My daughter was sixteen years old when she told me she was bisexual, and even though it was something I suspected and accepted, I still botched my response.
Faith was boy-crazy her whole life, and at first, my husband and I thought it was adorable.
In preschool, she had a crush on a little red-headed boy. In kindergarten, she was in love with the boys who took naps on either side of her: one because he could tell time, the other because he could burp the alphabet. In fourth grade, she went on her first date—if you could call it that. Bowling with the fifth-grade boy she liked, along with his family, whom we knew.
When she entered middle school, things progressed to the point that she was “talking to” so many different boys, I couldn’t keep track. Once you add cell phones and social media to the mix, suddenly, our cute little boy-crazy daughter was keeping us up at night with worries.
The Signs of Internalized Homophobia
It wasn’t long until people called Faith promiscuous (or worse), and she gained a reputation that made it hard for her to maintain friendships.
We were a sex-positive, open-minded family. In other words, we talked about sexuality and gender without shame.
We also emphasized love, privacy, respect, and consent.
Our kids knew they could come to us with any questions or concerns. We thought that parenting this way would ensure our children would grow up with a healthy attitude about sexuality.
Yet, it didn’t seem to us that Faith’s behaviors were healthy at all, and we were concerned about her mental health. It seemed that she was acting out and searching for attention through sexuality.
Her friendships with girls were equally intense. She loved her girlfriends with a fierce dedication… until those friendships ended. Then she dealt with acute heartbreak.
From best friends to enemies in the blink of an eye, over and over again. Each time she broke up with another friend, I couldn’t help but think that these were more than friendships—they were loving relationships every bit as vital as romantic partnerships.
When Faith was a freshman in high school, she often snuggled and held hands with her best friend. She was shocked that I’d never been intimate that way with my best friend from high school.
“Seriously?” she asked me one night. “You never kissed your best friend? Even just to practice?!”
I hadn’t. And whether that was a reflection of growing up in the 80’s or that I’m truly just boringly straight, I don’t know.
But the more I observed my daughter, the more I thought maybe she was gay. And maybe all that acting out with boys had been a way to prove to herself and the world that she most definitely was not.
Because despite how open and accepting our family was, society still looked down on the LGBTQ+ population.
Editors note: Internalized homophobia encompasses the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that arise from the belief that queerness is bad, wrong, sinful, or inferior to being straight. For more information, visit: What Is ‘Internalized Homophobia’?
Even Open-Minded, Well-Intentioned Parents Don’t Always Respond Appropriately
So, when Faith was sixteen and told my husband and me that she was bisexual, it was not a huge surprise.
In fact, it was a bit of a relief.
I hoped that coming to terms with her sexual identity would help her feel more grounded, balanced, and confident. I even made a terribly inappropriate joke at the time, telling Faith, “I think you’re on the train to Lesbianville, making a pit stop at bisexuality.”
Even though Faith laughed and corrected me, I regret uttering those invalidating words.
Who was I to think I knew more about my daughter’s sexual identity than she did?
Thankfully, we had a close and loving relationship, so my comment did not cause harm. But I think about that moment often, and what I know for sure is that most parents are not prepared to handle the coming-out conversation.
In fact, many parents say the completely wrong thing. There’s one phrase in particular that people think is supportive but is actually quite hurtful.
What not to say when your teen comes out to you
I love you no matter what.
I’m all for unconditional love, but that phrase doesn’t belong in the coming-out conversation. If you’re lucky enough to have a child who shares their sexual orientation or gender identity with you, please don’t say that.
Here’s why: If your child made the team, got cast in the play, or got accepted to their dream college, you would never say, “It’s okay. I love you no matter what.”
But if your child got in trouble at school, arrested for shoplifting, or came home with a bad grade, you just might.
See the difference?
“I love you no matter what” implies something inherently negative about being queer or trans, something that you as a parent might need to get over.
But being queer or trans is something to celebrate. Your teen’s biggest job is to figure out who they are, and this is a huge step in that direction. That’s celebration-worthy!
What to do if you feel fear for your teen who came out to you
If you have concerns or fears about what being LGBTQ might mean for your child, that’s understandable. After all, this news might come as a surprise.
Suddenly, what you thought you knew about your child differs from reality.
Also, homophobia and transphobia are rising in the U.S., with increased bullying, harassment and hate crimes occurring against LGBTQ people. More than a dozen states are in the process of enacting “Don’t Say Gay” legislation. And a 2021 study showed that LGBTQ teenagers are more likely to attempt suicide in states that have homophobic and transphobic policies than in more inclusive states.
In this political environment, it’s more important than ever for LGBTQ children to feel safe and supported in their homes and with their families. (Editors note: Guide to Being an Ally to Transgender and Nonbinary Young People from The Trevor Project is a great resource.)
It makes sense to worry about your teen’s safety. But those are your concerns to deal with, not your child’s.
At this moment, when your teen has bravely shared a vulnerable part of their identity with you, it’s your responsibility to tap into your best parenting self. Later, you can get whatever support you need to help you adjust.
You might want to reach out to PFLAG, the largest organization dedicated to supporting, educating, and advocating for LGBTQ+ people and their families, a therapist or support group, or a trusted friend.
It’s natural to have complicated feelings about your teen’s news, and your feelings are valid.
But remember to deal with your issues separately from your teen and be the most supportive, affirming, and loving parent you can be for your child.
Five do’s and don’ts when your teen comes out to you
So here are five don’ts and do’s for handling the coming out conversation:
- Assume you know more about your child’s sexual or gender identity than they do.
- Tell your child this is probably a phase.
- Project your own fears or shame onto them.
- Say” “I love you no matter what.”
- Hug them.
- Thank them for sharing that information with you.
- Tell them how happy you are that they’ve figured this out about themselves and how brave you think they are for sharing it with you.
- Ask them how you can best support them. Maybe they want you to share the news with their grandparents and other people. Maybe they want you to keep it to yourself. It should be up to your child, but they should know that you’re there for them, however they need you.
- Tell them you love them. Period.
In such a vulnerable moment, validation, love, and support will mean the world to your child.
Because everyone deserves to be loved for who they are.