Monday, December 17, 2012

What We’re Reading: Parenting Gay Children

Oddly Normal: One Family’s Struggle to Help Their Teenage Son Come to Terms with His Sexuality: A Memoir by John Schwartz

The most important relationship in a gay child’s life, like that of any child, is the one he or she has with parents and family. Parents often suspect that they have a child who is gay from behavior exhibited at a very young age. For others, these “markers” may not be expressed until later in a child’s life, during puberty or during their child’s teenage years. Each gay child is different, and behavior that tips off a parent may be different in degree and expression and occur at different times in a gay child’s development. The task of understanding whether or not their child is gay, and learning how that affects the developmental needs of that child is a difficult parenting task. It is one to which there have been few roadmaps. That’s why Oddly Normal is a timely and remarkable book, one that may prove invaluable to parents who have a gay child or suspect their child is struggling with issues about sexuality and about coming out.

Oddly Normal was written by the journalist John Schwartz about the experience he and his wife had in raising their son Joseph. They suspected he was gay at an early age. Schwartz alternates stories about Joseph’s family and school life with chapters that put some of the issues he faces into present social context. He references current educational and psychological theories relating to helping children with the pressures of being “different.” Young Joseph, when asked to write a story for a school assignment, created a child, his alter-ego, named Leo. His story begins “Leo was a young boy who was quite normal in many ways, but quite odd in other ways. Most people are, you will find.” That may very well serve as the major theme of Oddly Normal, because the main lesson it teaches parents is that each child is a unique individual and that there is in fact no single experience of one child or his or her parents that is going to fit any other child. Schwartz and his wife knew that Joseph’s unspoken gay orientation made him different, that it was one of the things that put pressure on him and caused him problems in school, but it turned out that Joseph also had some emotional and learning disabilities that were in the mix, and this story of trying to untangle those, to discover what problems related to his sexual orientation and what problems seemed to be related to more common developmental challenges was the long and frustrating, but ultimately successful, struggle that these parents made. Their degree of attention and concern for their son, their involvement in his education, the various resources they discovered and were able to access on his behalf, and the understanding they achieved will seem to the reader all part of an extraordinary undertaking. And indeed they were. You cannot help but wonder what happens to gay kids who have parents less sensitive to the problems they face or who might be less able to access the help and resources that Joseph’s parents did.

Although the theme of this book may be that each child is different and that it takes involvement and understanding and trial and error to raise them, this book will be valuable to parents raising a gay child because it does provide a parent with a sense of what the general “gay-related” issues are likely to be, what kind of support is needed both in the family, school, and community, and what specific resources are available for gay children and their families. Parenting gay children is a subject that we are only starting to discuss, and Oddly Normal is an important contribution to the literature on a subject that parents so desperately need to better understand. This is a story about how parents can succeed in helping and protecting their child in a world that is still hostile to homosexual orientation and seems largely oblivious to the unique challenges this adds to the developmental issues every child must face.

Another new book on gay parenting, one formatted like a handbook, is Coming Around: Parenting Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Kids by Anne Dohrenwend. It’s a nice complement to Oddly Normal in that rather than a personal story it seeks to establish a general behavioral paradigm for parents of gay children and addresses in a topical way issues that would be of special concern to these parents. Of particular interest will be the chapters on what to say and what not to say to a child you think might be gay or who has just come out. Another chapter surveys the typical range of parental responses to this news or realization. There is a good deal of information here that a lot of us may take for granted and seems prevalent in the popular culture: definitions of what it means to be part of a LGBT category, gay stereotypes, homophobia, bullying, gays and religious beliefs, and the origins of homosexuality. Some parents may need this primer, but the sections that will probably be of greatest interest to parents are those that talk about models of adolescent development and relate them to the experiences of gay youth, particularly as it applies to stages of self-identity and coming out. This is the discussion that may help a parent most in gaining insight into the life of their gay child.

Another recent book written for LGBT youth might be of special interest to their parents. The Letter Q: Queer Writers’ Notes to Their Younger Selves, edited by Sarah Moon, is designed around the device of having older gay writers write retrospective letters of encouragement to their younger selves. A book similar to this for youth, It Gets Better (reviewed previously in this blog), appeared last year. That book was directed to teens as well, but was centered mostly on the experience of homophobia and bullying that young people face. Older writers addressed their comments to present youth, assuring them that their difficult times will pass and explaining how their own lives had become better. The Letter Q, is generally a more upbeat book. It seems to elucidate in a gentler and kinder way a broader range of self-identification issues each writer’s younger gay self worried about and eventually solved, and so in addition to its practical advice and gentle reassurance, a parent is likely to get from this book a good idea of the kind and nature of challenges their child is encountering.

The world of gay youth and their parents is changing rapidly, it seems almost daily, because in the last 10 years we have been in the midst of a major transformation in social attitudes towards LGBT people. Things continue to change at a rapid pace, but these three current books give parents a good idea of where we are right now, and they are a great place to start for parents determined to understand and support their gay child.

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