Bridging Disciplinary Boundaries (January 11 - 14, 2007)
Methods: To this end, the author qualitatively interviewed a multicultural sample of 65 gay youth (aged 18-25) and 76 of their parents. Youth were out to their parents anywhere from 6 months to 9 years with a mean of 3.8 years. A combination of grounded theory and narrative methods were used to collect and analyze the data. Parents and their children were asked about parents' initial reactions to the discovery of the child's sexual orientation and how parental feelings changed over time. Probes were used to elicit factors that facilitated or hindered parental adjustment. All interviews were audio taped, transcribed, and coded. The principal investigator used peer debriefing and member checking to check codes.
Results: Upon discovering their children's homosexuality, parents grieved the loss of a future of heterosexual marriage and childrearing for their children. Many mothers worried they caused their children's homosexuality by raising them with too much affection.
Parents reported that confiding their feelings to a non-judgmental friend or relative helped them realize they were not to blame and also helped them alter their future expectations for their children. Recognizing their children's happiness also aided parents. Children believed that showing their parents they were happy and also pressuring reluctant parents to discuss their homosexuality aided parental adjustment. Many parents and children described feeling distant from each other immediately before the discovery, but grew closer in the months afterward.
Parents and children reported that parents had ongoing worries that their children would face discrimination and physical assault, and that their sons would contract HIV. Furthermore, almost all of the parent respondents continued to struggle with managing courtesy stigma (Goffman, 1963)—worrying about other people's perceptions and reactions. Parents who reported that their children appeared “obvious” or engaged in cross-gendered behaviors had the most difficulty adjusting, as did those whose children were experiencing emotional problems.
Practice Implications: Based on these exploratory findings, social workers assisting parents would be advised to validate their feelings of loss, worry, and blame while challenging the notion they caused their child's homosexual orientation. Clinicians can help families see the child's coming out as an opportunity to develop closer family relationships. Practitioners should also assist parents and children to constructively discuss issues of safety as well as ways to cope with discrimination and stigma.