By Brenda Hawkins, Ed.D.
Dr. Hawkins is no longer a part of our group, but we wish her well in her next endeavor.
Many people across the country watched the episode of Ellen, in which the series' title character "came out" to her friends and coworkers. For the first time in television history, an "out" lesbian actress portrayed a title character "coming out" to herself, her friends and associates. No doubt parallel scenes were played out in living rooms around the country, as people long burdened by discrimination, secrecy, fear and deception opened up and disclosed their identities and relationships to parents and family members.
In fact, many adolescent suicides are committed by gay and lesbian teens overwhelmed by fears of rejection by family and society. For example, on Sunday, May 25, 1997, the Ann Landers column appearing in the Atlanta newspaper contained a letter from a 15-year-old boy planning suicide because he is gay.
Like everyone else in this society, heterosexual parents are taught that heterosexuality is the only way to be, and this attitude is promoted in schools, churches, radio, television, newspapers, magazines, and advertising. Heterosexual society knows very little about other sexual orientations. If anything, what does tend to circulate is misinformation, myths, stereotypes, and discrimination.
Consequently, heterosexual parents tend to react in a manner similar to the stages of grief outlined by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross: first shock, then denial. Parents will assert over and over that their child could not possibly by gay and/or that someone must have influenced them, or that it is just a phase they are going through. Then they enter the "bargaining" stage, as they try various ways to get their son or daughter to be "un-gay." They may offer money to try to break up the gay relationship, or send the child to therapy to "cure" him or her. Failing that, they may become angry and disown their child. They may emotionally "beat up" on themselves and their children. In more tragic instances, parents may reject their child and die without ever seeing him or her again. Wanting to protect the shocked and grieving parent, a sibling might present a gun or pills to their gay brother or sister and urge suicide.
Knowing and understanding more about homosexuality can help parents avoid getting stuck in the grief process and can help them achieve a resolution. First of all, being gay or lesbian is about relationships: with whom your child falls in love, and to whom he or she is attracted. It does not mean that they want to be the opposite sex or dress in clothing belonging to the opposite sex. (Most cross-dressers, or "transvestites," are heterosexual males.) It does not mean that they are attracted to children (ninety-eight percent of child molesters are heterosexual males who are known to the child). It is not even about sexual practices, since both gays and straights engage in similar practices, just as they both date, fall in love, and commit to relationships.
Secondly, no one knows what causes homosexuality, just as no one knows what causes heterosexuality. Like heterosexuality, homosexuality has existed across countries, cultures, and history. Zoologists have observed homosexuality to exist across species of animals, just as heterosexuality does. It is not contagious and cannot be "caught" by having contact with homosexual people.
All gay men and lesbians were raised in a heterosexual culture, and were exposed daily to heterosexually-oriented television and radio. Almost all of them were raised by heterosexual parents. The sexual orientation of children raised by gay and lesbian parents, research indicates, has been shown to be in the same proportions as in the population at large: mostly heterosexual with a few gay and lesbian children.
When this writer attended the Kinsey Institute For Sex Research summer training program 21 years ago, researchers there said that sexual orientation is determined by the age of four, can manifest at any stage of life, and exists on a continuum, graded 0 to 6, from exclusively heterosexual to exclusively homosexual, with varying degrees in between. A recent research study showed slight differences in the brain structure of gay men compared to heterosexual men. However, this study examined only men, and the number studied were too few to be able to generalize to the population at large. What we do know is that sexual orientation cannot be changed.
Thirdly, homosexuality is not a disease or illness. Thirty years of psychological research has shown gay men and lesbians to be as emotionally healthy as their heterosexual counterparts. Triggered by the pioneering research of Dr. Evelyn Hooker, who studied the emotional health of gay men, the American Psychiatric Association ceased considering it an illness in 1973. The American Psychological Association ceased considering it an illness in 1974. Since then, research has consistently shown the mental health of lesbians and gay men to be the same as that of heterosexual men and women. The few studies showing a difference have found lesbians to be more independent and emotionally secure than heterosexual women.
Over the years, research on the mental health of children raised by gay and lesbian parents has shown it to be no different than that of children raised by heterosexual parents. As recently as April of 1997, studies presented at the Society for Research on Child Development showed no differences between children of lesbian parents and children of heterosexual parents. Conducted in the United States, Britain and the Netherlands, the studies also found that the non-biological lesbian parents were more actively involved in common child-raising tasks than are the fathers in heterosexual couples.
Gay men and lesbians can be found in all walks of life, all races, all cultures, and all parts of the world. They may be single or committed, celibate or dating, divorced or widowed. Parents often fear that their lesbian or gay child will have a hard life, and these fears exist due to the discrimination, judgments and hostility held by a society that is uninformed and unaware. Your child can be helped best by informing yourself as much as possible about gay and lesbian issues.
Both the American Psychological Association and the Georgia Psychological Association have divisions addressing sexual orientation issues (APA - Division 44 and GPA - Division H). The American Counseling Association has a division called "The Association for Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Issues in Counseling." Read Southern Voice, the local gay and lesbian newspaper, to learn what is happening in your child's community. Charis Bookstore, located in Atlanta in the Little Five Points area, has a very impressive selection of high quality books and, if you wish, its highly-trained, informed and sensitive staff can help you decide which book or books would best address your needs and issues.
Also, get support for yourself. Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (P-FLAG) is available to give you support, understanding, information, and nurturing. Straight But Not Narrow is another group that some people have found helpful.
Finding out that your child is gay or lesbian can be life-changing for the both of you. How you decide to handle it can push you further apart or bring you closer together. How you decide is up to you. Choose well.