ComingOutSo, a family member or friend has just “come out” to you as a gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender person. Some people may be able to take this news in stride. Some people may go through something like a grieving process: shock, denial, anger, guilt, and sense of loss. If these feelings are familiar to you, they are understandable given our society’s attitudes towards gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals. You are grieving because our society has told you that having a gay child is bad. You love your gay child, your lesbian friend, your bisexual uncle; but you don’t know how to integrate that love with the images you have of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. Perhaps you believe that your family member or friend will never have a long-term loving relationship. You may be concerned that he or she may have a life without children. You may even fear for your loved one’s physical safety.

Your First Reaction: Some Possibilities

You may find yourself wondering “how could he or she do this to me?” After all, this is someone you care about and he or she cares about you. As you work through your feelings, you may discover that the only thing your friend or family member has “done” to you is to trust that your relationship could grow as a result of knowing the truth about him or her.

People who see themselves as “liberal” may have another kind of guilt. They may believe they have put sexual prejudice behind them — they may even have gay friends — but they are sometimes stunned to recognize that they are uncomfortable when a friend or family member comes out to them. These people not only have to grapple with deep-rooted fears of homosexuality, but also have the added burden of thinking they shouldn’t feel the way they do.

Myths and Facts

As you learn more about gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people you will become more comfortable sorting out the facts from the myths. The ambivalence you feel is a product of our culture. It was as recently as 1972, when the American Psychological Association removed homosexuality from its list of disorders. Anti-gay rhetoric fans the flames of misunderstanding and fear. All these things together add to our discomfort about homosexuality. What we feel is homophobia. Homophobia is an aversion towards gay people and homosexuality. Positive images of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people are not a regular part of our culture and are only now being explored as part of television, film, theater and other areas of our culture.

PFLAG and Your Journey

Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) can be an important part of your journey toward understanding. We provide a place with people who understand and support your feelings as you move through the various phases of your journey — feelings from anger to grief to acceptance. We understand. We’ve been there. Personal grief may be part of your journey, but working through your grief does not have to be the end of your journey. Many of us in PFLAG have found a sense of gratitude — yes, gratitude — as our feelings transformed from grief to acceptance and ultimately to celebration. We found ourselves grateful for the opportunity to see the world in a different way, grateful for the opportunity to grow as people and grateful for the gift of the trust of someone we love very much. Our journey is an ongoing learning process.

PFLAG members can tell you from experience that talking about the situation, no matter what your feelings are, really helps. There are books to read, hotlines to call, and people to meet — people who can help you through your journey by sharing their experiences. PFLAG is committed to acting with truth and respect, to confronting our fear and ignorance about homosexuality, and to building communities where difference is both understood — and valued.

Friends of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people have a very special place in the PFLAG family. Many people have become PFLAG members because a close friend is gay. Other PFLAG friends act out of a fundamental sense of justice. They believe in equal rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. PFLAG friends are also helping professionals who join for information to pass along to clients. Friends hold leadership positions in PFLAG and can teach families some very special lessons. If you are the friend of a gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender person, there is a place for you in PFLAG. Your story may be different from a parent whose child has just come out to him or her, but your story is as important and meaningful in this journey to acceptance.

A Historical Snapshot: Jeanne’s Journey to PFLAG

In 1972, Jeanne Manford made history when she marched alongside her gay son Morty at New York City’s gay pride parade, carrying a sign that said, “We Love Our Gay Children.” Lesbian and gay people showered her with hugs and tears, and begged her to talk to their parents. Jeanne got the idea to start a parents group, where parents could meet and talk and know they were not alone. A safe and non-judgmental place where they could begin to understand that nothing was wrong with their kids.

Jeanne formed a small New York City group, and subsequently helped Adele and Larry Starr, who also had a gay son, create a Los Angeles group. Adele Starr would eventually go on to become PFLAG’s first national president. In 1979, the handful of support groups around the country met in Washington, D.C., to coincide with the first national march for gay rights. Two years late, PFLAG was officially formed.

PFLAG has remained the definitive support system for many parents learning to understand their gay and lesbian children. But PFLAG has become more than a support organization for parents of gay children. In the true tradition of Jeanne Manford’s historic public support of her son Morty and her desire to speak out on his behalf, PFLAG’s role as educators and advocates continues to evolve. As educators of a society still ignorant to the facts of homosexuality, PFLAG members are knowledgeable and credible sources of information about homosexuality and issues related to their gay, lesbian or bisexual friends and family members. As advocates for equal rights for their gay, lesbian and bisexual family members and friends, PFLAG members are respected and reasoned voices that political, religious and media decision makers listen to.

More than 20 years ago, Jeanne Manford took an unprecedented stand for her gay son. And thanks to her fortitude, courage and vision, her dream of PFLAG became a reality. Today, PFLAG addresses the need of members at many different stages of their personal journeys through the organization’s support programs, educational projects and advocacy activities. PFLAG has helped hundreds of family members and friends of lesbian, gay and bisexual people take Jeanne Manford’s example. They’ve taken their own stands.

Understanding the “Coming Out” Process

You may be uncomfortable with your friend or family member’s same-gender public displays of affection. Remember that all couples — straight and gay — often show affection publicly because they feel love and appreciation for their partner. Stop and think — are you as uneasy about heterosexual displays of affection in public?

Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are often accused of “flaunting” their sexuality when they publicly acknowledge their sexual orientation, when they are publicly affectionate with a same-gender partner, or when they wear gay symbols and t-shirts or participate in gay parades.

In a world that still assumes all people are heterosexual, coming out is the only way gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender people can make their sexual orientation known. Coming out is considered a positive way to avoid societal invisibility that can lead to internalized self-hate or lack of self-esteem.

Gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender people may hold back from telling their families and friends as long as possible, because it has taken them a long time to determine what they’re feeling themselves. In other words, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people often recognize at an early age that they feel “different,” but it may take many years before they can put a name to it.

Due to unfortunate societal realities for gay people, it may take time for them to acknowledge their sexuality to themselves. Gay people themselves have often internalized self-hate or insecurity about their sexual identity. It may take time for someone to think through and work up the courage to tell a friend or family member. Even if you feel your relationship with your family member or friend was such that they should have known they could tell you anything, everything in our culture’s treatment of homosexuality says “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

While some people may experiment for some time with their sexuality, someone who has reached the point of telling you that he or she is gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender is not usually a person who is going through a phase. Generally he or she has given long and hard thought to understanding and acknowledging his or her sexual orientation involved overcoming too many negative stereotypes and taking too much risk for anyone to take that step lightly or prematurely.

The Gift of Honesty

If your friend or family member “came out” to you voluntarily, you’ve already received a gift of honesty. A decision to be open with you about something our society encourages him or her to be secretive or ashamed about took a tremendous amount of love, trust, and commitment to a relationship with you; a relationship in which you can love your friend or family member for who he or she is, rather than for who you want him or her to be.

“I hit a point where I was feeling sad and thinking what would I say when people asked, ‘how is Gary?’ And then it occurred to me; Gary’s fine. I’m the one who’s not. And once I reached that point, it was easier… As we met Gary’s friends, we found them to be wonderful people and realized he’s really a part of a pretty terrific community. So what’s the problem? It’s society’s problem. That’s when we figured we were over the hump.”

Our Diverse Sexuality

One of the first questions you may have about your family member or friend is, “What does it mean to be gay?” It helps to think of human sexuality as a prism; many different aspects can be represented within a single spectrum. The continuum of human sexuality ranges from people who are attracted to the same sex to people who are attracted to the opposite sex; there are many “shades of gray” or expressions of sexuality in between.

Some people cope with their newfound knowledge about their family member or friend by looking for “causes” of homosexuality. A common (and homophobic) assertion is that gay people “recruit.” The truth is that your family member or friend has probably known he or she was “different” for a long time — no person or group of people “converted” your friend or family member. Recent biological research has presented interesting data and raised provocative questions about all of our sexualities, but for the most part has focused on homosexuality as an oddity, a difference and a puzzle to be solved. We almost never ask the same questions about heterosexuality. Homosexuality can only be understood as part of human sexuality. Homosexuality will continue to seem different and confusing unless we put ourselves as heterosexuals into the picture. Educating ourselves about homosexuality not only helps our gay, lesbian or bisexual friend or family member, but serves as an invitation to understand all of our lives in their complexity and diversity.

Why Ask Why?: Searching for the Cause

“After learning, with total surprise, that one of our sons was gay, I initially felt some comfort in attributing a biological cause to his sexual orientation, thereby lessening some of the irrational guilt I harbored. As time passed, with more education and understanding, the biological argument became less important, and I could easily empathize with some members of the gay community who, having been criticized for supposedly choosing this lifestyle, now feared that biological differences could turn out to be another reason for society to persecute them or try to reengineer them.”

While you may be curious about the causes of homosexuality, remember, we don’t need biological research on homosexuality to accept and love our gay, lesbian, bisexual family members and friends, or to address homophobia and heterosexism in our communities. Concentrating on real concerns can be helpful: you love your gay, lesbian or bisexual family member or friend and you owe it to him or her — and to yourself — to begin your journey toward acceptance, understanding and support.

Let’s look at the different ways or labels we use to identify expressions of sexuality. There are four major areas that are usually considered in discussions of sexual development:
“Homosexual” or “gay,” refers to people whose sexual and romantic feelings are mostly for the same gender: Men who are attracted to men, and women who are attracted to women. “Lesbian” refers to women who are homosexual.
“Heterosexual” or “straight,” refers to people whose sexual and romantic feelings are mostly for the opposite gender: Men who are attracted to women, and women who are attracted to men.
“Bisexual” or “bi,” refers to people whose sexual and romantic feelings are for both sexes.
“Transgender” refers to people who manifest characteristics, behaviors and modes of self-expression which are typically associated with members of the opposite sex or gender.

Stereotypes: What’s in a Name?

Stereotypes arise out of ignorance and prejudice. Gay people, like straight, act all kinds of ways. Sometimes a stereotype about a group doesn’t fit anyone in that group. Sometimes it fits a few people, sometimes more. But a stereotype never fits everyone in any group.

Placing labels on sexual identity can be extremely complex. Frequently, we hear the stereotype that lesbians are women who want to be men, and gay men aren’t “real” men. Many times, bisexual and transgender people are not even discussed. Stereotypes confuse issues of gender identity and sexual orientation — which are really distinct issues. You can see how complex sexuality is and how confused the messages are about transgender identity, homosexuality, bisexuality, and heterosexuality.

Accepting Our Diversity

Being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender is a normal and healthy way to be. It is one more part of who we are — like being tall or short, Asian or Latino, blue-eyed or brown-eyed. It’s as healthy to be gay as to be straight — no matter what some people might tell you. The American Psychological Association says that it is unethical to try to change a gay person’s sexual orientation. Just like eye color, hair texture, or left-handedness, some people are gay, some people are straight, some people are bisexual and some people are transgender. Difference is just part of the magnificent diversity of being human.

Religion and Your Journey

You may find yourself concerned about reconciling your religion with your loved ones sexual orientation. In today’s world of mixed message about homosexuality and religion, viewing homosexuality through the lens of religion can be complex.

Many mainstream religious denominations consider homosexuality behavior to be incongruous with religious teachings. The Bible is often used, out of context, to justify anti-gay feelings and actions. “Love the sinner, but hate the sin,” is what many religions teach about homosexuality. Feeling rejected by their religion’s leaders, some gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people and their families and friends have explored new ways of expressing their faith. Many family members and friends of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people have been faced with the dilemma of reconciling their religion’s teachings and their deep feelings about their loved ones. While this section is not designed to thoroughly cover this subject, we can share some insights that have helped others.

Speaking with someone from your religious tradition about reconciling your love for you gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender family member or friend with your religion’s teachings may open new avenues of support. During this discussion, you may want to keep a few questions in mind to help clarify your feelings: What is my religious advisor saying about my religion’s teachings about homosexuality? Is my religious advisor able to provide support and comfort as I go through this process of discovery?

When you feel more comfortable with your feelings and have a clearer idea about your religion’s teachings on homosexuality you may want to consider a few more questions: What do I feel about homosexuality and my religion? Can I reconcile my personal beliefs, my religious beliefs and my religious teachings with my love for my gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender family member or friend?

The answer to these questions may lead you to another phase of your journey. Some gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people and their families and friends have found their current religion provided them with support and acceptance. Others decided to enlighten members within their faith community about the issues facing them and their gay lesbian, bisexual or transgender family members or friends. Working for change, through education and outreach, from within their religion, was viewed as an opportunity to be embraced. Some people discovered the need to investigate a more accepting congregation within their religion; there are wide interpretations of teachings, even within a particular religion.

Other gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people and their families and friends came to the realization they just could not reconcile their beliefs with those of their religion. After much thought and reflection, they discovered that they needed to consider a new way of expressing their faith. Some found this a painful decision, but their resolution has ultimately provided them with the spiritual sustenance they were searching for.

Each of these avenues may require careful thought and deep spiritual exploration. It may help if you keep in mind that there are many gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people and their family members and friends who have gone through this process. Speaking with others, reading some of the suggested books on this subject, and spending time in quiet reflection are the ways many have discovered supportive paths for their journey. Remaining open to possibilities can be the key to serenity in this phase of your journey.

Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Youth

If your gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender family member or friend is young, coming to an understanding with him or her may be crucial. Gay, lesbian and bisexual youth who are shut out by their families have a comparatively high incidence of suicide and drug and alcohol abuse. Some teens protect themselves by putting as much distance between themselves and their parents as possible. Sometimes when an adolescent begins to discover feelings and attractions toward the same gender they often begin to distance themselves emotionally from other people. Knowing our culture’s intolerance, and even hatred, of all things homosexual, they don’t want anyone to know what they’re feeling, and so they shut others out. And who is shut out? Generally the people who are most important in their development: family members, friends, teachers, clergy.

One in Ten

People who work with gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth report common threads: these young people will hide their true feelings from others, feel intensely isolated, despise themselves, and live in fear of (or live with actual) rejection and violence.

As individuals we all have feelings about being male or female, beliefs about what who “should” be, and our own attitudes about various sexual acts. These feelings, beliefs, and attitudes (our values) don’t arise in a vacuum. Each of us has to make sense of the multiple and sometimes conflicting attitudes and values expressed in our families, rarely do our values as individuals exactly match those of our families, our religious or ethnic heritage, or any other single influence.

What Do We Teach Our Children?

Although as adults we often are not aware of teaching sexual attitudes and values, children are astute in picking them up in minute detail. At a very young age, for example, they discover that when they touch different parts of their bodies — elbows, toes, genitals — they get different reactions from adults. They learn that some parts are described with countless euphemisms- “down there,” “wee-wee,” “thing.” Or these parts may be surrounded by silence and not described at all; silence speaks loudly about attitudes.

Children pick up a lot of information about values and sexuality in their first several years of life. Yet ironically, adults often talk as though teaching about sexuality even as late as junior or senior high will somehow imprint dangerous information and ideas on individuals with no values. In reality, children already know what is out there, whether or not they can articulate it clearly. By the time they reach early adolescence, children have been deeply enculturated in the sexual attitudes and values of their family, the larger culture and their particular subcultures.

We need to think about all of these issues when we interact with young gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender family members or friends. We need to be aware of possibly transferring our own negative feelings about homosexuality to young impressionable people.

Journey to Gratitude*

“Most of us are like three leaf clovers — sort of ordinary, not much attention is given to us — but once in a while we find a four leaf clover, a rare and wonderful discovery. I remember, as a girl, spending hours looking for that four leaf clover. Occasionally I would find one and press it in a book or iron it between pieces of waxed paper. It was something I treasured, wanted to save and protect. My daughter is like one of those four leaf clovers; her sexual orientation just happens to be different from mine. She is someone I treasure and want to protect. A four leaf clover is not unnatural, just unusual; and different from the rest. I would never have considered removing one of the leaves so it would appear to be a three leaf clover.”

As we mature in our wisdom, attitude and judgment, we may join our gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender family member or friend in “coming out” as parents, families or friends of our loved ones. We may choose to be “out” in our communities and work with community and political leaders to dispel the myths about gay lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. We can tell them the truth about the lives of our families and friends. More of us may choose to celebrate — not just accept — our gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender family members and friends. We can choose to say “no” — in loud and public ways — to the hateful and sometimes violent climate for our family members and friends that is being spawned by hateful anti-gay rhetoric.

As part of our ongoing journey, some of us found ourselves challenged in very fundamental ways about the people we knew, the institutions to which we belonged and the world in which we lived. Prejudice and discrimination against our gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender family members or friends persist. We can choose to continue to examine our internalized homophobia, heterosexism and prejudices. We may discover that we, in fact, still have much to learn and a long way to go before our work is done. If you are willing, you can emerge from this period with a stronger, closer relationship with your family member or friend than ever existed before. This is where gratitude resides. Openness and honesty exist between you and your gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender friend or family member. Your journey to growth and gratitude has begun.

*Journey to Gratitude is a publication offered by Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.

Originally posted 2010-08-30 00:18:47.