Wednesday, December 27, 2006

On coming out to your parents

It is only natural that during this holiday season there have been several discussions on gay blogs concerning coming out to one’s parents. At this time of year when family concerns are at there most intense, those gay men who are still “living a lie” to their parents come under increased pressure. Most of the discussions on this topic have given unreserved support in the direction of coming out to those who are struggling with this issue. I would like to add my voice to those giving support, but with certain reservations.

Before going into this issue, it may be worthwhile to consider that the relationship with his parents is probably somewhat more important to a gay man than it is to most of our straight counterparts. A man’s relationship to his parents changes substantially when he has children of his own; he sees himself principally no longer as his parents’ child, but rather as his own child’s father. Of course, having children of his own doesn’t cancel out a man’s relationship to his parents, but the emphasis changes. His parents are no longer his primary blood relationship. While a substantial number of us are also gay fathers, the large majority of gay men are childless. Their primary blood bond remains with their parents.

This parent- child bond is substantially different than that which one can have with a partner or spouse. No matter how passionately in love one is with one’s partner, and no matter how long or stable the relationship is, it is still a relationship of choice and ultimately revocable. Moreover, the partner --- and, in fact, here may lie the sexual fascination--- always remains “the other.” A man’s parents and children are biologically and phychologically, at least partially, extensions of himself. He can leave them, disown or be disowned by them, but they are still his “flesh and blood.” Of course, the change in life orientation a man undergoes when he leaves his parents and joins with a partner is immensely significant, but the separation is not as complete as when he has children of his own. If he doesn’t have them, as is the case with most gay men, he essentially remains his parents’ child, no matter what happens.

But despite the importance of this parent- child bond for most gay men, it is still destined to attenuate as both the gay adult and the parents grow older. In some of the coming out discussions I mentioned earlier, a young gay adult feels a need to reveal the truth about his sexual orientation to his parents because he wants to maintain a high level of intimacy with them, or, as one young man put it, he wants them to continue to be part of every aspect of his life. I would urge him, however, to look at the relationship that most of his straight friends have with their parents, even before they have children. There is a natural, and healthy generation gap between parents and children, which necessarily widens as the parties grow older, even without the problem of the son’s sexual orientation. We can pretty safely say to this young man that even if his parents do totally accept his homosexuality, the intimacy he craves with them is a fragile and fleeting thing; in about ten years there will probably be lots of things, besides his sexual orientation, that he won’t want to tell Dad and Mom, and they, for that matter, won’t want to tell him.

Because of the ultimately unseverable bond between the gay man and his parents, coming out to them is essentially different from coming out to bosses, colleagues, or friends. It’s even different from coming out to siblings. All of these people are free to accept or reject you on a personal level; they can, if they wish, emotionally walk away from the situation. Our parents, on the other hand, simply can’t. They can reject you, throw you out of the house, disinherit you, and refuse to take your phone calls; but chances are that if a gay man’s parents aren’t ready to accept his homosexuality, regardless of how they react, being forced to confront it will cause them as much emotional turmoil as it causes him. The practical effects for them may be less troublesome (They, in the worst cases, will still have a roof over their heads), but the pain will be about the same.

So, it’s ultimately undemocratic and coercive to come out to your parents without good indication that they’re ready for it. It leaves them with no real choice. Although they can accept it or reject it, they still have to deal with it, frequently at a high emotional cost. Justifying unheeded coming out by claiming to love them so much you can’t stand to live a lie, simply won’t wash. You don’t emotionally corner people you love.

Many gay men follow a course of living a normal gay life, even introducing their partners to their parents, but stopping short of forcing a confrontation on the issue. This is, frankly, the path I took. I did nothing to hide my homosexuality from my mother, including bringing my partner home to my family several times a year. I never presented him as simply a friend; but I didn’t press the nature of our relationship, either. After a few decades, my mother stopped asking me which women I was seeing and when I planned to settle down with one of them. But she still was in denial until circumstances moved her to come to terms with what should have been obvious for years. When she did finally admit to herself that her son was gay, she was also pretty much ready to accept it.

I must admit that there were times I would have loved to tell my parents directly that I am gay, and, I my case, there would have been no practical repercussions. By the time I came to terms myself with my homosexuality, I was well into my 20s, no longer living at home and financially independent. Also, both my parents loved me beyond all reason, and there was no way they could have cut themselves off from me.

I didn’t come out to them simply because I had too much respect for their feelings; it would have brought them a great deal of emotional turmoil, and it was not at all clear what it would have brought me. By the time I accepted my own homosexuality, I already had a life quite separate from that of my parents. Although we had a strong emotional bond, our way of looking at the world was already quite different. Coming out to them might have made me feel better for a while, but I don’t see how it would have brought me and my parents closer.

So, guys, I can understand the pressure that many of you are under as you celebrate the holidays with your families. And I can understand your desire to stop living a lie, to tell your parents, and to get the whole business over with. I also applaud your desire to be honest and open with the people you love. Some parents are, of course, ready to receive the news. Others, however, need to be cut a bit of slack, and telling them directly may not be the best way to handle the matter.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a wise fellow you are, Bruce.
I am truly impressed by your thoughtful words on this matter.

9:19 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

Hey Bruce...don't have your e-mail otherwise I'd have e-mailed you this. Was wondering if you would take a few moments to read today's Bandit Talks post. I always value your insight and could use an educated opinion. If you'd rather e-mail me your thoughts feel free:

5:39 AM  
Blogger Sam said...

Bruce, I have been fortunate enough to see the maternal relationship progression you've experienced with my own partner, Steven. When we first met 7 years ago, his mother was still in the mode of asking what girls he was seeing and constantly checking to see if any of them were marriage prospects.

Then she met me! Though I make it sound like an overnight event, of course, it was not, and it has taken time for her to understand what time it is, and how to best relate to and love her son.

Now she is constantly talking about children wondering if we'd like a child? when we will adopt, should she just bring us a child from China? etc. At some moments it is totally hilarious to me, at others, I find myself wanting to say back off bitch, this is OUR relationship and we will be the deciders (sorry for the Bushism)... which ultimately isn't totally fair of me, since she would clearly be a willing, loving, and active grandma in our child's life, if we chose to do it... a blessing indeed. She is wonderful woman, and to have seen her make this transition in her relationship with Steven has been gratifying.

I can't believe I actually find myself missing her.

10:14 AM  
Blogger Bruce said...


I sounds as though, as steven has probably mentioned to you, your mother in law is just being Chinese.

As I understand it, the Chinese have no special problem with homosexuality, except that it may interfere with the order of society because it may interfere with the stability of the family and interferes with the production of progeny.

Once she saw that you and Steven have a stable relationship, the only problem this Confuscian lady could have is that there were no children.

I'm no expert on the matter, but her interest in your having children may be slightly different from the western parents' desire to become grandparents. The westerners want extensions of themselves, while I think the Chinese consider having children a moral imperative necessary for maintaining the order of things.

At any rate, coming out to her precipitously and directly, without presenting her with the example of the stable relationship that you and Steven have would have been simply confusing, painful, and needlessly cruel. Steven and you obviously let her understand Steven's sexual orientation in terms that made sense to her.

2:49 PM  
Blogger Sam said...

Bruce, I suppose we could all get together and make a rather nice handbook on coming out from different perspectives, at different times, to different friends and family. Your post here is a wonderful rumination on it all, and has made us think about it and look back on our relationships with our parents.

Steven's particular case with his mother and family is a bit more poignant too in that Steven never really was able to know his grandmother, because of all the Cultural Revolution upheaval. You see she was a landlord, and as an evil person with money, was thus off limits to her family, especially the young ones. Steven only met her a few times, never understanding who she was. In a way, I think both he and his mother feel that they may have some catching up to do, of the grandmotherly sort.

3:03 PM  
Blogger RIC said...

Thank you, Bruce, for this great text! It may work as a warning for those younger people whose good intentions may turn their lives into a bigger nightmare than they in some cases are already. I'm thinking particularly of southern European societies, where so many family prejudices are still the rule, even if it some times doesn't seem to be the case anymore. But it still is… Most definitely.

Have a great 2007!

11:54 AM  
Blogger Will said...

Wise words, particularly when there is so much pressure by the out-and-proud urbanites on the more rural young men whose societies work differently and who can lose everything so quickly and easily if they plunge ahead too fast.

Also, everything is so politicised these days. And politics often rolls right over the personal.

All the best to you two for 2007!

8:21 AM  
Anonymous gay person of color said...

Thanks for your insightful post.

3:33 PM  
Anonymous zooplah said...

That's certainly a great read, but I don't necessarily agree with it. I don't think my relationship with my parents is any better or worse than my straight siblings. For me, the reason for coming out would be liberation; no longer having to watch what I say: saying a guy is hot or saying something gay. But alas, there's the financial independence thing (NB: my mother does know; I told her because I knew that she wouldn't care, being that she's a borderline fag hag and that she wouldn't tell my homophobic father).

1:35 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

What a wonderful post. That is so similar to my own experience.

Thanks for commenting on my blog and allowing me to discover yours.

7:43 PM  
Blogger buff said...

A very beautiful and touching blogpost. I too have taken the course you have followed. And for me, it was the best course.

Now my parents do understand that their son is gay. Coming out is different in each situation. And it is the hardest thing in life for a gay man to do. But the consequences of living a lie, in the closet, are so terrible, that living openly is the only acceptable option.

Big hairy muscle hugs of thanks. You made my day.

12:01 PM  
Blogger buff said...

Burece, P.S. Thanks for posting comments on my GAYMENRULE blog post. Yes, the O scale trains, Lionel and American Flyer, are awesome. I am so glad that I could save mine and enjoy them.

I hope I brought some of that joy to you. You are terrific. A new blog bud. Big hugs.

12:02 PM  

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