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

A column by Arlene (Ari) Istar Lev

Out with Children

Posted By on August 26, 2010

Dear Ari:

I am a single Lesbian mother of three who has found her soulmate. We are so much in love and the kids (who are mine) approve of our relationship. My problem is that we live in a very small town and my partner is not completely out to her family or in the community. I have only been out for about 7 years but have become proud of who I am. My family is supportive of my lifestyle and has very much accepted my partner into our family. Since moving to her hometown things have been hard on the kids as far as our relationship is concerned. Because of her not being fully out people believe we are just roommates. This leaves the kids in a hard place (me, too.) The kids have had to spend the night at their friends’ houses and cannot have anyone spend the night at our house. If any do stay I sleep on the couch while my partner sleeps in our bed. I have tried to discuss the need of my partner, to be open with her family, but she is afraid they will be alienated (which really they already have.)

I’m afraid that the kids will grow up being afraid of their own sexual orientation because of how we need to be. What would you suggest is the best way to handle this? My kids are all in high school now and I’m afraid that when they are on their own they will not want to come around because of the way I have dealt with this. I feel like I’m teaching my kids to be homophobic. Would you agree?
—Lost in the Midwest

Dear Lost (and hopefully Found):

Well, first of all, congratulations on finding your soulmate. It is not small thing feeling like you’ve met a partner with whom you feel so connected. It is unclear from reading your letter how long the two of you have been together. I am guessing it is a few years, and I’m wondering if you partner is newly out and if this is her first relationship. It certainly can be scary living in a small town and being out as a lesbian couple.

One of the challenges, which I talk about quite extensively in my book, The Complete Lesbian and Gay Guide to Parenting, is how difficult it is to remain closeted when parenting children. Usually when people talk about the impossibility of being closeted when parenting they are referring to the glee young children have in telling anyone that will listen that “both of their moms” are coming on the class trip, not realizing that they are sharing potentially controversial information.

Children growing up in LGBT families often shocked to find out that people have negative opinions of their families, or even that their families are in any way different. Once children are in school (even in the most progressive schools) they begin to realize that gay is often used as a slur, and that our families do not have full civil rights. Teenagers have a heightened awareness of the social pressure to fit in and the high price of being “different.” When parents come out after children are half-grown the children are already aware of the bigotry against LGBT people, and perhaps have already decided where they stand on it.

Ideally, if children have been raised in an open-minded home, their children will have an open-minded attitude towards differences of all kinds. However, sometimes when parents come out later in life, children have already been exposed to many negative views regarding LGBT people, and changing those views can be very difficult. Having a parent remain closeted can reinforce the belief that there is something bad about being gay that needs to be hidden. This seems to be the situation your family is struggling with at this time.

So in short, I do agree that keeping your relationship with your lover secretive is not healthy for your children or your family. I can certainly understand your partner’s concern about her family’s rejection in a small town, but as you’ve said, they are already very alienating. If she remains closeted she is unintentionally sending the message that their behavior is acceptable. Being out will not necessarily change their minds or hearts about their daughter or her sexuality.

Many things impact how children deal with having gay parents, including geographical location and religious affiliation, as well as the child’s particular temperament, and how their particular family manages the issues. Some children will internalize the homophobia, assuming the world is correct and that something is wrong with their family. Most, however, will externalize the homophobia, and understand that their family is fine, and the world needs an attitude adjustment. Social science research refers to this as having a “dual consciousness” – being able to comfortably live within minority cultures, and still be fully engaged in the world outside.

However, if you remain closeted to your children, you are sending them the message that there is something shameful to hide. Whether you want to or note you are reinforcing their prejudices about homosexuality and yes, you are likely teaching them to be homophobic.

I would suggest that you engage in a serious family discussion about this issue, including your teens in the conversation. (It might be helpful to do this work with a professional counselor, who is knowledgeable and sensitive to LGBT parent-headed families.) The best gift we can give our family is to live a regular life, AS IF we have the right to be exactly who we are, and that will teach the world that we are proud of our families. As painful as it might be you need to move your family to the next level, and it seems your soulmate needs to understand how vital it is to not hide the love you share.