Rare is the study that explores the positive aspects of growing up gay in America.
This has everything to do with our conflicted notions about homosexuality and nothing to do with a lack of positive aspects, says psychologist Anne Dohrenwend, who contends that gay youth who enjoy a loving, safe embrace from their family have an equal — and maybe greater — shot at genuine happiness than some of their straight counterparts.
"People grow when they are challenged," Dohrenwend writes in her new book, Coming Around: Parenting Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Kids (New Horizon Press). "Some of life's greatest lessons strain body and soul with their demands. Without a doubt, it is a hardship to suffer discrimination and yet, if one is open to it, there is much to be learned from oppression and overcoming it."
Dohrenwend, an associate professor at Michigan State University, wants her book to help parents understand the coming-out process and the full range of emotions it is likely to unleash — for their children and themselves.
"When parents accept their kids' sexual orientation, it reduces the risk for just about everything: depression, suicide, anxiety, the impact of bullying, the likelihood to smoke, the likelihood of dropping out of school," she says. "In just about every way, parental support is the key factor."
All of which paves the way for a child's sexual orientation to simply be one part of his or her identity — and a positive part, at that. Dohrenwend talks here about her book and her experience counseling families coping with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues.
The following conversation is an edited transcript.
Q: Do you hear a lot of parents say, "I just don't want my child to struggle"?
A: That's often the reaction. I try to remind them if your child has your support, and you teach them to be proud and assertive, they can have every chance at happiness. This isn't the world (the parents) grew up in. The world is changing and these are different waters your kid is stepping into. Your child can have everything a straight child can have.
Q: Including happiness …
A: Gay people who go through the coming-out process often land on the other side with a lot of shared strengths. They tend to be resilient against negative opinions, resilient against peer pressure, have integrity and a strong sense of self, are able to be intimate and define relationships in ways that are creative and authentic. They've broken through a lot.
Q: You advise parents not to say "I love you anyway" when their child comes out. Is that a common response?
A: It's the most common response. It's a second-best comment. It's like telling your child, "Your hair is blond, but I love you anyway." Your child hears, "I'd love you better if you were brunette." It's a subtle way of communicating that the child is inferior, that this is a disappointment, that even though you're gay, you can be OK. It's better to say, "I love you and I'm glad you told me." It signifies to the person, "I didn't want you to stay in the closet."
Q: You write that some parents wish their kids did stay in the closet. Why?
A: Pretty much every gay person has heard that: "Why did you need to tell me?" There are people who deal with dissonance by blocking out that which is dissonant to the picture of what they want a relationship to be. They compartmentalize. "I don't want to know that part of you. Now I have these two things: I don't agree with homosexuality, but I love you." There are people who are not good at holding things that force them to view life as full of ambiguity and conflict and values that crash into each other. Those things cause us to grow and sometimes people resist that growth.
Q: Do you see those parents come around?
A: Some do, some don't. It's amazing to me how people you never think are going to, come around. People should have hope. Kids need to have hope about people coming around, and at the same time they need to learn how to move forward and grieve losses and be happy.