So your worst nightmare became a reality. Your 21 year old son drops a bombshell and comes out to you and declares that he is gay. Your immediate reaction is a cold embrace of the situation, you are numb and shocked but your integrity as a mother drives you to hug him and whisper in his ear that it is okay. Your mind however, is running on full speed trying to figure out what next? How can I tell his father? How will his father react? What about the grandparents, the uncles and aunts and all the cousins? What about his college life? What about his brothers? A million thoughts race through your mind while your body is succumbing to anxiety and fear leaving you in a total mess unable to process the reality of this coming out.
This is just one of many stories shared by mothers of gay sons or lesbian daughters. Many other mothers have been devastated and shocked; their system wrecked with anger and sadness and have very often said things that you never thought that a loving mother would utter and risk damaging the relationship with her son or daughter.
This is what happened to Hisham (name has been changed to protect his identity) who at the age of 20 came out to his parents and told them that he has a lover. Hisham grew up in a suburb of Beirut in a religious lower middle class family. As the eldest at home, he was nicknamed Abou Ramez after his father. He was expected to carry the legacy of the family. His coming out brought shame to the family and amid the tears and screams; the fear and rage, he was asked to leave the house. His safety and security were in jeopardy as his neighborhood is very conservative and has no tolerance to the likes of Hisham. His parents immediately disowned him and he was left with a few hundred dollars, an unfinished education and no roof over his head.
Hisham’s story is heartbreaking; he picked up his shattered self and went searching for a job just to keep him floating financially. He left university, was living rough and with a lot of uncertainty about tomorrow. He was constantly in fear of his father’s revenge. Several years later, he found himself in Paris, working twelve hours a day to make ends meet while continuing his studies.
He is today a successful designer and well respected in his field. Fifteen years after the first rupture with his parents, he decided to go back and amend his parental ties. Fifteen years of hardship and pain just to prove that his value as a person has nothing to do with his homosexuality. The meeting with his parents was very strange. His father was very cold and distant – the damage was irreparable.
His mother on the other hand was torn between missing her loving son and hating him for the shame that he brought upon them. Was it necessary to go through this ordeal? Was it worth it losing the love of his parents? Most Arab parents are homophobic. Their homophobia is a mixture of inherited rigid beliefs and a lot of strongly founded social prejudice and discrimination. This will only exacerbate the situation. However, the immediate reaction of most parents is profoundly psychological as it is a direct blow to their construct of what parenting is. The initial reaction of parents who discover that their son or daughter is homosexual is that of LOSS. This is the loss of the promise that the children will uphold the family’s legacy through their offspring’s.
The experience of loss causes a severe shock to their system and this leads to an overwhelming set of psychological reactions. The most prominent and immediate reaction is one of DENIAL: this cannot be true; this must be a joke; how could MY son turn out to be gay? How can My daughter be a lesbian? NO WAY. Within a few hours or at the most a few days the denial turns to ANGER. Anger is a powerful and intense emotion that makes your blood boil. It is an emotion characterized by an uncomfortable feeling to a perceived threat or hurt. Anger will provoke retaliation and it will drive you to look for a culprit. Have I gone wrong? Who has messed with my child? Why is God punishing us? You will be in a whirlwind of questions with no answers in sight. This tumultuous situation can last for months leaving behind a heartbroken parent, a devastated child and a wrecked family.
Then, the nurturing parental instinct will take over: Is there a cure? If only I found out earlier, what should I do now? Who can help? This is the BARGAINING stage characterized by an urge to help your child find a remedy. Many parents go searching for conversion doctors. Doctors who claim that they can straighten homosexuals and put them on the ‘right’ track. The damage they inflict is worse than the homophobic parent. This might seem like the kind father who is trying to solve a problem, or the sympathetic mother who is soothing her son or daughter. In their quest for a cure to save their child and save their dignity, parents fall prey to their prejudices and their irrational thinking. At this stage your child needs love and not help. It will not take long for you to realize the naked truth. Your child’s homosexuality is here to stay. This is when sadness sets in. This sadness will lead to a DEPRESSION. This is normal and probably healthy as it allows you to process the loss and come to a closure through ACCEPTANCE. This is the stage where you should seek help not only to treat your depression but also to deal with your prejudices and homophobic beliefs. As parents, our evolutionary mission is to preserve our genes and ensure their survival through our children and so the story has been repeating itself for millennia. This is the drive that motivates us to fall in love, build families and have children. Acknowledging your child’s homosexuality is a confirmation of the death of your family’s legacy. You will grieve the loss of the dreams you forged for their future. This loss has to be faced head on, for the grieving process is indispensable to reach a state of acceptance. Parents will race through those five phases at different speeds whilst responding in a variety of ways to their son or daughter. As they deal with their own loss and trauma they are also impacting their child’s confusion, anxiety, fear and pain. The process of grief will leave you at a crossroad.
And now what?You probably never discussed sexuality and gender with your child and most probably assumed that nature will take care of his or her sexuality in due course. Most likely you have had many discussions with your son/daughter about a myriad of existential issues such as God, life and death but never got personal enough to discuss sexuality. They, on the other hand, have probably spent years mulling over who they are, checking their feelings and sensations against the social, cultural and religious norms that they grew up with.
We Arabs live in a world that does not prepare our children to discover their sexuality. Sexuality is a taboo, and homosexuality a sin and crime. Societies that are conservative, oppressive, patriarchal, judgmental and brutal do not make it easy for either young people or their parents. The horrific stories reported by young men and women from across the Arab world are a testimony of what they fear most – social rejection, police intervention and public humiliation.
The Cairo incident in 2001 when 52 men were arrested aboard the Queen Boat, a floating nightclub is just one example. The men were charged with “obscene behavior” and forced to undergo physical examinations to determine their sexuality. In 2012, 36 men were arrested in a cinema in Burj Hammoud, a neighborhood in Beirut. This cinema was a well-known spot for gay men. These are just two incidents of dozens from every corner of the Arab world.
In both situations, young men were treated as criminals, held in custody, subjected to a humiliating examination to confirm their sexual tendencies. They were also publicly shamed and their images flashed in every newspaper and across all TV stations. If you are feeling angry and confused today then this is just the tip of the iceberg of what your son or daughter has been experiencing for quite some time. The ordeal of discovering that they are different comes at a high price; experiences of rejection, bullying, and exclusion lead to feelings of fear, anxiety and anger and this could be devastating to adolescents trying to come to terms with their own identity formation. The courage that your child gathered to disclose to you the most intimate experience of their life is a testimony of the trust that they have in you. It is the ultimate declaration of their love towards you.
Many a young man and woman have kept their true identity as a secret from their parents for fear or lack of trust as to what the consequences would be. Ziad, a young Saudi who has just graduated from university is gay but only a very small circle of friends know about this reality. He says that he will never share this with his parents as this would break their heart and damage his relationship with them. Ziad not only fears his parents but he also worries about his social standing; his chances of getting a decent job and above all the religious authorities. Men and women like Ziad prefer the duality in their life rather than coming out. This only increases their pain and alienates them from their parents as they move on in their life. Respect this trust and love and embrace it fully for it will help you steer through the anger and depression and will guide you through the darkest moments.
The only way out of this agony is to walk through your child’s story. It is important at this stage to realize that this is not about you but about your son or daughter. At this stage in their life they need someone to actually listen and empathize with the roots of their pain. Forget about your pain and anger and focus on their story. This can be frightening and difficult but you have to be aware that this is a critical moment in your relationship with your child. Your healing process can wait, however, your commitment to your child is currently at stake. This is the time to put your love and the relationship with your child above everything else. It does not really make a difference what the causes are or whether it is right or wrong. – the main issue is the security, happiness, and well-being of your child. You probably would have to deal with your own issues regarding sexuality but at this moment everything can wait except your child. They are your child regardless of their sexual identity. You love your children unconditionally whether they are clever or not, athletic or not, tall or short, fat or thin and this will certainly not be affected by their sexuality. We do not love our children because they are heterosexual! It has never been a defining criterion so why would homosexuality be? As you proceed through their life story, you realize that their homosexuality is probably not a choice and it is only a small part of who they are as human beings. Your child is not his or her sexuality. They will have issues with adjusting to their needs, accepting the risks that they will face and aligning their religious beliefs with their sexuality. Coming out exposes them and sheds light on the struggles that they have been experiencing in silence and isolation.
How should a parent respond when their child comes out to them?
You are both tensed and confused and it will take time to come to terms with this new reality. The one thing your child needs now is love and acceptance. It is certainly not the time to seek answers and explanations. Reassure them that this will not change your love for them.
- Love and accept them unconditionally!
We all have our prejudices and stereotypes about nearly every sexual issue; don’t jump to conclusions and do not make assumptions. Ask the questions that will allow them to feel secure and accepted, to talk freely – how did they realize their identity? What do they think and how do they feel? Are they facing any social problems? Make them realize that you are comfortable listening to their story. The last thing your child expects from you is to take the situation lightly and to consider it a trivial matter or worse to completely deny it. Find the right balance between respecting your child and acknowledging that this is a serious matter and an important stage in their development without going overboard. Just like you do not focus on the heterosexuality of your other children, normalize this one and do not exaggerate in your support. Remember, your child is not his or her sexuality.
- Listen to their story
This is a very delicate matter! Use your common sense to assess the situation. Are they comfortable with their new status? If not then they can benefit from counseling. Take the whole matter seriously but do not go to extremes. Your child is one of many others going through a similar experience.
- Help them seek professional support and guidance without relinquishing your support.
They might need some professional help but only if they ask for it. They can also find consolation in support groups that help them integrate their new identity and normalize the situation. Do not make them feel that you are trying to dump their situation unto a therapist to avoid dealing with it at home. Your role is fundamental; however, never forget that you are the parent and not the therapist!
Nasri is an 18 year old Syrian student who came to terms with his own sexuality two years ago. After extensive research and exploration he decided to disclose his true self to his parents. Nasri grew up in a conservative environment and was not sure of his parent’s reaction but his integrity drove him to be honest with the most important people in his life. His mother was accepting but wanted him to discuss it with a psychologist (was she hoping that this might be just an adolescent fantasy?) to come to terms with his state. Nasri hesitated but complied with her request. His father was not as tolerant but he controlled his reactions and after the initial disturbances the subject was closed and never mentioned again. Nasri hopes that Arab societies become more tolerant of gay people as he believes that it is a natural thing and not a personal choice or a disorder. He also wants to break the stereotype of the effeminate gay. Your sexual preferences do not impact your interest in technology or cars! It is the loving, caring and wise parents who respect their children’s uniqueness and love them unconditionally… This genuine bond allows children to identify with their parent’s integrity and to consolidate an honest relationship. Remember, you haven’t failed as a parent because your child is gay and your child has not changed because they came out.