When I first told my mother I had decided to become very public about my family, she wasn't sure what I had to talk about, nor did she understand where the material would come from. After a few months of learning about my perspective right along with other readers, Mom told me, "We had no clue how profoundly your dad's sexuality had affected you."
That's because I had never told them how having a gay dad affected me. It's only through my activism now that my parents are getting a more accurate picture of what my childhood was really like.
As a child, I thought protecting my parents from what I was experiencing was part of my job. I was afraid that by bringing up a fear, or talking about a negative incident, I would be making my father's sexual orientation an "issue" or "problem." So even though I was acutely sensitive to homophobia all around me, staying silent about it was my way of showing my love and support for my father.
Remaining silent meant not getting support when I needed it, like when a high school classmate made a vicious comment about gay dads, and several other boys joined in. I ran to the bathroom and cried for the remainder of the hour. I felt incredibly isolated, but didn't tell my dad. I thought it would hurt his feelings to know that I was having difficulties at school because of issues connected to his sexual orientation.
"In the normal course of development, children often protect the honor and integrity of their families," says Thomas Fronczak, a therapist in Providence, Rhode Island, and founder of the Gay Fathers Support Network. He explains, "Children with GLBT parents, depending on where they are in their own coming-out process and level of acceptance of their parents' sexual orientation, have been known to take strong stances to protect their parents from painful homophobic rhetoric."
Stories reflecting this family dynamic are common, including this one from a lesbian mother. The mother was understandably concerned about her daughter, who was being taunted in her sixth grade class because of her family. "And to make things worse," this mother said, "I find out that this has been going on since the beginning of the school year! I had no reason to think anything was wrong. Why didn't she tell me earlier?"
This protective behavior seems to increase as kids approach adolescence. Perhaps this is because children become more cognizant of their parents' hopes and needs. Teens become increasingly aware that their parents want more than anything to know their sexual orientation is not a hindrance to their children. As a result, children often hide the realities about teasing and harassment, while parents remain oblivious to their children's experiences.
How can families increase parent-child communication around these issues? Fronczak says, "Parents need to be clear with kids. And kids need to know that they don't have to take on the responsibility to be their parents' protectors."
Abigail Garner is a national writer and lecturer on GLBT family issues. Contact her via her website, www.familieslikemine.com . © 2000 Abigail Garner.