Suggestions to Families and Leaders When a Loved One Comes Out

Marybeth Raynes

Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW); Adjunct Instructor, University of Utah; co-editor, Peculiar People: Mormons and Same Sex Orientation.

Marybeth Raynes is a marriage and family therapist and an adjunct instructor on the faculty at the University of Utah. This is a revised version of a presentation made at a Family Fellowship meeting held June 9, 2001 at the University of Utah. Coming out is the common way of describing someone who is announcing they are gay.

Any supportive process for someone going through a crises occurs in the context of several orienting principles. The first of these is that families and individuals usually handle crises and circumstances as they have in the past, so if you’re wondering how you are going to react with your child’s coming out, or how you’ll react to other family members when he or she comes out, or if you are gay and wonder how your family is going to react, (not just when you come out but also when you have other mini coming outs – take a partner home, maybe decide you want a child, you come to a baptism of a family member), all this can pretty well be predicted based on how your family has handled crises in the past. This is particularly true if these crises are coded as shameful or foreign. With an event viewed as shameful, as in the case of a suicide, a divorce, or someone slipping out of the “tried and true way,” how has your family reacted? Have they opened a compassionate heart and said, “Well, people make mistakes. We love you more than this particular thing. We certainly still support the Gospel, but we love you?” Or does your family respond with secrecy, not acknowledging what has happened, or acknowledging it but using a lot of condemnation or blame? Or has their reaction been sort of compartmentalized? In other words, when you are behaving in the ‘good mode’ you are welcomed, but in the ‘bad mode’ things get a little fuzzy and the reactions take on the character of shaming.

Many of us label a new event as foreign, something we don’t know about. When we don’t understand something we can see the bent of our hearts. Do we tend to look at this as if it were something wrong, or are we just curious about the unfamiliar? I recall the words of one father when his daughter came out. He said, “I can’t make sense of this.” And as he continued to talk, he said, “Well, I guess I’m asking you all the questions but it occurs to me that I don’t really know anything about homosexuality, do I?” He handled his daughter’s sexual preference as just being foreign, new, like a curiosity but still holding it up in the air, looking at the values and the judgments. So, if you want to know what will happen when you come out, look at what has happened in the past. It will tend to be the same.

Generally, with sexual matters the reactions are going to be a little more exaggerated than they are about other topics. This isn’t only true for those in the Mormon church, or for Christians, but for most members of fundamental religions around the world. Through lack of understanding we think of sexuality as some uncontrollable thing which makes it seem shameful, and families may try to fix it, to make it more controllable. You may see this in yourself when you approach something you don’t understand, you may feel you must try to fix it, change it, make it different so you will be more comfortable with it.

There are then three ways you can predict how a family will work with a crisis or will handle a coming out:

  • They may believe homosexualtiy is shameful.
  • They may believe it is foreign.
  • They may believe they must fix it.

The reality, however, is that we can’t fix things very well until we understand them. This first orienting concept is, therefore, that people and families will handle a crisis as they have handled crises in the past.

A second orienting concept is that a gay family member will only come to you after a long process of struggling, wondering, probably talking to others, and after having had a somewhat separate life. There are a number of well-documented stages of grief and loss which apply here: shock and denial, depression or anger which are interchangeable, mediation, and finally acceptance. If the person is coming out to family members, he or she will probably be at the acceptance stage. The family members, however, will probably be in the first stage of shock and denial or at least confusion. The first member to be told may feel some pressure to keep it a secret. Later another family member will be aware they weren’t the first in the family to know. Each of these positions has its own pressures. Once the information is out, families or church authorities may react unusually and the gay individual may feel defensive.

A third orienting principle is that a new process of understanding or acting is now required and this is difficult. Most of us, when in shock or denial, do not act in our most mature fashion. We may regress a stage or two at least. We might even become preverbal and just react out of a primary emotion. It is very important at this point to slow down, to seek understanding, possibly to say, “I don’t know how to react right now,” rather than to just react. We might say, “I need to think about it. I need to kind of settle it in. I need to give it a good night’s sleep. I need to read some.” We could say anything that tells the person that we don’t know what’s going on here, or that we don’t know all the nuances, even if we’ve been quite aware of the gay issue for some time.

The importance of slowing down also applies to the gay family member who is coming out. He or she needs to consider talking to the family in a new way. If you are a person who is indirect you might consider using a more direct mode. A seventeen year old young man who had been coming to terms with being gay one day decided to tell his mother. He was going on a trip and just left a little note on the refrigerator saying, “Hi Mom, I’m off to Tooele but, by the way I’m gay. Love, Matt.” He chose an indirect way. In coming out, you might consider how the other person would want to hear of it. The usual process may not work and a new process of hearing and understanding may be required.

Wesley Powell said, “Kindness without truth is a sham, but truth without kindness is cruelty.” The values of kindness and truth must both be present in what we say and how we say it. One mother said, “I don’t know what to say and I don’t know how to say it so I’m not going to talk right now. I just have to calm myself down.” It is important to take anothers’ feelings into consideration. We often believe that family members of a gay person should have more understanding and be more mature than their gay family member, but the reality is that we are all only as mature as we are. It is therefore important for the gay family member to take into account the feelings and reactions of others just as much as his or her own, and not to expect the others to bear all the burden. It is also important for the family to resist reacting as though they had no feelings or needs. If that happens they become invisible and must themselves remain in the closet. The woman who wrote The Other Side of the Closetclearly states that when a gay person comes out, other people have to go in the closet. With this phenomenon, everybody knows what is confidential and what is not, and where and when and to whom it can be told.

Essentially this next orienting principle is designed to give you steps toward a new process of supporting and understanding. There is a scripture in the D&C 121:41-42-46. The first part of this scripture is very famous. “No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood only by persuasion by long suffering, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy and without guile.” However, we tend to miss the very last verse which says, “Thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever.” Given that most of us have been raised in hierarchical organizations, whether churches, governments, schools, or families, we are accustomed to having influence come from the top down. We are accustomed to believing we must obey. But in an intimate situation, a family situation, exactly the opposite of obedience is needed. Your dominion, that is your influence, increases as you have more kindness, more understanding, more skills to work with, and then power will come to you in terms of love, respect, and an outpouring of gratitude. That is where there is real influence. Dominion from the top down is actually based on fear, but dominion can actually flow to you based on love, kindness, and compassion. It is, therefore, very important to consider the source of your power in a situation as well as the degree of influence you want to have.

This new process of supporting and understanding may be accomplished by taking certain steps: listening, inquiring, expressing, dialoging.

Listening

The first of these steps is to listen. Listen, listen, listen. Work on listening. Get a book or a well-written chapter on listening. A good book on marriage called Fighting for your Marriage, has a chapter called the speaker listener technique. Other authors call this technique active listening. Between Parent and Child is also a good book on listening. So is Between Teacher and Child. However, remember that in listening it is important to assume you don’t know. We often listen with our own sub-titles running along in our minds. We then listen only to the degree that our rebuttal starts, or we develop an “alongside story” we wish to tell that begins, “Oh yeah, I did the same thing.” So listen as if you don’t know, because the reality is that you don’t. As familiar as we might be with someone, we know them only to a certain depth. Even with a friend you’ve known for a long time, if you are talking about something new, you don’t know.

Listening is also a process of having influence because people open more when listening occurs. I remember once when I was going through a spiritual crisis, I talked to my father about it. He was understandably upset and not exactly pleased with some of my questions, but he sat down, leaned back, looked at me and said, “I’m not really sure what you are saying but keep on talking. I’ll try to make sense of it as we go along.” That was one of the most pivotal points of my life because I knew I had permission to speak even though I wasn’t necessarily understood. He was making as much effort in the process as I was. That is what is required, that you the listener make as much effort as the person speaking. In Hiam Potak’s novel of Jewish life In the Beginning, a boy has been separated from his very orthodox family and he comes back and his parents respond with compassion. The family of the prodical son meets him halfway. It is as important to go halfway with your family if you are the person coming out as it is for the family to come to you. This applies to every member of the family. So listen.

Inquiring

The second step in supporting and understanding is to inquire. Anyone who comes to a discussion wants more than information. The crucial information is beyond just the facts. It is important to ask, “What do you want of me? What would you like? If you had your way totally, what would it be? I don’t know if I can give it to you, I have my own limitations, what is it you would like?” Most of us start serious discussions because we want something more than a listening ear, although come to think of it, a listening ear is quite wonderful actually.

Expressing

The third step is to express. This is a long term process, not through just one conversation. Whatever position you are in the family, time is needed. Time to figure out what you can and can’t do. After you know what the other wants you can determine what you want. It is important for you to state your helpfulness as well as your limits. If you go beyond those limits from the start, you establish an expectation that will be disappointing. Or if you state your limits first and don’t reach out with your helpfulness that will limit the process. Most people who have a gay family member coming out to them like a turn to be heard also. They need support because, even though it is not their life or their challenge to come to terms with, it is in fact their life, their family. They have their hopes and dreams. They have an ongoing context. Each family member has an individual reaction that must be dealt with. We each have our autonomy and our interconnections.

Dialoging

The last step in supporting and understanding is dialogue. Dialogue involves input and opinion, but does not include giving advice or an having an agenda. Advise frequently invites a defense. Fighting for your Marriage has useful information on this subject. When most families debate they talk over each other or around each other. However, there is no judge to declare a winner, and in fact, in a debate both lose. It is important that each side wins. It needs to be more than “you do it my way and be happy and courteous about it.” Instead, we can ask, “Is this really okay with you? I want to be sure that we really got to the core if it.” Or we can say, “Well, we need to keep trying,” which invites the other to go deeper into the process.

In therapy, when a person first comes out they may feel they will have to change. Therapy with a goal of changing the sexual preference is often called reparative therapy. The view of therapy with gay individuals has changed over the last thirty or forty years in the Church. It used to be that a person had to have a ‘breakdown’ and be hospitalized before considering therapy. Now therapy is considered acceptable for a range of processes, not just for those who are in crisis or are seriously mentally ill. Therapy is helpful for personal growth or as a way to orient oneself through a transition.

There is a difference between what might be called gay friendly therapy and reparative therapy and it is important to be aware of these differences in selecting a therapist. Gay friendly therapy essentially accepts the premise that there are enough biological components to being gay that you proceed on the premise that homosexuality is a given. There may, of course, also be some learning processes involved in the sexual orientation, for instance the learning of gay culture, or living as a gay person within that culture. A good therapist is open to a person having any outcome in the client’s life, whether the person wants to try to change their orientation, remain the same, or don’t in fact know what they want except to clarify their position. This is the middle ground. Some therapists are gay friendly but are clearly activists and against reparative therapy. On the other hand, reparative therapy accepts the premise that homosexuality is primarily a learned process, though there are many theories about the source of this learning. None of these theories is very sophisticated, in my opinion, in that they don’t predict what actually happens. Frankly, we don’t have a good theory at present. Those interested in reparative therapy are primarily those who want to integrate their more conservative Christian church or religion. In my opinion, it is wise for the gay person to select a therapist who is open to any outcome.

Now let us apply this new process of supporting and understanding to a variety of gay individuals:

  • a prospective missionary
  • a returned missionary
  • a person contemplating marriage
  • a newly married person with no children
  • a married person with children

The Prospective Missionary

For a prospective missionary who is wondering about being gay or lesbian, a family member, a friend, or a church authority can use the steps already outlined. For a missionary it would be important to state the realities of a mission in neutral terms, to present the pros and cons without weighing them in favor of one choice or another. One of the most important factors in the process, regardless of the age of the individual, is a person’s decision-making ability or judgment. If too much advise is given, the person may get the message he or she is unable to make important life decisions. There is also the danger of feeling forced to make an uninformed choice. We develop the self esteem needed to make good judgments by making them. Also, in presenting pros and cons, part of the listening process is asking whether the person wants to hear information rather than just giving advise. You might say, “Well, I have some ideas about this. Would you like to hear them?” or, “Is this a good time to tell you my ideas?” or, “You know, sometimes I come on strong about this, but you can take it or leave it.” Your ideas are more likely to be heard because your attitude is respectful. Confusion about one’s sexuality can interrupt the process of formulating a decision-making self, so it is important to find a neutral person willing to listen to you without preconceived directions in mind. It can be helpful to talk to someone who sees you as more than primarily a missionary or more than primarily a gay person, someone who sees you as yourself.

Therapy for the prospective missionary would be best focused on clarification about the present concerns. The present concern may be primarily about a mission decision, but sometimes the individual prefers to address, for example, their level of spirituality or the strength of their sexual impulses. The therapy will be most useful if it focuses on the person’s present area of interest, allowing the larger question of the decision about a mission to remain unattended for the moment. Sometimes an individual is hoping a mission will clarify things for them. It is important that if you notice the therapist or friend/family member has his or her own agenda about your decision, you realize this is a large red flag, and is clinically unethical. A therapist or friend might appropriately say, “These are how I see my ethics,” and remain neutral about your decisions and feelings. Another response might be, “As you know, I really think about values and ethics but I’m not quite sure how to put it in this context, so it is going to take me a while to think about it.”

The Returned Missionary

For the returned missionary who feels attracted to the same sex who is now coming home, again, one can use the broader steps but there are some crucial differences. Keep in mind that the debriefing from the mission will be as large an issue as the sexual orientation. Usually there is no official debriefing other than a letter written by the mission president telling the person to keep their nose clean and do their missionary homecoming. When I was on my mission in Austria in the 1960s, the Church membership was only about two million. At that time we used to make a sarcastic and slightly cruel remark when someone leaving their mission was about to get on the plane, “Think about it, Elder or Sister, today you have two million people praying for you and tomorrow you have nobody.” And that’s often how it feels. You feel much like a person who has had a loved one die, the grief comes. My questions were not about just what the mission meant to me, but how to orient my life now, how to integrate the mission experience into my everyday life? All of this is an enormous ongoing task for the returning missionary. Sometimes spirituality is even a larger issue than sexuality at the time. Orienting one’s whole life is a bigger task. The person may be juggling many issues at the same time, such as a family member in crisis, the death of a parent, or a divorce in the family. Remember to slow down and to realize that adjustment is a long term process, and support needs to be a reciprocal process. A family member may ask what kind of long term support they can offer the returned missionary. Also a gay member may ask how they can offer support to their family.

Where does one go with feelings? When there is much pent up anxiety about what to do with one’s life, one’s sexual orientation, and with one’s church, it can feel like more than just life and death issues. It can feel like the stakes are eternal. Anxiety levels can become sky high. Panic attacks or depression can occur. Many people I have talked to over the years have gone into a long post-mission depression period. There is now a clinic for people who are returning home from missions and are in a serious depression or a serious anxiety episode. More people are starting to pay attention to this phenomenon. It is important to deal with your fears with other confidential sources, but it is equally important to select sources you know will listen to you and support your ability to make good choices. I recommend two guidelines for talking to others about critical matters. First, the person must keep it confidential. Second, the listener must not turn their heart against the person. The limits of confidentiality must be addressed directly and openly so you can feel trusting and safe. The listener also needs to keep their mind open even though the information may be upsetting or might be negative. In some families there is no confidential source. In that case, a person must go outside the family.

In therapy, follow the process. Some may want to move into reparative therapy. If gay friendly therapy is used, the guidelines presented here should be used. Many people will want to do both types of therapy. The innovation that Lee Beckstead is creating based on his dissertation is that clarification should be a preliminary step to determining which approach to use, because one cannot presume that an individual is already at one point or another. Other crucial issues might be those of selecting employment or of selecting a partner, and creating and crafting a workable process for dealing with those issues which will be useful through life.

Most reparative therapy has focused on men and has presumed that the process is the same for women as for men. June Reinish, head of the Kinsey Institute for years, said that male and female sexualities are very different. For males, sexuality tends to be stronger in the sense of self, appears earlier in development, and is more impulsive than it is for females. For females, sexuality is based more around warmth, trust and connection. This is also true for men, but it tends to be more in the foreground for women, particularly at younger ages. Reparative therapy for lesbians has used the same premises as for gay males and that may not be appropriate. We don’t have a good model for women. We need a new therapy, and we cannot make assumptions.

A Person Contemplating Marriage

What about the young woman or man contemplating marriage to someone gay? Again the same steps to supporting and understanding apply. The question becomes, what are the realities of marriage? What are the pros and cons? What are the realities of a young woman contemplating marriage to a gay man, or, as happens less frequently, what are the realities for a young man contemplating marriage to a lesbian? Reinish says that women’s sexuality is more malleable, so many women will be able to have some warmth, response, or connection, but in both cases there may be a great friendship possible, but little passion. The crucial question is, what is the quality of the friendship, whether heterosexual or homosexual? The quotation, “True love is friendship on fire,” seems to apply here. It is important to ask some of the following questions. If the young man in question is bisexual, passionate sexual intimacy is probably possible. It depends on where the person is on the Kinsey scale. Has there already been in the relationship a sense of passion, strong enjoyment and the need to hold back? If this passion has not been present, if the relationship has been more lukewarm or more friendship-oriented, it is not going to get more passionate at some later time. That is true across the board.

For a book that discusses passion in marriage or intimate relationships with sexuality, using both for personal growth, I recommend Passionate Marriage by David Schnarch. It is excellent and is based on family therapy to a great extent, but it is very explicit but not in a pornographic way. You need to know this before reading it. Sexuality is woven into relationship. Schnarch describes the kind of intimacy marriage can deliver.

If a woman is considering a bisexual male as a marriage partner, she needs to know that bisexuality will continue even if the sexual life and the friendship life are strong. This is also true if the woman is bisexual. Bisexuality is not any easier to deal with than heterosexuality or homosexuality.

If a person is clearly a five or six on the Kinsey Scale, you need to assume that won’t change, even with marriage and with time. Couples do better if this is disclosed before marriage because they are able to make an informed choice. When this is not disclosed until after marriage it is viewed as a betrayal, which it is. One person is making one of the most important decisions of their life without sufficient information. There are also other important considerations. How is a person’s life other than being gay or bisexual? Is the person stable? Are they fair? Are they kind? Do they support themselves economically? Are they fair with people other than their friends? All the important questions to ask about a person contemplating a heterosexual marriage still apply. They just have a larger valence. The long term research is clear. Some close warm sex on a regular basis in a marriage is one of the primary processes that keeps people connected to one another, despite the inevitable problems as the complexities of life arise. Search out a number of books on marriage and on the principles of marriage, such asThe Good Marriage by Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee which is excellent. There are a number of types of marriages. Look them up. It’s important. Investigate just as you would other important things in life. I believe that BYU has a family department and a website where you can check out a compatibility test for marriage. Such tests have been around for decades. A young woman might also want to check out a book previously mentioned,The Other Side of the Closet.

A Newly Married Person With No Children

What about a newly married couple with no children and dealing with same sex attraction? Again, use the steps and therapy recommended for clarification. It is important to discuss why the person married in the first place. What did they think would happen? We all marry because we believe something is going to happen, something we want. As we become more mature, we understand that the other person wants something also. Perhaps the motivation was having children. It is important to know that children do not make things better or cement the relationship more. Children tend to make a good marriage stronger and a poor marriage worse. Some gay or bisexual people want to marry because they want to have children. The desire for children and the desire for a partner may not always go together. I don’t know if there is a gender difference in this matter. Some couples are friends enough to ask how they would co-parent if, in fact they didn’t remain together. Before having children it is crucial to answer this question because a child has rights as a person. A child is not just cute, not just a pet. I recommend that a couple discuss this and come to a solid agreement about what would happen if they do not remain together. If you are their therapist or a close family member in whom they confide, you will notice that they will deal with this issue as they do with many others.

We tend to think that it is inevitable for a couple to divorce when it is revealed that one is homosexual or bisexual. This is not the case. There are many couples who have a full range of choices. The person who is gay may simply repress it, or may choose to lead a double life which might range from subliminal to a complete second life that may remain secret. Maintaining separate compartments in one’s life requires a lot of energy. Wholeness at the core is, however, one of the prerequisites for spiritual and personal growth. It may also be important to discuss the ramifications of the relationship with each person’s family so neither feels betrayed by the other. One’s parents and one’s in-laws would then be able to support the couple in having children, and some families are able to do this.

A Married Couple With Children

For a married couple with children who discover one has same sex attraction, the same issues apply. Again the biggest question is whether or not they are friends. As friends, a couple can better decide about staying together or parting. Often such a decision comes about because a betrayal has occurred, a person discovers their partner has a secret life, or because the gay partner says they can no longer continue to live in the closet, the pressure is too great. Once things are out in the open, a couple might be able to work through the crisis. I know a number of couples who have, but it has been a long process. They needed support, others to talk to, and therapy to promote continued communication and maturing. It is difficult for people to be honest about sex outside of marriage and many people won’t bring it up. If they do, it is common that there is a major under reporting of the number of incidents or the length of time it has been going on, particularly when someone has been leading a double life.

Often a spouse will want to unburden themselves about this without any awareness of the impact on their partner. This impact must be taken into account. Carlfred Broderick, a well-known Mormon therapist, when addressing the idea of being told about indiscretions before the marriage, said, “Well, I look at it this way. If the relationship is such that it couldn’t handle the outcome and it will automatically split the couple apart, you have to ask yourself whether you want to do it. Does something in the past have as big an impact in the present? And if you assume the attitude that you will keep working on the marriage, and at the point in which the marriage can bear it and sustain that openness, you will disclose it, then you are on the right track.” What he is asking for here is a commitment to work within the relationship until you can get there. Other people simply make the decision not to tell. They may feel enormously guilty which is a big moral crucible about one’s sexuality. Harriet Lenner wrote a good book called The Dance of Deception about women and deception in their lives. She makes the same recommendation as Broderick which is to work with your life so there can be more and more truth in it. She provides steps and a discussion about how to manage this.

About the children, how does a couple treat their children after one comes out? Can they be friends in negotiating as partners? Is there support that the family members can give? The process of friendship in co-parenting is crucial, whether a couple remains together or not. Divorce where one member of the couple is gay is different than heterosexual divorce. In many cases, if they were friends, they remain friends. This is possible even when the gay person wants to stay in the relationship and their spouse wants the marriage to end. This may seem strange to heterosexual families because they assume territoriality. If each person accepts the other’s wholeness, they may remain friends. This is true, of course, in heterosexual relationships also. When individuality, friendships, and family are accepted, it works. When there is competition, there are difficulties, and the children will suffer.

The choice to stay together or to divorce is a Hobson’s choice, that is, there is no good alternative. You must choose the least worst alternative. Some individuals who are highly impulsive will make a quick decision and will stir up a lot of dust in the process. If a couple wants to stay together, the therapy process can help avoid the polarized views of others, because, of course, everyone will have an opinion. When others have difficulty waiting for a decision, this has to do with their own anxiety and ambiguity. It is not about the couple. If a couple decides to remain together, they need the support of friends and family. If they decide to divorce and co-parent, they need the support of family and friends.

What if someone is being pressured to enter reparative therapy, or if they have entered reparative therapy and you as a friend or family member feel negative about it? The process of listening, supporting and dialoguing is essential. Keeping the conversation open is more important than making an immediate choice. Your loyalty to the process and respect for the person’s choice will provide for future support and diminish the likelihood of abuse. The ability to self-reflect is best acquired by having others reflect with you. This process helps a person become resilient to risk factors such as pressure to use alcohol, drugs, sex, impulsively entering the gay culture, and alienation, particularly in the coming out phase. During this phase there is often a replication of adolescence which was never allowed, and the person needs the support of someone with whom he or she can talk. This listener need not have had the same experiences. If this works well, the individual will get what they need out of the adolescent phase, which is curiosity, new experience, a sense of self, growth that is exciting and interesting, without some of the harmful things that can happen. They learn they can think. They learn they can have a good time as well as work. They learn they are loved, they learn to flirt, they learn the erotic process. These things are crucial for later adult development. We tend to give this phase a short shrift because we fear the dangers, but it need not be dangerous. Gay people who have good connections throughout the heterosexual world do better because they have a broad range of support.

In the end, when discussing therapy and other issues among family members, you want each discussion to be a campfire, not a forest fire. Nothing has to explode. The basic connections need not be lost. The campfire can be controlled so as to have warmth instead of devastation.