How to navigate tough conversations and a new family model
By: Phyllis L. Cohen*
When the parents of Natalie Perry and her sister sat their girls down for a family meeting, Perry learned that their father, a chief judge for the Court of Appeals in Boise, Idaho, was gay. The next day he moved out of the house and kept his secret in their primarily fundamentalist Christian community for 20 years, only to share it with immediate family and their church pastor. Questions loomed in Perry’s mind, including whether her close relationship with her dad would remain.
In retrospect, Perry sees the process more clearly. “When a parent comes out, the child’s experience and feelings are valid. I needed to embrace the process: the confusion, the questions, the anger, and shame,” said the 34-year-old artist and writer, who eventually self-published a book about her experience, Dad #1, Dad #2: A Queerspawn View from the Closet. “Take the time and space to work through it and find community. Some children will process it more privately, introspectively, and that’s okay, too.”
Coming Out in Midlife: A Difficult and Emotional Task
It’s a difficult and emotional task for middle-aged parents to come out to their children. Boomers have lived through the AIDS crisis and don’t have to look too far back to remember when announcing your sexuality might have put you in jail or in a mental institution, or at the very least alienated you from family and friends, and losing housing or job opportunities.
Now, social media and pop culture shine a spotlight on high-profile individuals who come out late in life like Barry Manilow, George Takei, and Richard Chamberlain. It certainly has become a more socially acceptable topic to discuss in some communities, yet a stigma remains for many, if not, most people coming out in midlife.
There will always be family members who alienate, of course, yet most parents who come out do not regret liberating themselves despite the risk of isolation. So how do you start a conversation about your sexuality with your child in his or her teens, 20s or 30s?
Fortunately, among non-LGBTQ people, polls say, millennials are the most accepting generation; that’s a common age group of the children of late boomer parents.
It’s life-changing to transition to a different identity in middle age when your persona has been shaped by the relationships you have built over a lifetime, especially as a parent. Middle-aged adults in this scenario can be reluctant to bring on the pain or discomfort they faced themselves when they came to terms with their own sexual identity.
Coming out can often be easier when it is not done with every family member at once. And when it’s time to share the news with your older children, it’s crucial to be clear on the message you want to convey to them.
Setting the Tone for Adult Children
One Gallup Poll indicated that LGBTQ parents are at an even greater risk for anxiety, suicidal behavior and eating disorders than heterosexual parents. A predisposition for depression in middle-aged LGBTQ people may depend on whether the adults come out on their own or if doing so is imposed by family members or someone else. Coming out and living openly can offer mental health benefits to the parent, as long as it is shared with the family on the individual’s own terms.
A parent who comes out should remind his or her children that it is not the child’s job to protect, or, for that matter, advocate on behalf of the mother’s or father’s sexual identity, whether by keeping it a secret, evading labels or by foisting the news onto the outside community. Most important, by setting an example of showing comfort in their own sexual identity, if it is safe to do so, the parent can set the tone for the parent-child relationship moving forward.
One of the biggest concerns parents have about coming out to their older children draws a parallel to a betrayal of trust. Kids of all ages demand the truth from their parents—it’s the currency required to invest in a solid parent-child relationship. When the understanding of a parent’s sexual orientation is breached, and if a child is blindsided by the announcement, he or she may feel deceived growing up. Some older children, however, will already have a sense of their parent’s sexual identity. For many, it’s as if the last pieces of the puzzle have suddenly fallen into place.
A New Family Model
A litany of worries can arise when older children hear the news. Some become concerned about a parent’s health, or fear their mother or father will live in loneliness, or that dating will distance the parent from them.
Since you are essentially rewriting the history of who your family is if you come out in midlife, there will be many questions from your children. As you discuss these issues, they need to always be reminded that your individual qualities and personality remain, regardless of your new family model.
Offer your kids opportunities for dialogue, as frequently as they wish and in a space where they can share their thoughts freely, ask questions and follow up later. This may take a week, a month or a year, but remind them that your family is your first priority.
Coming out is a unique experience and choice for each individual. It’s important to note that no matter your age, coming out isn’t always safe for everyone. Some people choose to come out to only certain family members or friends, or not at all. The extent a person chooses to come out is entirely up to that person.
Perry’s father may have kept his secret until his retirement as chief judge in Boise, but sharing the news with family had a deep impact on them. Her grandfather disowned her father and mother, as well as Perry and her sister. Their church excommunicated the Perry family, too.
In spite of the aftermath, Perry’s parents are now amicably divorced and Perry remains close with her dad. He and his husband Jerry have been together for many years. Perry is now an Ambassador at COLAGE, an organization focused on supporting queerspawn, the term referring to the children of LGBTQ parents.
To Learn More
A number of supportive organizations offer support for LGBTQ parents as well as their children. COLAGE unites children with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and/or queer parents with a network of peers. SAGE offers advocacy and services for LGBTQ elders, as does the National Resource Center on LGBT Aging.
*Phyllis L. Cohen has been an executive recruiter for Fortune 50 firms for over 25 years as well as a freelance writer specializing in how boomers navigate their careers. (*This story was originally published at NextAvenue.org)