March 27, 2014 at 10:39 AM ET
When gay teens come out to their parents, it’s an experience often rife with emotion and candor that can’t help but change the kid–parent dynamic.
But experts say that processing a child’s proclamation of their sexuality is only the beginning of the journey for moms and dads. And while there are an increasing number of families who embrace their child’s homosexuality and are supportive, loving, and even unfazed by the revelation, it’s a turn of the tide that leaves some concerned about whether or not there is an understanding of the nuances of parenting a gay teen.
“The problem for most gay kids is that they can lose their parents whether their parents are hateful or supportive,” says Dan Savage, author, sex columnist and creator of the “It Gets Better Project,” which helps gay teens recover from bullying. “When a kid is queer, the hateful parent shuts down and wants nothing to do with them. But sometimes a parent who is accepting feels like they can’t be critical or interfere, and they don’t fulfill their duties as parents any more than the hateful parent does.”
Savage, who has a son with his gay partner, says that he frequently hears stories about parents who are afraid to tell their gay son that they don’t approve of his boyfriend for fear of sounding intolerant or who help their gay teen sneak into gay bars by securing them a fake ID — a double standard that he finds frustrating.
“You’ve got to parent your queer kid like you would any other kid. Would you parent your straight 17-year-old daughter that way? No, you would not,” he says.
Stephen Russell, an adolescent psychologist at the University of Arizona, says that he and his partner, Scott Neeley, have faced many challenges while parenting their gay son, Enrique, 18. While some of these trials have been similar to those of parenting a straight teen, others have proven to be uniquely related to their son’s sexual orientation.
Russell credits the majority of his parenting successes to the open communication that both he and Neeley encourage within their home, and says parents should remember the importance of talking openly with their teens not only about the rules, curfews and boundaries that are part of the dating experience, but also about sexuality and relationships.
Russell also suggests that parents of gay teenagers be aware of whether or not the person their child is dating has already come out himself, and of how their parents reacted to the news.
“If a kid is out, and the other kid is not, it can mean your kid keeps liking other boys who like them back, but because they’re not ready to come out to their own families, it ends in heartbreak,” said Russell.
Savage says that parents of gay teens — especially boys — should also be aware of the dangers that exist in today’s dating world, pointing out that because their gay son is dating men, he faces risks like intimate partner violence and sexual assault.
“We’re a little bit more protective of our daughters…[Some] men are awful. [Some] gay men are awful. If you have a gay son, you should be protective of him just as you would be of a straight daughter who was sexually active and dating,” says Savage.
Russell also stresses the importance of being familiar with gay sex and intimacy before engaging your teen in discussions about sexuality, and says to be prepared for questions about what constitutes sex and where limits lie.
“Straight teens bumble around with virginity as the line or limit, but they are often unsure about what it is that goes on between holding hands and breaking hymens,” Russell says. “It’s the same when you’ve got a little gay kid — you realize there are a range of things out there that they will experience that don’t even relate to the things they hear about sex from their straight friends.”
According to Russell, one of the most important things for parents of all teens — gay or straight — to remember is the importance of emphasizing to your child that they deserve to be treated with respect and that they should be respectful of others.
“I’m old fashioned. We’ve had those conversations where I say, ‘Oh, he won’t come up to the door? He won’t meet us before taking you out? I don’t like him.’ As my son gets older, he realizes now that the ones who were interested in meeting his parents or the ones who replied to his texts and returned his calls — there’s a correlation there.”
When parenting times do get tough, Savage cautions parents to hold their ground, regardless of their teen’s attempts to manipulate the situation.
“Whether it’s a dating relationship you don’t approve of, or it’s your kid saying, ‘You said you loved and accepted me for who I was, and now you’re not letting me enter a Mr. Leather contest in a dog collar when I’m 16 years old,’ your response should be, ‘This has nothing to do with your being gay, and everything to do with the fact that I’m your parent and I don’t approve of the choice you’re making,’” says Savage. “Love them by parenting them — that’s the key.”