Barry O’Rourke

How to re­act if and when your child comes out to you

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Front Page - Barry O’Rourke

New Year’s Eve, 2015, was the night I told my par­ents I was gay. It was the year of the same-sex mar­riage ref­er­en­dum and I wanted to be open to my fam­ily on how im­por­tant the vote was for me.

Over the course of that night I penned a let­ter that had been 10 years in the mak­ing, in­tro­duc­ing to my fam­ily a new Barry as soon as the clock struck 12.

Like many who come out, I feared the worst, pre­dict­ing things would be­come awk­ward, or worse, that there’d be no place at home for me. So, the let­ter stressed that I was the same Barry from that morn­ing, only now a huge weight had been lifted. That I had strug­gled in un­der­stand­ing this for some time, and could un­der­stand if they needed time too. That life might be dif­fer­ent for me, but I would be hap­pier be­ing dif­fer­ent.

By the end of the night, the let­ter had more tear stains than words, as I left it on their bed and asked them to read it.

Emo­tions were high, but on read­ing the let­ter my dad put his arm around me and said: “You are my son, and I love you. Once you find some­one you love, I’m happy.” Mam hugged me, kissed me and told me she would al­ways be my num­ber one sup­porter. My fam­ily talked of how proud they were that I had the courage to come out – but what they didn’t re­alise was how proud I was of them. Of their re­ac­tion, their sup­port and un­der­stand­ing.

Com­ing out is one of the big­gest mile­stones for many LGBTI+ peo­ple. In­tro­duc­ing your “true self” to some­one – hop­ing for the best but ex­pect­ing the worst, is stress­ful. And we re­ally do ex­pect the worst.

Re­jec­tion, ridicule and hos­til­ity are all part of the plan­ning. De­spite know­ing how sup­port­ive our fam­i­lies are, there is al­ways a fear that can smother you.

That is why it is so im­por­tant for par­ents and fam­ily mem­bers to play their part in the lives of the LGBTI+ com­mu­nity. Be­cause for many, they are our lives.

When do peo­ple come out?

The LGBTIre­land Re­port in 2016 stud­ied the men­tal health and well-be­ing of LGBTI+ peo­ple in Ire­land. It found that 12 years of age was the most com­mon age peo­ple dis­cov­ered their LGBTI+ iden­tity, and that 16 was the most com­mon age peo­ple told their very first per­son.

Com­ing out at this age, in par­tic­u­lar, is im­por­tant for a child’s phys­i­cal, emo­tional and so­cial de­vel­op­ment. It’s a time when no one re­ally wants to be dif­fer­ent, and re­al­is­ing this dif­fer­ence and feel­ing un­able to tell any­one about it puts enor­mous stress on teenagers.

A sup­port­ive fam­ily makes a dif­fer­ence

Moninne Grif­fith is the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Be­Long To Youth Ser­vices, the na­tional or­gan­i­sa­tion which ad­vo­cates for les­bian, gay, bi­sex­ual, trans­gen­der, and in­ter­sex (LGBTI+) young peo­ple in Ire­land. She feels no mat­ter how in­clu­sive a so­ci­ety gets, it is so im­por­tant for peo­ple to come out.

“We know that usu­ally when a young per­son comes out, it re­duces stress and anx­i­ety” she says. “I know from the work we do in Be­LonG To, young peo­ple who have a sup­port­ive friend or fam­ily mem­ber in their life who they can ask these ques­tions and feel un­con­di­tional love from, their out­comes are al­ways so much bet­ter.”

Grif­fith says par­ents can send very clear mes­sages of sup­port that in­di­rectly make it eas­ier for a young per­son to come out. “You can talk about other LGBT friends and fam­ily. It’s about vis­i­bil­ity – you see and hear of role mod­els that are not just pop stars any­more. It’s our Taoiseach. It’s com­pany CEOs. Peo­ple from every walk of life. Mak­ing your lan­guage open and in­clu­sive is also a great way of show­ing in­ter­est and open­ness to talk. It should be up to the in­di­vid­ual to come out, but sim­ple things can make a great dif­fer­ence to the process.”

How to re­act when a child comes out

“Firstly, it’s amaz­ing that the young per­son has the re­silience and con­fi­dence to come and tell you this,” Grif­fith says. “That par­ent should feel priv­i­leged the young per­son has come out to them, and that they trust them. It re­flects the im­por­tance of the re­la­tion­ship that they have with you. It is im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that your child is still the same child the day be­fore they came out. Ex­cept now they’re less anx­ious.”

For Grif­fith, it’s im­por­tant to re­as­sure par­ents they are not go­ing to be ex­pected to know ev­ery­thing from the get-go. “Par­ents might have mixed emo­tions and many, many ques­tions. Don’t be afraid! You’re not sup­posed to be an ex­pert. Be up­front about want­ing to learn and help them.

“Mam would you ever mind if I brought home a girl­friend?”

There are num­ber of ways peo­ple come out to their fam­i­lies. For Char­lotte Can­nell, this took the form of a con­ver­sa­tion be­fore din­ner with her mother Al­i­son. It was an op­por­tu­nity to share some­thing per­sonal about her­self to her mam; and equally an op­por­tu­nity for Al­i­son to show her sup­port for her daugh­ter. “I re­cently came out to my mam as pan­sex­ual,” Char­lotte says. “Bear­ing in mind this woman took me to Pride when I was nine, but this is how the con­ver­sa­tion went.”

Char­lotte: “So Mam, would you ever mind if I brought home a girl­friend?”

Al­i­son: “No, as long as you’re happy and they treat you right. I don’t care who you bring home.”

Char­lotte: “I’ve been think­ing about it lately, and I think that I’m pan­sex­ual.” Al­i­son: “Okay, what does that mean?” Char­lotte: “It means that the only thing that mat­ters is their per­son­al­ity, not whether they’re a boy or girl or what they would call them­selves.”

Al­i­son: “Okay. So what do you want for din­ner?”

What’s key for par­ents, Al­i­son ex­plains, is the hap­pi­ness of their child.

“The whole time peo­ple are preg­nant,” she says, “they are asked if they want a boy or a girl. Most peo­ple say they don’t care so long as they’re a happy, healthy baby with 10 fin­gers and toes. It’s that same mind-frame I keep.”

Na­tional strat­egy’

The LGBTI+ Na­tional Youth Strat­egy, in­volv­ing more than 4,000 young peo­ple and lead­ing rights cam­paign­ers, be­gan dur­ing the sum­mer. It is a three-year strat­egy, with a mis­sion to en­sure that all LGBTI+ young peo­ple are vis­i­ble, val­ued and in­cluded in Ir­ish so­ci­ety.

Min­is­ter for Chil­dren and Youth Af­fairs Kather­ine Zap­pone says em­brac­ing your­self should be the fo­cus for any­one still in the process of com­ing out. “You have to come out to your­self be­fore you come out to some­one else. This is the most im­por­tant ad­vice,” she says.

“Peo­ple should only do so when they feel ab­so­lutely com­fort­able with their sex­u­al­ity and iden­tity and it is true this can hap­pen at any age. Com­ing out re­quires brav­ery but it can also be a lib­er­at­ing time. It is a mo­ment when you are true to your­self.

“Never un­der­es­ti­mate the love of fam­ily and friends. Once you come out you will not be alone. Those who truly love and value you will not only stand with you, they will of­ten come closer.”

Al­i­son Hal­la­han with daugh­ter Char­lotte Can­nell ■

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