Wednesday, March 20, 2013

about “coming out” – can’t we talk sexuality sooner?

Have you seen this beautiful letter from a Dad to his gay son?  It went viral on Facebook earlier this week. 

It's an expression of unconditional love, no doubt, and I commend the family for sharing their example so that others might see what it looks like. 

If your gay child is a teen who has yet to come out, then I believe this is a great way to handle that--to help them along by removing the burden of telling with compassion and love.

I have to ask, however, if we couldn't improve this model for raising our kids.  I ask because the idea of coming out during late teens/early adulthood seems belated and traumatic to me. 

Our society forces heterosexuality upon our children by assuming that everyone is straight unless otherwise specified.  We accept that straight is the "normal" and expected way to be.  By doing this, we ignore the needs of youngsters who don't identify as straight, leaving them out in the cold, struggling to understand and accept their sexual identity without guidance or support.  Worse, after they've worked through all this on their own, we then ask them to face their fears of rejection and make the big reveal.

It's not a great plan. 

I'm so glad this particular instance played out well, but these stories don't always have happy endings.  Teens face so many difficult challenges as it is.  Many LGBT young people crumble under the added pressures of sexual difference. 

I think we can make it easier.  Couldn't we raise our kids so that "coming out" is something that everyone does--and at a much younger age?

I got this idea from my son.  Many years ago, when Gareth was around three, I folded laundry as he played nearby.  He had assembled an array of figurines from his Playskool farm, his Winnie the Pooh house, and various other sets of "people."  His play took the usual form of high drama  and adventure: "Run! the lion is coming! He will eat you! [insert toddler sound effects for terrifying roars, a dramatic escape and perhaps an unexpected explosion here]."  After a bit, I heard something that made me tune in more closely: "No, you can't get married. Girls can't marry girls." 

Hmmm.   What was this?  I had intended to raise my kids with openness towards varied sexualities, but with one child still in preschool and another still in the womb, I hadn't yet given much thought to what that would look like. 

I listened quietly as I folded his miniature t-shirts and socks, amazed to hear my son give a lecture to poor Winnie and friends about how only a boy and a girl can get married. 

I hadn't taught him that, but he'd learned it anyway.

I knew instantly that this was the moment.  This is when you start teaching kids that relationships do not always pair up along a tidy boy/girl dichotomy. 

I didn't make a big deal.  I just corrected him gently, "Y'know honey, girls can marry girls if they want to.  And boys can marry boys too."


"Yeah.  The important thing is that you marry who you love.  Boys can love boys, and girls can love girls.  When they do, they get married just like a boy and a girl would." 

"Oh.  Ok," he said.  Then he went back to his play.

That was it.  Gay marriage wasn't legal anywhere in the states at the time, but I figured I'd deal with that technicality later (and I hoped that maybe it would change (as is happening now) by the time he grew). 

I learned from this moment that I could teach tolerance through play.  After that, I incorporated gay characters into our play-acting regularly.   Other times, I rocked their gender-loyal worlds by choosing to be the boy when we played games like Shoots and Ladders, "because I feel like being a boy today."  And during The Game of Life (a game I despise, btw!), I often chose a pink peg to ride in my car as my spouse.  The kids would say, "Mom married a girl again!" while rolling their eyes.  By that time, they understood I was making a point, but that was OK because they also got the point.

I think many parents have trouble getting their heads around the idea of introducing LGBT topics early because these issues are still overassociated with sex.  A child's view of relationships, however, does not revolve around what happens in the bedroom.  When we talk to kids about heterosexual marriage, we don't tell them, "marriage is a commitment to a person of the opposite sex with whom you'll have missionary intercourse for the rest of your life."  We tell them that marriage is about love and commitment, right?  So why not introduce the idea of gay love and gay commitment at the same time? 

If we suggest that love instead of gender should determine a person's life partner, then we not only teach tolerance for LGBT people, but we open children up to the idea that their own sexual identity is yet to be determined.  This idea came up naturally with both of my kids when they each asked something along the lines of:  "If we marry who we love, then who will I love?" 

Again, I hadn't planned it ahead of time, but the answer seemed obvious.  I told them both that they would figure this out as they grew up--that it was not a question mommy could answer for them.   While they both had varying opinions (including their desire to just marry mommy--or daddy) I let them all ride--leaving the ultimate answer open-ended.  They both seemed satisfied.

Without the imposition of assumed heterosexuality, I hoped my kids' sexual identities would evolve and become apparent organically during elementary school, before the uncomfortable teen years when kids are so hard pressed to talk about these things.  If necessary, I hoped this would eliminate the need for painful soul-searching and awkward "coming out" moments later on.

My kids are teens now, and both appear to be comfortable with themselves and tolerant of others.  It seems to me that things went the way I'd hoped.  Still, they are too young for me to wax poetic on my amazing parenting successes.  Like all things, I suppose time (and my disgruntled adult children) will tell. 

In the meantime, I'm glad this father handled his son's coming out with so much care.  In his situation, I don't think he could have handled it better.  I just wonder if parents of younger children couldn't open the door much earlier, before the combined workings of modesty and stigma have a chance to shroud this very sensitive topic in stress, pressure, and fear. 


  1. The examples you give are just different than talk about equality. Thank you!

  2. thank you! -and thanks for reading/commenting to both of you! :)

  3. Hi Deb,

    Sorry to comment off topic but I couldn't find an email address for you. I'm an editor with UU World magazine in Boston. A few months ago I read a great post on your blog about talking to boys about rape (which no longer seems to be online), and I had hoped to speak with you about publishing it in some form in the magazine. If you are interested, please contact me.

    Sonja L. Cohen
    Senior Editor
    UU World magazine

    1. Hi Sonja, yes, I'd be interested. I wrote you through the UU World magazine email listed on the website. If for some reason it doesn't find you, you can reach me at

      thanks so much!

  4. YES!!!

    So, your kids are (of course) a bit older than mine...but THIS! Honestly, I just sort of think (as I wrote a few posts ago-- that this should come down to making sex and sexuality a life long conversation. Darn it, if we (parents in general) would just start when they are kids teaching them about their bodies, and about their bodily autonomy, and that there is nothing to be ashamed about in sex or sexuality because its a natural thing...

    Our society is so messed up in this regard. I'm so lucky that we've had the privilege of kidlet friends with two mommies and getting ready to be in the wedding of daddy's best friend and his to-be husband. I don't want being straight to be the default norm for them to the point that they are shocked by variety.

    Anyhoo...I'm rambling, because I need to go to bed and get some sleep!!

    1. Hey Thalassa, thanks for pointing me to your post. Somehow I missed it--and it's great! You make such a great point about the lifetime conversation and how we don't teach other important lessons in "one talk" so why would we do that with this one? thanks!