Dear Civilities: My husband and I have a tween son whom we can easily imagine, one day, telling us that he is gay. Or perhaps not; we don’t know his orientation yet, and either way is fine. We love him unconditionally and this is not an issue. My question is about how to handle that conversation if and when he chooses to start it. Or should we ask him? I don’t want to say the wrong thing, omit the right thing or suggest that something so important to him is not an issue for us. As a parent, what should we say and not say during this conversation? — Gina P.
A: Although you don’t know your son’s sexual orientation yet, I applaud your question about how to handle “the coming-out talk,” the goal of which is to make sure that he feels your love and support. Frankly, I wish every parent of every child thought along these same lines. Because the real question is: How do I raise a child who will know he’s loved, whether LGBT or straight, and who accepts all others regardless of their sexual identity?
I’m going to take a page from my own family’s playbook: Among my parents’ friends was a gay couple whom my folks regularly invited to dinner along with their straight friends. The unspoken lesson was simple: Gay people are like everyone else, and they had a seat at our table just like everyone else. That message was clear (and reassuring) to me as a young gay boy who was not yet out. It was also clear to my straight brother, who is an LGBT ally par excellence. My parents were serving their values to all of us along with Mom’s chicken cacciatore.
So, the best thing you could do for your son will take place before the talk, and that’s to be matter-of-fact about being gay. Watch “Modern Family” together and talk positively about the characters. When you hear that yet another state has legalized same-sex marriage , chat about it over dinner and celebrate the news. In fact, the supper table can help convey your attitudes and perspectives on world news in general, which will reinforce your values to your son. Follow my parents’ “open-table policy” and show your son that you are welcoming of all good people.
Bear in mind that one of the reasons kids are anxious about coming out to Mom and Dad is because they fear not meeting expectations, so be sure your son knows you only want what’s best for him. When you talk with him about his future, don’t talk about finding a girlfriend or wife, but about finding the right person to love and be loved by. As Kenny Levine, a gay clinical social worker, explained to me: “To the extent that parents can clear out some of those worries ahead of time, it makes it much easier for them to be open about who they are.”
As for “the talk,” you’re right to wait for your son to come to you. He may not be sure about his identity or isn’t ready to talk with you about it. A direct question can result in defensiveness, a forced coming out or an outright lie. Patience, dear Mom.
Recently, I asked a mother whose son had come out to her when he was 13 for her advice. Here’s what she said: “I told him I knew he would come to me in time, when he was ready. I listened to everything and made sure that he knew that I loved him no matter. Since then we’ve had our challenges along the way but he continues to come to me about decisions and advice about boys and truly takes my opinion to heart.” Well done, Mom. I then asked her son, now 18, for his advice: “Tell him you love him. There is never too much reassurance.”
My last piece of advice is to stop worrying about being perfect — the exact words you use are less important than the love you communicate. Don’t think for a moment this conversation will be the last word on the subject. If you forget to say something, or phrase things imperfectly, you will have another chance — this is not a single conversation but a lifelong dialogue. As one young Facebooker posted on my page in response to your question: “When it came to my mom and dad, it wasn’t getting it right that would have made a difference for me, it would have simply been wanting to get it right.” And that’s a good lesson for all parents of all kids.
Resources: Parents might want to check out these two organizations: PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), which has 350 chapters in all 50 states and is a great resource for parents of LGBTQ kids. GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network) is a leading national education organization focused on ensuring safe schools for all students.
Every other week, Steven Petrow, the author of “Steven Petrow’s Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners,” addresses questions about LGBT and straight etiquette in his column, Civilities.
E-mail questions to him at firstname.lastname@example.org (unfortunately, not all questions can be answered). You can reach him on Facebook at facebook.com/stevenpetrow and on Twitter @stevenpetrow. Join him for a chat online at washingtonpost.com on July 2.