Much of the research and discussion to date on coming out has focused on the experience of the gay child (the adolescent or young adult), which is obviously important. As a field, we have learned a lot about the experiences of those who disclose their same-sex sexuality, and yet we have so much more to learn.
At the same time, we see fewer studies of parental reactions, and fewer studies still of Christian parents. Since we work with a lot of Christian parents, the idea of interviewing them and hearing their stories was compelling. A few years ago, a former ISSI research team member took this on as her dissertation. That study has since been published (Maslowe & Yarhouse, 2015).
Maslowe and Yarhouse (2015) offered a tentative model of post-disclosure that emerged from the interviews conducted with Christian parents: (1) Initial awareness and worldview response; (2) Navigation period–help-seeking; (3) Navigation period–maintaining relationship with child; and (4) Acceptance of reality.
Initial awareness and worldview response. The first issue deals with first becoming aware and responding to the disclosure of same-sex sexuality. Responses to disclosure or discovery of a gay identity were frequently tied to conventionally religious morals, values, and beliefs that were seen as incompatible with a gay identity. Parents here reported ambiguous loss, negative emotions (e.g., shock, anger, concern, fear, shame), and strained relationships with their child.
One parent shared her initial response. We won’t offer an extended quote here, but suffice it to say she spoke of her daughter making this choice (“that kind of choice”–”why would she want to be like that?”), which suggests the view that this pattern of attraction is volitional. This automatically sets the parent and child against one another, because the child knows he or she did not choose to experience same-sex attractions. The assumption that this is just a poor choice has them speaking past one another. We wish that were a rare report, but it isn’t in our experience.
Navigation period–help-seeking. The next response entails gaining information from multiple sources. In this study it was often from counselors, the church, pastors, ministries, and so on. In terms of meaning-making, parents reported turning to and trusting God, finding support from family/community, and spending time in prayer and in Scripture. Marital conflict was not uncommon, and many parents reported a kind of shame as they tried to relate to and share with people in their local faith community.
One parent shared how hard it was to find information, resources, and support. “We couldn’t find anyone” is a typical response, as is the decision not to take this disclosure to the local church. The common assumption and experience is that the local church is not “safe” in terms of gossip, making it all the more difficult, as parents often sort through painful and confusing emotions in isolation.
Navigation period–maintaining relationship with child. At the same time as parents are seeking help, they are also trying to maintain a relationship with their son or daughter. There were strained relationships, to be sure, but also a commitment to maintaining some contact, arranging ways to see their son or daughter, and so on. This commitment was typically a reflection of love.
One mother who eventually moved toward what she saw as a good, healthy relationship with her son, recounted her “gay breaking point” at an earlier stage: it was when her son wanted to get a pedicure with her. It sent her spinning. Our initial response to that language was that it was kind of off-putting or even offensive, but as we thought about it, we got what she was saying, at least we think we got it. We actually see her gay breaking point as tied in important ways to acceptance of reality, to coming to terms with the reality of having a son or daughter who is gay. Sometimes parents move from a fantasy that this whole thing will work itself out or dissipate or resolve or whatever… perhaps the breaking point tells them there is something real here, something that they have to deal with seriously and in a meaningful way.
Acceptance of reality. This involves really coming to terms with a gay son or daughter in the sense of how the relationship with that child has changed. It could still involve negotiating boundaries, but it also often entails changing expectations. What is often reflected here is a greater respect for one another and one’s decisions.
Maslowe, K. E., & Yarhouse, M. A. (2015). Christian parental reactions when a LGB child comes out. American Journal of Family Therapy, 43 (4), pp. 1-12.