GAMMA: The Gay
Married Men's Association
Providing peer counseling, support, and outreach to gay married men, their wives, partners, and friends.
LETTERS TO A FRIEND,
First Letter: March
You've asked for my advice on how to come out to your kids. Each of this has to deal with this issue in our own way. But, for what they're worth, here are my thoughts:
Is This Trip Necessary?
The first thing is this: It is IMPORTANT to level with your kids, no matter what their age. If you don't level with them about who you are and what you're feeling, you can't expect them to level with you about the difficulties and challenges that are part of any kid's life. We expect and want our kids to be open and truthful with us. A necessary precondition is that we be open and truthful with them.
Secrecy about any subject, sexuality included, destroys the trust that is essential for good communication with your kids. If you hide an important aspect of yourself from your kids, bad things will start to happen. First, they will begin to suspect the truth, or some distorted version of the truth, no matter what their age. Because you're not leveling with them, there will be no way for you to communicate with them (or they with you) so as to shine the light of reality on the suspicions and distortions that will inevitably arise.
Another bad possibility, especially when parents are going through a divorce, is that kids will blame THEMSELVES for the divorce, even though the reasons for the divorce have nothing to do with them. This sort of thinking leads kids downward to guilt, and anger, and self-hatred. This is what we call childish narcissism, and it's quite natural for kids to think this way. So it will HELP your kids, a lot, if they know that one reason for the divorce is that daddy would prefer to live with a man, and that this is not his fault, or mommy's fault, and that it is definitely not their own fault.
This not to say that coming out to your kids is easy. When I first saw with clarity that I owed it to my kids to be open with them about my sexual orientation, I found that task to be so unimaginably difficult that I had no idea how I would accomplish it. (In the end, coming out to my kids was a lot easier than I expected, but I'm talking now about what it felt like in prospect, not what it was ultimately like.)
When to Tell Them
I've heard an awful lot from gay fathers about the best age at which to tell kids about one's sexual orientation. There is no "best" age. In general, you should come out to your kids as soon as you feel strong enough to do so.
However, the age of your kids will affect how you go about telling them, and how difficult it will be for them to process the information you give them. In general, little kids (say, 10 and under) don't have much difficulty when a gay parent tells them about his sexual orientation. Nor do young adults (20 and upwards). Pre-teens and teenagers have more difficulties, precisely because they are already struggling to define their OWN sexual identity.
Sometimes fathers believe that kids under 10 or 12 are too young to know about sex. That's clearly not so. For example, the sociologists tell us that most of us know with some clarity about our sexual orientation while we are still kids. The MEDIAN age for such knowledge is 11. That means that lots of kids know about their sexual orientation at 7 or 8 or 9. Little kids aren't stupid, just immature.
Once you have reconciled yourself to the need to tell your kids about your sexual identity, and once you feel strong enough to take on that task, the next step is to be on the alert for what might be called "teachable moments" -- that is, moments when kids are curious, interested, and ready to learn.
Waiting for a teachable moment is the opposite of having a solemn, pre-arranged conversation at a specific time. I can remember when my father decided to tell my brother and me about the "facts of life" as they were then known. The whole scene left me with the feeling that there was something ponderous, dangerous, different, and downright BAD about sexuality. Not exactly a good preparation for a happy adult life.
It would have been much better if my dad had just answered my questions when I asked them, giving me as much information as I seemed ready to absorb, and no more.
Fortunately, teachable moments happen all the time, if we are alert for them. Kids' questions to you are an obvious signal that a teachable moment has arrived.
Sometimes we can provoke a teachable moment. For example, if a television program has portrayed a gay character, you can ask a child "what do you think about him," and then take the conversation from there. Your question to the child gives him/her permission to open up a conversation with you about a subject they might otherwise be hesitant to discuss. Of course, the first time you ask such a question, the kid may clam up. That's O.K. Just ask again when the time seems right.
How to Tell Them
Telling your kids about your sexual orientation is no different than talking to them about any other serious subject. That's the first thing to keep in mind.
The second thing to remember is that it's important to use age-appropriate language when talking with kids. You know this already in a lot of different areas, ranging from how to get along with others in school (psychology and human relations), to why there are stars in the heavens (astrophysics), and on to why they should brush their teeth (medicine and biology). In all these areas, you talk to kids in ways that are appropriate to their age and understanding. Talking to them about your sexuality (and theirs) is no different.
A third thing to keep in mind is that your kids will inevitably have questions as soon as they begin to understand what you're telling them. One of the common questions is "If you're gay, does that mean I'll be gay?" Give them a chance to ask those questions.
Not all the questions will occur at once. It takes time for us to process information, whether we're young or old. It's therefore appropriate to ask a kid, a day or two after your first discussion, whether he/she has any questions about the things you discussed earlier. Even he or she doesn't, this will give you a chance to extend an open-ended invitation: "Well, if you do have questions, I'd be glad to talk with you." That leaves the conversational door open, when and if the kid wants to walk through it.
Here's a final note: I don't think there's any special recipe for a good conversation with your kids about an important subject. In general, however, it's best to select a place where you won't be distracted or interrupted. I can think of few things worse than trying to talk with your kid in front of someone (such as a wife) who's not sympathetic. In circumstances like that, the adults can easily get in an argument, and that will greatly confuse and worry the kid. So wait for a trip in the car, or a quiet walk in the neighborhood, or some similarly suitable time.
But don't fall into the trap of waiting for the absolutely perfect time to talk with your kids. It will never come! I missed a lot of suitable conversational opportunities that way. Don't let the best be the enemy of the good.
If you have several kids, it will probably be easier for you to talk with them one at a time, rather than all at once. But you should be the best judge of that. The decision should depend on how close together the kids are in age, and how well they get along with one another.
If you decide to talk with your kids one at a time, I suggest you AVOID swearing the first child to secrecy before you talk with the next kid. Swearing a kid to secrecy leaves him/her with the idea that there's something awful about the information you've shared. There isn't, but a child may have difficulty seeing that. One possible approach is to say to the first kid: "I haven't yet had a chance to talk with [name of next kid] about all this, but I will soon. In the meantime, there's nothing wrong with talking with him/her if you want to."
Well, that's about the sum total of my thinking on the subject of coming out to kids. Please don't regard this as gospel. What I've said is just the result of my experience, and the experience of the other gay fathers I've talked to over the years. Your good judgment is just as good a guide as anything we have to say.
In closing, perhaps I should mention one other thing: There are GREAT rewards in being out to your kids. Depending on your situation, those rewards may be slow to materialize. There may be a lot of anger and unhappiness at first. But in the end, your kids will respect you for having been truthful with them, even though that was hard to do. And you will communicate better with them about lots of difficult and important subjects, because you (and they) both learned to communicate effectively about the important subject of sexuality, and what it means for you and them.
Second Letter: July
I've been thinking a lot about your wife's opposition to your coming out to your kids. The more I think about her views, the more wrong I think they are. Here are my reasons:
I'm sorry to be so harsh and uncompromising in what I've said above. But I see no other way out. There is nothing else I can say. You MUST summon up the courage to be truthful with your kids, now or very soon, despite your wife's wishes.
I have prayed for you. As I said the other night, I have no idea whether God accepts an agnostic's prayers. But I have really prayed that you will have the strength to do the right thing by your kids and by yourself.
by Tom F.CRITIQUE OF "TWO LETTERS TO A FRIEND"
The issue of coming out to your children is a tad more complex than "you need to be honest if you want them to be honest." If I am angry at my wife, the better course of action is to restrain that anger and discuss the underlying issues privately with my spouse, rather than in front of the children. Likewise, if I'm having problems with my boss at work, I see no need to discuss that with my children. I don't talk about trouble paying bills with my kids. Straight spouses dissatisfied with the other spouse's sexual performance or stamina or fetishes don't (or shouldn't) talk about such things with their children.
Is this dishonesty? Are children in this wild, wicked world of ours "better" if shielded from nothing, exposed to the raw elements of naked humanity and given totally, totally honest reviews of the good, the bad and the ugly?
Personally, I am of the view that there is no moral or ethical compulsion to share every detail of a parent's life with one's child. Phrases like "you should do it" or "you owe it to them" gloss over the individuality of every gay father's situation. Are you coming out, getting divorced and planning to live as a gay man? Well, if that's the case, then it certainly makes sense to discuss, at an age appropriate level, the reasons why you are coming out.
I think, in large part, you need to do this not to make your life any easier or to make you feel "better" or more "out", but to explain to the children why their parents are separating, why it is NOT the fault of the children and also to explain the soon-to-be-evident circumstances of dad's new life. That's an easy scenario.
But what about the man who chooses to remain married and to some degree closeted? In this circumstance, I have a far harder time understanding an argument that it is "better" to come out. Will giving the children this piece of information make it easier on the dynamics of what is likely an already difficult marital relationship? How will knowing dad is gay make a child happier, more well-rounded?
Sorry, I just don't see it. Truth is not some vaunted abstract sacrament on the altar of life. Just because I might feel better to be "truthful" with my children, doesn't necessarily mean it's better for them to have to process a piece of information that, at best, is cumbersome to process.
I'm not telling my kids, not because I'm afraid to or because I'm embarrassed or ashamed of my homosexuality. I like who I am, sexuality and all. I'm not telling them because where I am right now in my life, I just can't fathom how it would make my kids lives easier in either the short or long term. If, in the future, things change and they find out or I find circumstances are such that I think they should know, I think kids are smart enough to understand that there are things that even loving parents can, and do, appropriately choose not to share with kids. Kids aren't naive, I agree, but I think they're capable of understanding even the subtle nuances of life.
G A M M A