Michele O'Mara

Coming Out to Aging Parents

Filed By Michele O'Mara | April 13, 2010 7:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: bisexual, coming out of the closet, intergenerational, lesbian, LGBT, LGBT families, love

Dear Michele,

I am dating a woman who is 19 years younger than myself. She is 28 and I am 47. We have a lot of fun doing things together, but our relationship is strained as I am having a hard time bringing her home to "mom and dad." Her parents are very accepting as they are also from a younger (my) generation so I completely understand them. My parents are in their 70s, hard to talk to about being gay let alone my relationship. I've tried to explain this whole generation gap thing, but she doesn't get it. She thinks I am making her "my dirty little secret." I don't feel this way at all. Any advice?

~ scared

Dear Scared,

Brave of you to write me for advice, as I'm not likely to align myself with your thinking on this one. Seems this issue is more about you and your comfort in your own skin, than about your relationship with your partner or the age of your parents.

Sadly, many parents do reject, disown, and condemn their children for acknowledging their homosexuality. I won't sugarcoat that reality. And while you do not describe this as an issue, I have also known many gay men and lesbians who believe it would be "disrespectful" to share knowledge of their sexual orientation with their parents. And many more who simply fear their parent's disapproval, their disappointment.

Lots of us grown children have an unspoken "good boy" and "good girl" contract with our parents. The contract says, in exchange for my (the parents) love, acceptance, approval (and in some cases inheritance), you (the child) just need to be the "good girl/boy" that I raised you to be so that I can feel good about the job I've done as a parent. Anything short of this is not acceptable, and my (the parent) love may be withdrawn and replaced with disappointment, rejection and disapproval.

This is a hard pill to swallow. It is natural to crave the love, approval and appreciation of our parents - no matter how old we are. Unfortunately, in our society, we have a system in place where children are supposed to grow up, find a mate, start a family (with or without children) of their own, and then prioritize this new family so that you can take care of each other, long after your own parents' life cycle ends.

In order to prioritize your new family of choice, it's essential that you place the needs of your adult relationship with your partner above the needs of your parents, siblings, and other members of your family of origin. The relationships that get the most energy, focus and priority are the relationships that will be your strongest.

So my suggestion is that whether or not you choose to tell your parents about your new relationship, if you wish to make this relationship last you will need to prioritize it above your relationship with your parents.

This may involve taking risks. You may have to spend some holidays away from them to conceal your relationship, or you may have avoid phone calls if they call when it's not convenient for you and your partner, or you may have to start asking them to call before stopping by, etc. It gets complicated. Or you may decide it's just easier to be honest.

That's why the truth is usually a better bet. It's not for everyone, and I'm guessing there are readers right now who are sick to their stomach thinking about having to reveal their sexual orientation to their parents.

In a nutshell, prioritize the relationships that are most important to you and move toward a life where who you are, how you feel, and what you believe is safe, accepted and celebrated. And for what it's worth, even those whose parents have rejected them say they would come out again in order to feel the freedom that accompanies living from your truth. There's nothing like the freedom of being true to who you really are.

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I came out to my father during the start of a relationship with my ex. I'm not going to deny it didn't go well, but I'm one of those people that Michele has described that would do it over again. There comes a time when parents need to know what is what and understand that you are who you are and your sexuality doesn't change you.

My father is of the older generation too (he's in his sixties now), and a Navy man to boot. It didn't go down well, but the one thing it did mean is that I stopped trying to be what he wanted and started living for myself. I can understand Scared's trepidation, I went over it myself time and time again, but in the end the best thing possible for me was to be myself and face what that could do.

On the flip side, my grandfather who is in his nineties and who I thought would be the one to cut all ties because I had broken the 'good girl' agreement, was the one who stayed right there with me. I still talk to him weekly, he's always there to turn to if the going gets rough. Scared, you may find that your parents react completely differently to how you expect.

Very good pointers, Michele. As someone who came out in high school, I can't imagine the pain and anguish this must cause some folks. It seems like this person has already come out as gay to her parents, just not that she's in a relationship with a younger woman.

What do you think about these sorts of relationships? I wouldn't call this a May/December romance, but I am interested to read your thoughts.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | April 14, 2010 11:04 AM

Bil, it is completely about the individuals involved. How you get along from the neck up is more important than the chronology. I have heard the "you were looking for a father" argument because of the age spread between myself and my partner. What I found in him was a soul mate for 34 years in October. Oh, and I should add that at 46 he looked like 32 to my 23 year old eyes. I never asked about age because, frankly, the libido was certainly there. I had never connected with or trusted anyone in my life before as much as I did him and I have not always deserved the trust given me in return. He could not have achieved as much without me nor could I have without him.

So, should Michelle like to put me on a couch and talk about it I am available.

I feel the tug of the "good boy contract" with my mother, in her 70s.

Not on the orientation front after being out to her since 93 without problems.

But, along with other parents of friends of a similar era, she was a high schooler in the 50s and a young parent in the 60s who benefited somewhat from social changes, but missed the part about taking personal responsibility for setting healthy boundaries and expectations with loved ones.

The stuff that plays out too easily/often then:

  • Intrusively "helpful" neighbor offers to help with a landscaping project that isn't really wanted, and yet the neighbor is not turned down, not wanting to hurt feelings or appear ungrateful.
  • Condescending feedback is given in the form of helpful hints which, if not welcomed and adopted, result in hurt feelings.
  • Personal comfort, commitments, and even health are quietly sacrificed in order to help others, as a badge of honor, and the same is hoped for/expected from family members.
  • Boundary-setting by loved ones is received as over-intellectualizing, self-centered, hurtful.

It's still critical to be an adult in the relationship, setting healthy boundaries. It just can be expensive in terms of heightened tensions.

I would like to say that you might be surprised at how your family, parents included will react to your sexual orientation. So here I am today in a loving relationship with a man half my age. Where do you find the man or your dreams isn't something that you plan to ever happen. A chance meeting at a bus stop no less with 5 months of dating till we consummated our relationship one that I most needed to be sure of first and foremost. I had originally come out in Vietnam and fully out in College between enlistments from the Army. A series of Re enlistments later that took me to 23 years service out of 27 total years of my life including the college degree. Queer as I am DADT wasn't even on the horizon until after I retired. Being the oldest of 14 siblings I saw no reason to hide my sexual orientation which I feel I was born with and even knew about when I was 5 years old. My family such that it is made me feel that I was a mess. Mother said she thought I had it under control. My brother tried to blackmail me with my secret. The first thing out of my youngest sister’s mouth was not "Hi I love you" but, “I heard that you are QUEER”. I started seeing them less and less as time went on. With visits that came to the point that I visited no more than 2 times in 20 years of my life. I used every excuse in the books to keep from having to endure their ire and snide jokes that they laid on thick as honey on a cold winters day. Then along came HIV and AIDS and for some reason that I have no idea how it missed me I used this as an excuse to go back into my own closet rather than face any more harassment from anyone. In 2004 still single or was it that having a relationship wasn’t as important as having a garden, a cat, and my roses I started to believe that I was BI-SEXUAL be that my hand and my dreams were all that were important in my life. Dad died that year in August with 35 years since all of us were in one place at the same time I returned to the fold more out of duty than anything else. Baby sister, the single one at 40, making a career with the US Army managed to whine about me and my queerness once again. Rather than pick a fight I left right after the “family pictures” were taken and have not been back since. In February 2009 with little more than the remote button on my new TV, I was watching an HBO movie called Jumper, it was not the first time that I had seen that movie. Next up was Brokeback Mountain a movie I had heard about but never seen. After watching and then buying the book by E. Annie Proulx which gave two points of view to a life history I understood where Heath Ledger as Enis Del Mar was coming from and on that day or soon after I understood it was in my own skin that I needed to be comfortable in rather than the feelings or non-feelings of anyone else that I feared most. I have come to believe that I will not be that Enis Del Mar looking back after 20 more years wondering how my life could have been so much richer had I the courage and the convictions to stand my ground. My own family such that it is will never accept me for me being as dysfunctionally injured and lead by mother who at 83 has passed the word through another sibling that it was perfectly okay to throw that phone at the wall when she didn’t agree with something I said in the last time I would ever speak with her in person or by the telephone. It just wasn’t worth the hassle to keep on banging your proverbial head against a stone wall. Most of you will find out that your parents are accepting and probably knew all along of your orientation others will find out as I did that they will never be accepting knowing that those who make the biggest fuss have the most to hide of themselves.

John Rutledge | April 14, 2010 11:23 PM

My partner and I came out to my Mom, who was about 80, living in a nursing home. She had gotten to know my partner for a few visits first. I struggled with tellng her, not wantin her to worry or be troubled, but in the end it was important to me she know me fully. I told her I loved her, she knew my heart, knew my faith and because I loved her so much I felt I had to be open and honest with her. I told her we were partners. We loved each other. We were building a life together and wanted her to be part of that. Then I made myself available for questions. I think I may have gone a bit overboard then. In a rush I told her what I had thought about gays, what I learned, my self hate and struggle to survive, talked on theology since we are Jesus followers, addressed prejudices, this is not a choice, etc. She said she loved me, no matter what, did not totally understand, blamed herself at first but i cleared that up real quick. She blessed our relationship! My sister went with us another time and she even told my sister and partner to hug, and say you are my sister, you are my brother. Amazing grace was there. Love present. I understand the fear, but the potential blessing for all is huge. It may take time, but better the truth that hurts than a lie that destroys. Peace.

devotchka | June 6, 2011 1:07 PM

My uncle is gay and though he never formally came out the family, we all found out in our own way and accepted it at out own pace. I found out when I was 10 when I realized he had every Madonna, Barbara and Liza record. At the time, I thought 'Gay' was like 'Punk' - a subculture. If you were 'Punk' you liked The Clash and wore ripped clothes. If you were 'Gay' you listed to show tunes. It wasn't years later a realized the 'sex' part of homosexual but they then I was so used to the idea of having a gay uncle that it didn't shock me. On the contrary I felt silly for having missed the most important component. My mother - the oldest sibling, the one who raised my uncle - was in denial for years but finally came around and accepted him and is now one of his biggest supporters. My uncle and his partner are 'getting civilized' and have decided to formally come out to their parents i.e. my grandparents. While I am very proud and understand their decision, my grandmother (85) has dementia and often doesn't recognize us and my grandfather (90) is also the John Wayne type and is starting to lose him memory. Will coming out actually help or hurt them? Will they understand? My real concern that this will open the flood gates for the other siblings since, as I said, he never formally came out so none of us have sat down and told him how we feel. The kicker is we all also a family of immigrants. The grandparents and siblings were all born and raised in Central America and still have that world view. The grandkids were born and raised in US and have that world view. I love my uncle but I'm scared that the grandparents won't understand or accept and the siblings will use this as an excuse to shun him. Is there, like, a Coming Out Expert or therapist we could consult? I know I am overreacting and he is dealing with this, not me, but I just want to be supportive.