I had my toughest assignment yet this week from the good folks at My Kid Is Gay, who exist soley to help parents understand their lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual kids. The question they asked me to field came from an anonymous mom who suspects her 15-year-old son is gay. Personally, she has nothing against LGBTQIA people, but her husband and family are homophobes. And when she tries to discuss with her husband the possibility their child may be gay, she gets the “my son is not a sissy” argument.
She wrote: “How do I convince my husband to change his opinion and create a friendly environment in which our son would feel comfortable coming out?”
Even if their son isn’t gay, I imagined that dad’s prejudice sending signals to their teenager that he might not be worthy of love or free to be himself. I felt sad and then angry. But instead of suggesting the mom strangle her homophobic husband, I submitted this reply:
“I feel the love and concern you have for your teenager and want you to know I’m relieved that should he be gay your son has at least one parent in his corner. That’s one more than many LGBTQIA kids have.
“I understand your desire to create a friendly environment. And to do that I think you’re asking how to change the fairly deep-rooted beliefs of someone who is prejudiced about LGBTQIA people. And that’s often easier said than done, because in reality the only person who can change an individual’s beliefs, attitude and behavior is the person himself. That’s doesn’t mean it’s impossible. But it’s going to mean work for both of you: a lot of questions and steadfastness from you; and both education and soul-searching for him.
Unconditional love is not about dictating how your child should or shouldn’t “be.”
“To help meet your goals of having a more open-minded husband and creating a loving and secure, gay-friendly atmosphere at home, I think a good place to start might be a conversation to simply find common ground.
“The truth is neither of you knows for sure whether or not your son is gay. Your teenager may not even be sure himself. So try telling your husband that while you may suspect that your son is gay based on a mother’s intuition, you won’t know for certain until your son tells you so. What you do know for sure is that you love your son unconditionally. And regardless of who’s correct about his sexual orientation, you want your home to be the secure, loving place where he can feel safe to tell either of you anything that’s on his mind – be that fears, hopes, dreams or deepest feelings.
Ideally, he can commit to loving your son unconditionally and creating a home where that young man feels safe to express himself authentically.
“Then ask your husband if he doesn’t also want to offer a home that nurtures trust and a close parent-child bond. And if you share that goal, ask him if he can commit to providing those things that create such a home environment: unconditional love, support, acceptance and celebration of your son for who he is as an individual. Remind your spouse that unconditional love is not about dictating how your child should or shouldn’t “be,” and it can’t be based on whether or not your son meets your husband’s expectations. Ideally, he can commit to loving your son unconditionally and creating a home where that young man feels safe to express himself authentically.
“The next step is more challenging because it involves asking him to examine his beliefs about LGBTQIA people. Whether he realizes it or not, his dislike and discrimination may be creating an atmosphere or hostility in your home. So there’s an opportunity for him to identity his feelings, analyze them, discover the beliefs behind those feelings and try to figure out where they’re coming from.
Does he think two men or two women liking each other is unnatural or wrong?
“Beliefs are just thoughts you keep on having, so they can be changed. It just takes time. And work. So acknowledge that you’re willing to stick by him in exploring his feelings and beliefs about LGBTQIA people and help identity the origin of those beliefs.
“A good place to start is for him to think about what actions trigger feelings of homophobia (that’s the term for prejudice against gay people.) For example, does he feel uncomfortable when he sees two men holding hands? Does he think two men or two women liking each other is unnatural or wrong? From there he can ask himself why he feels that way and where those emotions are coming from. Can he identify who or what influenced that feeling? Was it his early religious teachings? Were his parents homophobic and he just took on their views?
I hope he’ll see that it’s worth it to become a role model who can stand up for love.
“Those first steps take time and will undoubtedly require more than one conversation. Then when he’s identified his discomfort and the root of those feelings, then he can start to examine his behaviors. For example, does he have a habit of using the derogatory word “sissy” instead of gay? Does he understand that it’s offensive? Does he make jokes at family gatherings with other homophobic relatives? Did he complain over news reports of the backlash to the recent discriminatory law passed in North Carolina? Does he see how he’s portraying intolerance of others to his son?
“Experts say it takes about 30 days to develop new habits. But with desire and commitment for your son’s happiness and well-being, I hope he’ll see that it’s worth it to become a role model who can stand up for love, acceptance and equality for others regardless of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation.
“If your husband is incapable of committing to unconditional love, the safe nurturing home you’re intent on providing, and making an effort to change his beliefs about LGBTQIA people, then his relationship with your son will be of his own making. And if there’s not the bond between them you would hope for, then your husband will have to work it out for himself.
“Either way, I encourage you to check out PFLAG.org and visit the “Get Support for Families, Friends & Allies” page. You’ll find information about getting in touch with someone who’s been in the same situation as you. There’s also a link on that page to “Find a Local Chapter” with a listing of more than 500 chapters. While I haven’t had your same experience, I assure you that many moms, and dads too, have faced the same scenario.
“As for your loving and accepting home, I’m hopeful you’ll advise any homophobic family members that hurtful hate speech won’t be tolerated in your home. And if you’re in their homes when egregious disrespect for human rights and equality starts up, then you, your husband and your son – or just you and your son – shouldn’t feel obligated to stay.
“Lastly, you can feel free to double down on love and support for that son of yours. Even though he’s a teenager, he still needs to hear that you will love him forever no matter what, and that you’re proud of his accomplishments and the person he’s becoming. Remind him that he can be open and honest with you about anything, and that you will always have his back. Because you’re a good mom, and that’s what good moms do.”
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