In its first season, the FOX-TV sensation Empire tackled a complicated and often overlooked issue in this country: the range of emotions and reactions when a child comes out as gay. Aspiring pop star Jamal Lyon (portrayed by Jussie Smollett) faces two very different responses from his parents: His mother, Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), continues to nurture her “special” baby, while his homophobic father, Lucious (Terrence Howard), continues the bullying that began when Jamal was a young boy displaying an interest in his mother’s clothing and throws him out of an apartment he’d purchased for him.
But this story line and similar ones we have seen in recent years (thanks to BET’s Being Mary Jane, Patrik-Ian Polk’s film Blackbird and Dee Rees’ film Pariah) are more than just riveting entertainment; they are mirroring what is happening in the actual lives of people in our community. As we speak, there are thousands of African-American lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals who also may be on the brink of coming out to their loved ones. Although there are those who choose to reject their offspring for any number of reasons—religious convictions, homophobia or simply a lack of understanding among them—many others are opting for love and acceptance.
With an increasing number of Black parents being open to exploring the second option, here is some affirming and practical advice from everyday people and LGBT experts on how your family can best support a young person who likely needs it now more than ever.
Coming out isn’t easy. LGBT people of all races, regardless of age, are juggling a lot and working through a series of uncertainties around whether they will be rejected; how the world will treat them now that they are out; and what sort of added discrimination they will face as an out LGBT person.
Your reaction to the news and your behavior from that day forward may be crucial in establishing how your child will develop his or her own self-worth and confidence. It is important to put your own fears and concerns to the side and focus on being committed to supporting your child, says William Johnson Sr., 70.
He understood how important it was for him to react appropriately when his only son, William Jr., came out at 17 as gay, confirming his long-held suspicions.
“When my boy was 6, he said, ‘I want to be a girl.’ I didn’t know what to do, so I ignored it, telling myself it was a phase. Over the years, there were obvious signs that he was gay, but we never really talked about it.”
Yet the day his son came out, it was clear that the young man was at a crossroads.
“I saw how vulnerable and how unsure he was about everything. He really needed my support and I knew that if I had stumbled at that point, I would have lost him. Yes, I had some issues because I was selfish and worried … but never did my love for my child waver, because being estranged was never an option.”
As for Johnson Jr., now 42, he admits there were arguments as he navigated his identity as a gay man. His father’s undying support, however, was always a game changer.
“Around the time I came out, I was confused and sad, so having my father’s love allowed for me to have one less thing to have angst about, which was really important. To have that unconditional love is really powerful and changes you."
Remember Your Child Hasn't Changed
Although some parents may suspect their child is gay prior to his or her coming out, others may be stunned. Either way, it’s important to understand that your son or daughter’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity isn’t about anyone else; it’s about figuring out and self-defining sexuality on his or her own terms, suggests the Coming Out Project.
Khalil Edwards, the director of PFLAG Portland Black Chapter, an organization dedicated to uplifting and providing support for African-American LGBT youth and adults and their families, stresses the importance of understanding that an LGBT child is the same child his or her parents brought into this world and vowed to love.
“Yes, you may have just learned this new thing about your child, but this is still the same person you have raised, nurtured and loved for his or her entire life. We have to remember that unity in our families is a strong tradition; we hold each other close, not push others away.”
Roni Carbone also speaks to the need for more parents to adopt this way of thinking when their children come out. Last year when she came out as bisexual, her mother told her she was “embarrassed and ashamed of” her, which has been heartbreaking for the 36-year-old.
“I knew this was going to be difficult for my mother to hear, but I never expected that type of reaction. I am still the same person who took care of her because she is diabetic, the same person who sacrificed so much for her; nothing has changed. And it’s sad because as children, we’ve been told, ‘There’s nothing you can tell me that will make me love you less.’ Parents really need to re-examine those phrases.”
The notion of your child staying the same also applies to transgender children, whom you may see as “changing,” but Tiq Milan, a transgender man and activist, emphasizes that your child is living out who he or she has always been.
“When I told my mother, who died last year, that I was trans in 2007, she was shocked. She cried but still showed up at my surgery and told me she loved and accepted me. She admitted that she felt like her daughter died, which was really hard for me to hear. But I told her, ‘This idea of having a daughter is gone, however, I am still your child and still me,’” he says.
Milan adds, “Older generations of parents have this idea that their children are their property, and they’re not; you have to let them be who they want to be. I’m lucky because I had parents who were there for me, but I know of trans folks who’ve lost their families. It’s hard for us; we really need our families. Without mine, I don’t think I’d be there right now.”
Do the Work
The concept of an LGBT identity may be one your family never considered in a meaningful way prior to your child coming out. Yes, you may have a gay friend at work or at church, but it’s likely you are going to have a lot of questions, such as: If the individual is trans, what does hormone therapy mean, and what pronouns will now be used? How can I talk about HIV without offending this person? How do I know this is really who he or she is and not a phase?
Thanks to the Internet, families now have a wealth of information at their fingertips from organizations such as PFLAG (pflag.org), the Family Acceptance Project (familyproject.sfsu.edu), the National Black Justice Coalition (nbjc.org) and the National Center for Transgender Equality (transequality.org), to name a few, which can also connect your family with others who have had similar experiences as well as LGBT-affirming family therapists who may be able to meet your child’s specific needs.
Taking the time to learn about his sexual orientation is what made Johnson Jr. really proud of his father.
“A lot of parents try to put the ownership of understanding what it means to be gay on their child, which is unfair, especially if the child is an adolescent. My father did the work for himself. He sought help and even bought books.”
In addition, “doing the work” is also about nurturing, communicating with and standing up for your LGBT children, stresses Lakeitha Elliot, 38, who has both a lesbian mother and a lesbian teenage daughter who came out four years ago.
“Since my daughter came out, there have been teachers who’ve said problematic things to her, which we’re not going to tolerate,” she says. “As parents, must communicate and connect with our children. We also have to recognize that there are LGBT kids killing themselves because they’re [being bullied] or are unloved by their familes.”
Edwards also notes that your child is going to be judged not just for being Black but also for being LGBT. These multiple levels of struggle make your support vital.
“We know that Black students are being disciplined [unfairly], how the school-to-prison pipeline works and how unsafe school is, but Black LGBT youth have a double negative against them. That’s why we have to affirm our kids in their Blackness and [their sexual orientation and gender identity] and be intentional about it,” he says.
Reconciling Your Faith With Your “Baby”
Although we’ve seen a slight shift in churches being more accepting of LGBT people, there is still a lot of church-induced silence and stigma that use faith to denounce “alternative” lifestyles. For some Christian and Muslim families, navigating their religion while attempting to support an LGBT child can be challenging.
But for Ray Hawes, 66, a devout Christian and father of an adult lesbian daughter, it’s clear that a parent’s spirituality and love for offspring don’t have to be at odds.
“If everyone practiced what the Bible said word-for-word, you’d have to clean out the churches, ban football because of touching ‘pigskin’ and you could never sleep next to your menstruating wife. We don’t live in the world that existed when the Bible was written, so we shouldn’t take passages out of context to condemn people. Betsy will always be my baby; I couldn’t love her any less and don’t believe my faith asks me to.”
Says Edwards, “The Bible teaches us that God is love and acceptance; that has been the cornerstone of our faith as African-Americans.”
Be prepared for long nights, conversations and even some missteps, but realize that this isn’t the end of your family as you knew it; instead, this is a new beginning. For parents who may have had a negative reaction when a child first came out, it’s not too late to try to make amends. Remember that extending your love and support is always the first step.
Now go and take this journey as a family—together.
Pitfalls of Intolerance
Failure to accept your LGBT loved one can have devastating consequences for his or her future
It’s important to point out that when it comes to discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, Black LGBT people suffer the most, facing vast economic, social and health disparities.
According to a 2012 report released by the Center for American Progress, Black LGBT individuals:
• Have higher rates of unemployment or underemployment;
• Face overall lower rates of pay and higher rates of poverty;
• Are less likely to have health insurance; and
• Experience higher rates of homelessness during youth than their peers.
Even in our schools, they are not as safe. According to a 2013 report conducted by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network:
• Black LGBT students receive some of the most hostile treatment in our nation’s school systems.
• 85 percent of Black LGBT students said they hear homophobic remarks.
• Just half of Black students feel safe at school, and only 38 percent report incidents to teachers.
• Bullied LGBT students of color have GPAs a half point lower than their nonbullied counterparts.
Black trans individuals continue to fall through the cracks, confirms the 2011 report Injustice at Every Turn:
• Black transgender people live in extreme poverty, with 34 percent making $10,000 or less a year; 26 percent are unemployed; 46 percent report being harassed at work for their gender identity; and 13 percent were sexually assaulted at work.
• 41 percent have been homeless in the past (five times the rate of the general U.S. population) and almost half have attempted suicide.
• More than 20 percent of transgender people in the report’s survey were HIV-positive, and 10 percent didn’t know their HIV status.
In addition, Black transgender women disproportionately face higher rates of violence and homicide. Just this year alone, no fewer than 15 Black trans women have been murdered.