“I define “connection” as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard and valued.”
I remember the night of my “coming out,” when I nervously admitted to my mom and dad—“I’m gay”. It was a chilly November evening in 1985. I had recently turned 21 in June and was finally at the age to begin exploring the bar scene. And I did, with relish. Having recently graduated with a graphic design degree earlier in September, my nights of heavy homework were suddenly freed up. I began sneaking out to various gay clubs in Denver several nights a week. After a decade of internally exploring the confusion of my attractions, orientation and identity (see more here), I felt like I was suddenly “home”. I was around men and women who felt like I did and could now finally act on my same sex feelings. The desperate hunt for a boyfriend began.
Being rather naive and new to this dating scene I wasn’t particularly savvy about covering my tracks very well. Now some of the men I had met at the clubs and dating were starting to call my family’s home looking for me—pre cell phone days, probably not the best idea. My parents confronted me that wintry evening wanting answers about these guys. Perhaps that was why I was so careless about giving out our number—did I want to be discovered?
The Truth Comes Out!
The truth finally came out and so did I. For many years I reflected on how this dialog might go. They couldn’t be too surprised, I’d think; I had many friends that were women, but never dated all through school. Yet deep down, I just wanted them to love and accept me as their son, my new gay identity and whoever I brought home. The conversation didn’t go very well. I sat by the fireplace rambling on, but they remained shut down. My hopes were quickly dashed by the lack of emotion on their faces. The topic was never brought up again. I moved out in January and for the next several years only saw my family for holidays and special occasions. Obviously, communication wasn’t one of our strong points.
Thankfully, there has been great healing in the relationship with my family. I’m grateful God has given us this gift of reconciliation. Now having worked with so many hurting parents over the years at WGA, there are many things I wished I could have offered my mom and dad. It might have helped them process this challenging news. Here are just a few thoughts:
The Luxury of Time to Process
As you can tell from my story, it was sad to process such important parts of myself which were developing (my attractions, orientation, identity and faith) all alone at a young age. A common mistake I made when disclosing was I had years to wrestle, research, think and react to these major decisions I was making. That internal process was now coming out and causing some big-time ripple effects in my world. I needed to learn I didn’t exist in a bubble.
I expected my parents to be emotionally “caught up” with me upon hearing the news. After years of struggle I had finally reached my happy conclusions. They should be equally happy—right? This doesn’t seem fair to parents in these types of situations. They too, should have the luxury of time (without urgent expectations pressuring them) to digest the news, adapt to a new reality and figure out how they and our family would be affected personally by my life choices.
Emotional Safe Space
Brene Brown, in the above quote, says we connect when we feel seen, heard and valued. According to this account, my parents seem cold and uncaring. And I, being so self-focused with my own fears, discounted their feelings in the process. No one in this scenario is connecting. If I do a little empathy work and put myself in their shoes upon hearing the pronouncement “I’m gay”—what might they be feeling? It was 1985 and thousands of gay men were dying from the horrible disease of AIDS. I imagine they were experiencing incredible fear I could end up with a similar fate.
It was only natural my parents had hopes and dreams for my future. Sometimes I felt the pressures of their expectations. But my parents entered a grieving process and should have had a safe space to feel sorrow, anger, fear and hopefully a love and acceptance of me that would still honor their beliefs and convictions. Sadly, many parents’ emotions are bulldozed over in the name of demanding “political correctness”—this is how you should feel. If I wanted love, respect and acceptance of my beliefs and conclusions, they deserved the same from me.
Triage: Resources, Information and Support
After years of having time to wrestle on my own, I felt some peace from the conflict between my faith and sexuality. But the moment I shared this news, my parents had just been hit by my speeding car and were laying in the road bleeding. This is an analogy I often use when I talk with families (especially if they had no clues to their child’s internal struggles and this information is fresh). They need some quick triage. My parents were not experts on homosexuality, the gay community or what it meant to have a gay identity. For me to expect or require that of them is to ignore their legitimate needs.
Perhaps some resources would be helpful? Their first and foremost need is information and education. What does all this really mean in regards to gender, sexuality and Christianity? I also wish my parents would have had the opportunity to hear from other families who were experiencing the same conflicts and emotions, but had some time and process under their belt. This would have brought them into community, rather than being isolated and in denial.
Where Grace Abounds comes alongside parents in need. We offer a safe environment to process the many overwhelming emotions and to offer resources, education and support. An environment where people feel seen, heard and valued. A Family and Friends group is available every Thursday Night in our drop in support group led by Steve and Jill Huston from our staff. To participate call the WGA offices. For a parents perspective, check out this story.
Ironically, after all the drama my coming out caused, my own journey has led me to choose a life of being single and celibate. For that harrowing story, see this article. – Go figure!