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.
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