Having a son come out to you in a tender moment. Sharing this part of himself is an act of trust. Study after study shows that a parent’s perceived support has long ranging impacts on queer kids’ mental health and self-acceptance — and the wellbeing of their relationship with you.
If you’re a dad, your reaction to this disclosure is particularly important, said Dennis Flores, a researcher in the Department of Family and Community Health at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing. Fathers are a child’s primary model of masculinity. For gay, bi, and queer sons, who may grow up with the sense that something about their masculinity is different, your reassurance means the world. “It's the words that you say that become the thoughts in their heads,” Flores says.
For a recent study, published in the Journal of Pediatric Healthcare, Flores and his colleagues interviewed 30 gay, bisexual, and queer cisgender teen boys on their communication with their parents about sexuality. Again and again, the boys emphasized the importance of an open and ongoing inclusive conversation about sexuality, one that acknowledges the existence of gay sex. No matter how awkward, these conversations signaled that it’s okay to come to mom or dad, that they can confide in their parents, and that they can ask them questions — even before turning to friends or the internet.
These conversations are all the more crucial in the era of “Don’t Say Gay” legislation, one interviewee noted. Parents have the opportunity to provide a space where their kids know that there’s nothing wrong with them, even as much of the country communicates the opposite message.
But in a world where being straight is still treated as the norm, there’s no script for those first conversations after your son comes out. Here are seven things you can say that will make all the difference.
A third of LGBTQ youth aren’t out to their parents, according to a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association. Fewer than half of LGBTQ youth are out to their fathers. These kids choose to remain silent out of fear of rejection or being kicked out, Flores says.
When a son does come out to his parent, especially his dad, it’s an act of bravery. “Parents need to recognize that and thank their children for sharing that crucial piece of information,” Flores says. Doing so emphasizes to your son that you value communication.
Make it clear that you understand that your son is extending a privilege to you. “I would suggest something along the lines of ‘I’m glad you shared that information with me,” Flores adds.
“Nothing Has Changed.”
Among the biggest insecurities a gay, bisexual, or queer boy has: that coming out will disrupt his relationship with you. Be firm in expressing that nothing has changed: “You know I still love you, right?” Flores suggests. “As your father, I’ll always be there for you.
Coming out can and should be joyful. In previous research, Flores has found that humor goes a long way in helping queer kids feel accepted by their parents after coming out. In one study, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, interviewees recalled how jokes, teasing, and gentle banter — even the occasional off-color quip — leavened tension and made conversations easier. In families where teasing was a normal part of how parents and children displayed affection, these jokes made it clear that, true to the parents’ word, nothing had changed.
If communicating in person about your kid’s sexuality feels hard, you can lean on technology to keep things light, Flores says. Send a funny meme or TikTok from an LGBTQ account (make sure it’s not offensive!). Send texts to your kid throughout the day. This might feel awkward — to both you and your kid — and that’s okay, Flores says. Embrace the cringe. “You can rib them and say ‘hey, would you rather have a dad who didn’t try!” Flores says.
The point is to communicate that you’re there, and you’re trying. Besides, mortifying your kid is a classic part of raising a teenager, gay or straight.
“I’ve Never Done This Before.”
Acknowledging that things are going to be awkward at times can go a long way in dissipating tension, Flores says. “Say, ‘listen, I want to have an important conversation with you, but it's gonna be awkward. So can we be awkward together?’” It’s rare that parents cede that kind of authority to their children or admit that they’re not the expert, Flores says. Doing so helps remove the parent-child power dynamic and makes it easier for a kid to feel comfortable opening up.
“What Do You Know About Safe Sex?”
In his Journal of Pediatric Healthcare study, Flores found that it was important to gay, bi, and queer youth that their parents acknowledged sex and were open to inclusive conversations about it — these discussions helped remove some of the stigma of gay sex and reinforced the idea that home is a safe environment. However, for some teen boys, the sex talk was their parents first reaction to their coming out — and was presented as more of a panicked lecture about the dangers of HIV than an open conversation.
Instead, open the conversation with a question, Flores says. Find out what your son already knows about sex, and take it from there.
Chances are, you’ve messed up in the past — laughed at a homophobic joke on television, made a remark about a man’s feminine clothes or presentation, or reacted with discomfort to conversations about same-sex relationships or sex. Now is your chance to make things better by admitting to these mistakes. You can say, “Yikes, I’m sorry. I didn’t know better back then,” Flores says. Even if you don’t remember a specific instance, acknowledging your changing awareness of diverse sexual orientations and your attitudes towards them can go a long way.
And it’s important to acknowledge that you’re going to keep messing up. That’s okay, Flores says. As soon as you realize that you’ve misstepped, sincerely apologize and move on. That will go a long way toward securing your relationship with your son.
Remember To Talk With Your Body
Words of affirmation don’t go very far if you’re visibly uncomfortable. “You may be saying all the right things, but if you deliver it in a pained or awkward way or with a terrified look on your face, or if you're physically distant or resigned, [your son] will know that you're just BS-ing them,” Flores says. “This is time for dads to put their game face on.”
Strive for open body language. Show that you’re present with eye contact, unfold your arms, make sure you’re not frowning. Communicate acceptance and vulnerability by giving your son a hug.