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Thursday, April 25, 2013

Fathers and Sons: Coming Out to Your Father as a Gay Man

Coming out to your father as a gay man can be emotionally challenging.  In many families, there's a real risk that you'll be rejected.  I've worked with many gay men of all ages in my psychotherapy practice in NYC who have struggled with this issue.

Of course, I've also known both gay men with heterosexual parents who didn't have a problem when they came out to them.  But if you're on the fence about coming out to your father or you've already come out and it has placed a strain on your father-son relationship, you already know how emotionally challenging this can be for both you and your dad.

The following vignette is  a composite of many cases with all identifying information changed to protect confidentiality:

Alan
Alan knew from the time that he was about 12 years old that he was gay.  Growing up in a traditional family in the Midwest, he didn't feel he could talk to his parents or brothers about it and he felt lonely and confused.

Alan felt especially worried about what his father would think if he knew Alan was gay.  His father was a kind man, but he was also conservative in his values.  Alan didn't want to be a disappointment to him.

When he was in his teens, Alan tried dating girls, but he knew he wasn't interested in girls.  He had crushes on boys, but he didn't dare tell his friends.  He didn't know anyone who was gay, so he continued to have a lot of questions about his sexual orientation until he moved to NYC to go to college, and he met other gay young men.

Fathers and Sons: Coming Out to Your Father as a Gay Man

It was such a relief to meet other young men who felt the same way that he did.  He went out on dates, but he was too afraid to get sexually involved with any of the young men he dated.

He kept his gay social activities a secret from his family.  He thought his mother might understand because she tended to be more open minded than his father.  But it was all so new for him that he wasn't comfortable with his sexual orientation himself, so he decided to start therapy.

After we started working together for a few months, Alan began to feel more comfortable as a gay man.  He realized that before he felt more accepting of himself, it would have been hard to come out to his parents.

To make it easier for Alan, we developed a plan where he would start with the person he thought would be the most accepting and easiest to talk to.  Alan chose his younger brother, who tended to be more liberal than the rest of the family.  And his younger brother was encouraging, supportive and happy that Alan came out to him.

One by one, Alan called his brothers and, to his surprise, each one of them told him that, even though they might not understand it, they loved him and wanted him to be happy.

Feeling a little more confident, he spoke to his mother, who told Alan that she had sensed from the time he was a young boy that he might be gay.  She was tearful and told him that she worried about him getting HIV.  Alan told her that he had not been sexual with a man yet, but he assured her that he would be careful.

Then Alan asked his mother how she thought his father would react if he came out to him.  His mother was silent, and then she said she didn't know.  She thought that his father might need time to get used to the idea.  But she thought, ultimately, he would come around.

Until then, Alan's experience of coming out to his family had been mostly positive.  He knew that coming out to his father would be the most challenging part of coming out as a gay man.  Although  his mother never pressured him about it, Alan knew his father wanted him to get married to a woman, have children, and lead a traditional life.

Rather than coming out to his father over the phone, Alan decided to do it in person when he went home for a visit.   Before he went home, Alan had several sessions to talk about his fears about his father rejecting him.  This caused Alan a lot of emotional pain.

Before he went home, Alan purchased a copy of the book, Now That You Know: A Parent's Guide to Understand Your Gay and Lesbian Children, which is written for parents of gay children.  The original plan was for Alan to have the talk with his father on his third day at home. But the day came and went and Alan was too afraid to talk to his father.

So, that night, he wrote his father a letter telling his father how much he loved him and how much he valued their father-son relationship.  He also told him that he was happier than he had ever been now that he could be himself and he hoped his father would understand.

The next day, when they were alone sitting on the porch, Alan handed his father the letter and asked him to read it.  His father hesitated, at first, to open the letter.  Alan's heart was pounding in his chest and his hands were sweating, but he urged his father to read it.  Then, he watched a frown come over his father's face as he read the letter, folded it back up again, and walked away silently into the garden.

Alan continued to sit on the porch.  He felt numb and frozen in place.  He didn't know how to interpret his father's reaction.  He was afraid his worst fears had come true and that his father was upset.  He watched the sun go down, and continued to sit in the same spot until early evening.  When it was time for dinner, Alan's mother told Alan and his brothers that their father wasn't feeling well and he wouldn't be coming down to dinner.  Alan felt tears stinging in his eyes, and he decided he would pack his things after dinner and leave a few days early.

As he was packing that evening, he heard a knock on the door.  When he opened the door, he saw his father standing there, eyes averted, looking at the floor.  Alan didn't know what to expect, but he let his father in.  They sat together on Alan's bed, silently, for what seemed like a long time.  Then, his father spoke in a hoarse voice and said, "I don't understand it.  I'm going to need time, but you're my son and I'll always love you."  He reached over and gave Alan a big hug.  Then, he left before Alan could respond.

Alan left the book for his father to read.  He continued to work in therapy on his coming out process. He realized that it had taken him a while to feel comfortable with being gay, so he knew it would be a process for his father too.

Getting Help
The coming out process is different for everyone.  If you're struggling with your own feelings as well as your fears about how your family will react, you could benefit from getting help from a licensed mental health professional who has expertise in this area.  It could make all the difference in your process.  I've included resources below for gay organizations.

I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist and EMDR therapist.  I work with individual adults and couples, and one of my specialties is working with lesbian, gay and bisexual clients.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist 

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or  send me an email: josephineolivia@aol.com

Resources
LGBT Center - NYC
Gay and Lesbian National Help Center - Hotline
Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays

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