Three years ago, my sisters and I found out my father is gay, but not because he came out and told us. My youngest sister (11 at the time) found some incriminating evidence, and put the pieces together. Since then, there has been a mutual understanding between my mother and father, and my father and us, that he is gay, but our family will remain intact. We have never sat down together to actually discuss the situation, we all just know it’s there, but don’t discuss it. It seems to work for us, but being 25 years old, now living in a different city and looking back at the situation, I see how it may be affecting myself and my sisters.
I have always had some issues with trust, but since finding out my father is gay, they have only gotten worse. At first I thought it was simply finding out that this male figure in my life had a totally different life, but now, I’m realizing it may also be about my parents staying in a marriage that is so clearly not working, all the while giving the illusion that nothing is wrong.
My impressions of true love, marriage, and truly trusting someone have been rocked to the core. I am still close to both my parents and love them very much, but can’t help thinking they’d be happier separate. It also seems that my father is seeing other people (men) on the side, but my mom is entirely devoted to him and would never cheat while still married.
So my questions are these: Is my parents’ “elephant in the room” marriage healthy for me and my sisters (ages 18 and 15)? Do many families do this? How can I examine my own trust issues and figure out how to come to terms with not only my father’s orientation, but my parents’ denial?
Yes, some married couples stay together when one of them comes out. Just how many, we have no way of knowing. I can only say anecdotally that I hear from plenty of straight wives trying to “make it work” with their gay husbands, but I can only think of a handful of straight men who have wanted to stay married to his wife after finding out she was lesbian.
You might never know why your parents have decided to stay together, or what arrangements they have worked out regarding relationships outside of the marriage. There really isn’t much you can do to improve their situation.
You can only say your piece with no expectations. You might say something like this: “Mom, Dad, I love you very much. And even though we have never talked about it, I know Dad is gay. The silence hurts me. I need to talk about it. If you are staying together for the sake of your children, I want you to know you’re not doing us any favors by pretending everything is fine when we know you are unhappy together.”
They will probably get defensive and tell you that it is none of your business. And technically, they’d be right. But there’s no denying their choices affect your life profoundly. (I’m often told my opinion on this topic is harsh.) If they challenge what their marriage has to do with you, ask them to describe what kind of relationships they hope their daughters will find. Do they want you and your sisters to follow in their footsteps? Will they be proud of the values they passed on to you if you end up marrying a closeted gay man and you stay with him no matter how miserable you feel?
Say what you need to say — just once — and then leave it alone unless they bring it up again.
As for your sisters, you don’t need your parents’ approval to speak openly with them. Share your feelings with them and let them know you are open to talking to them about your family. Model specific and respectful language, so they will know how to talk about it if/when they want to. (Example: “I know we all know Dad is gay” instead of “I know we all know about the stuff Mom and Dad are dealing with.”)
Your own questions about intimacy and trust won’t be answered right way. Find an understanding counselor who will allow you to explore issues related to your father’s sexuality without insisting that you fixate on that single issue.
The biggest hurdle in sorting through everything is denial. You’ve jumped that hurdle by being honest with yourself. That’s a great start.