It’s the Little Things Part 2: In Pursuit of Imperfection

The last post showed how small changes in language could be powerful signals that help open conversations, and listening for the question behind the question can help you get to the answer your kid really needs. But how do we get over our fear of sputtering to a confused stop, of making a mess in a sensitive situation? My current and recent teen interviews revealed that parental willingness to show discomfort, surprise, and a lack of knowledge actually turn out to be seeds of strength to help their kids.

 “One beautiful thing about my son is that through all these questions of mine he just kept bringing me information, articles and websites. So I would advise any parent, always be open to learning more because it is amazing what you can learn from your children.” -MS

Seeing the parents “behind the curtain,” like the struggling Wizard of Oz, is fine as long as what they see is that you are indeed trying, or even thinking about trying.

“It’s universal that kids will complain about how their parents reacted [to coming out news], but that’s ok. Don’t feel shame or guilt over your first reaction. Deal with it honestly, and then just be supportive.” – AR

“It took me 4 years between realizing that I was queer and coming out. I don’t think it will take my parents quite that long. It’s been 2 years and they may still not be fully there, but it’s ok.” -AA

“I wanted my parents to at least acknowledge that they might move from where they were to a different place, but they wouldn’t, at first. We had terrible fights. -IK

Awkward efforts may be especially valued.

“I was touched after I first came out that my parents obsessed over recommending movies with gay characters in them even if they were really bad movies. I didn’t want to watch them, or finish them if we had started, but I knew they were trying.” -EL

 “It’s kind of awkward when my boyfriend comes over. [My dad] doesn’t know how to talk to him. [Not the same as when his older sister brought home her first boyfriend.] It’s weird because he doesn’t know if he should be all guy-to-guy with him, like ‘Hey, what’s up,’ or what. I can understand how he feels because even I think it’s weird that I should have a boyfriend sometimes.” – TA

With respect to our words, is it better to wait or jump in bravely?

“Parents are always growing emotionally too. With that comes better impulse control. Parents would do well to try to sit on their own feelings and rage and just listen.” – LB

“The first time we met the boyfriend, I could tell my son was really uptight. I don’t really interrogate the boyfriends of either my daughter or my son, and I could tell when I shook his hand that he was very bright and personable. But I knew they both were nervous. I empathized! I knew my job was to try to make the boyfriend more comfortable, or at least less uncomfortable.” – MA

In too many situations, the perfect zinger to defend our kids or call someone out on bad behavior will always occur to us too late. But my sources provide a couple of possible aces for your sleeve:

“In answer to, ‘Do you have a girlfriend?’ my mom jumped in and said proudly, ‘He has the most wonderful boyfriend.’ “ -PO

[In response to “She’s a dyke” or similar in an insulting tone] “”You can say, ‘So maybe she’s a lesbian but you don’t have to point that out now, or use that word.’ -SB

Some of my sources felt there was a practical benefit of parental stumbling around their kids’ gender or orientation.

“Sometimes parents’ less-than-full acceptance or slowness in coming to acceptance can actually help prepare kids for the outside world. It’s a kind of tough love.” – LB

“You don’t want to teach your child that the world is an evil place, but there are definitely people out there who will call him names or be mean, and you have to prepare a kid for that somehow.” – SH

 We don’t sugar-coat messages to our kids about the world’s expectations regarding punctuality, dress codes, job interview etiquette, the importance of human spell-checking, etc. In a closer parallel, as our kids start moving around independently, we teach them street-wise behavior to make them less-likely crime targets. But conformity to majority expectations or safe practices in these matters rarely threaten teens’ developing sense of self (despite what they may say about the stifling oppression of dress codes).

Gender and orientation, on the other hand, are central to identity. And even young kids see that heterosexual and cis-gendered are “normal” and anything else is outside the majority, even if they have not directly seen and understood homophobia. So this calls for more nuance in the “real world” prep lessons from parents.

“As parents, we have fears, but if we ask for help we can reduce the problems our kids face…. He knew I was confused but he also knew I was there for him no matter what. I think feeling your 100% support is very important for them, and then they become your support too.” -MS

“For parents who want their kids not to have such a hard life, if they know they have their parents full support it eliminates the hardest problem they’ll ever face.” -BK

 “It’s how they show the worry that matters. If you assume the world is all homophobic, you want the kid to hide it, but the message that you shouldn’t have to hide it is much better.” -KP

“It’s important to acknowledge that a lot of parents have grief, even if they are progressive. You had a dream of your kid’s life, and now it won’t be like that. My mom was completely worried that I’d be lonely and sad. She went to a PFLAG meeting [see also Keshet Parent and Family Connection], met other parents and found out that this wasn’t going to be the case. Then she became an activist.” -AR

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How Does Attitude Change Happen?

A tidal wave of acceptance rolls, as same-sex marriage becomes possible in more states, and more highly visible figures (professional sports players, politicians, actors etc.) come out or are out as they rise to success. But this acceptance is far from universal, as seen in the recent legal ruling in Louisiana upholding its same-sex marriage ban. And as we have seen with respect to race discrimination, legal solutions do not magically change all behavior, never mind all minds.

Those in the more conservative/traditional branches of religion seem not yet moved by this tidal wave, but they are hearing its roar and crash. Rabbi Steven Greenberg explains, regarding Orthodox Judaism, ” As a religiously conservative lot, we tend to highlight fear and potential loss more than opportunity. Change is scary. We’re not wrong in claiming that there are prices to pay for grand moves that shift cultural resources in a flash. Orthodoxy as a culture can help us to pay attention to the unintended consequences that every normative change entails.” Given his tradition’s long history, he describes the shift he has seen “…from homosexuality being a demonic evil, to a sinful proclivity, to curable illness and finally to an aspect of the human condition” over 45 years as a relatively quick shift. (Rabbi Greenberg is founder of Eshel, an Orthodox LGBTQ support, education and advocacy organization. You can read his full blog post on Moment.)

Writer Jeffrey Essman belongs to a New York parish that is “…so welcoming as to be nearly a parody of inclusion.” Even so, “I have no problem telling people I’m gay. But it can sometimes be weird telling people I’m a Catholic. Pope Francis’ ‘Who am I to judge?’ remarks, though taken entirely out of context and wildly misinterpreted, have nonetheless reflected a welcome shift in tone. But the shift is not widespread.” (Essman’s article in US Catholic, July 2014, appeared on Susan Cottrell’s Freed Hearts blog.)

Institutional attitude change is the sum of individual attitude changes by leaders and followers. Fast or slow, what are the actions or events that prompt individual attitude change? I think there are three identifiable moments.

First comes discomfort that you can’t avoided, usually because someone who already has approval comes out, challenging the negative stereotypes. Greenberg says, “…the picture of the threatening gay person is being replaced by the lovely couple across the street raising two kids.” As Tana Hall, a therapist specializing in LGBT youth and parents, explained, “Here’s the shocking secret: the Radical Gay and Lesbian Agenda (yes, we do have one!) is to have jobs, have stable committed relationships, maybe buy a house, maybe have some kids and/or a dog, and contribute to society.”

Anyone who stayed awake in Intro Psych knows will recognize cognitive dissonance: human brains aren’t happy holding two ideas which contradict each other, and will suppress or discard one to eliminate the discomfort. But which one stays? “I like watching Ellen DeGeneres, and she has almost as many male guests as female guests” or “all lesbians are aggressive man-haters?” I think it depends a lot on Moments 2 and 3.

The coming out of someone close is Moment 2. After all, “Hollywood people” or “sports stars” or even “American Idol finalists” are not “people like us,” so what goes for them doesn’t really change what is right and wrong in the life I’ve always known… one might conclude. But as soon as someone I already care about personally – a relative, close friend, child of a close friend, trusted colleague – comes out, the cognitive dissonance comes home. Now holding on to the homophobic thought could cost a relationship I value. On the other side of the scale is the potential relationship cost of bucking the tide of others’ opinions. Say the newly out teen’s parents believe this is a phase, best swept under the carpet and countered with lots of exposure to “more positive” role models, and maybe more religious activity. Butting in, in such a situation, would be scary and lonely – which brings us to Moment 3.

Seeing others in the immediate community also showing support makes it much less lonely to let the Moment 2 scales tip. This is why small actions, including word choice, can make a big difference even if they seem insignificant in the moment.

The push in recent years within the LGBTQ communities to come out not just to your friends but in all settings, is enabling more straight people to comfortably, if imperfectly, be allies. That in turn makes it easier for more people to be out in all settings, and Moments 2 and 3 beget each other.

This momentum of individual moments 2 and 3 is why now, 45 years after the Stonewall riots, and 22 years after the first state ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation (Wisconsin) it seems that LGBTQ rights are “suddenly” happening. Same-sex marriage has gained support because straight people know personally more than 1 or 2 people at whose same-sex weddings they would love to dance – and know they won’t be alone on the dance floor.

 

It’s the Little Things: Part 1

What does it mean to be a “good parent” to a child who is questioning his or her sexuality or gender, already identifies as LGBTQ,  is somewhere in between, or who has a friend in one of these categories? Let’s say “good” in this context means helping our kids know themselves, be good friends, and make healthy decisions. Behind those outcomes is an interim outcome: we need the conversation doors to stay open, especially where things seem uncertain or uncomfortable.

We intuitively know that little things like word choice and facial expressions matter, but the right actions and reactions often don’t spring readily to mind in the moment. And – no pressure! – the stakes are kinda high. This theme emerged in the very first interview I did for this blog.

“Parents can make it a self-fulfilling prophecy: they think [their child’s life as a queer person] is going to be hard, so they don’t stand up for them when they could, and indeed, life becomes harder than it needed to be.” – TH

Yet, as Ann Falchuk noted in her recent blog post, when it’s your kid who is questioning or coming out, parents have their own coming out process to go through, from zero to understanding to advocate, on an extremely compressed schedule. When it’s your kids’ friend, figuring out how to support that that kid, your own, and their friendship is a multi-layered challenge. But my interviews with teens and former teens brought welcome news: “good” parents don’t have to be perfect. Attention to some little things, even if uneven or awkwardly done, make a big difference.

A few small signals, or invitations to open a conversation, might seem ignored in the moment but will register:

“My grandfather, who was 94 when he died, used to watch James Bond movies with me. One day, out of the blue he paused the movie and asked me what I thought of gay marriage, and said he agreed with it. My grandparents had a house on Fire Island for years (I’m still mad they sold it) and he said they had partied with gay people out there. Taking time to talk and voice support makes a huge difference. Recently I was driving out to Long Island with my dad and there was news on the radio about the Iowa Caucus. They mentioned the Republican pledge to reverse gay marriage. My dad was reading, only half paying attention, but his reflexive grunt of disapproval was really wonderful.” -PO

“My mom always said, ‘You can talk to me about anything. The most important thing is to respect your body.’ She would say that sometimes to try to spark a conversation, and I got annoyed and angry at the time, but it was actually really important. I think it’s appropriate for parents to bring their questions and concerns. In a way, I would be more offended by a parent not being honest with their reactions even if it is painful or shows prejudice.” – MS

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Even in an era when same-sex marriage gains ground quickly, we should not underestimate the Mount Everest-like weight and carbon dioxide-like pervasiveness of the old expectations.

“A daughter of a two-mom family living in an LGBTQ-friendly neighborhood cam home from pre-school and asked one of her moms if she were sure she weren’t really a man. And many of her classmates had gay or lesbian parents.” – TH

And yet, making some small changes in language, even if you forget and don’t do it every time, can add up.

“Parents can make an effort to not create a hetero-normative environment, like by not asking ‘do you have a girlfriend?’ but ‘Are you seeing someone?’” -PO

“And don’t express relief when your kid reveals an interest in someone of the opposite sex. It undermines an opening for any discussion about sexual confusion, for your own kid or someone she knows.” – KW

“I am surprised sometimes by how many people are still using the word “choice,” and thereby implying that it’s a moral defect.” -BK

Taking the time to listen a little deeper can show what your kid really needs.

“The after-school program at my son’s nursery school had different leaders than the day program. I didn’t realize the difference in their attitudes. My son hated after-school because they made him go outside and play soccer with the other boys, while the girls could stay inside and play pretend games. He said he hated the whole thing, and I did not probe as to why. Not until he was 18 and out, and after I had started the Spanish-speaking parent support group [at the nursery school], did we sit down with the pre-school director who wanted to improve the school’s policies around gender expression. That was a big step in the healing process for him and for me.” -LM

“You have to pay careful attention to the question that’s really being asked, which is often, ‘Having two mommies is different, but is it ok?’ [Kids] all come with a bit of baggage, even from liberal families.” -BK

In movies and on TV the dialogue may be emotionally fraught, but proceeds smoothly. In real life, we have to write our scripts and deliver them at the same time, and the results (at my house anyway) are rarely pretty. Even when I eventually get across the point I was just realizing was the truly important one, I often feel I haven’t done it very well. But my research shows that movie-perfect smoothness matters much less than we parents think. Coming soon: why the “backstage tour” of a parent’s mind is better than a perfect performance.business is full of thoughts© Andres Rodriguez | Dreamstime Stock Photos