Should I Ask?
Should I Ask?
by Laurin Mayeno
This is a question I struggled with a lot when my son Danny, now 25, was in his teens. I weighed many pros and cons and decided not to have “the talk” about his sexual orientation. In our case, this ended up being a good choice, but each family is different. Regardless of what you decide, it’s important to make sure your son knows that you love and support him. You don’t have to know your son’s sexual orientation to be an ally to him.
I suspected that Danny might be gay for years. From an early age, he preferred toys, play, and colors that were considered “girly.” Some people assumed he was gay. I did not, because I felt it was up to Danny to define his identity. Although it wasn’t easy, I decided to support him for who he was. As soon as the teasing started, I became both a coach and advocate—supporting my son to deal with the teasing and speaking to other parents and teachers to try to get it to stop.
When Danny became a teenager, I had mixed feelings about asking him about his sexual orientation. I didn’t want to put him on the spot and make him feel uncomfortable. I was also very aware of a double standard in our society; straight kids don’t have to come out to their parents, so why should gay children be expected to? If we parents accepted all of our children for who they are, coming out would be a non-issue. Unfortunately, we haven’t reached that point as a society yet, and there are many reasons why coming out is still very important.
One of the arguments in favor of having “the talk” was that I thought it might make it easier for both of us if things were out in the open. He was bullied in middle school, had a hard time making friends, and went through some periods of depression. I knew that gay teens have higher risks of suicide, especially when bullied. A gay friend of mine strongly advised that I talk with Danny about his sexual orientation in order to get him whatever support he needed. In spite of his urging, I didn’t end up having that conversation.
What I decided to do was to let Danny know that I was supportive of him, gay or not, without having the conversation directly. I bought a book about adolescence, sex, and relationships. I chose one that I thought had solid information about gay identity and relationships, but wasn’t just about being gay. We had an awkward moment when I pulled the book out of the bag and showed it to Danny. I don’t know if he ever opened the book.
We were fortunate to have several lesbian and gay friends and a close friendship with a gay couple, who were like uncle figures to Danny. We spent time hanging out with them, and even went on a trip together. They never had intimate conversations, but I think being around them was very comforting to him.
We also watched TV shows together that dealt with gay issues and sometimes talked about our thoughts about those issues. In this way, I conveyed to him that I was supportive of the LGBTQ community without getting personal about it.
Danny joined the Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) at his middle school, and I was relieved and happy that he had support from peers. Even though he was out about being in the GSA, and out to many of his friends, he didn’t officially come out to me at that time.
The first time Danny openly acknowledged to me and the family that he was gay was during the summer after high school, when he had his first boyfriend. He didn’t have a coming out talk with me or anyone else in the family. He just told me he was dating one of the guys in his theater group and soon brought him to a family gathering with cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. Nobody in the family was surprised and there were no negative reactions. I felt a sense of relief to finally have things out in the open.
I wondered if I had let Danny down by not talking with him more directly. Since then, we have had many conversations. Reflecting back, Danny told me he appreciated having the space to work things out. He echoed what I have heard many young people say. They need space to come to terms with their own identity before they are ready to come out to others. As parents, it is our job to be there for them and to give them the space they need. It isn’t always easy knowing when to step in.
Danny didn’t feel a need to have his sexual orientation out in the open because he wasn’t concerned about being rejected by me or anyone else in the family. He would not have felt supported if I had asked him directly “Are you gay?” In general, I believe that young people should be given the space to come out when they are ready. If and when that time comes, a little encouragement from parents can sometimes be helpful. Here are some ways you can provide a supportive environment, whether or not your son is gay:
Don’t make assumptions about your son’s, or any children’s, sexual orientation. Assume that it is your job to help him feel safe and supported whatever his sexual orientation is.
Find ways to let your son know you love and support him, no matter what. You don’t have to know his sexual orientation to be supportive.
If you are concerned about your son’s wellbeing, speak to him and let him know you are concerned. Invite him to share whatever is on his mind and let him know you are there for him.
Never pressure your son to disclose his sexual orientation. Allow him to tell you if and when he is ready.
Think about how you would respond if he said “I am gay.” Get whatever support you need so that you can respond positively if he chooses to come out to you.
Make sure that your family environment is as safe as possible. For example, don’t allow anti-gay language or jokes. If you go to a church, synagogue or temple, look for a welcoming congregation.
Make an effort to let your son know that you are supportive of the LGBTQ community. If he knows you are supportive, he will know it is safe to come out to you.
Ask yourself, if he comes out to you, are you willing to keep it between you until he is ready to come out to others. If needed, ask yourself if you are willing to advocate on his behalf within the family.
Whatever you do to support your son, the fact that you are concerned enough to ask this question tells me that you are a caring parent. Your son is fortunate to have you.
Laurin Mayeno is a mixed race Asian/Jewish/Anglo woman and mother of a multiracial gay son. She founded Mayeno Consulting 18 years ago to create inclusive, equitable, diverse spaces where everyone is valued and supported. Her son, who loved dressing up as a princess, inspired her current focus on building support for gender diverse and LGBTQ young people and families in schools, preschools, and other organizations that serve children and families. Her bilingual children’s picture book, One of a Kind Like Me/Único como yo, and Proud Mom video series raise awareness and spark dialogue about gender diversity.