A new generation of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth are coming of age in a society increasingly tolerant and yet still deeply divided about homosexuality. On one hand, there is increased openness, media attention, and an older generation of openly gay and lesbian role models. On the other hand, there is an increased backlash in the form of religious fundamentalism, violence, and legal intervention designed to “protect” traditional marriages and families. Sexual minority or “queer” (a label many young people use to describe themselves) youth are coming out younger than ever before and many are coming out in middle school and high school, while still living at home. Coming out, in some cases, then, has become a family affair.
Some families have experience with sexual minority status, either because there is someone in the family who is not heterosexual or they have family friends who are sexual minorities. However, most youth who come out while living at home are in families who have not had direct experience with queer individuals. Family therapists, familiar with the trials and tribulations of sexual identity, and experts on how to help families deal with difficult issues, are perfectly situated to be helpful.
Hetero-sexism is the unacknowledged belief that heterosexual people are normal, while other groups of people are not normal. Homophobia is the fear of homosexual people, which usually expresses itself in negative views of them. It is practically impossible to be raised in a heterosexist, homophobic culture like ours and not be influenced by some of the negative messages that swirl around on a daily basis about sexual minority people.
When an adolescent is different, it may create a family crisis. If the crisis leads to such distance from parents that they are no longer available to help the child develop, the family is not providing the necessary ingredients for development, and problems erupt. While difference is difficult, it is particularly difficult for sexual minority kids who sometimes feel as if they are growing up in enemy territory. Sexual minority youth often grow up loved but unknown. In many minority populations the older generation serve as models for the younger generation about how to live in an environment that oppresses them. However, most sexual minority youth grow up in families with heterosexual parents who may not understand the oppression, and who even may be a part of this oppression. Family therapy can help create a context in which open dialogue can occur so that the family is able to get back on track and nurture its youth.
Sexual minority youth, like all youth, follow their own paths toward self-discovery, but they face special challenges. Youth who know they are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, have a sense of their difference for a while before they tell anyone. There is about a two-year period for most youth when they self-identify as non-heterosexual but keep this information to themselves. Remember, youth assume, like everyone else, that they are heterosexual. To have the knowledge that they are different, they must hold conflicting ideas in their head at the same time. “I am normal and I have feelings that are abnormal and wrong, so the feelings must be wrong or I don’t really have these feelings.” When youth do come out to others, it is usually to a trusted friend, and rarely to a parent first. The process of coming out and wiping away the last vestiges of internalized homophobia takes years, and sometimes, a lifetime.
Youth who are openly struggling with the probability that they are not heterosexual can frighten parents. Most heterosexual parents assume their children will be heterosexual. When dreaming about the lives their children will lead, a same-sex partner is not part of the picture. Entertaining the idea creates fear and anxiety. Parents are afraid for a range of reasons. Most worry about the rejection their children will face and fear for their children’s safety. They have heard hateful comments all their lives about homosexuals and know their child will be punished. Life is more difficult if you are not part of the mainstream, and some parents believe that homosexual behavior is sinful. Some recognize that their child’s exploration poses difficult questions, which challenge all they think they know about gender, sexuality, and identity. They question their own parenting and wonder where they went wrong. The belief that they have control over their children’s sexual identity may mislead parents to discourage atypical gender behavior so their child will turn out straight. Some may believe that once they relinquish control over something so basic as gender and sexual orientation, any control over the child becomes an illusion.
Families should seek help any time their adolescent withdraws from them more than is comfortable. Many sexual minority youth hide because it is difficult to reconcile the person they feel developing inside them with the person they are expected to be by everyone else. When youth come out to their families, they risk a great deal. Adolescents are dependent on their families for physical and emotional support. If they misjudge their parents, they have a great deal to lose. They may feel they can be themselves and risk rejection, or live a lie. Sexual minority youth, unlike members of other minority groups, cannot, and do not, expect their families to accept or tolerate their identity, much less help them nurture it and protect themselves.
Families should also seek help when their adolescent is acting out in dangerous ways. Most sexual minority youth have been ridiculed or experience verbal and physical threats of violence by their peers because they do not fit in. Those most likely to be abused are those who do not fit gender role stereotypes or those who live in communities that are openly homophobic. Many youth are verbally and physically attacked by family members who unwittingly denigrate their children for not living up to hetero-sexist expectations. Some of these youth act out during adolescence because they do not have the resources to manage their pain.
Family therapists who are knowledgeable about sexual minority youth will work towards creating a safe refuge for youth and their families. They will help family members evaluate the negative messages they receive from the culture about minority sexuality, teach families the facts, and work towards family members deciding themselves that which they believe. Family therapists will help family members talk with one another about their different beliefs in a way that encourages difficult, yet important dialogue. Family therapists will help families get back on track towards nurturing their adolescent’s growth and development, and they will help members see that the uniqueness of each child is a gift and a blessing.
Text written by Linda Stone Fish, PhD and Rebecca G. Harvey, MA.
Information via accrediting organization American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.