Saturday, October 06, 2007

I Think My Son May Be Gay

Recently, I received a letter from a mother. She recalled finding some questionable (though largely innocent) Google searches in her home computer's history. She and her husband talked to each of their children, their son tearfully confessed that they were his. She and her husband begged him to come to them if he had such questions in the future. A little while later, she found a few more searches of a more graphic nature. She then spoke about other things in his life that led her to believe that he might be questioning his sexuality. She apologized profusely but asked what advice I might offer.

After struggling for a few days with what to say, I finally sat-down late one evening to write. Four hours, 2000 words, and a few prayers later, I was done. With her permission, I share the letter with you, hoping that others might benefit.

Good evening.

I must admit to being both flattered and utterly overwhelmed by your request. But I will tackle it as best I can... I do pray that there is value in my response, and that the Spirit improves upon it.

I apologize in advance for being pedantic — it's because I don't know anything about you or your family dynamic. I don't know whether you're a good mother (though I imagine you are) or whether your husband is a good father (though I imagine he is). I pray that both of you are kind, supportive, and loving parents... that you show your love, to borrow from the hymn, in both word and deed, and that your children know that they are loved and appreciate what a precious gift that is. I also apologize for stating the obvious... and for addressing issues of sex and sexuality in a frank manner.

So. Let's dig in...

Boys of all ages are curious creatures. They are curious about the world around them, and — perhaps more-so — about their own bodies in all their messy glory. Penises, farts, mouths, fingers, eyes, boogers — all are sources of endless wonder — much to the astonishment of dads (who often forget what being a boy is all about) and moms (who can barely handle their husbands' muted fascination with all things scatological). Your son, whom I'll call Forrest (one of my all-time favorite boy names), is probably no different... I would encourage you to leave room in your heart and mind for the very real chance that the online forays were nothing more than internet-enabled efforts to sate an insatiable curiosity.

That being said, the internet is not a wise place to go hunting for innocent information on sex or the body. There are just too many poisonous sites out there. And inasmuch as you will not likely curb his curiosity any time soon, I would strongly suggest purchasing filtering and notification software. I co-founded a software company that designed such software — but that was years ago, and I don't know what the state of the industry is these days. If you can, I would look for software that uses white lists, watch words, black lists, and human intelligence to filter. Use software that can send parents information of attempts at accessing blocked information by account holders — preferably with each user having their own private account. Finally, computer(s) should be in public areas in the home. No filter is perfect, and having bodies around when you're surfing is a good deterrent. Do the children have individual accounts on the computer? Barring the purchase of filtering software, I would encourage you at the very least to give each child their own account — so you can more accurately assess and address problems.

The fact that you found additional sites upon further inspection, and that these sites were of a decidedly more graphic nature, is not encouraging — but I remind you again that these additional sites may also be nothing more than (inappropriate) curiosity. I would also submit that the first set and the second set of traces may not be from the same individual.

So let's move-on, and — for the sake of discussion — let's assume that Forrest is responsible for all the questionable internet surfing. Let's also assume that he is, at the very least, questioning his own sexuality.

I don't envy him...

Humans are pack animals — it's in our genes — and we will go to great lengths to ensure that our packs are filled with fellows of a like mind. And children — who have yet to fully develop higher brain functions associated with logic and consequence appreciation — are very effective at singling-out the odd birds. Sometimes it's a cold shoulder... sometimes it's verbal... and sometimes it's physical. The primal urges that incite these reactions are the same ones that scream to us: don't stand out! don't be different! Forrest isn't being difficult — he's just doing what he thinks is essential to survive in the pack at school, the pack at church, and the one at home.

Only sweeping changes in social norms will effect change in the school pack... but you can effect change in the church and — to a much greater degree — home packs.

On the church front, I would — carefully, and hopefully under the influence of the Spirit — share with ward and auxiliary leaders that you have suspicions that a number of the children in your ward may be questioning their orientation. Refuse to give specifics, but suggest that making the ward as safe as possible for questioning youth to come to their leaders should be a high priority — because children need to be safe to speak about what's in their hearts and minds if parents and leaders are ever going to be effective in their callings as educators and exemplars.

At home, I would take certain steps to make certain that the language used — especially by yourself and your husband — reinforces a supportive environment. That means that "gay" can't be a slur or a synonym for "stupid" or "worthless"; it means that "faggot" or "fag" are never ever used. It also means avoiding pet names for human sexuality or the body — a practice that reinforces the idea that sexuality and our bodies are something to hate, shun, or fear. Fear stifles communication and distorts understanding; fear is the enemy of truth and light.

Forrest is likely to wonder whether he would be disowned or thrown out of the house if you perceived that he was gay. I would make certain through oblique and direct reference that he understands that he will always have a home with you and that you think parents who do such things are monsters — or, at the very least, horribly horribly misguided. This isn't as hard as you might think — our society is currently enthralled by all things gay, and commenting on stories you see in a way that conveys the message of unconditional love should be fairly straight-forward.

Forrest, I imagine, is pretty bright. He'll probably see right through your efforts.

And that's okay.

Kids get a kick out of parents being oblique, because it makes the children feel smart and insightful... and as long as your efforts are not hypocritical or seen as self-serving, you'll likely experience success.

Of course, it can't be all gay all the time, because that will wear both you and the children out... instead, this effort should be part of a new commitment to open communication in your family. I'm certain you can think of other issues that could use a little daylight — both positive and problematic.

So we've assumed that Forrest is questioning his orientation... now let's assume that he's confided in you.

What next?

He should know that you won't keep secrets from your spouse. If he tells you first, you should offer to tell his father.

Now this is where it becomes a little tricky: orientation is a complex creature, and because he's young, and because his self-perception is based on incomplete data, he should be given as much room as possible to be straight. If there is any chance that he can live as a healthy and honest straight man, that should be fostered. Fostered — but in a way that doesn't discount his eternal value based of his final orientation. With this in mind, there are the very real consequences in whom he choses to tell: the likelihood that most people — especially his peers — will differentiate between "I think I might be gay" and "I'm gay" is low. Which means that the reaction he will likely get will based on the latter, rather than the former. Depending on their upbringing, their maturity, and their personal experiences, those whom he tells will react differently — but all of their reactions will likely be towards Forrest as a gay youth. People unfriendly towards gays will be provoked and people friendly towards gays will be encouraging. Neither reaction is what you want, as neither reaction will give Forrest the space he needs to come to his own conclusions. To this end, Forrest should be encouraged to keep the matter to himself. How you do that, though, may make all the difference in how he perceives the request.

So you know and your husband knows. You should find out who else knows and prayerfully consider whom else to tell — with Forrest being the final arbiter on any further disclosure. Should your bishop know? Maybe. What about his scout master? Probably not. In the end, you want adults to know who are discrete and supportive of this enlightened version of the wait-and-see approach — but only if they bring real value to the table.

You should also make certain that your interactions with him don't change markedly. He's still the same boy he was a week ago. Balance this, of course, with his need for you to talk about it. Too many parents show that "it's no big deal" by never raising the subject again — which is sure to signal rejection to the child.

Children need to talk things through in order to understand them... and so do parents!

: )

Now that you know, it would be good to join — quietly, perhaps — a group of parents dealing with similar issues. In Utah, the Family Fellowship is the place to go. I know the founders... I also know the current leaders, Gary and Millie Watts, and they are an amazing couple. They, and the other parents in the group, will prove to be a wonderful resource for you and your husband. Here's their contact information:

When Forrest returns from his mission, you should revisit where he's at with his orientation. For the sake of further discussion, let's assume he has come to the conclusion that he's gay.

Ask when he plans on telling his siblings and extended family — and offer to help. Let him know that you hope he will carefully come to full disclosure. Disclosure is important, but needs to be done on his terms. There is no reason to force the issue, and he should know that you have his back completely on this. If there are potential problem areas that you can foresee, share these. Secrets canker the soul and destroy relationships... but the truth also has consequences — often unforeseen.

I think this is far enough for our scenario... I do hope, though, that should he choose to date, that you would include his dates in your family life as much as you would any of your other children's dates. Beyond that, well... let's cross that road when we get there. This e-mail is already very long.


Some miscellaneous advice:

His Relations with Other Boys — The boy/boy dynamic is hard enough between straight boys, but will be put to the test should Forrest start questioning his orientation. He should be taught to respect other boys' boundaries, but to otherwise not obsess about all the what-ifs... and he should be encouraged to develop a sense of humor to defray awkward situations. The locker room, sleep-overs, group dates, and the like will all pose interesting challenges. With some guidance from you and the Spirit, he'll likely come through all of these with a better understanding of people, a deeper appreciation of our differences, and a few funny stories.

Masturbation — Forrest likely masturbates. He also probably fantasizes about others when he does. He's certain to feel guilty about it, and will likely think that masturbation is a sign that he's gay. Since most boys masturbate, this doesn't make sense — but Forrest probably thinks that he's the only one that does it.

This is probably not a conversation you should have with Forrest. This is definitely dad's area. Might I suggest, though, that he treat masturbation and fantasizing as two different issues? Despite its sexual nature, I would encourage you to treat masturbation as a matter of self control, and not perversion. I've heard parents talk of masturbation like it was actually fornication (or worse) — and that doesn't do anyone any good.

On the fantasy front, I've found it helpful to talk through how fantasizing about people objectifies them — makes them less than children of God... And that fantasies, even though they are private, change the way we interact with people in real life.

This is also a good time to talk about wet dreams. Chances are high that he's having wet dreams — especially if he's not masturbating. The body has to dispose of the copious amounts of semen it creates, and wet dreams are one of the most efficient ways of doing it. Recent studies suggests that some wet dreams are after-the-fact — that men ejaculate before having the explanatory dream. This is useful for young men to know, to curb the desire to fantasize themselves into a wet dream and to salve the guilt associated with them. Of course, this isn't always the case, and young men should be reminded that dreams are largely out of their control — but that fantasy masquerading as dreams is still fantasy.

(Good heavens! This is heavy stuff...)

Sex — Forrest is a teenager, so the chance that he's having sex is real. Forrest needs to know that oral and anal sex (whether as the penetrator or as the penetrated ) pose a high risk of sexually transmitted disease. It's hard to say "don't have sex" and "get checked for STDs" in the same sentence... but it would be tragic if a stupid decision by a teenager had lasting and irreparable consequences. It would be especially tragic if they could have been avoided by a simple and inexpensive test. The Utah AIDS Foundation is a wonderful resource on the subject of STDs — but you should know that they are a sex-positive organization. They have to be to be effective.

Grief & Loss — Should you learn Forrest is gay, you will not only have to deal with that, but with the loss of the dreams you had for him. Should Forrest come to that point, he, too, will have to mourn the future he will not have. Each of you should be ready to deal with that loss and the attendant mourning. But mourning the death of a lost future doesn't have to mean resenting reality. This article on the classic "five stages of grief" may prove useful:

Alright... that's all for now. It's a lot longer than I had expected. I tried to be candid — I pray it's useful. I'm always, of course, available should either you or your husband have any questions.

God bless you in this journey.


MoHoHawaii said...

From where I sit, a parent's main message to a child questioning his or her sexuality should be:

- "Gay, straight or none-of-the-above, you have our unconditional love, support and respect."

- "We will talk to you about this as much or as little as you want. We promise to listen and not try to tell you what to do."

Listening is one of the most underappreciated parenting skills in LDS culture.

I hope your your correspondent connects with Family Fellowship. This is a great organization.

Devin said...


This is a great message, thoughtfully prepared. All parents would do well to read this and consider the implications in their relationships with their children. I've heard of many parents who simply never considered the possibility that a child is gay. Thanks for creating such a thoughtful resource for parents.


Greg Gibson said...

Well done, that's a lot of great advice. I wonder if you might also want to address the whole Mormon doctrine problem. I don't understand how a person can accept that God made them gay and yet believe that homosexual acts are a sin.

This mother will need to help her son understand he must never have sex with men if he wants to live with his family forever in the celestial kingdom.

Either that, or join a less cruel church like the Unitarians.

Luke said...

Silus great post. Good advice for those parents who face a very difficult challenge with their children. Not sure I agree with mohohawaii's "we promise to listen and not try to tell you what to do" advice. I feel parents should lovingly listen to their children and then lovingly advise, teach, and counsel them to the best of their ability in accordance to the spirit.

Jason said...

This is a very heavy issue. I think you tackled it with with great clarity and sensitivity. Unconditional love, along with tactful parenting skills seem to be the key. I might also add that chosing your battles very wisely as a parent is important--that is, not over/under-reacting, and not making a non-issue into a serious problem.

Good for you.

tweedlebug said...

I like the advice near the beginning of the post to give the child plenty of room and opportunity to be straight. Some people will argue that giving a young person the freedom to explore the full range of sexuality increases the likelihood that the young person will associate him/herself with the correct sexual orientation. I would caution against an approach of exploration for exploration's sake.

Even if a person experiences same-sex attraction at an early age, people construct an understanding of themselves as they mature. Applying labels of counter-normative sexuality to ourselves, or allowing others to apply labels to ourselves early on can be counterproductive, because it solidifies an outsider status, perhaps unnecessarily.

In the case of sexual orientation, I'd have to say that there are so many benefits to fitting the heterosexual paradigm, if only from a pragmatic standpoint of living in the world we live in. Membership in the LDS church compounds the difficulty of homosexuality.

Being a member of the church and having feelings of same sex attraction is a very difficult mix, that I think anyone who feels same-sex attraction struggles with. What it boils down to, in an LDS doctrinal sense, is that there is no provision for the continuation of homosexuality in the afterlife as we think of it here. If a person chooses to align his/her identity with sexual urges that don't fit the procreative family unit, that identity will need to be abandoned at some point, whether in this life or the next, at least if we're talking about the goal of reaching one's fullest spiritual potential.

So if there's a chance that the young person is just curiously exploring things, don't label it prematurely as homosexuality or even homosexual tendencies. Not yet anyway. I mean, if it continues, and there has been no change of course, I wouldn't encourage denial of the situation, because that's unhealthy for other reasons, but labels--especially stigmatizing labels--stick, and profoundly influence a person doing the formative years.


But through it all, no matter the outcome, don't be guided by fear. Don't let fear be the motivator for any of your actions. Don't be ashamed of your child. If God is loving, and I believe God is, there is a reason for everything, and a loving motivation behind it. Tap into that. It will provide the strength necessary to make it through the hard times, and to continue to love people even when they hurt us or disappoint us.

And leave plenty of room to feel that love yourself.

skytang said...

forgive the length of this comment.

This is an important topic that doesn't get addressed often enough or in the correct way. I have tried to address this subject in my scouting discussions (as scoutmaster) and it is difficult ground to trod.

Re: the well-written letter, I especially agree with Greg re: his compliments to you in your thoughtfulness, as well as the encouragement for families to seek to understand and teach doctrinal principles regarding this topic of relationships and sexuality.

I don't have as much experience with the parent-labeling-child "gay" issue. I am sure that would be one for much prayer and fasting, regarding when, how, and if. I do agree that parents should be exceptionally supportive and loving to each child, realizing that the topic of sexuality and gender is very central to God's plan, and like already mentioned, there will be a place in God's presence for all people who keep themselves worthy to stand in His presence. And that may mean celibacy in this life for people who are attracted to people of the same gender.

I believe people with these tendencies have a great opportunity to prove themselves to God and to themselves that they can be obedient children of Heavenly Father even with such a daunting and sometimes overwhelming trial.

Some of my advice may be as follows:
You may feel at times you are living in your own realm, not one of supportive gay people loving and giving themselves to other gay people, and not able to enter the realm of a family as a father and husband as God has set forth; but in a realm of people who are needing to make the most of the other avenues of life and forgo intimacy until the next life.

I feel that an eternal perspective is quintessential to overcoming this trial, knowing that God will help you in this life or the next to fulfill His plan of being an eternal companion with the opposite sex someday. In the meantime, be the best you can be. Try to develop yourself in every good way and serve the Lord and others, knowing you may feel very alone quite often. That's when family and friend support becomes more important to gay people trying to live worthily.

At the risk of being too simplistic, there are, in many people's minds, two parties... on the one side, people who accept gay people and feel that it is not wrong to act on such urges. The other being those who don't tolerate it and feel that it is a sin.
In God's true Church, I would hope we would form a third party, that of loving and accepting people with all of their trials and weaknesses as well as strengths and abilities while understanding that acting on the gay tendencies is wrong and can be repented of. Let us judge between good and evil, realizing that judging of people is God's business.

May the Lord be with all of those who struggle with this trial to be valiant and strong in their isolation. I feel that this may be one of the most difficult trials God asks His children to endure. There may be possibly-necessary isolation in this life in order for us to not be isolated from God in the next life. And be strengthened by the love God gives you and by the people who love and accept you.

Thanks for sharing your letter, Silus. Your concern for others is evident.