Editors' note: Rob Barton is a happily married father of five who works as a musician and owns a private music school in a small town in Mass. He also teaches martial arts. He is active with numerous LGBT organizations and works a great deal with LGBT youth particularly bisexual youth and their families. He has a useless advanced degree in Martial Arts Philosophy and serves as clergy for a small local congregation.
Recently I watched a problematic issue develop in the family of a queer teenager with whom I work. He was out to his mother and sister but was yet to be out to his stepfather. Coming out to the stepfather was promising to be an extremely minor event anyway and so was not causing any tension.
The problem had nothing to do with the family and everything to do with the teenager and what was happening to his perception of his family.
I have seen this specific problem before and I would like to take a few moment to describe it and hopefully identify a problem that can cause trouble for queer teens and which can be easily enough addressed.
In the two years that this young man was questioning until he was sure of his identity and for the two years that he kept it to himself before coming out to his mother this young man had developed a habit of secrecy. Even though he was out and had a loving and supportive mother and sister and eventually stepfather this habit of secrecy was standing in the way of communication. I was watching the tension level go up not because this boy was queer but because his mother was worried about him.
In fact, many people were becoming worried about him to the point that his peers were coming to me and expressing concerns. He was not communicating with his mother though she had no problem with his sexuality.
In him I was watching him build a serious misconception about his family. He was feeling that his family was rejecting him and that his mother really did have a problem with his sexuality. He was losing trust for his family. Nothing that he was feeling or experiencing was based on real events or actions on the part of his family or even of feelings that they harbored. He was feeling a gulf one between his family and himself and blaming them for it.
Meanwhile, his mother was responding to the growing withdrawal of the kid from his family by trying to find out what was going on. He knew that she was asking me though I can't give her specific answers about what he says to me yet he was even starting to withdraw from me as his general sense of trust collapsed.
I want to stress that there were no events bringing this about and that this growing gulf was reaching a crisis state in which I was starting to feel that child was nearing a point of danger. The situation has been resolved and they are fine with trust rebuilt and he is a normal healthy 16 year old boy spending his summer on a skateboard. The counseling work had to be done with the whole family but it was coming from a source that was not the sexuality of the kid or the view of his sexuality though it was attacking the relationship at that point. It even shattered his dating relationships with a girl and with a boy. He was reaching a point of not being able to trust anyone.
His whole problem was his habit of secrecy and how it was manifesting through his relationships. I know how the habit developed and how it develops in many of us. There may be a time in our lives when we must keep secrets to protect ourselves and so we learn to keep ourselves safe. But what about those "survival skills" when they are no longer needed, can they become the threat to our happiness? I watched this kid go from a happy well adjusted teenager who was out to his family to nearing a life threatening crisis. I have seen this before. Hell, thinking about it I have done it, I've been unnecessarily vague and redirected conversations when there was no real threat. How many of us have done these things? It is like the stereotypical Hollywood "soldier back from the war who can't stop fighting" we just keep going out of habit.
It is hard to assess the damage done by this. How many families have been driven apart not by the homophobia but by the secrecy? How many friendships are lost because of it? Maybe we just sit back and ask ourselves about this issue. When have we done it? Most importantly what I found with this kid and with a few others is that when we see it happening we need to step in and address it. Show the person what is going on and what he or she is doing and how that can damage life and relationships. I guess that you can let the boy out of the closet but we have to make sure that the boy lets the closet out of himself.