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Teens coming out



Newburgh resident shares her story

When then 16-year-old Mollie DeMeio of Newburgh came out to her family in 2007, her mother was initially shocked, but quickly warmed to the idea.

“My mom and I were sitting on the couch talking about my involvement in the school’s Gay Straight Alliance, and how I work at Planned Parenthood and attend all of their LGBT related functions. I just sorta blurted out, ‘Ma, I’m queer,’" says the former Newburgh Free Academy student.

“My mom took it well. She was a little shocked, naturally, even though I thought she knew since everybody knew. Then she asked me if I had told my sister yet. So I just yelled into the other room, ‘KARA! I’m queer!’”

READ MORE: Local moms discuss parenting LGBTQ+ kids

DeMeio’s breezy personal account, bypassing the common anguish felt by both parents and teens, is unfortunately not always typical. Neither was her mother’s long-term gay-positive attitude.

When she was ten, DeMeio wanted to have a Barbie doll wedding. But she didn’t own a Ken doll. Her mother’s matter-of-fact suggestion? Have two Barbies tie the knot. This casual response set the tone when DeMeio was ready to come out six years later. “I just knew that I had a lot of support already, and the literal coming out part was sort of impulsive.”

Unlike Mollie DeMeio, many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning (LGBTQ+) youth in America today face considerable difficulties revealing their sexuality to their family. For many families, when the issue of homosexuality arises, communications tend to break down. Many parents would prefer to remain in the dark.

Parental fears have several origins. One is the bigotry of religious teachings. The other is a lack of knowledge on the subject. Whether you feel gay people are sinners or that homosexuality in youth is “just a phase,” consider this: LGBTQ+ youth, rejected by peers and families, become runaways or commit suicide in numbers much higher than their straight counterparts.

Despite some political and cultural advancements, life for LGBTQ+ youth in America remains a tough row to hoe. If you want to show your child compassion rather than censure, there are several ways to do so.

Whether the topic is sexuality or just gym class, the parent must create a positive environment for communication. Jane Elven, founder of Circles, an LGBTQ+ youth group operated by Planned Parenthood of the Mid-Hudson Valley (PPMHV), says, “All children need to know that their parents love and accept them exactly as they are. This starts in early childhood and continues forever. Loving and accepting one’s children includes lifting the burden of our adult expectations from our children’s shoulders.”

Elven realized she was a lesbian in the 1950s, when hatred toward gay people was undisguised. She was a tomboy, a trait that went against the grain in that conservative era. Her brother Dave also eventually came out as gay. Their father was quick to voice his disappointment to his children, thereby chilling their relationship. It’s important to ask yourself as a parent just how many expectations you have of your child – and how you verbalize them.

“Loving acceptance creates the kind of relationship in which parents are the first people that young people turn to for anxieties and worries of all sorts,” Elven says. “Parents who listen more than talk tend to do best in any situation they find uncomfortable in reference to their children. Trying to understand, more than being understood, makes an enormous difference in maintaining open communication and solid connections with our children.”

READ MORE: Family support is critical for LGBTQ+ teens

Elven acknowledges the adjustment that now rests on the shoulders of parents, but she stresses that numerous local, regional and national groups offer assistance. “The more parents understand that being lesbian/gay/bisexual is as natural and incontrovertible as being heterosexual,” Elven explains, “the more compassionate they will be with themselves and their children.”

Granted, between the initial confession and the compassion of mutual understanding, certain emotions can run rampant. Some parents feel guilty, thinking that they did something wrong to create an LGBTQ+ child. Others will feel disappointment. Still others immediately worry that this means the child will eventually contract HIV. Some feel they will never be able to accept this “new” person as naturally as before.

Forging a new, more honest relationship with your LGBTQ+ child is crucial, Elven says. “It’s comforting to remember that one’s child is still the same person who we’ve always known and loved. All that has changed is that this dear child has found the courage to share a profoundly vulnerable part of herself with us.”

Reasserting your parental affection is key after a child comes out, says Mary Jane Karger, head of the Westchester Sub-Chapter of GLSEN Hudson Valley, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.

“Unconditional love is critical, even when you’re not sure what being gay means,” Karger explains. “Trust that your child has struggled with this information for some time and is at a place where he wants you to know. It is a gift when your child loves and trusts you enough to want you to know more about himself and to no longer have to hide behind lies and half-truths.”

Karger speaks from personal experience. Her involvement with GLSEN occurred after her son came out in his early 20s. GLSEN chapters across the country strive to strengthen resources that support LGBTQ+ people and educate heterosexual students in public schools.

Karger admits that her son’s confession initially prompted a knee-jerk reaction of sadness and confusion. “We had no understanding of what it really meant to be gay either,” she says. “Everything I had known about being gay was vague and negative. Since I knew our son was a wonderful person, I knew I had to learn more about his sexual orientation.” A school social worker, Karger became active in PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) and GLSEN.

READ MORE: Even more resources for parents

Parents facing the same experience “need to realize they are not alone,” Karger says. She recommends the book Always My Child, written by GLSEN founder Kevin Jennings. In the course of her own research, Karger went from self-pity to a greater awakening; she realized the extent of the alienation and oppression that LGBTQ+ people face in American society.

“Heterosexism – the belief that everyone is heterosexual or that heterosexuality is the superior norm – is still pervasive in our culture,” Karger says. Consider that in current teenage slang, “that’s so gay” is the ultimate dismissive put-down.

Once a parent becomes accustomed to the news, the time comes to help your child. He faces a potentially hostile school society. Ask questions: Has your child been harassed by peers? Does the school guidance counselor offer support? Is there a school policy that addresses homophobic bullying? (School staff can request training through their union, the National Education Association, Teacher’s Centers or from GLSEN-Hudson Valley directly, Karger says.)

“Combating harassment and ensuring safety must be tackled on multiple levels,” Karger explains. “First, speak up and report any harassment your child experiences to school authorities. Students often do not report bullying for fear that adults will not help. As a parent, you can take action in ways your child may not. You are your child’s most important ally.”

Karger estimates more than 50 Gay-Straight Alliances hold regular meetings across the Hudson Valley. But there is still room for improvement. “School staff and students deserve more education about LGBTQ+ students and are not getting it,” she says.

In response, some parents have successfully sued school systems for turning a blind eye to ongoing anti-gay harassment.

READ MORE: Teaching kids about responsibility

Planned Parenthood’s Circles program offers services – and emotional support – that some local schools still refuse to provide, Elven says. “I remember one sixteen-year-old who, after three Circles group meetings, said, ‘Jane, I used to feel suicidal, but I’m feeling much better now.’ Our groups meet only once a week for two hours, yet that was enough to help this young man feel much better now.’”

Not all parents will react as well as hers, Mollie deMeio acknowledges. For the skittish mother and father, she offers advice.

“Maybe even tell [your child], Look, this will take some getting used to for me, but I still love you. The worst thing to do, I feel, would be implying that your child has made the wrong life choice.’”

While LGBTQ+ teens still face rejection and violence – especially transgender teens – there is evidence of change for the better. Current polls indicate that younger generations accept LGBTQ+ people more readily than their older counterparts do. This bodes well for LGBTQ+ youth in years to come.

“It really makes me sad to hear that some parents can’t deal when their child comes out,” deMeio says. “If anyone should be worrying, it’s the child, not the parent. It’s pretty tough for a lot of people to be out, proud, and young.”

 

Need somebody to talk to?

The Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN) provides assistance and information for both parents and teens. For more information visit GLSEN - Hudson Valley.

  • Westchester Sub-Chapter (includes Putnam and Rockland counties) - 914-962-7888
  • Ulster Sub-Chapter (includes Dutchess, Sullivan, and Orange counties) - 914-588-1306
  • PPMHV Circles 845-562-3098; jane.elven@ppmhv.org

Jay Blotcher is a freelance writer living in Ulster County. His work also appears in Hudson Valley Life magazine.