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Could Your Teenager Be Gay?

Secretly, many parents hope not. But if the answer is yes, there's a lot of support to help you and your child along the journey.

A few weeks before writing this, I bumped into an acquaintance, a middle-aged woman with two teenage sons. I told her I was working on an article about parents of teens who might be gay. "I'm not sure I'd want to read the article," she said quickly. It surprised me that this liberal-with-a-capital-L woman would display such discomfort at the topic. In the following weeks I'd learn, from parents of gay children across the country, that her reaction wasn't unusual.

"I had absolutely no problem with other kids being gay, just not my own child," one mother of a gay teen told me. "I hoped that if I ignored the signs, it would just go away," said another.

However, the head-in-the-sand approach to parenting can backfire big time. With estimates of homosexual orientation ranging between four and 17 percent of the population, parents may want to consider the possibility that their child might be gay.

When a child approaches puberty and seems somehow different - perhaps a boy who loves doing his female buddies' hair, or a girl who prefers boys' clothing - the question of sexual orientation draws uncomfortably close for many parents. Of course, not all children who display such behaviours turn out to be gay, and while some research indicates that they are somewhat more likely to, counter-examples abound.

By the same token, when children behave like "typical"members of their own gender, it doesn't preclude future homosexuality. Although some stereotypes contain a grain of truth, Bonnie Haave, an Edmonton family psychologist, cautions against "making assumptions based on stereotypes, especially about our own children. Stereotypes are not reliable."

Take Parker Meinert of Saint John. "He was a happy-go-lucky, outgoing child who had crushes on girls and played basketball," says his mother, Judith. When Parker grew moody in grade 11 and lost interest in school, his mother chalked it up to her recent separation and never thought to question his sexual orientation. Three years later, Meinert was stunned when Parker's older brother burst into the house, after spotting his younger sibling around town with a well-known gay man, and declared: "You're a faggot, aren't you?" "Parker said yes, and my whole world came crashing down," Meinert recalls. "I stayed up crying all night. I didn't want to talk about it. I was grieving and mourning the Parker I knew."


Going on a feeling

Although Meinert never asked Parker if he was gay, she admits she did have "a feeling about him." On one occasion, she says, "he mentioned riding his bike past a well-known 'cruising area' in town. On some level, I probably knew he was dropping a hint, but I guess I preferred not to dig deeper." Which raises the question: What, if anything, should you do if you have a hunch your teen might be gay?

"We don't recommend asking teens outright, but we do recommend having positive discussions about homosexuality in general," says Marlene Morais, president of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) Toronto and the mother of a gay son. "Take advantage of news items or media depictions of homosexuality to convey whatever reassurance you can, such as letting your child know that you think parents should support their kids no matter what differences they have."

The subtle approach makes particular sense with younger teens, who may still be questioning their sexual identity. Older teens, on the other hand, may respond well to a parent's gentle probing. When Michelle Roy,* of Saint John, observed her 19-year-old son hanging around with "emotional, dramatic male friends," she took him aside one evening and asked him: "Would you say you might be gay?" When he said yes, Roy felt a pang of sadness. "It marks the end of your stereotypical dreams for your child. I also worried how my husband, a macho guy who hunts and fishes, would handle the news."


Confronting the evidence

Imagine the scene: You're cleaning your teen's bedroom and find same-sex porn magazines wedged between his mattress and bedspring. Does it confirm he's gay? "Many teens have same-sex feelings, but don't end up identifying as gay," says Miriam Kaufman, a staff physician in the division of adolescent medicine at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children and a politically active lesbian mother. On the other hand, she says, "it's probably fair to say that a teen with gay porn is more likely to be gay." Though you may be tempted to march up to your child and demand explanations, Haave advises against it. "Ask yourself what you would do if it was a heterosexual magazine, then calm yourself and use your discovery as a springboard for an open discussion."

Bruce Cullen,* a divorced father in Toronto, took this opportunity when he learned his 12-year-old son, Alec, had been visiting gay adult websites. "My girlfriend and I gently asked him about it, and he felt comfortable enough to come out to us." Cullen wasn't exactly surprised. "Alec had certain mannerisms that just made me wonder, and he'd been called gay in school before."

A small part of Cullen had hoped his question would elicit a negative response, but he didn't let his wishful thinking morph into denial. "A parent who is in denial will likely place expectations on the teen that he can't meet," notes Kaufman. "The teen will also be less inclined to confide in the parent or go to him for help."

Teens can also launch into denial when confronted, making disparaging comments about homosexuality. Angelo Sartor, a child and youth counsellor with Delisle Youth Services in Toronto, knows of one girl whose father, concerned that she never dated boys, asked her if she was a lesbian. "The child went through the roof with anger and spoke vehemently against homosexuality," says Sartor. "A year later, she came out to her parents on her own." If you find yourself in a similar situation, Sartor suggests you explore why your teen might be making those comments, by saying something like "I notice that you seem to be saying a lot of negative things about gay people." This may spark a dialogue.


The moment of truth

Despite suspicions that her then teen son, Jeff, was gay, Carol Warren was baffled when he confirmed it. "Here we were, a very religious family who attended a conservative church, and now this. I just couldn't put the two together - our religious beliefs and a gay son." In her confusion, the Saint John mom responded to her son's declaration with "Are you sure?"

Even if you don't quite "get" what your child is telling you, Sartor urges you to respect it. "Tell her you want her to help you understand," he suggests. "That way it becomes more of a partnership." And resist telling her she can't possibly know she's gay until she's had a relationship with a guy, says Clare Nobbs, a coordinator of community programs at Supporting Our Youth, a community development project in Toronto and herself a lesbian. "Families struggle with the idea that young teens can know they're gay before trying intercourse. But they do know, just as most heterosexual teens know they're heterosexual before having sex."

Morais, whose son came out to her by letter in university, concurs. "By the time they come out, they know," she says. "It's not a spur-of-the-moment thing. Don't add to their guilt by trying to dissuade them. Assure them that you'll always love them just the same." Morais concedes that parents may travel a bumpier emotional path if their religion disavows homosexuality. But she maintains parents don't need to give up their beliefs to keep on loving their child.


To tell or not to tell

Inevitably, you'll face telling friends and relatives. However, Sartor recommends keeping mum until you feel you can accept and support your child's choice. For several months after her son came out, Judith Meinert couldn't muster that support. "Then one morning I had an epiphany," she recalls. "I realized that Parker had not changed. I just knew one more thing about him. Acceptance became easier after that."

Before spreading the word, be sure to get your child's permission, and respect what he's comfortable with. (By the same token, your teen should also respect your wishes if he's ready to tell the world, but you haven't reached that stage yet.) Once you get the green light, proceed in small steps. "There's no need to tell everybody right away," says Sartor. "It depends on the degree of closeness and trust between you and the other person."

The first person Judith Meinert told was her sister, during a car trip to Montreal. "I had a sinking feeling," she says about the moments leading up to the talk. "I wondered if she would disapprove of my son, or of me." No doubt intending to be helpful, her sister suggested that Parker's homosexuality was just a phase. "But I knew better, "says Meinert. "It was a hard conversation."

While you'll likely get support from loved ones, you do need to prepare for the occasional sting. "If friends or relatives react with strong disapproval," says Morais, "you may choose to limit your contact with them - or at the very least, ask them to refrain from making negative comments about your child."


Safety first

Shortly after coming out to her at 13, Deb Bridge's son, now an adult, also told a school friend. Within a week of his confession, he was receiving death threats from kids in his Calgary school - and this was grade eight. The experience confirmed Bridge's worst fear: "Being gay meant being unsafe."

Many parents harbour similar fears - not without reason. The suicide rate among gay teens is at least three times higher than it is among straight teens, and disproportionate numbers of gay teens experience verbal and physical abuse. That's why it's so crucial for gay teens to feel safe in their own homes, says Sartor. "A quarter of street kids are identified as gay or bi," he notes. "These are kids who must leave home after coming out to their parents. It need not be that way."

If your teen complains about homophobic comments among classmates or friends, Haave suggests talking to her about how people react when confronted with something they have been taught is wrong. "Reassure her that things will likely improve once she moves into a more mature environment, such as university or the workforce."

You can also consider alerting your child's school about his sexual orientation - but only after getting the green light from your teen, says Kaufman. With his son's permission, Bruce Cullen informed the vice-principal that Alec had recently come out, and suggested the news be shared with a few key teachers.

Also with your child's consent, report any specific bullying incidents to the school. If your concerns aren't addressed, you can always appeal to higher levels in the school board. At the same time, you may want to caution your teen about wearing her sexual orientation on her sleeve if her school or community has strong conservative leanings, though she likely has sound instincts in this regard. "Most gay teens check out other teens' attitudes about homosexuality and decide who they can trust to tell," says Kaufman. "They get a sense of whether it is safe to hold hands or even to be seen with a same-sex partner."

In extreme cases, switching schools may be the best solution, which was the case with the Bridges. "The school told me they couldn't guarantee his safety, so I pulled him out and transferred him to another school, where he did much better."


Life goes on

It's natural for parents to think ahead to that day when their gay teen asks to bring home a date. "Imagine what you'd say and do if it were an opposite-sex partner, and try to react the same way," says Nobbs, who concedes it probably won't come naturally, it has to be learned. At the same time, you're perfectly entitled to impose limits on your gay teen's behaviour, as Carol Warren did. Even though Warren now accepts her son's sexuality, she did ask him and his partner not to kiss in her presence. "I'm just not comfortable with it," she says.

The coming-out process is like a journey, says Meinert. Many parents travel along a common emotional track - initial shock and dismay, then tentative acceptance and, finally, fierce support for the gay child and for gay rights in general. Morais's hard-earned insight may help smooth the path ahead: "Resist making assumptions about how your child's life will turn out. If you do, your mourning process will be all the harder if he deviates from these assumptions. Expect the unexpected."

*Names changed by request.


When Your Teen Is Bisexual

Is bisexuality just a polite word for homosexuality?

Probably not, says Clare Nobbs, a lesbian mother and a coordinator at Supporting Our Youth, a community development program in Toronto. "I think sexuality is more fluid than binary," she says. "And in younger people, bisexuality may represent an exploratory phase. They may end up bi for life - or they may not."

Supporting this view is a study of sexual orientation in 34,706 Minnesota junior and senior high-school students, in which 10.7 percent of participants expressed uncertainty about their sexual orientation.

The bottom line is, don't draw any conclusions. "Just guide the teen in staying safe," says Nobbs, "and be open to what might happen."


Resources

If your teen is gay, there are ample resources to help you adjust to your new reality. Just about all parents of gay teens suggest running, not walking, to your nearest PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) chapter, or visit pflagcanada.ca. You may also gain insight from the following books:

Now That You Know: A Parents' Guide to Understanding Their Gay and Lesbian Children
by Betty Fairchild and Nancy Hayward
Harcourt 2001.
Parents of gay children share their stories of pain, adjustment and triumph.

Straight Parents, Gay Children: Inspiring Families to Live Honestly and with Greater Understanding
by Robert A. Bernstein
Thunder's Mouth Press 2003.
The father of a lesbian daughter helps parents understand the experience of growing up gay in a straight world.

Hear Me Out! True Stories of Teens Confronting Homophobia
compiled by Planned Parenthood of Toronto
Second Story 2004.
Gay, lesbian and transgendered youth write about coming out and coping with their sexual identity.


by Gabrielle Bauer
Originally Published in Today's Parent
August 2005

About the Author

Gabrielle Bauer is Toronto-based freelance writer who contributes to Canadian Living, Reader's Digest, Money Sense, and Saturday Night, among numerous other publications. A National Magazine Award winner, she is also the author of two award-winning non-fiction books: Waltzing the Tango and Tokyo, My Everest.