Father Tony

When do you out a gay teenager?

Filed By Father Tony | September 04, 2008 2:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: gay teens, outing

Dear Father Tony,

I'm in a quandary about limits.

I have a colleague whose teen son is acknowledged by his school friends to be gay. My kid says "everyone knows." But since my colleague has said nothing, I have no idea if he knows. I'm willing to show him I'm supportive, but is it appropriate for me to say something? Is it possible that the boy's father doesn't know what all the boy's friends know and seem to accept? Or if the father hasn't come to terms with his son's sexuality, should I mention "in passing" supportive comments about acceptance?

And on a related but theoretical note, what would you do if you have a friend and discover that the spouse of that person is gay? Do you say something? To whom?

I don't know where the line is between helpfulness and intrusion. I would really appreciate your take on this.


Dear Perplexed,

Getting letters from strangers is fascinating for what is not said just as much as for what is said. I am not sure if you are a man, woman, gay, straight, black, white, rich, poor, young, old, Catholic, Democrat, Alaskan or whatever. I don't even know if you are naked and listening to NPR. It forces me to craft an all-purpose one-size-fits-all response, and that is probably a good thing.

I am going to assume that you are well-intentioned, just like the pavement of that road to hell.

Let me tell you a helpful story. No, two stories. Actually three. Now that I think of it, four.

I have a nephew named Harry whom my partner C and I have known since he was born. He's now entering high school. Last Thanksgiving, on the front lawn of the family homestead, Harry spun on his heel and marched up to a group of us on the porch. With an upsweep of both hands that was pure Carole Merrill summarizing the grand prize on The Price is Right, he demanded of us "Isn't anyone going to comment on this gorgeous sunset we're having?" I looked at C. C looked at me. We have since taken to referring to him as "Little Harriet."

On the way home and several times since then, we have talked about speaking with Little Harriet's mother about our suspicions about the boy's future. We decided not to do that. Little Harriet has two fawning older sisters who are largely responsible for his mannerisms. He also has a very loving, manly and demonstrative father to whom he is close. So he has strong and positive masculine and feminine influences in his life. Knowing that sexual orientation is a mystery composed of a secret recipe of genetics and environment, we decided to keep our mouths shut.

Eventually, Little Harriet's mother spoke to us about her own suspicions that her son would turn out to be gay. She has discussed this with her husband (the boy's father). They are both ready to accept this, if it should be the case. He will be loved unconditionally. (And let's not overlook something that influenced their acceptance. They have seen the deluxe lifestyle of Little Harriet's Uncle T and Uncle C, and they have decided that maybe being gay ain't so bad after all!) Score one for keeping the mouth shut.

Twenty years ago, in my previous workplace, a lady was hired whom I did not know. One day, her husband came to see her new workplace. From a distance, I could see that she was bringing him around and introducing him to her new colleagues. I swiftly shut and locked the door to my office and pretended loudly to be on the phone. You guessed it: her husband had been part of a group sex adventure in which I had participated more than once. If she ever finds out about this, it certainly won't be because I said anything. We worked together for many years after that day, and I never once considered telling her about the special relationship I had previously had with her husband. Score another one for keeping the mouth shut.

In that same workplace there was a lady attorney who happened to meet C and I at a flea market on a Saturday. It was obvious that we were a couple, and the lady attorney took to regularly inquiring about the well-being of C and letting me know without actually saying so that she was "cool with it." Not that I cared, but that didn't seem to phase her. She took to stopping by my office and regaling me with stories of all her gay friends. She didn't seem to notice that I did not encourage this type of familiarity. That I did not appreciate it. That I actually resented it.

I finally realized that she was doing this for her own benefit rather than for mine. It made her feel good. She seemed to want to become a classic fag-hag, if you will pardon a not-very-PC term. Finally I realized what I should have seen all along. She was probably a lesbian who was seeking some route to self-disclosure or acceptance. I don't have a functioning lesbometer (and let's accent the second syllable of that word, shall we?), comparable to my NASA-rated gaydar, so I tend to be blind to these things. Anyway, I liked this woman. She was smart, funny and sympathetic, but I was just not in the market for that kind of relationship with a co-worker, and I felt that she was crossing a line without the necessary invitation from me. Score another one for keeping the mouth shut. Something I wish she had done.

Some interventions are better than others. By the time I was a sophomore in High School, I had become a fat kid. I had graduated from being cherubic to being officially and undeniably fat. Somebody said something about this to my mother who, overriding my protestation (I didn't want to face it) brought me to a doctor. This doctor gave me a prescription for a drug that is commonly known as "Speed" (it was a kinder, gentler time). I immediately loved this drug . It gave me boundless energy while totally erasing my desire for food. One evening, my mother backed into a corner of our living room with fright as I grabbed the vacuum cleaner and ran it over every square foot of our house, having already finished all other conceivable chores while the rest of the family ate dinner. My fat seemed to disappear overnight. I became cute, happy and popular. Alas, the heady days of that drug's legality soon came to a close, and the good doctor, unwilling to relinquish a profitable market, eventually went to jail for it. I thought about visiting him with a file baked into a cake, but decided he would have resented the carbs.

In this case, I can wholeheartedly, after the fact, thank whomever made the intervention. I am grateful to whomever said to my mother "Marge, that boy of yours is fat." But the business of being a gay teenager is different, because fat you lose, but gay you don't. It's who you are forever. In this case, we'll score one for the saying something, but let's understand the significant differences between fat and gay.

Let me get to the point. We are talking about a young man who has not yet come to terms with his sexuality. He's only in high school. How long do you think it takes a person to come to terms with his or her sexuality? A lifetime. And once you get it figured out, it's not even the same thing it was when you started. Even if everyone in your town has labeled him as "gay," consigning him to that one category at that young age is a mistake.

You also say that his friends SEEM to accept him as gay. This is an important choice of words on your part. You really don't know how "out" that boy is to anyone else in the world. Maybe none of those friends has actually spoken to him about it.

What you don't want to do is start the dominoes falling in a way that will scare the kid into either considering suicide or into making strenuous efforts to prove everyone wrong by having sex with girls. I hear that this is not such an uncommon reaction even in these enlightened times.

Seriously, I think you do know where the line between helpfulness and intrusion is.

One thing you can do is talk about the issue to your own kid. Your own kid is the one person in this picture over whom you have any rights of intervention. Out of concern for your colleague's son, you could help your kid understand how frightening it can be for a young person to realize that he or she is gay and that the fact may be disastrous at the very time in life when popularity and acceptance are most important. On the other hand, times are changing rapidly, and there are more and better avenues of support for gay teens than ever before. Despite those supports, being outed is like surgery best done by professionals rather than in a back alley.

I'm trying to imagine the horror and panic I would have felt as an efficiently closeted high schooler if one of my parents' friends had ID'd me as gay and decided that my parents ought to know. In those days, there were no TV psychologists discussing every miserable and private wrinkle of human sexuality, and the closest thing we had to a gay role model was Paul Lynde on Hollywood Squares. Yikes.

Let's consider another possibility. Say the boy is over your house hanging out with your kid. Say there's a moment when it's just the two of you. Should you use this opportunity to say something like "Hey kid, just want you to know that everyone in your school says you're gay, and if it's true, and you need someone to talk to...." This is extremely risky business, especially because you don't really know this boy and could easily spook him into the darker recesses of his closet. Don't do this.

Here in New York, there are posters in the subway that say "If you see something, say something." But I think that applies to unaccompanied parcels or baggage rather than to teenage boys who might be gay or to the gay spouses of friends.

A non-specific discussion about "gay" issues in the context of parenting is probably the most you can safely do with your colleague. If your colleague responds to your comments by saying "If my son ever came home and told me he was gay, I'd beat it out of him," we've got a whole different kettle of fish. If that is what he says, you fold the cards and are now forced to rethink the situation with new rules, but that would be an entirely different discussion between you and me. For the moment, you seem to know very little about the people in question and could potentially do some serious damage by intervening.

PS: Since High School graduation, I have reacquired exactly five pounds that I would like to get rid of. When you're having a chat with your kid about other things, would you ask him if he's got a good source for "diet pills." Kids know these things.

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That was a fantastic answer!

Bingo. Well done sir!

As always pearls of wisdom Father T. I have no idea what I would have done if someone had outed me as a teenager. For the record, I was one of those kids who tried sex with a girl and have the daughter to prove it. Kids, don't try this at home!

Things were dicey enough when I did come out to my parents as a young adult and hopefully things are easier now than they were 30 odd years ago. I am grateful that I got to address this aspect of family dynamics on my own terms.

rick_from_kansas | September 4, 2008 6:04 PM

Father tony, very fascinating answer...U really hit it on top of th ehead

Sexual orientation is no ones business but the person involved and it hopefully one day will not be a topic of such intrigue and need for outsiders to discuss and analyze. I do give the writer credit for asking the opinion of others instead of jumping to conclusions with unknown consequences. Good reply.

Wow. I'm so glad you joined the blog, Father Tony. Your columns on Thursdays have quickly become one of the highlights of the day!

Beautiful, Father Tony. You are a joy to read every post.

Excellent reasoning, and the plethora of examples supports your point with a range of valid examples. Personal identity questions are nobody's business except the particular person's. I have decent gaydar, not rocket science gaydar like yours :-) but I never assume until I'm told (by the person him/herself) or observe something unquestionable. For gay teens--and suicide aside--this can be a life or death matter.

A thoughtful and brilliant answer all at the same time. Just what I have quickly come to expect. Thanks, Father T!

Three cheers for Tony's great good sense!

Your advice was a bullseye. However, you lose points on Carole Merril. She was on "Let's Make a Deal."

Tom, you caught me! I guess this error will expose the fact that I am not really gay afterall.

I agree. Ultimately, it is the boy's secret to tell.

What a treat to read,and what a lesson in restraint.My first reaction was,to ask him who's business is he in.I have found when I ask myself this question I am able to keep my mouth shut much more easily.

Thanks for the hilarious response,and the wisdom included.