calling all parents



 The Advocate,  Jan 16, 2001  by Gabriel Rotello

 Of all life's tragedies, the suicide of a child must be one of the cruelest. And the suicides of gay and lesbian kids must be particularly cruel, especially to parents who aren't homophobic and had no idea their child was gay until after the trigger was pulled or the noose went taut.

 In speaking to PFLAG chapters over the years, I have met several parents of gay kids who committed suicide, and their refrain is always sadly similar: "If only we had known. Why didn't we send the right signals to our children, telling them we would have loved them no matter what?"

 That's a good question, and not just for parents of kids who commit suicide. Almost all lesbian and gay teens go through a terrible, lonely stage when they feel they have no one to turn to, not even their own family members--sometimes especially not their own family members. It's a phase that can leave lasting psychic damage even to the vast majority who survive it. And it's a passage that we, as a community and a movement, should work to ease.

 One way to do that would be to send a public service message to all parents, a message that says: You may have a gay child, and here's how to deal with that possibility now, before any damage is done.

 Most of our community's youth programs are directed at kids who are already in the process of coming out or those who are being actively harassed because they're gay or perceived to be gay. And most programs and messages for adults are tailored to parents who already know they have a gay child. Groups like Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays and the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network do a fabulous job of helping to educate and support such families as well as campaigning to turn schools and youth organizations into safe and accepting environments where gay kids can come out without fear of harassment.

 But for most deeply closeted gay kids, home is where the greatest fear is. And those kids in the worst pain--and at the highest risk--tend to be those who have not confided to anyone that they are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or even "questioning"--in other words, the truly invisible kids who often live in terror of what their families would do if they dared to come out.

 What these kids need to hear from their families is a general message of acceptance: That lesbian and gay is perfectly OK. That I, the parent, would love you, the child, just as much if I knew you were gay.

 Of course, parents who are committed homophobes would never send such a message. But even among accepting parents there are probably still very few who send this message, because they don't think of it, they don't consider the possibility their child might be gay, it's embarrassing, it's hard to bring up, whatever.

 So parents need to be reminded directly and continuously: Your child might be gay, even though you don't know it. And if your child is gay, that child is at vastly higher risk of anxiety, confusion, despair, and, yes, sometimes even suicide. But there are things you can say and do, a message of love and acceptance you can deliver and deliver now, before any damage is done.

 It's not exactly unprecedented. We've all seen those public service ads that say, "Talk to your child about drugs." We've seen the same kinds of campaigns about sex education. These campaigns make perfect sense. Experts have learned a lot about the best ways to deal with substance abuse and teenage sexuality, and the home is almost always the best place to get those messages across. But parents need to be educated before they can educate their children.

 So what about a campaign that says, "Millions of American kids are gay and at risk. So talk to your children and let them know you love them, no matter how they choose to love"?

 It's not a bad message, even for straight kids to hear. And who knows? It might even get the 'phobes to start thinking.


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