Toronto
6 min

What’s up with dad?

Finding out a parent's gay isn't easy for kids

THE BIG TALK. Children of queer parents go through their own coming out process. Credit: Mia Hansen

James has known his father is gay for many years. He accepts it – but he’s the only member of his family to do so. Neither his older nor younger brother have any contact with their father.



“We have this unspoken thing in our house – my father,” says James. He’s 21, but asked that we not use his real name, as did the other children of gay parents interviewed for this story.



James’ parents have been divorced for 11 years and do not speak. The family is originally from Edmonton, but his father now lives in Vancouver, his mother in Calgary and James is in Toronto for school. He visits his mother for Christmas and reading week, and splits his summers between his parents.



James says the situation is “unbelievably difficult. It’s almost like two different families. One can’t accept the other.”



And so it goes for many children of gay or lesbian parents. When parents are questioning their sexuality, splitting up and forming new lives, any goodwill that might be offered a queer parent is used up.



James has not always been on such good terms with his father. For a year or so soon after his father came out, no one in his family had any contact with him. After the death of James’ paternal grand-father, he missed his father and re-established their relationship.



Even now, the split within his family and his reluctance to tell his friends in Alberta about his father have made James feel isolated.



“When you have a gay father and you live in Alberta, you don’t tell anybody. Growing up, I thought I was the only one in this situation.”



This sentiment is not uncommon. According to psychotherapist Mary Dyson, many children with queer parents feel isolated from their peers, even when they try to fit in.



Dyson has worked with many parents in the process of coming out to their partners and children. She herself has been out for 12 years and has a teenaged daughter. She says that when coming to terms with a parent’s sexual orientation, “Kids essentially go through their own coming out process.”



Different age groups present different problems, although Dyson says there has not been much research into this. It may be initially easier to come out to very young children, but as they grow up, many kids become afraid of standing out from the group. The same is true of coming out to teenaged children.



“Their peer relationships become much more important,” says Dyson.



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How well an adult child adjusts depends a lot on the individual relationship between parent and child – do they have common interests and are their personalities compatible? The family situation also plays a role in how well children adjust. Some parents have already divorced when the children find out, so one parent’s queerness does not change the family dynamic. For other children, the information that a parent is queer comes along with divorce, so it has a more tangible effect.



But the most important factor in how well a child accepts a parent’s coming out is how both parents treat the situation.



“The working relationship between the parents is so key to the child,” says Dyson.



Most children have no context in which to understand a parent’s queerness and will follow their parents’ lead in how to react. When children are made to keep a parent’s sexual orientation secret from everyone else, it teaches them to be ashamed of it.



“It’s like having a family where there’s alcoholism. There’s isolation,” says Dyson, and that isolation gives the child the perception that their family is abnormal. That’s one of the worst experiences for a child.



“Kids need to experience their family as being normal. Kids need that solid sense that they’re okay in the world, that their parents are okay in the world.”



Sarah wasn’t even told that her father was gay until some time after his death from AIDS-related cancer eight years ago. Her parents had been separated since she was two and had divorced some time after that.



Sarah, now 16, remembers asking her mother if she could see her father’s will.



“I saw that he had donated a lot of money to a gay and lesbian foundation and I couldn’t figure it out. Somewhere along the way the puzzle got put together.”



Jane is Sarah’s older sister. Now 19, her father came out to her when she was 10. She, her sister and father were at Fire Island, where they often went for their vacations together.



“I was always really confused about why there were no other children, or women, but it finally occurred to me to ask,” says Jane.



Jane asked during dinner with a group of her father’s friends, and she remembers the table falling silent. After dinner, she and her father went for a walk on the beach, and her father explained that he was gay.



“It didn’t make any sense to me, because it was a dimension of relationships that hadn’t occurred to me.”



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Neither Sarah, Jane nor James received much support from their mothers about their fathers’ homosexuality. And their mothers did not receive much support themselves. Dyson says the straight parent needs lots of support as well. Though there’s little research on the subject, she says that in relationships that end because one partner is queer, there is often less animosity thanin relationships that end for other reasons.



This is not true of James’ family. His mother still has no contact with her ex-husband, and James says there is “no way in hell” that his parents will ever reconcile.



“I love my mom, but when I’m around my mom we never talk about my dad. I think she’s still really upset, and she just buries herself in her work.” James’ mother has not remarried, although she has been with a boyfriend for the past seven or eight years.



“I guess her faith in the whole thing collapsed.”



James says his father has always tried to be supportive and understanding of him and his brothers. “He always sat us down and told us what was really going on.”



Jane and Sarah’s mother has remarried, but she still does not like to discuss her ex-husband. And without their father around to help them, Jane and Sarah have had to come to terms with their mother’s homophobia on their own.



The situation is further complicated for Jane, who is a lesbian. She came out to her family last summer, and did not receive as positive a response as she would have liked.



“I always thought that things with my dad should have made it easier for me. It has in some ways, but in others it’s made things much more difficult,” she says.



Although Jane has now come out to most of her family and a number of her friends, few people know about her father. For many she has told, Jane’s orientation brings up the question of heredity, as well as whether she is only questioning her sexuality because of her father.



Sarah, who identifies as straight, says she’s never questioned her orientation, but she worries about telling people about her father.



“If people knew, I think I’d worry about them assuming it of me.” She has only recently begun to tell her friends, mostly to broach the topic of her sister’s orientation.



“I’m not really sure why I didn’t tell them [about my father], but I was embarrassed and I didn’t want them to act weird about it. After I found out about Jane, I decided she would be something I’d want to be able to discuss with them. I thought starting with my dad would be a good way to ease into the subject.”



James used to worry that people would assume he was gay because his father is gay.



“That was one of my big fears. I really don’t have that fear anymore. It probably does happen. If that’s going to stop them, their loss.”



James is also confident his brothers will accept their father in time. “They have to come to their own terms with what they think.”



Although Dyson says that children can have varying degrees of difficulty in coming to terms with a parent’s queerness, she is certain that for the majority, “eventually, they come around.”



* Children Of Lesbians And Gays Everywhere (COLAGE) is a social support group for students with lesbian, gay and bisexual parents. They meet the second and fourth Tuesday of every month at 6:30pm at the 519 Community Centre (519 Church St). Contact Steven Solomon at (416) 767-2244 for more information or call 925-XTRA ext 2205.



* The Gay Fathers Of Toronto is a peer support group for gay and bisexual men with or without children, married, separated, divorced or single. They meet the third Tuesday of every month at 8pm, also at The 519. For more info, e-mail info@gayfathers-toronto.com or call 925-XTRA ext 2124.