Parents often have strong ideas about how their children should live. Many times I’ve had adult clients tell me that their parents still view them as extensions of themselves.
Of course, it’s a wonderful thing to be considerate and thoughtful of your parents. And it’s great not to deliberately try to break their hearts.
But what happens when the way that you want to live your life is very different from how your parents want you to live?
A recent letter to my Washington Blade advice column raised this issue. I think the issues raised are far bigger than sexual orientation, so I’m sharing it here:
My sister, eight years older than I am, came out at 17. My parents, very religious and conservative, were sad and horrified. They’ve kept Kate’s* sexual orientation (together with her partner and two children) a secret from their close-knit community for many years.
I saw their deep disappointment and sadness and as I got older, I resolved to do my best, as their only other child, to make it up to them by being the best son they could ask for. Although as a teenager I was aware of some attraction to other guys, I resolved I would marry a woman and give my parents lots of grandchildren whom they could brag about to their friends.
A lot of time has gone by and I’m now in my mid-30s. After years of pushing myself to be involved with women, I’ve acknowledged I am really only attracted to men. But I can’t bring myself to come out to my parents. I think it would completely undo them to have both their children be gay and not be able to finally enjoy the same open pride in their progeny as their friends and neighbors do.
I know I shouldn’t be catering to their small-mindedness but they are loving people, albeit limited. They have spent their lives in a small community and depend enormously on the respect of their friends, earned by “fitting in” and living up to the community standards of faith and having a family.
Their hearts have already been broken by my sister and I do not want to take away all their hope.
But I cannot see myself marrying a woman and having children with her — denying myself real love, deceiving the woman I would marry and really giving my children a phony life.
What to do?
I am sorry. You are in a tough bind.
This is really a case of being damned if you do and damned if you don’t. You will have to decide which version of “damned” you would rather tolerate: gravely disappointing your parents or denying yourself a life that may include a loving partner.
To your great credit, you don’t want to lie to a potential spouse about who you are or bring children into what would essentially be a sham marriage.
But if you are unwilling to come out, where would that lead you? A life spent alone, denying yourself the possibility of real love, all to give your parents the vague and illusory hope that one day you will give them everything they’ve dreamed of. Don’t forget that their dream would eventually have an expiration date, as they came to realize that your marriage to a woman was never going to happen.
I can well understand your not wanting to bring further hurt to your parents. I get that they come from and live in a world where homosexuality is not accepted and that they may not be able to transcend their view of what is right and wrong in life.
What I don’t know is how much you (and possibly your sister) have tried over the years to help your parents get some outside support, for example through PFLAG, a fantastic long-time organization offering support and education for families of LGBT people. I am hopeful that your parents might be helped by finding people to talk with who are in a similar position. Having some sort of social network with other parents might allow them to move further along in accepting you and your sister (and her family) and feeling less alone and stigmatized by having gay children.
I would also like to suggest that you find a family therapist who is both gay-positive and understanding of your parents’ lives and their stance, for you and your parents to work with. Including your sister in these meetings, if she were willing to join, might help to heal some long-standing painful scars in your family.
Your love for your parents is palpable and I think it is admirable that you aren’t angry at them in a knee-jerk way but are doing your best to have empathy for them and the situation they are in. We all have our limitations.
Still, you will likely have to make the difficult choice of letting them down hard if you really want to have a life for yourself. And I hope you will not give up on that possibility. It would be tragic for you to sacrifice your own ability to have a deeply intimate relationship to protect your parents from grief.
*All names and identifying information have been changed.