Parents and Coming Out Trauma

I was talking with my partner of 15 years tonight about a post and a link that appeared on the Facebook page of a friend. When a young man came out to his family four years ago, his father wrote him a crushing letter cutting off all contact with his son because of his “lifestyle.” Whenever I see that word I hear someone saying, “It’s a choice.” Balderdash. Who really believes that anymore? Now it’s four years later and the young man has just posted an image of his dad’s handwritten letter on the internet for all to see. Of course it went viral. He also said two choice words to his father in response to the letter. I’m sure you can imagine what they were. Read the letter and the story for yourself here:

After I read the letter I recalled a phone conversation I had that day with a very pleasant radio personality. The woman was responding to a press release for my memoir she had received from my media representative. The release explained that I was a survivor of incest, but I had not recalled those events until after I came out as a gay man later in life. It went on to say that I had “triumphed over adversity and found spiritual renewal.” That was the language that caught the woman’s attention.

She represented a Christian radio station. They were searching for an individual to interview who could help listeners understand how sexual abuse increases the potential for behavioral abnormalities (my phrase) in adolescence and adulthood like substance abuse or promiscuity. She volunteered that her father had been a pedophile who victimized her sister and even shot her mother in the back, an angry military vet who wore a pistol on his hip at home. She was not sexually abused by him, but because of his mistreatment,  she had two pregnancies in her teens that she terminated and a child out of wedlock when she was only eighteen.

I had no disagreement with her until she asked if I might help her listeners understand how homosexuality was another behavior resulting from sexual abuse, as if that was also true for me. She even used the word “lifestyle” in the same sentence. Her intention was to help Christians develop more compassion for gay individuals who may have been abused and more understanding of the undesirable behaviors. I took her line of reasoning as some version of, “Hate the sin but love the sinner.”

I politely explained that I did not believe sexual abuse causes homosexuality, or that I was attracted to men because of what my father had done. I added that I had a younger brother who was also gay, and he did not recall being abused by my father. When we each understood how our opinions about homosexuality and abuse were that dissimilar, we wished each other well and ended our conversation.

The young man whose father had shunned him (and, by the way, there are few tactics as devastating as that practice) was certain that his father’s actions were fueled by ultra-conservative voices from the Christian right. He was referring to radio commentators and preachers who use extreme (sometimes violent) rhetoric, and he called out a few of them by name.

I know how it feels to get a letter like that from a parent. I got one from my mother when I came out to her at the age of 45. I included excerpts from it in my memoir “Snakes in My Dreams.” I was afraid to tell her. That’s why it took me so long. And what I feared most — her rejection — is exactly what I got. I might have been more traumatized had I not been prepared for that possibility as a result of my work with a good therapist. And by that time I was comfortable with my sexuality and living openly as a gay man. I had no more questions. I was more resilient than a twenty-year-old.

As a therapist I’ve encountered many young people who have just received their “letters,” or been told they were unworthy or unfit because of an attraction to their own sex. Just as frequently I have worked with older gays and lesbians (even senior citizens) who were still living in shame cast on them by a parent. One woman in her mid 30’s told a story of how her mother had left her standing in the middle of her street and drove off after condemning her for being a lesbian. This young woman was an accomplished international professional with many accolades to her credit, not an underachiever. The depth of her shame was demonstrated when she ran after the car, begging for approval, screaming for her mom to come back. Her mother had known she was a lesbian for over 10 years. It wasn’t news, but she was still demeaning her daughter for her “sin”.

After reading the young man’s letter from his father, I realized how much more strident the comments in my mother’s letter had been. She said she was “abhorred by my reliance on shrinks and soothsayers to chart my course” and called the path I had chosen to follow “morally repugnant” to her. She told me to keep that information to myself several states away from where she lived. Once she was gone, she said, I was free to “shout it from the rooftops.” Wow . . .  That still takes my breath away.

Attitudes conveyed in language like this, or even implied by parents, relatives or friends,  can trigger extreme reactions in young gay, lesbian, transgendered, bisexual or questioning people. I’ve seen how devastated they are when they’re ostracized by their families. Is it any wonder that three times the number of gay and lesbian youth attempt suicide when compared to their straight peers, or that they’re more at risk for depression, substance abuse, and sexual victimization? So be careful parents. You may reap what you sew, and then how will you feel? I suggest you read “Prayers for Bobby” by Leroy Aarons or watch the movie version starring Sigourney Weaver. See what happens when you choose religion over well-being, and a child becomes a prisoner of your prejudice.

But now, let me assure you, there is hope. First, it’s never too late to repair. When my mother rejected me, I stood up to her. I told her I would not tolerate her abusiveness, that I was okay no matter what she said, and she would have to treat me well if I were to be a part of her life. A friend worried that my insistence on acceptance and decency was too much to ask, but I had higher expectations for her. She finally did accept me as I am several years before she passed away. When I sat on her deathbed in the hospital, and we had our final chat, I was able to tell her I was glad we were friends again. We had come full circle. I was the son who once again engendered pride in her. She was the mother I had always wanted but wouldn’t have if we hadn’t resolved our disagreement.

Posting his father’s letter on the internet may not bring the young man’s dad around, but he was right to stand up to his disapproval. His approach may have been overkill — like crushing an ant with a sledgehammer — but we don’t know the family dynamics, so who can say what else may have been at play. I do hope the young man is standing taller these days, feeling better about himself in spite of his father’s closed-mindedness. I also hope that the young man’s dad comes around, just like my mother did.


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3 Responses to Parents and Coming Out Trauma

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    • Sunjay says:

      I live an hour outside State College Pennsylvania. I have been a Penn State fan all 38 years of my life. what went on at Penn State is truly hriforic. What I can’t stand right now is all the Joe haters calling for his head. Joe has been outspoken on his this dislike of the media. Now it is the media trying to oust him without all of the fax coming to light. Yes he probably should have done more morally in the situation. Let us not forget all the good things he has done for Penn State. The graduation rate is one of the highest in the nation consistently. Everyone is certainly entitled to an opinion. But when I read on Facebook some people calling him an SOB, calling for the full football team to not play on Saturday is too much. If anyone deserves the benefit of the doubt it is Joe. Let’s wait and see what all of the facts are before we try to oust a legendary coach just to satisfy the media.

      • Dr. Mike says:

        Confused by your timing on this. Seems like the data is already in on Joe Paterno. Yes, he did many things well, but many young men had their clothes and their well being stripped away by Sandusky and, as far as we know, Joe did nothing to stop it.

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