The phone call was a surprise. It took a few seconds to register the area code, and even then I wasn’t sure who it was. But I immediately recognized the voice on the other end.
“Wow, it’s been a long time,” I said. “What took you so long?”
It was Gwen,* a woman I worked with over 20 years ago – my office buddy and social conspirator. We always laughed at the same kind of jokes, complained about the same kind of corporate red tape, and agreed on almost every social issue. Except for one.
“I don’t hate the sinner,” she’d say. “I just hate the sin.”
Of course she was talking about homosexuality, and she was sure that being gay was a choice – a baffling one – that went against every tenet of her religion, everything she felt to be “right.” Our debates were always heated, usually ending with clenched jaws and a few days of silence. But that was so long ago.
“I need to talk to you,” she said. “Do you have some time?”
Once we both left our jobs, it didn’t take long to lose touch. But then, as is now a standard, we reconnected on Facebook. We regularly exchanged seasonal private messages, and peppered comments on each other’s posts with funny comebacks or thoughtful reflections. I periodically loitered among her digital photo albums, studying her wedding photos … and then her two children, who grew up over the years in snapshots and abbreviated sentences.
“I think Sarah is a lesbian,” she said. “Now what?”
She was talking about her 14-year-old daughter. And this is why I knew one day she would call me. Because I suspected as much.
Sarah is beautiful. Although to this day I’ve never met her, I know that she loves skateboarding, riding horses and climbing trees. I’ve seen the pictures of her learning to water ski, cuddling with a new puppy, and baking cookies with her younger brother.
She is almost always pictured in oversized gym shorts and graphic t-shirts, hair in a simple, unkempt pony tail … frequently standing out among her fashion-obsessed counterparts posing for selfies. None of these things point to sexuality by themselves, but there was just something about those pictures and the way she appeared that made me wonder.
“You’ve always been an advocate,” she said. “And I’ve always been so judgmental. I guess the joke’s on me.”
No parent wants to see their child go through a difficult time, or struggle any more than what an average childhood guarantees. But the truth is this: Gwen was scared. Not only because of this new revelation, but because she was staring smack-dab in the face at her own belief system – at her lifelong perspective on an entire group of people she had emphatically rejected.
But Gwen is not alone, and I’m so happy about it. Why? Because as marriage equality steadily becomes a reality, and the subject of sexual orientation loses its shock value, more and more of our gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered (GLBT) youth are coming out of that dark, nasty closet. Which means more parents are dealing with this issue openly. Which means it’s not as isolating as it used to be. For anyone. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
So I listened carefully. I didn’t lecture Gwen, as she probably assumed I would. I didn’t chide her, or preach about politics or religion. I assured her that everything was going to be okay. I encouraged her to just love Sarah, support her, and to know that the two of them would get through it together.
And then I couldn’t resist relaying some hard, cold facts. According to The Trevor Project, LGBT youth are four times more likely (and questioning youth are three times more likely) to attempt suicide as their straight peers. In addition:
- Suicide attempts by LGBT youth and questioning youth are 4-6 times more likely to result in injury, poisoning, or overdose that requires treatment from a doctor or physician, compared to straight peers.
- LGBT youth who come from highly rejecting families are 8.4 times as likely to have attempted suicide as LGBT peers who reported no or low levels of family rejection.
- Each episode of LGBT victimization, such as physical or verbal harassment or abuse, increases the likelihood of self-harming behavior by 2.5 times on average.
I also doled out a little tough love. I told Gwen she was going to have to put on her big-girl panties, educate herself, and be her child’s advocate in every way possible. And once we concluded our very long conversation, I emailed her the following list of resources and advice:
- Find your closest PFLAG chapter and surround yourself with other parents who understand you.
- Distance yourself from anyone who even remotely suggests that there is something wrong with your gay child. That includes friends, family, colleagues and organizations.
- If your church tries to “reform” or reject your daughter (or your family), search for another church. Almost every denomination or religion has gay-friendly communities – even if only online.
- Don’t be ashamed. There’s nothing wrong with you or your child. You just have to be open, research and learn, acknowledge your feelings, work through them, and love your child. The rest will take care of itself.
*Subject names have been changed by request for privacy protection
©2014 Michelle Freed