Each month, Gwendolyn answers your questions on LGBTQ parenting. Write to her with your question here.
My daughter has just started middle school. She has two moms but we split when she was an infant. In elementary school, she was very out and proud about her two moms. Our family was very much accepted in her school — my ex was a class parent all six years and the other kids knew and loved her, and I was on the PTA board for three years. There weren’t any problems to speak of. (Well, one boy who used to hassle her, and she ended up punching him in the nose after six years!)
She says in middle school she doesn’t want to “come out,” just pretend she’s from a mom-and-dad family, or just a single mom family. I am going to be on the PTA board again in the new school, and I’m not sure what to say. I want to respect her right to her privacy, but I will not make up stories about an ex-husband when the inevitable questions come up. I am single but surely not straight! It’s not that she’s ashamed of her family; it’s more like she doesn’t want to have to explain it anymore.
Any suggestions for navigating unfamiliar waters?
You have invoked the ugliest, scariest boogeyman to haunt the dark nightmares of LGBT parents. Everyone who thinks we shouldn’t rear children invokes the specter of our beloveds being tormented and harmed because of our sexual orientations or gender identities. We worry that our children will be ashamed of us and reject us.
But, be not afraid!
Middle school has undermined the confidence of many, if not most, children and they have lived to tell the tale, as have their parents. Remember, this is the age when children begin to be embarrassed that they HAVE parents and want said embarrassing parents to fade into the background as much as possible.
I applaud your Darling Child’s out and proud stance in elementary school and celebrate both the punch in the nose and the six years it took her to do it; she is obviously a courageous and disciplined child. Few people could have been patient for six years while allowing Mr. Bully ample opportunity to become a civilized being. Maybe a tap on the nose will prove to be a learning experience.
Since that incident was the only issue she had in elementary school regarding her two mothers, it is difficult to determine why she wishes to pretend her parents are straight in middle school. She may have heard that the social tenor of middle school is much harsher than that of elementary school and fears that her family structure will be regarded more negatively. Possibly, she is worried about the social pressures of middle school and simply wishes to attract as little attention as possible. In a perfect world, middle school children would be focusing their energy on learning about themselves and their environment, not navigating treacherous social currents.
However, and this is news to no one, our world is sadly not perfect and our beloved children will surely have to encounter very imperfect heterosexism. As sympathetic as I am to Darling Child and angry at the social forces putting pressure on her, this is, alas, one of those requests our children make to which the answer must be an unequivocal “No.”
Unfortunately, it will be a most unwelcome response — another basic fact of parenting is that our children do not like the answer “No” and often do not respond well to it.
From a practical standpoint, explain to Darling Child that you will not lie or even evade questions about your sexual orientation or your relationships and that will make it difficult or impossible for her to maintain the pretense of straight parents. You might point out to her that if she pretends she does not have two mothers and her compatriots discover that she is pretending, their reactions to the attempted cover-up will probably be far worse than their reactions to the simple truth. Or that may be clear to her without your assistance.
Refusing to aid and abet her plan will probably annoy her and it is likely she will respond with a complaint about her right to privacy. Your Darling definitely has a right to her privacy but that basically consists of her inalienable right to respond to all questions regarding her parents with a polite:
“I prefer not to discuss my parents.”
“Because I prefer not to.”
The fact that it is highly unlikely that nosy middle school acquaintances will respect her reticence and honor her right to privacy is immaterial. One’s right to privacy can never include forcing another to misrepresent a central part of their identity. It would not benefit any child to let them believe that they possess any right at all to coerce others.
This is the strictly practical piece of your response. There are further, more complex issues to explore but the timing of that discussion depends on the tone and intensity of her reaction. She may be in no mood for an extended discussion while she is coping with the destruction of what seemed to her a practical and reasonable plan to mitigate the social pressures of middle school.
Darling Child might find the e-community mailing list for middle school youth, COLAGE Jrkids, helpful. COLAGE is a national organization of children, youth, and adults with one or more lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and/or queer parent. It would provide her with an opportunity to vent and share her feelings and exchange ideas (and complaints about parents) with other middle school youth with similar experiences and challenges. You can find the e-community and other resources for children of LGBTQ parents at www.colage.org.
My guess is that Darling Child sees the closet as a respite from the pressures of a heterosexist world. She doesn’t know that the closet is a bad place — dark and lonely and lousy for self-esteem – and she mistakes it for a safe place. Many members of our community make the same mistake. Being closeted is related to lower self-esteem, strain on interpersonal relationships, alienation from school and work, and, generally, less psychological well-being. This is the opposite of what we want for our children. Refusing to be closeted yourself not only maintains your integrity and mental health, it also protects your Darling from the negative effects of the closet which she cannot imagine.
When she is willing to talk with you at greater length, try to find out exactly why she decided not to be out in middle school. Understanding her thoughts and emotions around the decision will help you know how to discuss it with her. While I am willing to accept that Darling Child isn’t ashamed of her two mothers, merely weary of the effort of explanation, I think that the act of hiding itself can create shame. Perhaps you can talk with her about the negative effects of keeping a secret such as the stress of worrying about having it revealed. As Rachel Maddow said, “The single best thing about coming out of the closet is that nobody can insult you by telling you what you’ve just told them.”
Good luck to her and to you!
Write to Gwendolyn with your questions on LGBT parenting at firstname.lastname@example.org. Gwendolyn reserves the right to edit letters for length and clarity.