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Thoughts on a Father's Coming Out to His Children

Amity Pierce Buxton, Ph.D.

(At the time of this article Amity Pierce Buxton served as chair of the Straight Spouse Network, and is an educator, researcher, and author. Since 1986, she has conducted research on the impact of a gay spouse's coming out on the heterosexual spouse and their children. Her findings were reported in "The Other Side of the Closet: The Coming-Out Crisis for Straight Spouses and Families", published in 1994. She was formerly married to a gay man, and they have two adult children. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area.)

How and when does a father come out to his child or children? The answer depends so much on the particular father, his children, and their heterosexual mother -- not to mention in-laws, playmates, neighbors, classmates, church or temple congregation, and community. No one answer fits all dads or all children. However, some general thoughts from my research, including interviews with children, might help a gay father decide the best way to come out to his children.

From the children's point of view, the task which challenges them most is simply growing up. To cope with each stage of development, they need and want a supportive and stable family environment in which to grow physically, cognitively, psychologically, morally, and socially. They want to know their parents love them and care enough to spend time with them, to let them explore the world around them as well as set limits, and to be there when they get hurt or fail to meet expectations. When things get rough "out there", they want to be able to "come home" to their safety net. Finding out this new information about their father shakes up their picture of the family and adds another challenge with which to cope alongside those of growing up.

Prior to telling his children, a husband's disclosure to his wife has already changed the family constellation in a small or large way, no matter how loving and close the couple are. Whether the wife quietly tries to understand her husband's new identity or erupts in anger, some degree of tension reverberates in the household. Children, closely tuned into the family ethos, often become aware that something is different even before they are told.

The question then is when to come out to them and how. The bottom line is to tell the children with love with a goal of helping them understand, more than of fulfilling the father's need to tell. A relaxed, intimate atmosphere, freed of household chores, perhaps in a setting away from the house, helps create the kind of intimate framework that will best convey a loving and caring meaning of the disclosure. A simple introduction and then a statement with room for reactions and reflection are really all that is needed. Some fathers tell the children separately or all of them at once -- with or without their wives -- in person or in a letter followed up by a face-to-face conversation. Telephone calls have not proved to be effective.

Looking back, children say the sooner they are told the better, or they feel they were not trusted to handle the truth. A rule of thumb that seems to work is to wait until both parents are comfortable enough with the gayness to be able to support their children as they process the disclosure. If the couple plans to separate, it is not helpful to come out at the same time. The break- up poses a worse crisis for the children than the coming out, though both events are upsetting. Coming out some time before or after the divorce will also help the children understand a reason for the break-up other than their being its cause. Despite planned timing, some children, having observed changes in the father's appearance or social activities, precipitate the disclosure. Seeing the father's new partner may also lead to direct questioning. No matter when the father tells the children, the mother's explicit respect of his perspective makes it easier for children to accept the disclosure.

Each age brings its particular reactions and expressed needs. Young children, not knowing much about sexuality much less homosexuality, take the announcement as a matter of fact, as long as they are assured that both parents continue to love them and will be there for them. Older, school-age children may fear taunts from classmates. Teenagers, who do not want to appear different from peers and whose own sexuality is emerging, have the hardest time accepting the news. They face many of the same challenges their gay father faced in his coming out: identity, integrity, sexuality, and life plan. Even children who were told when they were young have to process the information all over again when they become adolescents. Some wonder if they might be gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Others wonder if they, too, might marry someone who will turn out to be gay. Adult children tend to make moral judgments, and some feel angry at the impact on their mother.

No matter at what age children are told, the telling is only the first step. It helps when parents have factual information about homosexuality and resources available as they ask further questions in keeping with their age and stage of development. For instance, teenagers may want to know other teens with gay or lesbian parents, and you can refer them to COLAGE, Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere.

The children's first reactions, whether explosive or quiet, generally change over time. Youngsters who are angry at first, eventually figure out that the coming out did not change their father. Others take the news quietly and then leave the room to cry in their own rooms. Some fathers report that their children had no problem with the coming out, based on their not saying anything negative at the time. Apparent acceptance, however, does not mean they have no concerns. Their prior picture of gender, of marriage, of their dad, now needs adjusting. Like any change, this unexpected event is unsettling. As they sort out the incongruity of their father's being gay, questions keep coming. Hopefully, the children feel free to ask them. Some do not, fearing that any expressed negativity will alienate their father.

What are some of these concerns? Some children say they are embarrassed by any changes in their gay parent's appearance, dress, or interactions with gay friends or a partner. Many fear their father will be infected by the AIDS virus. Most feel hurt by anti-gay attitudes expressed by friends, neighbors, classmates, or church and temple congregations -- and rejected by teasing about having a gay dad.

When children are encouraged to talk about such worries, the hurtful events become a source of learning as the gay father and straight mother explain that name-calling stems from ignorance. Parents can also give children tools to handle future problems. For example, if a child were ridiculed at school for having a gay dad, they can suggest retorts such as, "Hey, you're talking about my dad," or "He's still the same old dad, you know".

Keeping children's possible reactions in mind, a gay father can come out to his children with honesty and love, confident that they will at some point accept him in his new identity. This means assuring the children that his relationship with them will not change, that he and their mother both love them, that they will lose neither parent because of this, and that both parents are there to answer questions and help them deal with whatever concerns come up.

Some children take months to accept the disclosure. If for example, the father leaves the household to live alone or with a partner, one or more children may be reluctant to visit him. Advice offered by many fathers includes: Give the children time. Let them ask all the questions they want. Introduce them to changes in your life slowly, one by one. Avoid putting them in situations beyond the sensitivity level of a particular child or the general maturity limitations of this or that age group. Listen to their anger, tears, and accusations without putting up walls to defend yourself. Wipe their tears and cry with them. Show you understand their anger. Explain with confidence your new identity; don't argue.

Coming out requires time, patience, and love. Most children take the news in their stride, if allowed to come to terms with it on their own terms. Being a good parent doesn't stop with coming out. In some cases, the communication initiated by the coming out improves the parent-child bond. Throughout the process, their love for their father remains very much alive, even if not shown. Coming out to them gently and honestly gains their respect.

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