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

A column by Arlene (Ari) Istar Lev

School Counselor

Posted By on August 22, 2010

Dear Ari:

I had a student come to me today and share with me that his mom is gay. He is being asked questions by other students and is afraid to tell them the truth because he thinks they will make fun of him. I haven’t dealt with this issue before. I would like to give him some sound advice and help him realize that he need not be embarrassed. Could you offer me some suggestions on counseling him?
—School Counselor

Dear School Counselor:

This question raises many issues that go beyond the concerns for this one student. My first concern, you may be surprised to learn, is for YOU. What kind of job risk do you set yourself up for by addressing this issue with the student? It is, of course, very important for this topic to be raised within schools, but you may be opening yourself up to negative reactions. Counselors or teachers who are themselves gay might be particularly vulnerable. You didn’t mention how old this child is, but certainly the answer to your question may be somewhat different if we are talking about a third-grader or a high school student.

First of all, find out who, in the school system, would be supportive of you addressing gay issues. Scope out the teachers or school social workers, investigate the PTA and the school board—the more organized effort there is, the less chance there is that the negativity will be personally directed toward you.

A good strategy is to broaden the issues—to examine other issues of diversity so that the “gay” issue isn’t singled out. Queer families are perceived as “different” from other families.  But in reality, the U.S. family has changed dramatically in the past few decades, and queer families reflect that diversity. For instance, only 25% of households are married couples with children under 18 and only about 50% of children are being raised in traditional nuclear families. About 25% of children are being raised in single parent homes, including those whose parents never married and those whose parents have divorced. Broadening the issue away from this one child will help the whole school deal with diversity without singling out his gay family.

It is easy for us to assume we know what is upsetting this child about his peers knowing that his mom is a lesbian, but it is important that we find out exactly what his situation is. Did he just find out that his mom is a lesbian and is he struggling with understanding what this means? Did his mom recently come out and separate from his dad? Perhaps the reason the child is afraid to talk about his mom’s lesbianism is because he is getting messages at home that his mom doesn’t want him to talk about it.  Involving his family in this process can be an excellent opportunity to perhaps help the family through a developmental milestone. Perhaps mom has a new girlfriend, and he is struggling to integrate her into his family.

If this child is being raised in a lesbian home, his issues may not be about his mom’s sexuality. He really might just need help talking with his friends. This can be especially difficult in early adolescence, when issues involving sexuality are paramount and a parent’s “unusual” sexual identity could cause shame, confusion or even denial.

He needs to learn some concrete skills in dealing with what might be quite negative or hostile reactions from peers. In addition to helping him verbalize exactly what his concerns are, you can also role-play with him about what this disclosure might be like. Explore with him (and perhaps with his peers too) about what being a “lesbian” means, so you can help break down the stereotypes. Homophobia is quite real, and his fears might not be unrealistic. Our job is not to minimize their fears, but allow them the space to express the range of their feelings.

In many ways, it is essential that we view this struggle with peers as a normal developmental process for our children growing up in LGBT homes. Just as every Black child might have to face racism from White peers, and every Jewish child might have to face questions about Christmas and Jesus, every child growing up in a lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered home will more than likely have to face the ignorance and perhaps open hostility of peers. As a professional, you are in a powerful position to model acceptance of his family. The ease and directness you bring to the situation will serve as a blueprint for him as he learns to feel comfortable in his own life.