The summer of his 13th year, Ian Miles reached the end of his rope. All the years of silence, secrets and denial came crashing down on him. He sat alone in the blackness of the bathroom, his head shrouded by a towel as he tried to keep his family, his world, at bay outside the locked door.
His tears released an eternity of pent-up fear and doubt. But little did Ian realize that this very act of hiding would serve to free him and erase the invisible line that had separated him from family and friends for as long as he could remember. He unlocked the door and let them in. There would be no more hushed conversations for him to overhear. Through the tears he told them what they had guessed for years. At last, Ian came out—out of the darkness and into the light.
“I always knew I was different,” says Ian, a 16-year-old sophomore at McClintock High School in Tempe. He felt this difference as early as third grade, an age of confusion and ignorance about the subject of sexuality. But as he got older and saw the gap widen between him and his peers, Ian realized he was gay. He lived with the daily taunts and isolation at school, along with the frustration of living a lie at home.
Through it all, he felt that “all my problems would be solved by coming out.” Perhaps that was just the idealism of youth. But when he did come out, Ian began enjoying life for the first time he could remember. He felt empowered. It was “easier to accept myself.” Communicating with family and friends was less stressful. He felt more comfortable in public.
Millions of children live lives of quiet desperation, just like Ian used to do. They are part of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) population that has long been ignored and neglected by a society still struggling to accept something that has existed throughout history and which growing scientific evidence indicates cannot be chosen or changed: homosexuality.
Absorbing the news
What if you have long suspected your child is gay (the term is commonly used for both males and females) or your son or daughter just hit you with a ton of bricks by coming out? The range of feelings is broad—shock, fear, anger—but these are normal emotions when we are confronted with things we don’t understand or, at least initially, don’t wish to accept.
All parents hold images of what their children could be. We dream of successes awaiting them in college, careers, marriage and family. News of this magnitude often gives way to denial (“It’s just a phase he/she will get over”), rejection (“I don’t want to hear about this”) or even guilt (“What did I do wrong to cause this?”). The truth is your child is still the same person you knew and loved right up to the very moment he or she came to you with this revelation.
When Mike Crum of Gilbert finally came out to his mother in 1996 at the age of 33, he was surprised at her ready acceptance. Having experienced intense discrimination as a child for, of all things, her left-handedness, she understood the challenges her son faced and was determined to support him. His younger sister also was unfazed by the news. (An older sister did not see things the same way. She has not spoken to him since.)
While trying to figure out how to come out to his own family, he started attending meetings at the local chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) to learn from other parents how their children had come out to them.
Founded in 1973 by concerned parents, PFLAG “provides the opportunity for dialogue about sexual orientation and gender identity, and acts to create a society that is healthy and respectful of human diversity,” according to the organization’s mission statement. PFLAG serves as an advocate and safe haven for those trying to understand and cope with the diverse sexual orientations and gender identities of those close to them. The organization has more than 200,000 members and supporters in 500-plus chapters throughout the U.S. and abroad.
“My attendance (at the meetings) became important to other parents. They could ask me questions they couldn’t ask their own children. Getting more involved with PFLAG then became a calling for me,” says Crum, who served as chapter president at one point and is now its communications coordinator and webmaster. “Too often, when children come out of the closet, parents go into the closet. At PFLAG, parents can find comfort, acceptance, love and support. They find a kindred spirit with those who have already been through what they’re just starting.”
Once the doors of communication open, parents can find a new level of closeness with their children and relationships can blossom in new ways, says Crum. What might have begun as a struggle leads to acceptance and a “celebration of who we are.”
Ten years ago, Crum says, the average coming-out age was in the mid-20s. Today it is 13. “It’s such a shame to waste all the years of confusion, hiding and denying. Kids today have a better chance to skip all that.”
Ian’s mother, Michele Dean, also knew—as early as his second year—that her middle son was not like many of the boys his age. But as Ian grew, she avoided confronting the issue. “I didn’t ask because I was hoping in my heart that I was wrong,” she says. But when Dean saw the weight of the world lift from Ian’s shoulders after he came out to his family, “it made me go back and re-look at my beliefs—but not necessarily change them. I’ve become more tolerant of not just gay issues, but many things. There’s no black and white. I’ve always told my kids you have to live for yourself.”
She believes her son’s homosexuality is genetic—“you can’t change your brain”—and admits that her own father had two gay siblings who were disowned by the family.
Dean found many allies and a comforting resource at PFLAG (“better than any book I could have read”) and close friends have been supportive. Still, her heart ached when she learned of the harassment and hardships Ian often faced at school. Though Ian finds high school peers are more mature, more accepting of and more comfortable with LGBT students, he says it’s not always easy to meet and hang out with “more people like me.”
Dean knows there are many challenges ahead for her son, with whom she is very close. She sees living with Ian’s gayness as a gradual, step-by-step process. Joking and humor help to normalize the situation. Everyone in the house has lightened up and they treat Ian like any other member of the family.
Support for LGBT teens
Adolescence is an age of uncertainty, with children moving through different stages of mental and physical development, some basic and obvious, others complicated and confusing. It is a time when kids try on different personas as individuals and as peers. They pass through phases, including questions of gender and where they fit in.
It’s not always easy for parents to stand on the sidelines and fret through the transformations. But when a child confides in them with a statement or doubt about their sexuality, passing it off as a phase presents certain risks. Feelings of isolation are not uncommon for LGBT youth who have nowhere to turn. Disturbing statistics include higher suicide and dropout rates than heterosexual youth, parental rejection, homelessness (almost half of homeless young people are LGBT), harassment and substance abuse.
There is a safe, supportive place where LGBT youth ages 14 to 22 can go to simply hang out and be themselves. The non-profit organization one n ten has been serving the LGBT youth community since 1993, with a goal of “fostering a positive self-image and striving to provide health, educational, social and cultural programming” through weekly drop-in activities, according to the one n ten brochure “What We Do.” The name “one n ten” refers to the claim that one in 10 people identify themselves as LGBT or Q—“questioning.”
In the face of rejection at home, school and the world in general, these kids have learned to be resilient, says A. Beck — “Beck” to all who know her — one n ten’s director since January 2006.
“They want to be acknowledged as positive contributors to the community, and not just the gay community,” says Beck. “It might seem easier [to be LGBT] in today’s society, but for a kid to come out and say they’re gay they risk living under a label.”
Beck finds that, peer-to-peer, kids can typically resolve their own conflicts, but “they don’t know what to do when adults judge and bully or won’t support them. They want boundaries and to be acknowledged as positive people. At one n ten we work hard to make sure we’re doing what we can to make youth feel good about themselves while they talk with their families.”
With an extensive background in theater, Beck has used her boundless energy and creativity to engage the kids and boost their confidence. Members of QSpeak Theatre write, direct, design and perform original plays. Youth leadership councils in Phoenix and Tempe develop fun programs and any one n ten member can join H.E.R.O.E.S. (Helping to Educate about Responsibility to Others by Engaging in Society) and earn awards of up to $500 for volunteer work or community service. A one n ten parent council works closely with PFLAG.
Beck is very popular with the kids, who see her as an advocate and friend as they work to earn tolerance and respect in the world. She imparts the wisdom of someone who has seen too many kids struggle: “It’s never just one thing with teenagers. Their sexuality is not the only issue. These kids are just like any other teenager but they’re experiencing a different chain reaction in their lives and they need a safe spot to talk about it. If you’re not comfortable with your child, send them to us. We have lots of positive adult role models to help them out.”
Beck reminds parents that acceptance is a process for them as much as it is for their kids and that it will keep the family stronger if parents understand they’re not alone as they seek support. One n ten offers a lounge with books and pamphlets in a back room where parents can hang out and talk while their kids attend meetings. One dad who has been bringing his daughter to one n ten since 2006 says the fact that she is lesbian is not even a topic of conversation: “It’s the teenage issues I have to deal with, like every other parent.” Still, he feels anything he can do to educate people against prejudice is well worth his time.
Kaleena Newman, a 16-year-old junior at Arcadia High School in Phoenix, echoes Ian’s story: “I always felt different.” The oldest of three children, Kaleena always wanted to be just like her brother, “a person I could connect with.” As she grew up, she felt out of place among her female peers but could never quite figure out why. At age 10, when she finally decided she could no longer keep her feelings locked up inside, she wrote her parents a letter—“a long letter about nothing”—until she ended it with “P.S. I think I’m gay.”
After sliding the letter under her parents’ bedroom door late at night, Kaleena went back to her room, scared and alone, and cried. She didn’t want to be gay; everything she had read about LGBT kids had been negative. She knew many of them fell into depression or escaped through drugs. There were no positive role models for young gays.
But Kaleena’s courage did not result in anger or rejection. Her parents thought her disclosure might be a stage, but they were not dismissive. Their first concern was for her physical and mental safety at school.
They sought guidance at PFLAG. Kaleena’s mom, Kathleen, found solace in the book Always My Child: A Parent’s Guide to Understanding Your Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender or Questioning Son or Daughter, by Kevin Jennings. (She recommends parents in her situation read only the most current literature; older sources are both outdated and more negative in their outlook.) She found an ally in a teacher, herself a lesbian, who watched out for Kaleena and advised Newman if she saw trouble brewing.
Eventually the line blurred between which family members and friends knew and which didn’t. By the time Kaleena left middle school, she was ready to come out. She wanted to start high school without secrets or lies. “My confidence came from my parents’ love and support,” she says.
As a freshman, Kaleena helped co-found a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) club at Arcadia and is co-president this year. She has not experienced isolation or harassment at school. “I have lots of friends—gay and straight—who would stand up for me,” she says. She loves theater (she is assistant stage manager for the Black Theatre Troupe), which is a great outlet for her energy and puts her in a group of people who readily accept “who you are, gay or straight,” Kaleena says. “Everyone thinks they’re alone when they come out. It’s been a positive experience for me—I’m glad I did it.”
Kaleena and Ian, along with their LGBT and straight peers who don’t fit the conventional molds imposed by societal bias, can thank national education organizations like the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN, pronounced “glisten”) for concerted efforts to preserve their rights as individuals at school.
School can be a place of great anxiety and fear for kids who stand out as “different” and the source is not always peers. Teachers and administrators also can contribute to a culture of intolerance if they look away from harassment or exclude, in subtle or overt ways, their LGBT students.
With more than 40 chapters around the country, including one in Phoenix and one in Tucson, GLSEN “works to ensure safe schools for all students, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity/expression,” according to its website, with the greater vision of a world in which children learn to respect and accept all people. GLSEN volunteers work with education leaders, teachers and policy makers to address anti-LBGT bias in our schools, where bullying and harassment of LBGT and straight students are daily occurrences. GLSEN also strives to develop and enforce effective safe schools laws and policies.
“There is nothing worse than being afraid at school and directing so much energy to hiding within an unfriendly environment,” says Matthew Weil, co-chair of GLSEN Phoenix.
Weil says GLSEN takes a practical approach in working with administration and faculty to build a foundation of acceptance and tolerance, helping kids grow up in schools that appreciate them. Training sessions in the 2006-2007 fiscal year reached more than 500 people from organizations like Mesa Public Schools, Phoenix Union High School District, the Arizona School Counselor Association and the Phoenix Public Library. Weil is seeing gradual but steady progress as many parties work together through a practical approach. “GLSEN understands there are lots of different viewpoints,” he says.
Loving our children requires guidance at many different levels as they grow through the complexities of each rung on the developmental ladder. The process involves discipline, patience and understanding and is not without times of parental head scratching and frustration. Confronting the issues that face LGBT kids takes courage and honesty, along with a sincere, collaborative effort to grasp concepts that may seem foreign, or even objectionable, to us.
As we strive to become more knowledgeable and accepting of the differences among us, we enable our children to learn by example. From the teen perspective, Ian offers his simple truth: “If you really love your child, you will accept them no matter who they are.” From a mother’s heart comes this belief: “Being gay is just one small part of who Kaleena is. This doesn’t change her goals. She’s going to be fine. She’s going to have a great life.”
Heterosexual — (straight) men and women are attracted to people of the opposite sex.
Gay — men are attracted to men. The term also is used for women who are attracted to women.
Lesbian — women are attracted to women.
Bisexual — people are attracted to both men and women.
Transgender — people can have any sexual orientation. They can be straight, gay, lesbian or bisexual. But they tend to identify their sexuality based on the gender they feel like inside, not the gender they were born looking like.
— Education, Training, Resources (ETR) Associates (etr.org), a leading publisher of patient education, health promotion and health education pamphlets and other materials
What makes a person gay?
While conflicting theories abound on the cause of sexual orientation, growing scientific evidence suggests a complex combination and interaction of multiple factors—environmental, cognitive and biological, including genetic and hormonal activity in the womb.
According to the American Psychological Association, homosexuality is no longer considered a mental disorder or the result of casual choice and should not be addressed as a condition to be treated or cured. While there is no accurate scientific measurement of what percentage of the population is born gay (primarily due to the lack of full disclosure; i.e. people who are not “out of the closet,” as well as how homosexuality is defined), numbers range anywhere from two to 10 percent.
—Mary Ann Bashaw