How Parents Come Out—or Are Outed—To Their Kids
Some within 'The Kids,' a book documenting the experiences of children of LGBTQ parents, are born into families whose parents are openly queer. What about those that aren't?
Mark, one of the subject of The Kids. All photos by Gabriela Herman
Yesterday was National Coming Out Day, a yearly event that brings LGBTQ people together to contemplate the closet—that often-terrifying door through which we must pass if we wish to live openly as ourselves. It's an annual chance to exorcise memories of life lived as a lie and celebrate the acceptance many of us have found since.
But for the children of LGBTQ parents, "coming out" takes on radically different terms. They are foisted into an identity all their own, one they must learn to live with just as their parents learned to live as queer. For those whose portraits and stories are documented in Gabriela Herman's new book, The Kids: The Children of LGBTQ Parents in the USA, the learning curve is sometimes painless—many within are raised by loving, out, same-sex couples. But many others discover their parents' sexuality by less-than-pleasant means.
How do children of queer parents cope when their families are outed—for instance, by a police entrapment sting, or when their father falls ill from AIDS? The emotional and social fallout that would follow can be devastating, as painful for the child grappling with a new conception of those who raised them as it might be for their newly-queer parent. Below, five children from The Kids explain how their parents came out or were outed, and how they wrestled with what came next.
Britnee, East Palo Alto, CA
I'm a military brat, and I grew up everywhere. I was born in Central California, moved to Denver, Colorado, with my family, then moved to Pensacola, Florida, and that's when my parents separated.
From my understanding now, it was infidelity on both sides. They were both cheating on each other with men. My mom moved back with her family and me, and my brother and sister stayed with my dad. He was in the military. My dad was the one with the income.
It was really dramatic. I was in the eighth grade. I had graduated, and he wanted us to drive down to Lompoc, where I was born, to see old family members, and my brother didn't want to go, so that caused some kind of argument. I kind of tune my parents out when they argue, but somehow during the argument I heard, "I'm gay; I don't care what anyone thinks. I'm going to Lompoc. Who's coming with me?"
I remember on the trip to Lompoc—it's like a five, six hour drive—I was just in the back seat and crying, like, "Oh my gosh, my dad's going to get AIDS and die." I just associated being gay with having AIDS and dying.
I didn't want to ask a lot of questions. I just kind of rolled with it. Eventually I went to my dad's house and Jerry was there. Jerry was my dad's friend, and he went from just being the friend to being a roommate, and then they moved off the air force base and were living together. I remember looking around the house, and there was this wedding book, and I'm like, "Wedding book? What's this?" So I'm flipping through it, and it was their wedding, and my sister was in the wedding because she had stayed with my dad.
It was like, "You didn't even tell me that there was a wedding that you were a part of?" And she was like, "It was last minute, and it was very secretive." Because it was before "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was repealed. My dad got married in Massachusetts, and he was still on active duty. I was really upset about that for a long time, but now I'm realizing there were a lot of reasons that he had to keep it secret and I couldn't be invited. But it was hurtful, and I was kind of like, "Screw you, guys."
I should've seen the signs when I was growing up. I remember we would wake up on Saturday mornings and he would put on RuPaul's "Supermodel," and all the music that is played in the gay clubs now, and we would wear it out. We were really into RuPaul, and through RuPaul, as funny as it seems, I've really been able to get more comfortable and really understand my dad a lot more. I feel like he is RuPaul. I really do.
Jessica, Missoula, MT
My dad opened this flower shop in Missoula, Montana. It was outrageous for that size of a town. The front was teal and had this copper awning, and he had classical piano players and champagne. My father was so decadent, old-school gay, but everyone just thought he was so charming and so wonderful, and somehow, in the eighties, I think that just read as fun. Nobody really put it together.
I was about ten when he came out to me and my sister. I remember I was gardening—my father was obsessed with roses, and we had three hundred rose bushes—and it was the summer, and my dad came home from work and said, "I want to talk to you girls. Come inside." I could tell it was really serious. Then he said, "I need to tell you girls that I'm gay." He could barely get the words out. He started to cry.
That summer was really depressing. I remember watching Oprah every single day, waiting, hoping that she would do a show on gay parents. She never did. That's how isolated we were. There was no Internet. There was no way to reach out or connect. It was really hard on my mom.
I lived with my mom for a summer before graduate school, and I was really into records, and my mom's like, "Your dad had a bunch of records, if you want to go look at them." And so I went down in the basement, and it was the gayest collection of records, straight-up Judy Garland, and I'm like, "Really, no idea he was gay?" And she's like, "No idea." And then we just burst out laughing. I think it was one of the first times my mom and I really laughed about it.
They had met at a wedding. My mom said it was the only time she ever thought he might be gay. He was sitting with his legs crossed, in a beautiful suit, drinking champagne. And then he was immediately super into her, thought she was the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen, and then they were inseparable. He was super romantic, you know, and everything was grand and fabulous.
My father died my first year of college and then my mother died two years later—of breast cancer. He died in 1995, two months before they approved all the HIV cocktails. My mom was there with him when he died. She helped take care of him.
I remember the last time I saw him. My dad was in the passenger seat and my mom was driving, and I was in the back. My dad reached over and held my mom's hand. His hand was gnarled, really bad—it was the late stages of AIDS. And he grabbed my mom's hand, and he was like, "You know, your mom has always been my best friend." They really loved each other.
Mark, Snyder County, PA
My dad was outed as gay in a police sting designed to entrap men who have sex with other men. After many years of marriage with my mom, everything came to a screeching halt in 2008, and our lives were turned upside down. He served almost four years in jail. During that time, they divorced, and my dad became more and more open about his struggle to accept himself as gay.
It was difficult having a parent in jail. I had recurring nightmares about his well-being. We communicated mostly through letters. Because I had been openly gay and gender nonbinary for many years, I was able to provide my father with resources, information, and support from my own experiences. This continues today and has brought new meaning to our relationship and, ultimately, I think, brought us closer.
Both my father and I had times in our lives when we were suicidal because of the situations we were facing. We grew up in a very conservative, rural part of Pennsylvania. I was relentlessly harassed and bullied in high school. Both my parents did what they could to support me. After my own period of deep depression, they worked with me to transfer schools and help me attend college a year early, which saved my life. During my father's arrest, he too was suicidal, and I was able to talk with him on the phone to offer my support and to send resources to the prison.
My mom no longer speaks to my dad due to the painful betrayal of their trust, but she remains a steadfast ally to me. My parents taught me the true meaning of family values—love and support. They also taught me to have compassion and understanding for others. For that I am forever grateful.
Tara, Philadelphia, PA
My mom and dad divorced when I was three. My dad never came out. He was very closeted, but he lived in the big city. We were in a trailer park, and I would see him on the weekends. Once in a while, I'd sleep over at the city, so I got a glimpse into his life. He was a big antiques collector. He had lots of plants, a beautiful apartment. He listened to NPR constantly. He biked everywhere. Nobody really knew about what his life was like, his personal life. There were little rumors here and there that he had a girlfriend. No one ever met her.
When I was around twelve, he started to disappear. It would be a Saturday, and my mom would be like, "I don't know where he is. He's supposed to pick you up." And it would happen that he had been in the hospital. When he would get out of the hospital, things got back to normal.
He didn't tell us he was in the hospital. He would just vanish. It must have been horrible, to secretly check yourself in with no support. He would start to have these weird sores. He would call it an abscessed tooth, but it was like a boil, on his face. He would disappear for months, come back, then he started having some sort of dementia. We would be driving along and he would shout out men's names. He'd be like, "Robert!" and I'd be like, "What is going on?"
I finally had this revelation, when I was fourteen, that I should start being nice and not a brat. "Spend time with your dad. You don't know him." One of the last times I saw him out of the hospital, we were at the mall, and we bought two different flavored Slurpees, and he asked me if I wanted to try his, and I didn't because I thought there was something that he had that I could catch.
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I knew Dad was sick, and then he finally went in, he told everyone, "I'm in here, and I'm probably not going to leave." I saw him once. They had a piece of poster board in his ER room that said "blood and body fluid precautions." We were top-to-bottom robed out, gloved out. He wrote a letter to me, and I've never seen it. My mom thought it was going to bring the germs into our house. I don't know what she did with it. Once he did pass away, the verdict was pneumonia, at age 39. Even my 14-year-old self knew that was outrageous.
Years after—I already knew I was gay—I started to wonder more about my dad. I had a couple of names of his friends, and I called one up and I told him who I was, and he was flabbergasted. I was like, "Can you just tell me some stuff about my dad?" And he said that he used to dress in drag and used to go to Woody's, the big gay bar in downtown Philly, where I was going at the time.
I have so many thoughts like, "Goddamn. I wish he could've been around for me." I feel gypped. But I try to look at it positive, like he's with me. I'm him. I look just like him.
Vanessa, Fairfax, VA
My dad came out of the closet when I was 28.
It was Easter. We weren't planning to go home, but my dad called me and my sister and said, "We need to talk to you. You guys need to come home." And my dad just came out and said it. He was like, "I'm gay, and your mom and I are separating." We all just sat there, and I think my dad was waiting for us to yell at him or reject him or something. Me and my sister both gave him a hug, and we told him that we loved him, and he just started crying. We were a little mad at him for lying, but I think, mostly, we both felt sorry for him. I think my mom was happy that we didn't reject my dad.
My mom opened a bottle of wine that she had been saving for thirty years. She was like, "It's time to drink this." My sister disappeared for a while and I eventually found her in the bathtub, which is somewhere she used to go when she was a little girl. I got in the bathtub with her, and we ended up sitting there for an hour drinking wine and talking or not talking. Just sitting there.
My dad had tried everything. He and my mom went to counseling together, and he went to somebody who was supposed to convert him or "fix" him, because he really does love my mom very much and his family. I guess his whole life he felt like he was trying to do what was right because he was raised Catholic and in a generation that wasn't supportive.
If my dad had grown up in a place that was accepting of him and his people, then he wouldn't have been depressed half his life and felt like he had to live a lie or needed to be fixed.It's not that I wish things were different, but I wish he could've been happy, and I think I want to live in a world where everybody has a right to be happy.
Copyright © 2017 by Gabriela Herman. This excerpt originally appeared in The Kids, published by The New Press and reprinted here with permission.