner as her son in law. My nieces and nephew even call him uncle. My partner and I got married on June 19th, a month before our 29th. My mom was always proud of me for standing up for what I believe in, she would have been very happy to see us get married. By the way, out of six children that my mom raised, 5 boys and 1 girl, 4 of the boys became gay.

I get this sort of question quite a bit since i work with some LGBT youth organizations.

My grandmother is in a nursing home now. She's 95. I never told her I was gay. At first, it was a conscience decision, but I slowly noticed that she already knew. I assume that someone else had told her.

I've never "hidden" being gay, I usually just treat it like a non-issue. When I went to visit her about 5 years ago, I brought Jerame and our daughter with me. When I introduced them, I did so by their relationship to me - my partner and our daughter. She accepted them immediately.

Two years later, dementia set in and she forgot about all three of us. Paige was 10 years old before I introduced her to her great-grandmother. Imagine what "could have been" if I'd just done those introductions earlier.

Dear Bil,
That's heartbreaking. And I hope your experience is inspiring to readers who are wondering whether it's a good idea to come out to a grandparent. Better to take the risk and avoid regrets. And if our grandmothers are any example, it's well worth the risk.

You have to figure that by the time people reach a certain age they've been through far greater challenges than dealing with a grandchild's sexuality. In the end what my grandmother cared about was my happiness.

I also made a concerted effort to help her understand by giving her some of my books to read. After she read Making History, she said: "Oh, now I understand. Gay people just want to find someone to love just like everyone else." Yes! So simple! And just the words I'd hoped to hear.

Thanks for sharing. Best, Eric