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‘Our son has come out as gay. How do we support him?’

Ask Roe: We’re worried our own beliefs stopped him speaking to us sooner

Dear Roe,

My 20-year-old son came out to my husband and I as gay a couple of weeks ago, and we're finding it difficult to navigate. We love our son dearly and that will never change, but I would be lying if I said I wasn't sad at the thought that he won't have the life I assumed he would, of marrying a woman and having his own children.

I do know he can still have a version of that, but it does feel different. On that issue, my husband and I are also struggling with the fact that we voted against the marriage equality referendum, because we believed that marriage was a sacred act between a man and a woman. It pains me to think that the conversations we had at that time stopped our son from coming out to us earlier.

We haven’t spoken to our son about this since he told us, and I don’t know if or how we should, or if he wants us to. We just want him to be happy, but are unsure of how to help him.

“We just want him to be happy.”

This is such a relatable, universal idea for parents, the desire for their children to be happy. And of course I believe that you mean it. But happiness is also a complicated idea, precisely because we pretend that it isn’t. We pretend that happiness is a one-size-fits-all type of existence, that can be achieved through the right actions, the right life milestones, the right scripts. “Scripts” is an important word here, because there are social scripts that tell us what is considered acceptable and what is deviant; and then there are the Hollywood scripts that enforce these ideas through pop culture, and nearly every romantic film ever made.

Scripted happiness

Happiness is a successful career, we’re told. Happiness is a heterosexual relationship. Happiness is a heterosexual marriage. Happiness is two heterosexual people having their biological children and staying together forever.

These scripts are exclusive. They exclude people for whom that version of happiness is not possible, or desired. And these scripts imply and demand conformity, by telling us that this normative, heterosexual vision is the only way that happiness can be achieved.

It’s punishing in its specificity. Because by telling us that one life script equates to happiness, it implies that deviation will lead to unhappiness. It thus blames those who don’t follow the script for any unhappiness they encounter.

You’re an unhappy single woman? You should have been a different kind of woman, so you could have got a man. You’re an unhappy gay person? Well, you shouldn’t have “chosen” that lifestyle. You’re an unhappy, childless adult? You should have been less selfish and your life would have been more meaningful. You’re an unhappy trans person? You should have followed the gender rules.

This blaming perpetuates shame and stigma. Because by blaming the people who don’t adhere to heteronormative scripts for their own unhappiness, we don’t have to look at our role their oppression. We don’t have to look at the societal factors – violence, bigotry, social inequality, workplace discrimination, economic disadvantage – that all combine and contribute to the difficulties faced by people on the margins, and how it is these things, not the lack of a straight, traditional family, that is the problem.

Interrogate yourselves

Which brings us onto your concern that your vote in the marriage equality referendum possibly affected your son. It probably did. You told him that you didn’t think he deserved the same treatment as straight people, that if he wanted to get married, it wouldn’t be as sacred.

I’m curious as to whether you would vote differently now that you know your son is gay, and why. Because now you would want him to be able to get married, to be closer to the dream that you had for his life, or because only now can you empathise with a gay person, because you know one?

Listen to the answers, even if they make you uncomfortable. Your discomfort may be necessary

These are important questions that you’ll need to interrogate yourself with in order to really be supportive of your son. Because you may need to recalibrate your idea of what happiness can look like, and who you think deserves it.

Wanting your son to be happy may no longer look like waiting for his wedding day to a woman. It may look like him never getting married. It may look like standing by him on his wedding day realising that the love he has for his new husband is no less sacred than the love you have for yours. It may look like fighting tooth and nail to ensure that he has the same rights and respect afforded to his straight peers. It may look like admitting that you may have hurt him through your attitudes towards gay people, and apologising, and doing the work to show him that you want to be better for him, and for others.

This work starts by talking to him. By coming out to you, your son invited you to see him as he is, to be a part of his life, to know him and love him more authentically. By avoiding the topic – his identity – because you are uncomfortable, you are prioritising your feelings over his reality.

Start a conversation. Tell him you love him. Ask him what it has been like for him to not be open about his sexuality. Ask him have you hurt him. Ask him how you can do better. Ask him what happiness looks like to him. Ask him how you can help.

Listen to the answers, even if they make you uncomfortable. Your discomfort may be a necessary rest stop on his road to happiness. Let him show you where he wants to go. Realise how beautiful, how wondrous this new terrain could be.

Roe McDermott is a writer and Fulbright scholar with an MA in sexuality studies from San Francisco State University. She is researching a PhD in gendered and sexual citizenship at the Open University and Oxford

If you have a problem or query you would like her to answer, you can submit it anonymously at irishtimes.com/dearroe

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