Homosexual men and women have parents, grandparents, sisters, brothers, cousins, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, whom they love and care for.
Many parents, however, do not know they have a homosexual child, because their daughter or son has elected not to tell them rather than risk rejection.
Sometimes that decision is best, particularly when parents' social and religious views are couched in absolute terms of good and bad or holy and sinful.
More often, however, a homosexual's decision to share her or his life with parents, or "come out," results in a better, stronger relationship, once the parents have had time to reach the understanding necessary to achieve acceptance, says Adele Starr, the national spokeswoman for the Federation of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (Parents FLAG).
Educator Thomas H. Sauerman, who holds a PhD in counseling, the father of a gay son and the head of Parents FLAG in Philadelphia, says parents pass through several stages of understanding as they struggle to come to terms with a child's coming out. This pattern includes shock, denial, guilt, expression of feelings, personal decision-making, or, for some, true acceptance.
Initially, many families view the news as loss -- almost death -- of the son or daughter they have known and loved. Their grief, like that associated with separation, is a process of grappling with an external event that was not desired and for which no plans for coping existed.
Each family is unique. Although most follow the stages proposed by Sauerman, this is not always the case. Some progress through each stage in a matter of weeks or months. For others it takes years.
Janice and Tom are one example. They could not understand why their daughter Karen was so unhappy. Some months before her 21st birthday, Karen had broken up with her boyfriend of three years and had lost her job as a result of a union negotiation that reinstated a former employe with greater seniority. Months had passed, however, and her life had seemed to settle down.
But, her parents observed, "she never looked happy. She didn't participate in conversations at the dinner table and spent a great deal of time just 'out.' " The harder her parents tried to reestablish the warm contact they had once enjoyed with their middle daughter, the farther away she seemed to drift.
Janice spent days reviewing the events of the previous year, looking for a clue. It occurred to her that Karen had been spending a lot of time with her friend Jane.
"So I asked Karen, 'Are you in love with Jane?' " Janice recalled. "She said yes. Well, I had the information, but I didn't know what to do with it. I wasn't prepared to handle it."
An initial state of shock or numbness is common, particularly if the family had no idea of the child's homosexuality. Usually it wears off in a matter of days. Janice got over her initial shock in a matter of minutes. It took her husband days.
Denial helps shield a person from a threatening or painful message. It differs from shock because it indicates that the person has heard the message and is trying to defend against it.
Denial responses take many forms, including hostility ("No son of mine is going to be queer"), non-registering ("That's nice dear, please take out the garbage"), non-caring ("If you want to live that way, don't tell me about it"), or rejection ("You're sick, we'll find a doctor to cure you").
Many parents blame themselves, says Sauerman. Although both parents feel guilty, the parent of the same sex usually feels more guilty. In Karen's case, however, her father felt more guilt than her mother. He chastised himself for months for having encouraged her interest in sports.
When it is clear that guilt solves nothing, parents become ready to ask questions, listen to answers, and acknowledge their feelings. Anger and hurt are the most frequently expressed feelings.
Sometimes anger leads to complete rejection. The parents disown their child, severing all ties and withdrawing all support, emotional and financial.
In other cases, as the emotional trauma subsides, rational thinking returns and parents begin to psychologically adjust to the reality of their child's sexual orientation.
"If you had asked me five years ago whether I would have wanted a child who was a homosexual, I'd have said no," Janice says. "Today, sure. I would not change a hair on her head."
Some parents never get this far. Most love their children without fully accepting their life styles. One mother, for example, told her daughter that she did not mind that she was a lesbian, but admonished her not to tell her brother. "It's none of his business," she said.
While much of the anxiety experienced by the families of homosexuals is based on outdated concepts and misunderstanding, says Sauerman, parents also fear the life style's consequences for their child. They may worry about the ostracism and discrimination that their child may encounter. Another source of parental anxiety may stem from religious beliefs and moral convictions. Some feel that the Bible expressly condemns homosexuality and therefore are unable to accept the life style. Others reach the conclusion expressed by Mary V. Vorhek in her book "My Son Eric":
"The Bible may well be inerrant," Vorhek wrote, "but our interpretations of what it is saying may often be very errant."
Not every homosexual child's story ends as happily as Karen's. Many are distressed by the lies they tell their families to keep their sexual orientations secret, but believe that some relationship with their parents is better than none.
Increasingly, parents are learning of their offsprings' sexual orientation in conjunction with the diagnosis of AIDS. In one instance, according to a Los Angeles therapist, Darlene rushed to her son's side when she learned that he was seriously ill. Tim's physician met her at the hospital. The diagnosis was acquired immune deficiency syndrome. To Doreen, this diagnosis signified only one thing: Ken was a homosexual.
She was devastated. Without even saying goodbye, Doreen left Los Angeles. She left Ken to die alone. It was not the fatal disease that overwhelmed her, but the disclosure of her son's sexual orientation.
The decision to tell family is a personal one. Starr, the Parents FLAG spokeswoman, offers this advice:
*Children should tell parents at a time when the parents are relatively free from other sources of life stress.
*They should not choose a significant holiday or family celebration.
*They should assure parents they have come to terms with their sexual orientation, but the child should not tell them if he or she is not sure.
*They should tell their parents they love them, and make it clear that the parents are not to blame.
*They should have resources on hand to help answer parents' questions. Books and pamphlets may help, as well as the telephone numbers of other parents who have coped successfully. Resources
The Federation of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (Parents FLAG) is a national organization that offers educational materials and peer support to parents while they come to grips with the knowledge that their child is a homosexual. This group also promotes understanding in society through education
Currently, there are 111 parent groups in 46 s tates and the District of Columbia. There are three foreign affiliates in the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Israel. Each group is a local organization.
In the District and Maryland, Parents FLAG can be contacted at 439-3524. There are also groups in Arlington, Springfield and Silver Spring.
Free information can be obtained by sending a self-addressed stamped envelope to: Parents FLAG Philadelphia, P.O. Box 19103, Philadelphia, Pa. 19103.