Advice for parents and friends
I've had a lot of letters over the years from the friends and family of gay loved ones, asking how they can best help and support them. Perhaps a parent who's not sure how to deal with their child's recent coming out, or perhaps someone who's worried about a gay friend who's having problems adjusting to their sexuality.
Here are some tips to help you to help them:
- Don't do anything!
Try not to see a gay person as having a disability and needing special treatment. A lot of gay people are perfectly happy and comfortable with themselves and simply want you to carry on as normal and without fuss. I know a lot of parents and friends worry that they're not doing enough, but often the gay person in question needs you to simply do nothing. There’s even a danger you can make things harder for your loved one by making them feel like a special case and marked out as some kind of problem to deal with. Being gay is not a problem in itself but people can turn it into one, even if their intentions are good.
- "My gay friend/son/daughter..."
Remember, your friend is not defined by their sexuality any more than you are. He's not your gay friend - he's your friend. Sometimes sexuality is the key characteristic people tend to focus on, like a sticker they put on somebody, but it's only part of what makes a person who they are. Don't fall into the trap of categorising your gay loved one in this way. A gay person wants to be treated equally and valued as an individual. They don't want to be treated as a novelty, accessory or party trick.
- Special skills
You don't need special skills to be a good friend or parent to a gay person. Valuable skills like the ability to listen, providing a hug when someone is hurting, or being able to offer good advice, are as important whether a loved one is gay or straight. If someone straight who you cared about was having problems you’d do your best to help them with the skills, resources and knowledge that you possess. It’s no different here.
It might be the case that you've never met a gay person before and have questions about homosexuality. Perhaps the only reference you have is flamboyant characters on TV. Educate yourself a bit by reading the content on this website, but don't make the mistake of thinking that gay people are a weird subspecies with bizarre needs. They need and want the same things you do in order to be happy: love, sex, friendship, financial stability, a safe home etc.
- Don’t be too helpful
When I came out, my friends were very keen to set me up on a date with the only other gay person they knew. I got the feeling they assumed we’d fall madly in love simply because we were two gay people with a lack of other gay people on our Christmas card lists. We didn’t get on particularly well, were very different from each other, and chose not to meet up again. I’d have had much more fun being introduced to someone – gay or straight - on the grounds that we had shared interests.
Don’t assume anything about someone because of their sexuality. They’re still an individual with their own interests and unique personality. The clichés of the gay man leaping out of the closet, donning hair glitter and dragging his straight friends off to the nearest gay club isn't helpful. It may be the last thing he wants to do. Let your friend set the pace. He or she knows whether they’re ready to explore their sexuality and in what ways.
If your loved one is having problems coming to terms with their sexuality you can help greatly by showing them that you don’t think being gay is a negative thing and that your feelings toward them haven't changed. Feeling better about being gay involves breaking down the negative associations a person might have with the label, and the things they think they're missing out on by not being straight. This part of the frequently asked questions will help. Encourage them to visit the website.
Adjusting your expectations after they come out
Traditionally we tend to equate having a happy, healthy and fulfilling life with being in a heterosexual relationship, getting married and having children. You might have had hopes of arranging a heterosexual wedding for your child some day. Maybe you were looking forward to having grandchildren. There’s nothing wrong with being excited about those things. Like any good parent, you want your child to be happy and to find love. When a child comes out it’s a time of adjustment. Suddenly confronted with the reality of your child being in a same-sex relationship can be a real shock. It’s vital to understand that although things are different from how you had imagined, the one central hope you had for your child can still be realised: their happiness.
Things are different, but they’re no worse. Your child can find the same love and fulfilment through a same-sex relationship as they might have had in a heterosexual one, and there’s no reason why you can’t be an important part of that. Of course your son or daughter will likely not have any children of their own. But don't forget that they may have chosen not to have kids if they’d be heterosexual. It’s wrong to force our hopes onto our children. They have to discover what happiness and fulfilment mean to them, with your support and acceptance. It’s a time of adjusting the ideas you might have held for your child's future, but it can also be a time of embracing a more open and honest relationship with them.
- Your child's homosexuality is not a rejection of your values or lifestyle.
- Traditionally we think of a man and woman raising children but healthy and happy families come in many different flavours in our modern world: single parent families, same-sex parents, foster families and adoptions, children raised by their grandparents, shared custody arrangements etc. A loving, positive, supportive and safe home environment is what counts, not who provides it. Appraise the family that your child has created by looking at the values it's founded on, not the gender mix of the household.
- Your child didn’t choose to be gay. Help them to make the most of who they are.
- Much as you might have cherished ideas about weddings and grandchildren, you mustn’t try to force these things onto your child. You didn't become a parent because you wanted grandchildren thirty years later. Your child isn’t gay because he or she wants to sabotage your dreams.
- Don't assume that because your child is young that they don't know themselves or their sexuality. While many people have same-sex experiences but go on to form heterosexual relationships, many also report knowing from a very young age that they were gay (I knew when I was 13). Try to take their coming out seriously. You likely wouldn't challenge a child who was expressing heterosexual preferences, no matter how young.
- You don’t want your son or daughter sneaking around and not telling you about their lives, but they will do if you make life tough for them over this. Talk to them and encourage openness.
- Be kind to yourself. It can be a big surprise to discover that your child is gay. It’s okay to hurt, to worry and to feel helpless. This is a time of change for you too.
- Indulging stereotypes about gay people will make you feel worse so throw them out the window. Your child can be happy as a gay person, and you can help. See Myths and stereotypes where common misconceptions about homosexual people are discussed.
- Remember that your child has not changed. There's no secret society they've just joined or big gay uniform they're going to wear. They are the same child you’ve raised and loved. The only difference is that they’ve been more honest with you than they’ve probably ever been, and told you something deeply personal, potentially at great risk to themselves. Your child may be scared of losing your love and support.
- You haven't failed as a parent because your child is gay, nor did you make your child gay somehow. Nothing you did or didn’t do during the life of your child has made them gay, just like nothing a parent does makes their child heterosexual. There was no switch you flicked on by mistake in your child’s mind. So whether you’re a single parent, dual parents or part of a large and close extended family - it’s not your fault. I discuss 'nature or nurture' in relation to what causes homosexuality here.