I usually write about issues that straight parents face when their children come out, largely because of parental pre-conceived expectations for their children. But I thought it would be enlightening to hear from author Britt East, a gay grown man, about his journey coming out to his Southern non-accepting family in the 80’s but also dealing with societal homophobia. In his new book, A Gay Man’s Guide to Life: Get Real, Stand Tall, and Take Your Place ( Houndstooth Press: 2020), available on Amazon.com, BN.com, Apple Books, and many outlets, East, in his self-help manual, shares his own traumatic experiences and insights to help others improve their lives, including body, mind, spirit, career, family, and more.
Even the most well-meaning straight parents rarely raise culturally gay children. They simply lack the lived experience to impart that wisdom. Without direct access to healthy gay mentors and peers, gay children are left to cobble together this part of their culture on their own. They might miss or have adverse experiences with many of the rites of passage, ceremonies, and initiations that their straight counterparts enjoy. So being part of a larger gay culture is particularly important. Culture is best transmitted through personal contact, and to deny children this opportunity is a form of neglect. But it’s not just gay kids that benefit from knowing gay people. We are essential, which is another way of saying children of all sexual orientations benefit from direct engagement with us. Diversity is always the right answer.
Today, I’m a proud gay cis man. But I grew up in 1980s Nashville, at the height of deaths in the U.S. due to the AIDS epidemic. I’m sure my hometown had a vibrant underground gay scene, but as a young person I lacked access to that. It was like living in oblivion. My family tried to gaslight me with the language of social conformity, mass media tried to reduce the lives of all gay people to caricatures of serial killers and sassy next door neighbors, and the government tried to eradicate us in their gentle genocide of blackmail, imprisonment, and abject denial. Almost all facets of society were closed to us simply by virtue of our sexual orientation. So it was logical that I assumed I would be an unemployable pariah, dead before I turned thirty.
In my world, there was no soft place to land. My family made it clear that differences were unwelcome, and there were no other adults in my orbit with the awareness, inclination, or capacity to pick up the slack. Parents and primary caregivers write the templates of their children’s lives. Theirs is often the voice children hear in their heads when making values-based decisions. This voice might sometimes be their source of shame, while at other times be their source of support. The difference is the degree to which children are provided a secure foundation and attachment to their family unit, safe in the knowledge that they are cherished and adored without condition.
The pain that gay children experience differs to that of their straight peers, thanks to the culture of straight supremacy that saturates our society. Straight supremacy is a power structure based on patrimony – the passing of wealth from fathers to sons. Anyone who violates the norms designed to secure this privilege runs the risk of severe punishment, whether through loss of life, livelihood, freedom, or opportunity. This is why “coming out” is an inherently political act. Gay people make daily, pragmatic decisions to diminish, alter, or restrain our speech, mannerisms, or the information we share. We normalize the wearing of masks that disguise our identities, rather than the adoption of roles that accentuate them, often not realizing that our authenticity and our stories are our medicine.
There is a paradox at work here: we hide to survive, yet we cannot fully live until we are fully known. As humans we are social creatures, and gay people can no more avoid human contact than we could water or sunlight. But until straight people learn to see gay people as complex human beings, with rich internal worlds, our love will be lacking and our friendships facile. Coming out is the basis of gay liberation. Because so many gay people have bravely shared the truth of their lives, our social standing has increased rapidly and dramatically over the past few decades, enriching all our lives and paving the way for the generations to come. These days gay people of all ages are coming out in all sorts of ways, both in their personal and professional lives. The risk has been worth it, but risky it remains.
You cannot come out for your children. This is a spiritual journey that only they can make. All you can do is create and hold the loving space and the secure foundation for them to leap into the life they were meant to lead. Rushing them through this process might appease your ego or assuage your anxiety, but it will likely harm your child. They deserve the right to do this work on their own timeline, and in their own way. They even deserve the right to change their minds, as they try on various identities and labels for size. This is true of all children, not just gay kids. The difference is straight supremacy: gay kids face the added burden of resisting bias, stigma, and bigotry from a variety of sources throughout their childhood, no matter how safe a home you build. You cannot protect them from the world, but you can give them the tools to navigate it.
I wrote A Gay Man’s Guide to Life to help readers come home to themselves, as they get real, stand tall, and take their rightful place in the world. I want to show everyone that there is a range of pragmatic practices we can put in place immediately to nurture our joy. This book is chocked full of timeless, kitchen table wisdom, designed to help us understand the world we inherited and the freedom we crave. It lays out a path to unleash our power, passion, and purpose, and use our gifts to spread love throughout the world. Because I believe we’re all in this together, that if each of us took a little less we would all have so much more, and that there is no greater wisdom than kindness.
Britt is the author of the award-winning, best-selling book, A Gay Man’s Guide to Life. You can read more of his work on britteast.com.
When Your Child Is Gay: What You Need To Know
For more detailed advice, see book, co-authored with a mother of a gay son and a psychiatrist, Jonathan L. Tobkes, M.D.