Just in time for Pride in June, "Rainbow Relatives: Real-World Stories and Advice on How to Talk to Kids About LGBTQ+ Families and Friends" (May 8, 2018) is a collection of intimate, real-life stories and advice about coming out to family members—parents to children, aunts and uncles to nieces and nephews, grandparents to grandchildren.
The concept for "Rainbow Relatives" was born when author Sudi "Rick" Karatas asked his sister if her children knew about his (their uncle's) sexual orientation. She said they didn't, as she hadn't been sure how to approach the topic and wished there was a book she could read to help her have those conversations. So, Sudi wrote that book. He hopes Rainbow Relatives will make readers more accepting of all people and families, especially in the LGBTQ+ community.
I like to view things with a sense of humor (hence the title of this essay). However, it can be a serious family matter when one parent comes out as LGBTQ. The situation will often result in a divorce, which can be devastating for a child and can result in their conflicting feelings of anger, sadness, confusion, and self-blame.
During the early 1980s, when I was in high school, I remember watching a movie alone with the volume turned low because it was such a controversial subject for that time. The film was called "Making Love," and it came out (pardon the pun) in 1982, starring Michael Ontkean, Harry Hamlin, and Kate Jackson. Ontkean plays Zach, who is married to Claire (Jackson). Zach is gone so much that Claire believes he is having an affair with another woman. When she confronts him, he admits his affair with his patient, Bart (Hamlin). Back then, many believed that playing a gay role hurt Hamlin’s career for years, whereas today such roles have actually bolstered many careers. In 2005, "Brokeback Mountain" won a number of awards and was nominated for best picture at the Oscars. In 2009, Sean Penn won the best actor Oscar for his performance of controversial gay rights activist Harvey Milk. In 2014, Jared Leto won the Oscar for best supporting actor for his compelling role as a transgender woman in the film "Dallas Buyers Club."
However, while these movies certainly helped to bring the LGBTQ community into popular culture, they did not portray situations that directly involve kids. In 2011, "The Kids Are All Right" became one of the first movies to do so with its portrayal of a lesbian couple raising two children born from a surrogate father. The film won a Golden Globe for best picture and was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for best screenplay. Hopefully, this has opened the door for more film and television portrayals depicting the reality of children with LGBTQ parents and the common situations that result when one parent turns out to be gay.
When a Parent Comes Out
The following is an amusing story told to me by a friend: A man was married many years to a woman and together they had a daughter. When the daughter was almost grown, the man came out to his family, announcing he was gay. He wasn’t sure how the daughter was handling it until one day, as they were both taking a walk along the beach, two very attractive and muscular men were walking toward them, each carrying a surfboard. His daughter said, “Look, Dad, one for you, one for me.”
The father was relieved, seeing how comfortable his daughter was with his sexuality. So he joked, “Okay, I’ll take the blond.”
Embarrassed and turning red, the daughter said, “I was talking about the surfboards.”
I spoke with and surveyed a number of other people who had been married and had children when one spouse came out. Hopefully, some of the following stories will help those who are in similar situations, and they will be comforted to know they are not alone.
Honesty is the Best Policy
After fifteen years of marriage, Anna and her husband sat down together with the kids and told them about her husband’s sexual orientation. The kids were fourteen, twelve, and eight years old. They were sad and surprised, but they were relieved to know there was a valid reason as to why their parents had separated. Prior to that, no one could understand why this had happened because they’d always had a good relationship together.
“My advice to others going through this is to be honest with everyone involved and tell people as soon as you are comfortable,” Anna said. “If you do it too soon, you may wind up hurting yourself and the people around you, especially the children. My kids did not want anyone else to know because they studied in the same schools as their cousins. I couldn’t tell any of our relatives because children can be cruel at school. I would have liked to tell people sooner but my kids would have been hurt.”
Hide That Gay Porn
After a year of being separated from his wife of twenty years, Fred’s sons were visiting him from Texas. At that time, they were thirteen and fifteen years old. He had told his wife he was gay, though he’d never acted on it, and they had decided to separate. However, they had decided not to tell the kids the reason until it came up during his sons’ visit.
While his sons were visiting, his fifteen-year-old left the room to take a shower when his thirteen-year-old asked him, “Are you gay?” Taken aback, Fred asked, “Why do you ask?” His son said, “Well, you used to watch both straight porn and gay porn on the internet and now you only watch gay porn.”
The fact that his thirteen-year-old knew how to find the porn that he thought he had hidden so well was a little scary. (Kids today are very computer savvy, if you haven’t noticed.)
“My son was actually okay with it,” Fred said. “I told my other son a couple weeks later and he laughed at first—he thought it was a big joke. Once he knew it wasn’t, he was okay with it, too, until they got back to Texas and their religious school. Then they told me I was an embarrassment because everyone gave them a hard time about it. Today they are both adults and fine with it.”
Dealing with a Bitter Spouse
Sometimes when one parent comes out, their spouse resents it and causes a rift or even sabotages the relationship between the gay parent and child. This may make it difficult for the child to understand and accept their gay parent, but it doesn’t make it impossible. Take Waylon’s experience, for example.
Waylon was divorced, and his ex-wife did not take his being gay very well at all. Waylon’s daughter lived with his ex-wife and her new husband while Waylon provided financial support for his daughter but lived in another state. The relationship was strained for a long time because of the negative things his ex-wife would say about him and his sexual orientation. The daughter also didn’t know that other family members had accepted her father for who he was. When Waylon’s daughter was sixteen, she finally visited her dad and his partner, Willie. Not surprisingly, it was a little awkward at first, but he assured her that their relationship wouldn’t change. He asked her if she’d get to know Willie, since he was important to him.
She asked questions about their relationship—how long they’d been together, how the relationship was going in general—and she also had her own private conversation with Willie and asked him questions as well. She was able to see that her father’s relationship with Willie was no different from other relationships, and by the end of the day, she had even given Willie a hug.
However, once she returned home to her mom and stepdad, the situation became more difficult. Waylon soon got a call from his furious ex-wife, Maybelle. “How dare you introduce my daughter to this lifestyle!” She continued to flood him with homophobic voice mails, emails, and even threats. Maybelle never did come around; in fact, she tried to poison her daughter against her ex-husband with lies about him and used parental alienation to prevent her daughter from seeing her father. The daughter was finally told the truth, and the relationship between Waylon and his daughter (who recently came out as gay herself) is now healthy and strong.
I think it’s good that Waylon showed his daughter that he and Willie have a nice, loving relationship that offset the negative things his ex had said. Setting a good example is important. I think when one spouse (in this case, the mother) has resentment toward a divorced spouse, it causes a lot of harm to a child, and if any adult finds themselves pitting the child against the other parent in situations like these, they should, of course, do their best to stop.
When the Kids Don’t Take the News So Well
Pablo’s son was ten and his daughter was seven when he came out to them. Pablo had decided to tell them because he thought his ex-wife was about to out him. He later told his kids that he needed to tell them because he didn’t want them to find out from a third person. He started by saying to them, “I’ve got something important to tell you.” But then he couldn’t continue.
The three of them sat in awkward silence until his son finally said, “What are you going to tell us? That you’re gay?” Pablo was surprised but relieved. “Yes, that’s why your mom and I separated.” He then told them, “I am still your father, nothing changes, and I still love you the same way.”
Then, both kids started crying. The boy seemed to take it harder than his sister, throwing a puzzle across the room in apparent anger. The crying lasted about fifteen minutes or so, and then later the son suddenly said to him, “Daddy, I’m sorry for those comments and jokes I’ve said about fags before. Don’t take them personally, but I am still going to make them.” It was the boy’s way of trying to use a little humor to break the tension.
Pablo said this didn’t bother him too much because if his son felt free enough to make a joke at this time, he felt his son was partly okay with it. Pablo said he also understood the “macho thing” boys have and his reaction was fairly normal.
His son asked, “Did you ever love Mommy?”
He said, “Of course.” But although the conversation seemed to have resolved things at the time, Pablo told me that his kids didn’t believe that he was born gay for quite a while, and today his son is still not 100 percent okay with it, but their relationship is okay. The daughter is much better with it.
I think the takeaway here is even if you fear the kids won’t be okay with this news, it’s still better to be open and honest and give them time to adjust to it.
What the Therapist Says: Divorce + Gay Parent = Added Shame
As part of my research, I also spoke with therapist David Giella. He provided some very straightforward insight into what children of gay parents go through in these situations. “In any divorce where, let’s say, the father has an affair, the child may feel the following: ‘You misled Mommy; you made Mommy cry; you had an affair; you have screwed up my life because of something you did; I’m scared and mad at you.’ When the father has an affair with another man, it’s mostly the same feelings, except now the child has to deal with having a parent who is gay, and there may be some shame with this, whether there should be or not,” Giella said.
I think what Dr. Giella said is important because parents should be aware a divorce may be a little harder for kids to deal with when it’s because one parent is gay. It’s an additional change and something else to adjust to in their lives; it’s not as simple as their parents not being together anymore.