Tips for “Coming Out” to Your Kids About Your Sexual Orientation
The first thing to note is that it is really terrific that you are taking time to consider how to sensitively approach “coming out” to your kids.* Here at COLAGE we have found that as children, we really want to know the truth about our parents’ sexual orientation, and usually we have some idea before you even tell us! But just because we want to know doesn’t mean that we always are thrilled about the situation, especially initially. It can signify a big change in the family, especially when accompanied with all the transitions that come with a divorce or break-up. These tips can also be helpful even if you were already “out” when your kid(s) were born.
* Note: This primarily focuses on the issue of parents “coming out” to their children about their sexual orientation and discussing questions and challenges that come up in that “coming out” process. COLAGE also acknowledges that “coming out” is not a onetime thing (which is why it is in quotes) and that this resource may apply in different ways throughout a parent and their child’s life. For information, resources, and support for parents coming out about their gender identity check out this resource on transitioning or email email@example.com.
Here are some tips to keep in mind that might help:
- It’s never too early to come out to your child/ren. Kids understand love. What they don’t understand is deception or hiding. And it’s never too late to come out to your child. COLAGE has met folks in their forties whose parents are just now coming out to them. A lot of mysteries are being solved, and missing puzzle pieces falling into place for these families. Often knowing the truth will be a relief for kids of all ages
- Tell your child/ren in a private space where the conversation can’t be overheard and will be completely confidential. Telling them at your regular Saturday night dinner at your favorite restaurant will be overwhelming.
- Make sure you tell them when there will be plenty of time for the conversation to continue if it needs to. If they are staying with you for the weekend, for example, talk with the kids on Saturday morning instead of waiting ’til the drive back to their other home on Sunday night.
- If you are agonizing over exactly what to say, try writing it down first or practicing with a friend.
- Kids’ responses are going to vary. Some may need some time and space to process the information on their own. Some might have a million questions. Others may barely react at all. No matter how your kids respond to your coming out, honor the process that they need to go through for themselves.
- Listen and ask your children what they already know and feel about LGBTQ people. Both as a starting point for them to have a discussion about sexual orientation; as well as in regards to suspicions they may have had about you.
- Don’t think that coming out to your kids means it’s time to have “the big sex talk.” Explain your sexuality in age-appropriate ways and in ways that they can understand. Talk about having feelings of love, care, and concern, along with attraction, for the same sex. If you are involved with someone and feel comfortable sharing this information, it’s a good idea as you will be explaining your feelings for someone your kids know. Another person makes the whole thing more concrete and less abstract.
- Think of this as a lifelong conversation, not a one-time deal. Your children’s thoughts, feelings, and questions will continue over time and change as they get older. This month they might not care, next month they might be mortified, next year they may have lots of questions. Keep the conversation alive; the tricky part is avoiding them feeling like you want to talk about it ALL the time (but believe me, that’s better than not enough).
- Let them know that no matter what, you love them. One of the main things kids worry about is that you will no longer share the common interests that you used to, or that you will somehow be different than you used to be. At the time of coming out some parents do go through what we fondly refer to as a “second adolescence.” Let your kids know that you are happy and are enjoying a new aspect of your life, but that no matter what, they are your number one priority. And then prove it to them by being consistent, attentive, and communicative.
- Help break down stereotypes of gay people for them. If your children already know other gay people draw comparisons between you and them. If they don’t, tell them things that may seem obvious to you, like not all gay men are hairdressers; give examples of famous LGBTQ people who they can look up to. They may be concerned that your whole personality is going to change now that you are gay; reassure them that you are still you—being gay is simply one more thing about you and that there is no one way that all LGBTQ people must be and act.
- Give them options of other supportive adults to talk with. Sometimes it’s easier for kids to express some of their feelings with another adult because they don’t want to hurt your feelings. If one of your parents, siblings, or friends is being especially supportive or there is another adult that you trust, arrange for them to spend time with the kids to provide a sounding board.
- Your kids may be gay. They may be straight. Either way, it’s not a judgment on your parenting. Nor are they doomed to a life of loneliness and desperation and homophobia (if they are gay). Be as supportive of your kid’s orientation as you wish your parents were of yours.
- Respect your kids’ wishes about how, when, and who they come out to about you. Let them tell their friends, peers, and others at their own pace and in their own time. Recognize that now they too have the joy and burden of coming out.
- Most importantly, connect them with other kids who have LGBTQ parents. Studies show that when children know they are not alone and have opportunities to share with other kids with LGBTQ parents, they have fewer problems. Go to events with your local LGBTQ family group if there is one, go to Family Week co-sponsored by COLAGE and Family Equality Council in the summer, buy books for them about gay families, have the kids join on-line groups run by COLAGE, become COLAGE members so your family can connect to other families in your area. Just let them know they are part of a community that cares and understands. They are not alone. Millions of other kids have experienced what they are now going through and there are ways that they can connect to this caring community of peers.
Resources on “Coming Out” to Kids:
COLAGE. COLAGE is the only national youth-driven network of people with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer parents. Living in a world that treats our families differently can be isolating or challenging. By connecting us with peers who share our experiences, COLAGE helps us become strong advocates for ourselves and our families. www.colage.org (855) 4-COLAGE firstname.lastname@example.org
“Coming Out To Children.” Witney, C. From Uncommon Lives, by Catherine Whitney, and Brian Miller’s chapter from Gay and Lesbian Parents, edited by Frederick W. Bozett. http://world.std.com/~ewk/outchil.html
-“Talking to Children About Our Families.” Margie Brickley and Aimee Gelnaw for the Family Equality Council. Topics in this guide include talking to kids about sexual orientation, how LGBTQ families are created, changes that occur within families, gender identity and the larger LGBTQ community and families. http://www.familyequality.org/resources/publications/talkingtochildren.pdf
-“There’s Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You.” Macpike, L. True life stories from 25 lesbian and gay parents who have come out to their children. Naiad Press, Tallahassee, 1989.
– “Thoughts on a Father’s Coming Out to His Children.” Buxton, Amity Pierce. GAMMA Newsletter, July/ August, 1998. Available at http://www.ssnetwk.org/reading.shtml. This article suggests ways for gay fathers to make disclosure to children safe and comfortable for both parents and children from the perspective of a straight, former spouse of a gay father.
-“What Does Gay Mean?” Ponton, Dr. Lynn Published by the National Mental Health Organization. To request a copy call 1-800-969-6642. This booklet discusses how you can talk to kids about sexual orientation. It includes information about different ways to address sexual orientation for different age groups and how to talk about homophobia and discrimination.
Advice and Insight from Folks with LGBTQ Parents.
My advice to parents is to come out CLEARLY—not once, but several times in different ways. There should be the sit down at home and have a frank talk about it version. (And remember: coming out as a LGBTQ person doesn’t have to include talk about SEX.) Then there should be reminder/check-in discussions, as in “What did you think of that gay character in the movie?” or “What do you want to do for gay pride month?” or “How do you feel about putting this rainbow sticker on the family car?” Just as your coming out process was probably gradual, your kid(s)’ process will take place over a period of time. Being honest in the beginning will save a lot of grief later. Meema, New York City, NY.
I often hear that children are smart, and can pick up on a lot. I can vouch, that this is very true. A few years before my dad came out to me, I suspected that it was true. Unfortunately, before my dad told me, I had already found a card from a man he had been dating. My advice to parents in the process of coming out to their kids is the sooner the better. In your coming out process, be as open and honest as you can. Make the situation a positive thing in your child’s life. Be confident in your decisions, and know that your child loves you for you, and not your sexuality. Amber, Lawrence, KS.
When my mum came out to me more than four years ago, I was not upset about it. The idea of having two mums was very exciting and I felt, and still feel, like it was a huge bonus for me. To me it feels like there can’t be anything better than having two mums. I was never upset that my mum was a lesbian, only worried about the difficulties that it would entail. Though I came across some problems at school etc., I feel that my family situation has made me a stronger and better person. Being in the minority has a lot to be said for it, and it really makes you appreciate everything that you have. I’d never change my mums’ sexuality. It’s a blessing. Hannah, United Kingdom
Tell your kids as soon as possible—it’s better that they hear it from you than from anyone else. Also if you have more than one child, try and tell them all at the same time. Otherwise you will put the kids that know in a difficult situation of not telling their siblings. When this happened to me, although I was okay with the idea of having a gay parent, I was uncomfortable with it being a secret. Being as open and honest as possible about your sexual orientation will role model to your kids that difference is not something for which you need to be ashamed. Max, San Francisco, CA.
When my mom came out to me, she just slipped it into a conversation. It felt uncomfortable, awkward and a total surprise. I wish that my mom would have said something like, “I have something that I want to talk to you about. It might sound surprising and I’m not sure how you will take it. I have had some realizations about my feelings in relationships. I am starting a relationship with a woman and I feel very much in love with her. Our friendship has been growing for 8 years and we have mutual feelings. What do you think about what I just said?” Lisa, Portland, OR.
When I was in third grade my mom went to her friend Debbie’s wedding. When I asked her how it went she told me she had a lot of fun dancing with Kathy… I laughed and said “Duh mom what are you gay?” She said “actually I am.” This is the first time I really understood what she meant by “I love Kathy” (her partner). Don’t ask her about it though… she swears that’s not how it happened. Diane, Kingston, Rhode Island
My advice is don’t sweep it under the rug or assume that it doesn’t affect your children because it is simply YOUR identity. In fact, it changes the identity of your entire family and the way in which they see themselves in relationship to other families. Your children will be very sensitive to the homophobic images and comments they are exposed to, and this is not always easy for children to understand or voice, especially when they have not formed their own sexual identities. An additional piece of advice is to never hide your relationships. If your children are raised around out, honest and loving relationships, they will be more likely to enter the world with a strong sense of the legitimacy of their family and personal identity. By being a visible LGBTQ parental presence, you can help affirm the normalcy of your existence for you, your children, and the society in which they will raise their children. Ava, Wellesley, MA.