For many years, everyone close to Shannon McElroy knew that she was a lesbian — except maybe her parents. It was only after McElroy married very quietly last January that she decided to tell her parents, who are religious. "A lot of it was fear about how they would react and if they would fully accept me," says McElroy, 36, a program manager at a York, Pa., community health center. "But they were great, saying, 'We know.' They welcomed my wife into the family."
Even with social changes such as the Marriage Equality Act and greater acceptance of gay rights, coming out is still a traumatic event for some people, says McElroy, who works with gay youths at the health center. A Pew survey found that about 40 percent of LGBT adults were rejected by a family member or close friend because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Another Pew study found that almost 60 percent of parents would not be upset if their child came out. Still, parents are often the last to learn the sexual orientation of LGBT children.
"Parents are the hardest to tell because children are afraid of disappointing them or adding stress to their lives or upsetting expectations," says Jean Hodges, president of PFLAG, a support organization for parents with 400 chapters nationwide.
But many gay advocates suggest that even if parents are accepting, they should never ask point-blank about sexual orientation. That's what triggered Kristin Russo's announcement that she was bisexual at a Thanksgiving dinner. In college at the time, she "couldn't stand the questions anymore" from her mother about her dating life. What followed was a decade of strained relations between Russo and her mom. It was only when her mother started meeting Russo's girlfriends that she began fully accepting her daughter's identity.
Based on their experiences, Russo and Dannielle Owens-Reid in 2010 started a support organization for young adults called Everyone Is Gay. Finding that parents are often confused, the pair authored This Is a Book for Parents of Gay Kids and created an "e-care package" for parents complete with answers to common questions, links to resources, journaling pages and a playlist. Russo, 35, spoke with us from her home in Pasadena, Calif., and offered some advice.
- Reaction. Be supportive. "I love you, and I am here for you" is what your child needs to hear when announcing they are gay, Russo says. "You can also be honest and say, 'I don't agree with everything you are doing, but I love you.'"
- Education. In a culture that uses terms like "gender identity" and "sexual orientation," parents understandably have endless questions. Don't expect your child to answer them all. Books, videos, articles and support groups can help provide answers.
- Whom to tell. Before announcing to family and friends, discuss a strategy with your child first. "Come up with a flow chart of sorts about whom to tell and when."
- What to say to people who ask. "One great answer is 'I love my kid and am working on learning more.'"
- Get to know your child's friends. "The biggest thing that helped my mother was allowing herself to meet the people in my life.... When she met my partners it helped her see them as people who love her daughter."
- Take time to process the new information. Decompression and self-care are important for parents. That's why the e-care kit includes coloring pages, a journal and a playlist of songs celebrating change and acceptance.
Russo's mother, Rose, 65, of Long Island, N.Y., made an online video of her own journey to accepting her daughter's life choices. Her advice: "You have to be there for your child no matter what. Don't wait for something to happen in their life or your life to come together."
Mary W. Quigley, a journalist and author, has written two books about motherhood and work. An NYU journalism professor, she is the mother of three adult children and blogs at http://Mothering21.com.