In late October 1996, Wesley Davidson discovered a note in her son’s bedroom. “It was a love note, my son’s name entwined with another boy’s surrounded by a heart.” This note, like it would for most parents, caused Davidson’s world to unravel. But it also became the inspiration for her powerful new book, When Your Child Is Gay: What You Need to Know.
Davidson, who has written for other publications, such as Good Housekeeping, American Baby, and Adoptive Families, combines her efforts with psychiatrist Jonathon Tobkes to provide a structural framework for processing the news that your child is gay. Through compelling vignettes and stories, she moves from denial to discovery, guilt to innocence, fear to fearlessness, anger to calm, shame to pride, loss to gain, and finally acceptance to celebration. Tobkes then provides a clinical understanding of each emotion, as well as practical strategies to catalyze the process.
Upon hearing the news that their child is gay, the most common reaction most parents have is denial. Wesley describes her own experience where, even after discovering her son’s note, she reassured herself that as long as he hung out with girls, he must not be gay. She mentioned her concerns to a therapist, and even the therapist told her that her fears were unfounded. Yet the damage denial causes within a family can be devastating. Wesley writes, “The collateral damage of denial can be so overwhelming that it mirrors the symptoms of clinical post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).”
Statements such as, “My son cannot be gay because he’s the captain of the football team,” according to Tobkes, are classic signs of denial. Denial, Tobkes tells us, is a defense mechanism we use to cope with a “reality that is perceived as threatening or damaging to one’s self-image or concept of the world.” And because parents may not be able to reconcile their child’s homosexuality with their preconceived notions of who their children should be, they may fail to realize that they are in denial.
Overcoming denial, however, is largely based upon two things: the nature of the preexisting parent/child relationship and a parent’s baseline notions of what is means to be gay. Because many parents carry negative or limiting conceptualizations of the homosexual experience — such as childlessness, increased risk of HIV, exposure to drug use, and discrimination — they often blame themselves for their child’s homosexuality. Wesley describes the experience of Shane Duperon, an Emmy award-winning media coach and expert in communications, who initially viewed her son’s homosexuality as a personal attack and wondered what she had done to deserve it. Once Duperon was able to understand that she had been associating being gay with something negative — a crucial step according to Tobkes — she was able to begin alleviating her guilt and become supportive of her son.
Another critical step for parents in accepting their child’s homosexuality is to face their fears about what it means to be gay. Tobkes writes, “While there is certainly an underlying rationality to their fear, I have found that it is the magnitude and perceived loss of control that tend to be the distorted components associated with fear.” By evaluating the rationality of these fears — such as homosexuality leading to an increased risk of becoming drug addicted and suicidal — parents can learn to overcome their inherent bias toward the gay lifestyle.
Anger is also a very common reaction in parents of a gay child, which Wesley tells us will lead to estrangement between a parent and a gay child if left unresolved. Wesley tells the story of Brad Kukakos, whose mother repulsed him, said she was praying for him, and told him he needed to come to Jesus so he wouldn’t burn in hell for being gay. While anger can be one of the most destructive and unproductive responses, it is typically a secondary emotion disguising shame, fear, or hurt. In order to overcome anger, Tobkes tells us, parents have to realize two things: being gay is not a choice at all, and a child being gay is not something that he or she is “doing to you.”
Parents’ fear, shame, and anger is often fueled by the underlying assumption that being gay is somehow undesirable or inferior. This can manifest through parental lack of engagement, avoidance, and irrational desires for their child to be straight. By examining their own attitudes toward being gay, though, parents can also uncover any feelings of loss they may have about their gay child. Tobkes tells us that the loss of the “imagined ideal life” for their child is a universal experience for all parents, whether or not a child is gay.
Acceptance of a gay child then equates to an overall acceptance of a child as a separate and equal being, complete with gifts, talents, and strengths and free to pursue the life he or she chooses. And while acceptance is a gradual process evolving over time, Wesley and Tobkes tell us, it is perhaps the most essential variable in determining a positive outcome for a gay child.
When Your Child Is Gay: What You Need To Know
Sterling Publishing, June 2016
Paperback, 196 pages