Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Letter Series -- #1

A Brief Introduction:

What is The Letter Series?

This occasional feature on my blog is not for everyone. In fact, it's audience is very specific.

Over the course of the next few months, I hope to feature letters of advice from gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered individuals written to parents raising kids who don't fit the typical gender-identity mold. When we have questions about child-rearing, we usually go to the generation of parents before us. In this case, however, the world is changing so fast for the GLBTQ community that I think it's best to hear from the now-grown children of the generation before us.

Keep in mind that these letters are written to parents who want their children to be healthy and happy and comfortable with who they are. If you want to change your child, this isn't the place for you.

Some of the letters will be written by people who are parents themselves. Some won't. But for those non-parents there is always deep humility while faced with giving parenting advice. I've told these generous souls that I'm not looking to them for their experience as parents, but as having been children.

Our first letter is from Jacob Newberry.

Jacob Newberry is a University Fellow at Florida State University, where he is pursuing a Ph.D. in Creative Writing. A classically trained pianist, he has an M.A. in French Language and Literature from the University of Mississippi and is currently working on several translation projects. His poetry and nonfiction have appeared or are forthcoming in The Iowa Review, Rattle, The New Guard, and Pinyon, among others. He is currently Poetry Editor for The Southeast Review.

I can’t say that I know for sure what works: each child, of course, is different, and you’re the best person to judge what will or won’t work with your child.

If you think your child is wondering about – or struggling with – his or her sexuality, then your response should be determined by one question: How much do you already talk to your child? If you have a relationship where you talk about everything – fears, struggles, doubts, joys, etc. – then your response should be direct. But if your child is more reticent to share with you about her emotional state, then you need to be indirect.

The direct approach: If you talk about everything already, then you should talk about this. Look for natural ways to bring it up, if your child hasn’t brought it up already. Watch one of the “It Gets Better” videos ( Watch Glee together. Look for positive gay role models, in your community or in the media. See if there are organizations that you can join as a parent (PFLAG) or maybe organizations at your child’s school. Is s/he the activist type? Why not help her set up a Gay-Straight Alliance? You can offer to be a sponsor.

Above all, let your kids know that you love them, and that you’re listening. And be honest: if you don’t know the answer to something, tell them. Ask around for help. Go online. There are too many resources out there for you to feel helpless and lost. You should be immersing yourself.

And remember that your child doesn’t have to know the answer to anything right now. Maybe he’s certain he’s gay, or maybe he’s just not sure. Tell him that it’s okay to not be sure. It takes a long time to learn who you are.

The indirect approach: If your child is more emotionally distant with you, you’ll need to be indirect. (Pressuring your child on something this large is a bad idea. Don’t try it.)

I was the emotionally distant child. It wasn’t my parents’ fault; it was just my disposition. They were stridently anti-gay, but they never told me so directly. Everything they said and did to let me know was directed outward, never at me. But the message was always clear.

So what’s an indirect way to let your child know that there’s nothing wrong with being gay, or questioning his sexuality? Make a concerted effort to talk in a positive way about gay people when your child is in earshot. (“Hey honey, my cousin Rich and his boyfriend say that we should bring the whole family out to San Diego sometime. What’s our vacation budget looking like?”) Try to have your child around a happy, stable gay person (super bowl party? church picnic?) – and then make nothing of it. (“I’m so glad I finally got to chat with Anne at the party. I can’t believe she doesn’t have a girlfriend!”) Watch TV shows or movies that have a gay-positive plotline or character, and then don’t dwell on it. Best of all, if you’re lucky enough to have a close family member or friend who’s out and emotionally stable, see if your child can visit them for a few days. (Again, make nothing of the fact that they’re gay: it’s just a chance to see Seattle, or to spend some time with a favorite uncle.)

This will almost certainly be difficult for you as parents, but it’s harder for your child, I promise. Even though you may want to be the first person she tells – you deserve it, after all – that might not be the right thing for your child. But she’ll know that if things really do get bad, you’re both on the same team. As I said, I was emotionally distant by nature, but knowing how strongly my parents disapproved only served to push me farther away. If your response to being gay is one that’s thoroughly relaxed, your child will be able to turn to you if he’s ever in real trouble.

There are a million small ways to let them know that being gay isn’t wrong, but the point is always the same: it’s not a big deal. Some boys like girls, some boys like boys. That’s just how it is. You don’t have to say any of this to your children directly. But I promise they’re listening.