“Take it back!"
You'll often hear those three words come from the mouth of a child. Usually they're in response to a playground tease, the common kind of slander — four eyes! metal mouth! — that kids get over fast. But when California dad Steve sat his three sons on the living room couch, the news he had to share was of much greater consequence. So when his 11-year old middle son burst into tears and shrieked those three words, the reaction pierced his dad's already-anxious heart.
Steve had just told them he was gay. And there was no taking this back.
Tales about coming out often focus on the experience of a child telling his or her parent. Those stories are important. But every day, disclosures move in the other direction: dads will have to tell their children that their father is gay. For those men, many of who became parents during marriages or long-term relationships with women, the process is just as difficult. Age doesn't always do much to quell the nerves of coming out, and when parents reveal themselves to their children, they are often fraught with all the fears of a trembling adolescent: of losing love, of being forsaken, of being deemed a disappointment. For at least a fleeting moment, the parent is as scared as a child.
There is no right or wrong way to come out to your kids — and in fact, the approaches are as varied as the men that employ them. To help shed some light on this difficult process, Gays With Kids disseminated a survey to compile information on when, how and why dads came out to their kids. After amassing dozens of diverse responses, it was clear how different every experience is.
Some respondents were as young as 24 when they came out to their children, others as old as 48. (And we all know plenty of dads who came out well after that too.) Some came out to their kids as toddlers, while others broke the news to sons and daughters in their twenties. And there's no doubt that there are a multitude of post-coming out struggles. For some dads, it's figuring out how to date as a single parent. For others, it's learning how to maintain a civil relationship with an ex-wife.
But regardless of the circumstances, the end results wind up pretty consistent. In essentially every case, dads were glad that they made the choice to come out, and the reactions were almost uniformly “positive or mostly positive." Were there hiccups? Sure. Did it take time for some relationship rifts to heal? Occasionally. But dads generally have no regrets about taking that big step — even though it's one you can't take back.
What should you think about as you're planning your own coming-out to the kids? We spoke to a number of survey participants to get more specific details on their stories, and though no two journeys are the same, each revealed a unique lesson to take away.
Lesson #1: If you can't love yourself, how the hell you gonna love somebody else?
It's an oft-articulated key to parenting: "Lead by example." That extends to coming out. Kids will follow your cues, and it will be much more difficult for them to accept that their father is gay if he hasn't truly come to terms with it himself.
"You really have to lead by example, and you can't do that until you're fully comfortable with yourself," says Steve from California. His three children were aged 10, 11 and 13 when he came out to them, a full six years after he divorced their mother. She found out first, but it was important to Steve that he be the one to tell the kids; it was important that he showed his trust in them. "It was important for them to hear it from me," says Steve. "They needed to know that I wasn't hiding anything."
His middle son may have initially begged the dad to "take it back," but Steve's comfort with his sexuality helped his kids come to terms. "I don't make it a big deal, but I also don't hide any part of my life from them," says Steve, who was comfortable bringing around gay friends and, eventually, a long-term boyfriend. Today he even runs his own blog, gayfathersblog.com, to share his experiences. "For me to be able to speak about these things showed them that I was comfortable with it."
And now, so are his kids. "When they got to high school and started dating, they had no problems telling their girlfriends that their dad was gay," says Steve. "And that showed me that they were comfortable with it too."
Lesson #2: Test the Waters
The question "what will they think of me?" is one that is sure to race through the mind of any dad on the verge of coming out to his kids. Here's one way to anticipate the answer (and, thus, prepare a response): Find out what they think of others.
"We were on an overnight trip to San Francisco, and as we drove up I started asking them little questions," says Frank from Pomona, California. The divorced dad of two was ready to come out to his kids, but he wanted to get a sense of how his kids perceive gay people. "First I asked them, 'Do you have any friends who are gay?'" Sure they do, answered his then-10 year-old son and 8 year-old daughter. "I asked them, 'How do you feel about it?' And they'd tell me. Then I asked, 'How would you feel if one of your parents was gay?' They didn't even blink. They thought nothing of it." And then he dropped the non-bomb.
"Because I'm gay." In response, his kids had only one request: That if he met someone special, they could meet him. That's a far cry from the kind of reaction many gay dads anticipate to their coming-out. Feeling out your kids' comfort with gay issues allows you to tailor the way you tell them — and, assuming they're comfortable with gay people in general, a dad can logistically connect those dots to his own disclosure. (It'll also help quell any cold feet syndrome you might be experiencing.)
"Today I've never been happier," says Frank. And in fact, he says, coming out has only brought him closer to his kids: They share a stronger level of trust and knowledge of non-judgment. "More than with their mother, they feel comfortable coming to me and telling me everything that's going on in their lives. They don't hide anything. They know that sometimes they might be lectured or scolded, but they know they'll never be judged."
Lesson #3: Seize an Opportunity
For some gay dads, it never feels like it's the right time to come out. So when the universe opens a door, you have to take note — and walk right through.
Of course, occasionally the openings are very, very obvious. That's how it was for Judd, a gay dad from Las Vegas. Raised in a strict Mormon household, Judd knew he was gay since an early age. When he was around 19, his suspicious mother asked him if he was gay. "I lied," says Judd. "And she said, 'Oh good. Because I'd rather that you killed someone than be gay. At least God could forgive that."
Compare that conversation to the one that Judd had with his own teenage son decades later. Judd's son expressed to his dad that he thought he might be pansexual; in a "show of solidarity," dad then came out to son. "I told him that while I wasn't seeing anyone right now, I've started to date again and when I do meet someone it very well might be a man. And that I hope that would be okay." And, although Judd says his son never wound up further exploring his own sexual fluidity, a mutual understanding was reached: For either of them, any sexual identity would be A-OK.
It's a stark contrast to the kind of conversation that Judd was able to have with his mom — although in her later years of ailing health, during which Judd was her primary caregiver, it seemed that parent-child relationship had reached a new understanding, too.
"My mom told me that if I was to meet somebody that I wanted to have a relationship with, she would support me," says Judd. He was able to hear those words from her before she passed. It seems that she too realized how important it is to seize the moment while you still can.
Lesson #4: Come Out Strong
When coming out, some gay dads try to dance around the issue. But Don didn't have a choice.
He was outed by his Netflix account.
Ah, parenting in the 21st century. The divorced California dad recalls the day that eyebrows were raised when, during family movie night, his Netflix viewing history popped up on the TV screen. "Under 'Recently Watched' there were a couple of LGBT-themed romances. The kids were like, 'Um, dad?'" laughs Don now. Well, that was one way to get the conversation going with his four children, then aged 12, 14, 17 and 18.
Don came out swinging.
"I said, 'I like guys too,'" he recalls.
After all, the kids had been asking when he was going to start dating again. "I said, I'm ready to start dating, and it's going to be guys." Their reaction was totally nonplussed. "They were just like, 'okay, that's great.'" The only stipulation: Don's 17-year old son requested that he not be introduced to dates — until, that is, things were getting serious.
It had nothing to do with sexuality. "His mom had already dated several guys, and introduced each of them to the kids," explains Don. "Then they were gone. He just didn't want people in and out of his life."
How did his kids adjust so easily? "I think the reason that I had such a good experience is that when I decided to come out, I was immediately open with everyone in my life," says Don. His kids were the first to know, but within a two-week span he had filled in the rest of the extended family and his coworkers. "It was like ripping the Band-Aid off," chuckles Don.
Maybe more importantly, it sent a healthy message to his kids. While it may sound appealing to come out in stages, requiring your kids to conspire in a secret suddenly shifts the burden to them. And it certainly sends mixed messages if you assure your kids that being gay is okay — even while continuing to hide it from the rest of the world. Storming out of the closet isn't such a bad idea.
In fact, your kids may prefer it that way too.
"So can we just go ahead and tell everybody you're gay now?" asked Don's daughter during his disclosure. Go ahead, honey. Or just show them his Netflix.
Lesson #5: Don't Underestimate Your Kids
"The biggest thing I learned from coming out is that I should never underestimate my kids' compassion."
Iowa dad Dennis was terrified of coming out. "It scared the shit out of me," he admits. And like so many gay fathers faced with the daunting prospect, he hemmed and hawed over how to make it happen — but he knew he had to now that, several years out of the divorce, he was dating again. "I mulled it over for several months, trying to think of how to have this big, important conversation."
Many dads psych themselves out. But then came the moment of truth: "Dad's dating," said Dennis to his 11- and 14-year old daughters. He got no response. Gulp. "There's more. Dad is dating a man."
One daughter looked shocked. The other looked away.
"That's weird," she muttered.
For a moment, Dennis was sure his worst fears had come true. The girls retired to their room to process the news. But while they "started off cool, they came around very quickly," says Dennis. And now his daughters are his biggest allies: He recalls his daughter explaining a debate over gay marriage with her Christian schoolmate, and the ways she unhesitatingly invoked that her own dad was a gay man. Or the reaction he received more recently, when he broke another big piece of news: He was engaged to his partner of several years.
"They said, 'Well, it's about time!' laughs Dennis. Trademark adolescent snark, sure — but a long way from "that's weird."
"They're still teenage girls, and they can be a pain in the butt at times," chuckles the dad. "But when it comes down to the important moments in life, children offer unconditional love."
Lesson #6: Make Sure Your Kids Are Surrounded by Support
Kids are impressionable. They soak up messages like sponges — which can make for quite a challenge in a world where gay people continue to encounter resistance and discrimination. Sure, you can raise your child in a household that promotes love and acceptance. But they can't live in a bubble, and lest good work be undone, it may require monitoring to ensure that outside influences are in line with the values you want to teach.
Chet, a gay dad from Texas, had a relatively easy time coming out — at first. He still has a good friendship with his ex-wife, and he came out to his son and daughter — then 8 and 9, respectively — by emphasizing that it was best for their mother: He didn't want to live a lie and deny them both true happiness. "What's for supper?" asked his son. Chet's daughter had more questions: "She was concerned what people might think." Family counseling helped.
The extended family, on the other hand, hurt. Chet grew up in the church — but his brother, the pastor, had him removed from the rolls. Chet wanted his kids to have a relationship with their grandparents and uncle, so for a while he would let them spend the holidays with them. "But it created a lot of trouble," says Chet. "My son would come home and say, 'Uncle says you're going to hell and I shouldn't live here.'"
This was the same son who glossed over his dad's coming-out with a dinner request. But the sway of indoctrination threatened to crush that acceptance. "My son would go away for a weekend, and it would take a month to convince him everything was okay again," says Chet. "He would lay in bed at night and cry, saying 'I don't want you to go to hell.'"
"It tortured him. It was a cruel thing to do to a kid."
So regrettably, Chet put the kibosh on keeping a relationship between his kids and their extended family. He hasn't spoken to his father in about nine years — but Chet knows it's a necessary distance if it keeps his kids from damaging influence.
Now that they're teenagers, though, it's doubtful it would matter. Chet's son is a member of his high school's GSA. And his once self-conscious daughter is now "a raging feminist," chuckles Chet. "She's hilariously outspoken, living with her mom in a rural school district where she's probably the only person driving around with a Bernie Sanders bumper sticker and an equality sign on the car."
Now that's a family that functions as an A-plus support system.
Lesson #7: Have Patience
Face it: You didn't accept your sexuality overnight. How can you expect your kids to do so?
Plenty of children — including those in many of the aforementioned families — will barely break stride while processing a parent's sexuality. But it's true that some will hit a hiccup. And if that happens, time might be the most important thing you have on your side.
Take the story of Brent, a gay dad from Tennessee. He was married for 20 years — growing up in a Southern Baptist family had repressed his ability to recognize his sexuality. In fact, he once rejected his own brother for being gay: Brent forbade him from visiting his kids, and when Christmas cards arrived "from uncle and uncle," Brent would be quick to clarify. "I'd tell the kids, that other guy's not your uncle," he says.
Of course, all that resentment was symptomatic of his repression. Brent eventually came to understand his true sexuality slowly and in stages, at first through the safe and unintimidating world of cyberspace. Beyond restrictive confines of religion was a limitless space where he could connect with other gay men through message boards and online virtual worlds like Second Life. He came out to his wife and they tried to work things through via counseling, but divorce wound up inevitable.
And so did the need to tell Brent's son, 18, and daughter, 15. It happened in the office of a family counselor, at the counselor's suggestion. In case it was upsetting, the kids "wouldn't attach the memories" to their home — and in this case, that may have been a smart move.
"Things got a lot worse before they got better," says Brent. His son took it particularly hard. "There were times when I'd take him out for dinner, and it was like I was sitting there by myself. My daughter did the same thing, though her swings weren't as violent as my son's."
To get through it, Brent used the two oldest tricks in the parenting book: unconditional love and patience.
"Whenever I saw them, I always made sure to say 'I love you,'" says Brent. And that's paid off with progress. Today his son is a workingman and their relationship is "a million miles better." He's truly come around. His daughter has come to terms, if perhaps not quite as far along. She's still religious, studying at a Baptist seminary, and maintains some reticence.
"I'm still not sure about the marriage thing," she responded when Brent mentioned that the option may soon be on the table for him and his partner. Maybe she's not sure yet — but there's reason to believe that time could change that.
Whatever the future holds, one thing will always remain the same.
"Remember," he advises others. "No matter what, you're still Dad."