Very often we at PFLAG are asked the same questions by new members as they struggle to come to terms with the homosexuality of their child or friend. The most common of these questions we have answered below. We trust they will be of use to assist those who are seeking answers.
HOW MANY GAY, LESBIAN AND BISEXUAL PEOPLE ARE THERE?
Research tells us that approximately 10% of the population are gay, lesbian or bisexual.
[ Bell, A and Weinberg, M (1978) Homosexualities, A Study of Diversity Among Men and Women. New York, Simon and Schuster ]
That means, that on average, someone in every extended family is either gay, lesbian or bisexual.
Love and sexual relations between people of the same gender have been found in every known culture and society. These relationships are in every social, economic, racial and religious group.
Gay, lesbian and bisexual people work in all professions. They are our friends, our families and our colleagues. We all personally know gay, lesbian or bisexual people, but we may not be aware of it.
WHAT CAUSES SOMEONE TO BE HETEROSEXUAL, HOMOSEXUAL, BISEXUAL OR TRANSGENDER?
Research so far has highlighted only one thing - we do NOT know what causes anyone's sexual orientation. Gay, lesbian and bisexual people have been raised in all kinds of homes, as have heterosexual people. One thing is clear: this is a complex, multifaceted issue.
IS HOMOSEXUALITY NATURAL?
Being gay, lesbian or bisexual is as natural and healthy as being heterosexual. For the 10% (approximately) of Australians who are gay, lesbian or bisexual, it is a natural part of what they are, and for them to be heterosexual would be unnatural.
Prior to the 1950's, homosexuality was treated by psychiatrists as a disorder. Times have changed and today homosexuality is accepted as a legitimate and psychologically healthy expression of human sexuality.
Over the years, discussions between Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) have revealed that:
- People are often aware of their sexual orientation at a very early age, heterosexual or homosexual.
- None of the children were influenced or taught to be gay, lesbian or bisexual by any other person.
- Family fears of "catching" homosexuality or being "recruited" are without scientific foundation. These fears are irrational (see Homophobia) and in families where homosexual children try to deny their sexuality, the ramifications can be enormous.
CAN YOU IDENTIFY GAY, LESBIAN AND BISEXUAL PEOPLE BY THE WAY THEY BEHAVE AND DRESS?
Australia is a richly diverse society, in which people behave and dress in all kinds of ways. Ignorance and prejudice give rise to assumptions and stereotypes. A stereotype never fits everyone in any group. Physical appearance and mannerisms have nothing to do with a person's sexuality. These are part of their personality.
DO GAY, LESBIAN, AND BISEXUAL PEOPLE HAVE MORE SEXUAL PARTNERS THAT HETEROSEXUAL PEOPLE?
Gay, lesbian and bisexual people share the same amount of interest in sexual activity as heterosexual people. As with heterosexual people gay, lesbians and bisexuals are individuals. They have a diverse range of lifestyles, relationships and interests in sexual activity. Many gay, lesbian and bisexual couples hold commitment ceremonies to celebrate their relationships formally, in the company of friends and family.
DO GAY MEN ABUSE CHILDREN?
Paedophilia and other forms of child abuse occur mainly in the home environment by a family member. 95% of child abuse is carried out by heterosexual identifying people.
[ Jenny, C, Roester, T, Poyer, K (1994) Are Children At Risk for Sexual Abuse by Homosexuals? Pediatrics Vol 94(1) ]
WHY DID THEY HAVE TO TELL ME?
It is important to accept and understand your child's sexuality. Some families believe they may have been happier not knowing. They start to recall the time before they knew as "problem free", remembering an ideal rather that the reality.
Sometimes we can try to deny what is happening by rejecting what we're hearing ("It's just a phase, you'll get over it"), or by not registering the impact of what we're being told ("That's nice, dear, and what do you want for dinner?").
Parents and families may feel resentment towards their child's or loved one's sexuality. This feeling is based on the belief that to be gay, lesbian or bisexual was a conscious decision. It also comes from the parent's fears - fears of pain/discomfort associated with their 'coming out' about their child's sexuality and the resulting homophobia that they too may experience.
It is important to know that the main decision most gays, lesbians and bisexuals have to make is "Will I be honest about who I am, or will I hide it?" Hiding it imposes a constant and tremendous burden. A large part of their life would be kept secret from you and you would never really know the whole person. Someone who has reached the point of telling a parent or someone close to them that they are gay, lesbian or bisexual is not usually a person who is going through a phase. Generally they have thought long and hard to understand and acknowledge their sexual orientation. For someone to tell their family or friend that they are gay, lesbian or bisexual often means taking a great risk - the biggest risk is that of rejection. Few people would take that risk lightly or prematurely.
WHY DIDN'T THEY TELL US BEFORE?
Your child or loved one has probably been thinking this through for months, even years. This does not mean a lack of trust, lack of love or a reflection on your relationship. If you are a parent it can be painful to realise that you don't know your child as well as you thought you did and that you have been excluded from a part of their life. To some extent, this is true in all parenting relationships, regardless of sexuality.
Gay, lesbian and bisexual people often recognise at an early age that they feel "different", but it may take years before they can put a name to it. It is often not until this stage that they consider telling someone.
Even though you may have some sadness for not having been able to help your child or loved one through that period, or you feel that the outcome may have been different if you'd known earlier, it is important to understand that your child or loved one probably could not have told you any sooner. Even more importantly, discussing the situation now is an invitation to a more open and honest relationship.
Because homophobia still exists in our society, it takes time for gays, lesbians and bisexuals to acknowledge their own sexuality. It is not uncommon for gay people to internalise self-hate or insecurity about their sexual identity. For many reasons it may take time for someone to think through and work up the courage to tell a parent. Even if you feel your child should have known they could tell you anything, remember that our culture's treatment of homosexuality says "don't ask, don't tell."
WHAT DID WE DO WRONG?
Parents and family members can sometimes experience feelings of guilt when they first learn of their child's or loved one's attractions for the same gender.
Some parents react with shock, denial and anger to the news that their child is gay, lesbian or bisexual. One response is to wonder, "How could she do this to me?" This is not a rational reaction - but it is a human response to pain.
We liken this reaction to a grieving process: here you are grieving over losing an image of your child.
Some parents feel that they did something "wrong". However, there is no evidence that different parenting styles or family situations have a bearing on the development of sexual orientation. What families can provide is an environment of unconditional acceptance.
As you work through your feelings, you can take courage in the fact that the one thing your child has 'done' to you is to trust that your relationship will grow as a result of you knowing the truth about him or her. What families can provide is an environment in which a young person can understand themselves and strive to reach their full potential.
WHY AM I UNCOMFORTABLE WITH MY CHILD'S OR LOVEd ONE'S SEXUALITY?
Our culture and society provides us with messages about a number of issues, including sexuality.
The negative messages and myths we have learned from our society about sexuality are very strong and not easy to dismiss. However, developing a better understanding of your child or loved one, and becoming more familiar with the issues, will help reduce these uncomfortable feelings.
Many parents may confront another source of guilt. Parents who see themselves as "open-minded", believing that they have put sexual prejudice behind them (even those who have gay friends), are sometimes stunned to realise that they are uncomfortable when they learn that it is their child who is gay, lesbian or bisexual. These parents not only have to grapple with suppressed, deep-rooted personal fears of homosexuality but also have the added burden of dealing with their conscious self image of being "open-minded".
It helps to concentrate on real concerns - what your child needs most from you now. Try not to focus on the guilt. It is baseless and it accomplishes nothing for you or your child. Neither you nor your child had or will have any control over the arrival and determination of your child's sexuality.
COULD A COUNSELLOR OR THERAPIST BE HELPFUL?
Support can be gained from a counsellor or therapist experienced with family issues and sexual orientation. You may want to talk to someone about your own feelings and how to work through them. You can feel that you and your child need help communicating clearly through this period. Or, you may recognise that your child is unhappy and needs help with self acceptance.
Try to find someone that you and/or your child can feel safe with and can talk openly with. Respect and trust are fundamentals in any relationship with a helping professional. Like finding a good doctor - sometimes finding a good therapist or counsellor can take time. So don't give up if the first one you find is not to your liking.
Consulting a counsellor or therapist in the hope of changing your child's or loved one's sexual orientation has little value. Homosexuality is not a disease or illness and so is not something to be 'cured'.
We encourage you to explore your options and to use those best suited to you and your family. Please refer to the resource section in the back of the booklet for suggestions.
Will they be rejected, have trouble finding or keeping a job, or be physically attacked?
Our society often discriminates and is even violent towards people who are seen to be different.
Homophobia still is a strong part of our culture. As long as homophobia exists, any gay, lesbian or bisexual person and any parent of a gay, lesbian or bisexual youth has some very real and legitimate fears and concerns.
However, attitudes toward different sexualities have been slowly changing for the better and are more positive in many places. There are a growing number of groups who are working for such a change and who are ready to help those who have difficulties.
It is important to remember that many gays, lesbians and bisexuals have grown to fulfil their dreams and have become very successful and respected people in the community. As a society we may have a long way to go, but giving your child or love one support and love, will go far to making his or her life journey easier.
SHOULD WE TELL FAMILY, NEIGHBOURS, FRIENDS?
Just as "coming out" is difficult for gay, lesbian and bisexual people, the coming-out process is equally difficult for parents. Many, upon learning their child is gay, lesbian or bisexual, go right into the closet. As they struggle with accepting their child's sexual orientation, they often worry about other people finding out. There is the challenge of fielding such questions as, "Has he got a girlfriend?" And "So when is she going to get married?"
You may get some negative or, at the least insensitive comments from relatives, friends or co-workers. But you'll probably find that those comments are fewer than you now fear.
One parent says, "I used to go in the bathroom and close the door and practice saying to the mirror, 'I have a lesbian daughter' and saying it with pride. And it helped, but you really do have to practice."
Talk to people who understand your concerns. Remember your child or loved one has been down this road already. They may even be able to help. PFLAG members may be helpful to you in discussing their own experiences too.
And remember, who you tell about your child's sexuality should be a decision both of you discuss and reach together, as a matter of respect. After all, it's their life you're discussing.
WHAT WILL THE NEIGHBOURS SAY?
This could be a very real concern, especially for families who consider themselves part of a close community.
One parent said: "I thought I was the only mother in our community who had a lesbian daughter. And when I started speaking out on the issue, other parents started coming forward. And now every time someone says to me 'I need to talk to you', I know exactly what's coming up."
WHAT ABOUT RELIGION?
For some parents this may be the most difficult issue to face. For others, it's a non-issue. Most religions and churches have members with a range of views and interpretations of their faith. A number of religious organisations support equal rights for gay, lesbian and bisexual people, others do not.
For those whose faith is in the Bible, you will still hear people quote the Bible in defence of their prejudice against gay people.
But many Biblical scholars dispute any anti-gay interpretations of Biblical texts. If this is an important issue to you or your family PFLAG may be able to assist.