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Dear Dr. Batya,
I don't know if you ever tackle more controversial areas in your column, but I have recently seen two families dealing with issues involving coming to terms with homosexuality. In one case, a young man was terribly distressed about how to tell his family, whom he loved, that he was gay. He knew it went against their beliefs but also felt that he was telling lies by not being able to be honest with them. The other involved a family coming to terms with their lesbian daughter. Maybe by addressing these it will help them and others to know that they aren't alone.
- J.W., Jerusalem
The topic of homosexuality is often controversial. People are typically uncomfortable with sex in general. They are even more uncomfortable talking about sex. They are still more uncomfortable talking about sex with their children, no matter what their age. And then to talk about and acknowledge one's child's homosexuality, they don't know how to respond and aren't sure how they really feel. It's often easier to just ignore or be against it, unless of course you're forced to confront it.
You've mentioned two families who have stories that I have heard many times over the past several decades. Sadly, it is stories such as these that have needlessly torn families apart and led to much suffering for everyone. For many children "coming out" to their friends and parents takes a great deal of courage. Not only has a tremendous burden been carried around for a very long time, but the mere act of disclosure puts a child at risk of rejection from the very people he cares most about. This is a time of both crisis and opportunity.
For a parent first hearing the news, the reaction may vary from being totally surprised, confused, sad, guilty, alone, rejected or in denial. A parent rides an emotional roller-coaster, trying to both understand and confront his feelings. Some are able to do this quickly, whereas others never quite come to terms with things. For those parents willing to invest the time and energy to really try to understand their child, and be open, supportive and accepting, the rewards are well worth it. Let's look at some of the difficulties encountered on both sides.
Many parents struggle for years, and some forever, to come to terms with the lives their children have chosen. Most parents simply want their children to be happy and to have a life easier than they themselves have had. As one gets older, he realizes that life can be difficult even when he chooses to follow the easiest of paths. Whether it is finding the right partner, making ends meet, raising a family, dealing with health issues or dealing with the day-to-day issues that simply arise, life presents many obstacles.
Add to this such challenges as sexual preference, religious lifestyle, or even where and how one chooses to lead his own life, and the average parent will have no shortage of things to worry about. How many people have had, for example, a difficult decision regarding making aliya because the family "left behind" was simply unable to accept this different way of life, for you, their child? The more one chooses a lifestyle that differs from his parents, the harder both have to work to have that choice be accepted. This too is the case for sexual orientation.
Why do parents have such issues with their child's sexual preference? Is it because the world their child has chosen is unfamiliar and hence scary? Is it that they see their own dream of becoming grandparents challenged with no grandchild to whom they can hand down the family name or traditions? Does the older generation fear illness in this day of AIDS? Are they embarrassed by their child as they wonder what others will think? Are they feeling responsible for their children's life choices and fear it is a reflection, perhaps on them? Do their children's choices go against their religious beliefs or general set of values? Any and all of these possibilities may play a role in the difficulties parents have in coming to terms with a child's homosexuality in a heterosexual and homophobic world.
Now let's stop for a moment and look at things from the child's perspective.
For a while now he or she has been leading a double life, trying to act or be someone he isn't. With this come excuses, story-telling and lack of honesty. With this comes a whole secret world not shared with those he cares most about. He may have a partner or at the very least a life that has remained partially, if not entirely, hidden. He can't share the highs and can't rely on support from his family for the lows. He may feel very much alone and depressed. This in itself puts tremendous strain on an individual, and many of his relationships. When he looks in the mirror, he sees a very different person than his parents see. Entering his parents' world while living in his own requires many adjustments on his part. Can he bring home his partner even if his parents were to accept his choice?
So whether you are the parent or you are the child, it is not easy in the beginning. Some parents may continue to disagree with their child's choice, feel it is wrong, and want to "fix," "change" or "cure" their child. Trying to balance a parent's feelings with the needs of a child to be supported is in no way easy as one attempts to acknowledge the disagreement about the orientation yet may agree that it is the child's life to live. Some parents may feel that their role is to guide their child to the "right" choice, rather than support them regardless of choice.
Good open communication is the cornerstone of any good supportive and understanding relationship. Roles may reverse temporarily as a child educates his parents in areas that the parent is not familiar with. Working together can help foster acceptance and give each the opportunity to grow in an atmosphere of mutual support. This is a time to get to know each other better and to have a deeper and more meaningful relationship - now not only as parent and child but as two adults. The child is the same today as he was yesterday and the day before. He needs love, support and acceptance for who he is. If a parent can provide this, he may be surprised to discover that he, the parent, has an incredibly special and wonderful child.
The writer is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Ra'anana.