So your child just came out as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. What do you do?
The best initial response from parents is to “give their child a hug, to say that you love them,” said Kathy Godwin, board vice president for the organization PFLAG, which supports the LGBT community and helps to educate parents, families and friends.
"And then you can follow up and say, ‘You know, I don’t know everything I need to know, so give me a moment and some time, and with your help we’ll both go through this journey,' " Godwin says.
While each situation will be different, a parent should first reassure a child "that you have their back and that you love them unconditionally," says Elijah C. Nealy, author of the new book Transgender Children and Youth: Cultivating Pride and Joy With Families in Transition.
This should happen "whether you understand everything or not, whether you are OK with them being LGBT or not," advises Nealy, a transgender man and clinical social worker. "Because more and more, we’re understanding that that kind of acceptance and support from family is the critical mediating variable in terms of risk factors."
Those risk factors can include depression, suicide, substance abuse and risky sexual behaviors, Nealy says, citing findings from the Family Acceptance Project, an initiative to prevent health risks for LGBT people through the context of their families.
Neal shares the story on her transgender child Trinity.
"How you react to your gay or transgender children has a deep and lasting impact on their lives," the Family Acceptance Project says in an information guide.
Project director Caitlin Ryan cautions parents against expressing shame that their child came out or preventing them from finding an LGBT support group.
Wendy Montgomery of Chandler, Ariz., wasn’t sure what to do when she realized her then-13-year-old son Jordan might be gay. His behavior changed, from that of a happy child to someone who was depressed. Concerned, she read his journal and learned he had a crush on a boy at school.
"Coming from a very conservative, very Orthodox, multigenerational Mormon home, I didn’t know any gay people," she says. "It wasn’t even on my radar, to be honest. If I knew gay people, I didn’t know they were gay. I had no concept of even what that was."
So she and her husband Tom approached Jordan, and she asked him about what she read in the journal. After Jordan confirmed what she read, Wendy says did not know how to deal with it in terms of her faith. Yet she also says there was never a moment when she thought, "I don’t know if I can still love him or accept him."
The three of them did research together to learn more about homosexuality and to try to find local LGBT organizations and resources. They also told Jordan’s younger sister, who would go on to become especially supportive, as well as relatives. Right before Jordan started high school, he came out to Facebook friends and the Mormon community.
Yet Jordan still felt depressed and suicidal at times. He tried eight therapists, and none were a good fit. It was only after Ryan gave Wendy a recommendation that he found the right one.
Coming out, finding a good therapist and attending gatherings with other LGBT teens and those who are accepting “really helped get me to where I am now, where I feel like I’ve never been more mentally healthy,” said Jordan, now 18 and who just finished his first year of college.
What also helped Jordan is when his mom introduced him to happy, successful gay couples. She wanted him to see that one day, that could be him.
Family Acceptance Project research shows that the average age that kids realize they were gay was a a little over age 13. PFLAG’s Godwin said it is easier for teens and younger children to come out today than in the past.
A wide range of well-known LGBT personalities — such as actors, singers, politicians and athletes — are "helping youth to have a conversation,” she says. "And more importantly, also potentially helping parents to see (that) this does not affect the happiness, well-being and success of your child."
Advice for parents
Be a good listener: Give your child the space to share his or her thoughts and feelings, PFLAG Director of Communications Liz Owen advises.
"As my daughter said when she was just a little kid, ‘Don’t talk too much. Just listen,' " said DeShanna Neal, mother of 14-year-old transgender girl Trinity Neal.
Reassure in small ways: Even if it’s hard to show overt support, parents can still display subtle support, such as speaking positively about an LGBT person, PFLAG's Owen says.
Learn the terms: There are many different words and phrases used about and within the LGBT community. Learning that language can facilitate stronger, clearer discussions with a child.
Seek professional help if needed: PFLAG refers people to the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association and the National Association of Social Workers. Nealy says the World Professional Association for Transgender Health also has a tab to help people find health care providers.
Get involved: Parents must act as advocates, says Janet Uradomo, mother of 11-year-old transgender girl Kylee. That may include talking to teachers, administrators and counselors at your child’s school, she advises, based on her experience.
Remember that your feelings are valid: There is no one way to react to learning that your child or a loved one is LGBT, Owen says. Some parents may be happy that their child opened up to them or relived to know more about their child, she says. Some may feel sad, scared or angry. These are all normal, she says, noting that parents can feel more than one emotion at once.
Be open-minded: Wendy Montgomery says she understands that for some, especially those from a religious or conservative background, discovering that your child is LGBT can feel awful or scary. But it has enriched her life. "I’m a better person for having a gay child," she says. "What some have thought was such a burden … it has actually become one of my biggest blessings. And blinders that I didn’t even know I was wearing have been taken off. I love people better and more unconditionally. I judge people less."
For more information
Gender Spectrum Education & Training: Provides services to help youth, families and organizations understand gender identity and gender expression. www.genderspectrum.org
Human Rights Campaign: America's largest civil rights organization working for LGBTQ equality. www.hrc.org.
PFLAG: Support group for the LGBT community that helps to educate parents, friends and families. The group (formerly Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) has 400 chapters across the country. www.pflag.org.
GLSEN: Works to ensure that students at every grade level are treated with respect and dignity regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. www.glsen.org. Editor's note: The writer is a volunteer and board member with the Central New Jersey chapter of GLSEN.
The Trevor Project: Provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBT youth. www.thetrevorproject.org. Trevor Lifeline: 866-488-7386.