Lesbian and Gay Parenting Questions & Answers Column With Arlene Istar LevDear Ari

A column by Arlene (Ari) Istar Lev

Coming Out to My Daughter

Posted By on September 18, 2010

Dear Ari:

I am so glad to be able to write to you.  I have a 14 year-old daughter, to whom devoted all my time and energy (her father passed away.) A year ago, I met and began a relationship (my first) with a wonderful woman whom I adore. My daughter has met her casually. I have not come out yet to my daughter. I now feel it is time to do so, and am not sure how. I don’t want to shock and upset her, but feel she needs to know who I am and about my relationship. I would be very grateful for any insight and suggestions you might have.
—Susan

Hello Susan:

I receive more mail from lesbians and gay men who have recently come out and are struggling with how to talk to their children than any other topic. In many ways the new gayby boom of out dykes and fags having babies has been sung to the ole Frank Sinatra tune “My Way” (“… but more, much more than this, I did it my way”). Using radical means of creating families like surrogacy, donor sperm, and same-sex second parent adoptions, lesbians and gay men who planned their children long after coming out have been insistent, confident parents, defying physicians, judges, and the psychological community to find them unfit to parent. Their brazen, in-your-face audacity and yes, pride, must seem a bit heady to those of us who are just venturing out from suburban housing developments in middle America.

I recently met a woman who has been (and remains) a devout Christian, who, after 15 years of marriage to her high school sweetheart, has fallen in love with a woman. No one was more surprised than she was. This is not just about coming out the closet; she had no idea she was in a closet… indeed her life took a surprising queer turn. How do you explain to children how you are now gay, after teaching them for their whole lives that being gay was bad? I just thought I’d tell you that story, Susan, to put in perspective how very challenging coming out to our half-grown children can be.

So before I answer your question, I have to ask you to answer some questions yourself. What are the messages you’ve given your daughter about gay people and gay relationships? Do you live in a community that is basically supportive of gay families, or in a more conservative part of the country? The answers to these questions may change how you can begin this dialogue with her. And be assured it is a dialogue, and one that will be ongoing for many years.

Have you told her that gay people are sick, disturbed, unnatural, or against the will of god? If you have, the issue is not simply coming out to her, but undoing the messages you’ve already told her. I would suggest that you do that first by educating her gently about alternative ways of looking at relationships, families, and sexuality. These days there are endless opportunities to discuss gay issues, since the media has discovered our little corner of the world and they are mining it for gold. When a newsworthy item comes on television or the radio, respond to it. “Oh, look at that, NYC may legalize gay marriage. Isn’t that great?” “Can you believe Mississippi won’t let gay people adopt children? Isn’t that the stupidest thing you’ve ever heard?” Engage your daughter in the topic, and be willing to hear her responses. Be prepared to explain why you think the way you do about a subject (“Well, I think gay people would be just as good parents as heterosexual parents.” “People who love each other should be able to get married whether or not they are of the opposite sex.”) If she challenges you on having changed your position, answer her honestly and directly, “Yes, I have. I’ve come to see that I was wrong about how I used to view gay people.”

Is talking with your daughter about sex and sexual orientation a new subject? Have you avoided these topics her whole life? Well, then you have your hands full, my friend. You will need to get comfortable discussing body parts and sexual behavior and there is no other way to do this but to jump right in. This may involve standing in front of the mirror to practice saying over and over again, until you grow comfortable, words like sex, penis, and vulva. One of my favorite moments in the past year was leading a chorus of PTA teachers and parents at my children’s school in saying the word LESBIAN. When one of the teachers admitted to having never said the word aloud, let alone to a class of second graders, I suggested that I could lead them all in unison to say the word. “All together now: LESBIAN.” Wow, now that was fun!

Seriously, talking about sex and sexuality is vitally important for all parents, but is especially so for LGBT parents, because we are the only ones who can assure that our sexual expression is being viewed respectfully. Last night I said to my five year old, “Would you like to read again about how babies are made?” “Yes,” he said excitedly, “I can’t wait to get to the part about the sperm. That’s my favorite part.” However, when my nine year old son had his classroom discussion on puberty (sex segregated, of course), the movie stated clearly, “As your body starts to change, you may find yourself attracted to girls.” HELLO?! But because he been home-schooled in Sex Ed, he was able to roll his eyes and understand that life was not always that linear. You are your child’s first and most important teacher, and your teaching can determine how they view sex, sexuality, and sexual orientation. Be aware though, a fourteen-year old may have some very direct and graphic questions.

Okay, so assuming that you have been talking with your daughter all along and the messages you’ve sent her have been basically gay affirming and positive, coming out to her may not be so challenging at all. If you have a close, intimate relationship with her (my fantasy of your life since I am the mother of sons), then you can tell her as you might any fun, exciting disclosure. “I have something great to tell you. I’m in love (falling in love) with someone very special. Her name is….” Let her respond by saying, “But mom, that’s a WOMAN.” And laugh and say, “Yes, how surprising, isn’t it?” As long as you stay happy and upbeat, chances are she will too.

An alternative way would be to simply have your new lover hang around more with you and your daughter. Have dinners, go shopping, go to the movies, etc. Have her watch you be close to one another and enjoy spending time together. If you had started dating a man after your divorce would you tell her, “I’ve decided to date a MAN,” or would you simply have him hang around and she would understand that it was more than a friendship over time? I’m not suggesting you avoid telling her, as much as have a natural progression of time and getting to know one another, before you tell her, so she has a context of it being someone she knows and likes.

It is always a good idea to keep some gay-themed books and magazines around the house which can also help to initiate a conversation. I asked you earlier whether you live in a conservative or more liberal part of the country, and this can make a huge difference in how you address issues with her. Is she likely to see other gay couples on the street? Does she hear anti-gay politics from the pulpit at Church? The more conservative the community, the more cautious you need to be, and also the more time you need to give her to understand how your sexuality will impact her daily life. The more liberal the community, the more opportunities you will have to help her see other families like her own. Oh, don’t forget to check out the COLAGE website. My ideas are psychologically sound, but I’d suggest you get the lowdown from young people who have recently experienced this; they will know what worked and what didn’t. Despite my jokes above about Sex Ed, remain focused on the love part; fourteen-year olds really get that love trumps everything.