what your therapist really thinks

‘My Parents Still Won’t Accept That I’m Gay!’

Photo-Illustration: James Gallagher

Dear Therapist,

I am 18 years old and in need of advice and insight. My parents found out I was gay almost three years ago. Ever since then, they have berated me for it — either that, or they’re outright ignoring it. They’ve asked if I have AIDS, if I was molested by a priest, and other questions far too graphic to go into.

They recently found out about my significant other and told me that my happiness is not worth the price of giving up being normal, and how little they love me. Are parents that see their son in this way worth holding onto?


Abnormal Son

Dear Normal Son,

You’ll notice that I’m addressing my response to “Normal Son” and not “Abnormal Son,” because there is nothing abnormal about you. Some men are attracted to men, some women to women, or any combination thereof. Period. Full stop.

I’m sorry that your parents are struggling so hard to understand you, and that you’re internalizing their struggle (by, for example, calling yourself “abnormal”) even as you rail against it. But you might not have to lose each other over their terror and your pain.

You see, just as they don’t understand you (why can’t you just be straight?), you don’t understand them (why can’t they just be supportive?).
I’m in no way condoning their hurtful and intolerant behavior. Instead, I’d like to shed some light on what their internal experience might be like, so that no matter how you decide to move forward, you’ll be coming from a less injured and more centered place.

The truth, Normal Son, is that the story of your parents’ reaction began long before you were born. It started where most parent-child relationships begin, which is to say, in your parents’ fantasies. Most people who want children have certain ideas, developed over the course of years, about what it will be like to raise a child, and who that child will be. And most of the time, parents-to-be don’t realize how specific these expectations they’ve been carrying around really are.

“I just want a healthy child,” most parents say as they await their baby’s arrival. But that’s often not the whole story. Though they may keep it to themselves, they tend to hope for more than good health. I want a girl. I want a boy. I want a baby with my color hair. I hope that the baby doesn’t have my partner’s flat feet, or Aunt Henrietta’s funny-looking ears. These sound like trivial preferences, but remember, they’re part of a long-standing fantasy, a powerful script embedded in a person’s psyche. And once that healthy child of the hoped-for or not-hoped-for gender or features makes an appearance, the next thing these parents will say, with just as much conviction, is, “I just want my child to be happy.”

They’ll say this repeatedly, to anyone and everyone, and as with “I just want my child to be healthy,” they’ll believe it in every fiber of their being.

But there’s a fine line between a parent’s happiness and a child’s: It can be hard to tell the two apart when the story developed before the child was born diverges from the story of who the child actually is.

And it will almost always diverge in some way.

A parent’s story may look like this: My child will excel academically and attend my alma mater. My child will love baseball as much as I do, and I’ll coach his teams and we’ll go to games together. My child will be outgoing and social like I was in school. My son will take over the family business. My daughter will be a doctor like all of the strong women in our family. My son will share my love of comic books; my daughter will have my literary sensibility. Our children will feel connected to our religious community and raise their own children in our faith. Our kid will grow up and get married and have children, and we will be doting grandparents in our old age.

These story lines — some of which may be conscious, others not — are partly rooted in our narcissistic desires (and therefore selfish), and partly informed by ingrained ideas of what constitutes a good life for our child (and therefore generous). For some parents, a good life might look like a successful career in a particular field, a certain level of financial freedom, marriage at a certain age and to a certain gender, and a specific number of children. It might imply a certain personality type or passion. But we forget that the life we envision for our children might not actually make the child in question happy. In fact, the definition of happiness we push on them might actually make them miserable.

Your being gay, Normal Son, changes your parents’ story, and this plot twist terrifies them precisely because they want you to be happy. Like the parents who try to protect their artistic son from a life of poverty by refusing to pay his tuition unless he agrees to go to law school (“Art can be your hobby!” they’ll say), your parents are terrified by the belief that the son they love dearly is going to have a difficult life because it doesn’t match the life they equate with happiness. Your parents aren’t trying to torture you or cause you pain — they’re trying, in their misguided way, to save you from pain.

Perhaps they think that being gay means that you’ll face prejudice and hatred — and sadly, because homophobic people are out there, they may be right.

Maybe they think that being gay means you’ll get AIDS — and while it sounds like you know all about safe sex, they’re right that you may be at higher risk than a straight man. They may think that you won’t be able to have a long-term partner or kids — and they’re right that there are fewer partners to choose from, and having a baby is less straightforward, even though both are eminently available to you should you want them. Maybe they also worry about things that have no bearing in reality – that you’ll go to Hell or that somebody is “turning you” gay – but in the end, they worry that your life will be harder as a gay man than as a straight one. No matter how many times you explain that your happiness lies in being who you are – a gay man – worrisome scenarios swirl in their minds and they become consumed with anxiety about your future.

But just because they’re terrified doesn’t mean you’re abnormal. It means that your parents are saying things in hopes of protecting you and bringing you back to them without realizing that they’re harming you and driving you away.

Of course, your parents might be grappling with their own loss, too — not just of the future they envisioned for you, but of the future they envisioned for themselves. All parents must, at some point, bump up against the tension between how our kids live their lives and how we’d like for them to live. They’re going through the grieving stages — denial (ignoring), anger (lashing out), bargaining (let’s trade your pleasure for “being normal”), depression (which they may feel), and acceptance (not there yet) — not because they want to let go of you, but because they’re having trouble letting go of the story they attached to you from birth, which involves them as supporting characters. Given how misinformed they seem about what it means to be gay, I’m guessing that their community of friends will also have a reaction to their having a gay son, and that they will be made to feel ashamed in some way. Perhaps they fear that their role in the story has changed from proud parents to shunned parents. And they want a way out of this story because they can’t see the happy ending to this version.

But there can absolutely be a happy ending, Normal Son. If they didn’t love you (despite what they’ve said, likely out of fear), they wouldn’t be fighting so hard for you, even if they’re going about it in a hurtful way. They’re not giving up on you, so you may not want to give up on them right now either. Perhaps if you make room for their fear and come to understanding them more, they will make room for your sexuality and come to understand you more, too.

It may take some turbulence and time before they’re open to seeing that this plot twist is full of possibility and that the story hasn’t become a tragedy at all. They’re so consumed with getting the story back on track that they’ve lost sight of the protagonist and the fact that he is triumphant, brave enough to stand up and say, “This is who I am, and I won’t pretend to be otherwise.”  It may be that just as you surprised the supporting characters midway through the story, the supporting characters will surprise you, too, with their own brand of courage. In time, they may say, “This is who our family is, and we won’t pretend to be otherwise.”

And if they do, they’ll be worth holding onto, even if the story goes in all kinds of directions between now and then. It won’t be easy, but if you give up now, you’ll never get to see how the story unfolds.  It might be that they’ll never understand.  But it could also turn out that you all become the story’s heroes.

Lori Gottlieb is a writer and a psychotherapist in private practice. Got a question? Email therapist@nymag.com. Her column will appear here every Friday.

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‘My Parents Still Won’t Accept That I’m Gay!’