Does a gay father need to officially come out to kids?

Q:

I’m a 31 year old gay father. My two daughters are 5 & 7 years old. Their mother and I separated when my youngest daughter was less than a year old.

I have been with my partner for over 3 years. My daughters have known my partner since he came into my life. He loves them as if they were his own and my children love him as well.

I have never had an actual conversation with my children in an attempt to explain what being gay means, or prepare them for what they might encounter growing up. The reason I have not done so is because I don’t know what to say. I don’t know if they realize anything is different, or if they will have the ability to know who it is OK to tell or not tell.

My ex-wife who is engaged to be married, (who is also a good friend to me) strongly feels I need to talk to them now. Abigail, did your father have a discussion with you, or did you just know?

Ron from Chicago

A:

I think the question you are asking is if you need to officially come out to your children or not. The answer is yes. Homophobia is learned. The younger children are when you come out, the less likely they are to have a negative reaction. You are fortunate to have the friendship and support of your former wife. I agree with her: you need to talk to your children specifically about your being gay.

Back in 1978, my dad officially told my eight-year-old brother but planned to tell me when I was older (I was five at the time.) Fortunately, my mother took advantage of a casual conversation to talk about it with me, so I learned my dad was gay before I had learned that our society generally thinks being gay is deviant. I remember that conversation very well. It was a fluke, really, but I consider it to be one of the pivotal events that set me on the path I am on today.

Most likely your children have realized how their family is different. If you are struggling to find the words to talk about it, imagine how challenging it is for your young daughters to process. Most likely the fact that you are in a same-sex relationship is not a big deal to them, since it is all they know and all they can remember. The parts that could be big deals for them are times when they are expected to articulate their family to others and times when when they hear homophobic comments and feel that people they love are being criticized.

One common myth about talking to children is that talking about sexual orientation automatically means talking about sexual activity. This is simply not true. The key phrase to remember is age-appropriate. At this point, they don’t need to hear the answers to questions that other people (like your former wife, parents, or therapist) might ask. You don’t need to tell them when how you figured it out or the details of your sexual activity with your partner. (Can you think of any child who wants to know about their parents’ sex lives?)

The discussion need not be heavy or intense; find an opportunity to bring it up casually. One suggestion would be talking about it in the context of their mother’s relationship — similar to how their mom is in love with her fiancé, you are in love with your partner. I would also recommend taking a look at Love Makes A Family. The broad age range of the voices in the book make it a useful tool for young children and teens alike.

11 thoughts on “Does a gay father need to officially come out to kids?”

  1. Abigail,

    It’s me, “Ron from Chicago.” Thought you might appreciate an update following your advice.

    One Sunday evening on a weekend when my kids were with me, my ex-wife came for dinner. Weeks before, she and I had met alone and discussed what we were going to say, and the most non-threatening way to approach it.

    When we were about finished with dinner, I said casually, “So I was wondering, what do you think makes a family?” This question brought a consensus that there all kinds of families, but the one thing that is important is that a family is made up of people who love each other.

    We compared how their mom and her husband loved each other to the way my partner and I love each other. They understood that. They expressed their love for my partner and felt it was pretty cool that they got to have a dad and “sort of” two step-dads.

    We talked about my relationship with my partner and about how not everyone is accepting of families that are different from their own. We pointed out some of the different families we know, including my best friend and her husband who are a biracial couple. We talked about history and various populations that have been treated poorly because others were afraid or didn’t understand their differences.

    Somewhere in there, my oldest daughter got quiet and had tears in her eyes. She was afraid to tell us what she was thinking. I took her onto my lap and we talked some more. It turns out she had been called “gay” by a kid in school. She knew it was meant to be mean, and she didn’t want to tell me out of fear of hurting my feelings.

    What is really interesting is what happened afterward. It was like a huge weight was lifted off their shoulders. They needed this information verbalized. They needed to know they can talk to their mom and me and not be worried about hurting our feelings. They seem very different now, but different in a good way. They’ve opened up. They’ve become more comfortable, and our relationships have become stronger.

    I learned that sometimes protecting them can actually do more damage than just being honest and open. Thank you again for your advice!

  2. Hi Ron

    Thanks for that beautiful tale. I don’t appreciate being made to feel tearful at this hour of the day though. All that I want to really say is that your family is going to be fine, there’s an awful lot of love their. If only their were more people like you and your wife in this world, it would be a far better place.

    Regards

    Danny

  3. Ron,

    I can’t tell you how excited I was to find your story. It is certainly good to hear another positive story. There aren’t too many of them in this situation. My ex-husband and I are in the exact situation with our 8 year old daughter. She was two when we divorced but we have remained close friends. I am remarried with a second daughter who is 3. And my ex-husband has had the same partner for five years.

    To see all of us together, you would never guess that we had this history. We all get along great. I love his partner, as does my daughter. This situations is all she’s known. My current husband is a true blessing and has been so excepting and supportive. Here’s my dilema: My ex-husband and I had always thought that it would be best to wait until she started asking questions because we didn’t want it to seem like we were pointing it out and making an issue out of it. We thought this approach might convey a negative picture of homosexuality.

    We knew that growing up with a diverse family would be hard at times so we wanted to make it as easy and supportive as possible. But now as I read Abigail’s advice and your story, I’m having serious doubts about this approach. Just this year, our daughter has “become aware” that her father and I were married at one time. She has had many questions about why we divorced and is sad that we aren’t together and questions if we would ever get back together again. When she ask’s “why” we have just said that it’s complicated. We assure her that we all love her and that just because her family doesn’t look “normal”, that she is special because she has so many people that love her. Do you have any advice for us?

  4. Thanks for sharing Ron…role models for coming out to your kids are far & few between. I have 2 children ages 5 & 8. Divorced for 1 1/2 years. I plan on discussing my being gay with them this summer. I chose to wait for many reasons, a few of the more difficult being: I didn’t know what to say, fear of saying too much, and personal internalized homophobia.

    I struggled with thinking I can protect them from ‘shame’ & being teased at school. On the other hand,I do not want to shove by kids into the same closet I’ve been in for the past 40 years.

    We are blessed with a very glbt affirmative school, not just ‘tolerant’. My ex-wife & I plan on discussing my being gay with their teachers.

    The more comfortable I feel with myself, and recognize the homophobia I pass on by trying to ‘protect’ my kids, the more it makes sense to talk to them and open up the dialogue.

  5. Simply make sure your child is having no problems at school, therefore they won’t think you’re pondering them with something awful. Menton love alot. Mommy loves them and so does their three daddies. Also, more presents, more people…

  6. Dear Abigail,
    i came out to my 10 year old son a few months back and he was really good about it, unfortunately my two 14 year old daughters dont have much of a relationshp with me because my ex wife is a bit of a….. how could i say this………. well shes a total bitch haahaahaa i keep looking for an oportunity to talk to them but it never seems to creep up so im a bit stuck on how to handle them, anyway thanx for the advice

  7. As a family therapist, I have had several suicidal children from gay families. I realize that not all children of gay parents have mental problems, but I think that it is selfish of people who are gay to force their issues onto their children. These gay feelings are natural to you, but they are not natural to your children. Before you call me homophobic, I will tell you that my brother is gay and I love him very much. He died of AIDs. I have not yet told my children how he died. I suspect that being in a family that is different always put pressure on kids, so think carefully before you worry about your own needs to have kids. An oldre hetrosexual couple should think about how healthy they will be later in life before bringing children into this world. I am not saying that gay people are bad, at all- but I am saying that the world is a hard enough place to be as it is- don’t force more heart ache on kids. They may not talk about it to you, but these kids suffer tremendously from social isolation and stigma. It is just the reality of our world. Just as you would not hurt a child physically on purpose, why would you hurt them emtionally? Not everyone is intended to be a parent. If a child is not created naturally through a union, maybe that should say something about nature’s intentions.

  8. To Marilyn, I hear what you say, but I feel that continuing a “don’t ask, don’t tell” stance is, in the long run far more difficult for children.

    We are as sick as our secrets. I’m wondering if the sense of betrayal children may feel down the road is not worse than the difficulties they may have to deal with now.

    Perhaps it is how children are told and how their parents tell them, act with them, be with them, raise them. Are some children suicidal because a parent is gay? Or are there other issues driving that. It can become a convenient lightning rod for all the problems. Scapegoating never works.

    I believe that you are no more homophobic than most of us (that includes those who’re gay). But denial and deception are, I think, worse enemies than the truth.

  9. Wow…I was really lovin this until Marilyn’s comments. I appreciate her viewpoint…it points out that I have a lot more research to do before deciding how to handle coming out to my 3 kids. I’m so confused!

  10. Hello there. It is offical my ex-husband is Gay. I had thought he was for a few years now. He lives with his Partner. Just typing that is still so strange for me. Here lays the problem. My 16yr old lives with my ex and his partner, and our 14yr old lives with me. Our 16yr old has know since he was 14yrs old. After I sat down and and asked my ex if he was gay, and hearing he is, it was like Wowzers!!!! I ask him why he hasn’t told our 14yr old and he said he didn’t think he was ready. Really it is I don’t think he is ready to tell our 14yr old. Our 16yr found by accident. I feel our 14yr old already knows on some level. I am not sure how to go about letting him know. Just about, no I would say every else in are families know. If anyone has any ideas on how to maybe go about doing this. I am not sure if I am comfortable talking about it. I am still dealing with the fact my ex is gay. Our divorce was rough, and very shortly after we split he met his partner. I am a live and let live person, it is not my place to judge people. Like I said Wowzers!!!

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