Last week in Crisis Magazine, Anthony Esolen wrote that a son coming out to his father as gay “would be the worst day of the father’s life.” This, because “he would know that he and his son had failed as a tandem to negotiate the rough rapids of the boy’s puberty, and he would also be quite sure that his son had already acted upon his confused feelings.”
One could easily misconstrue Dr. Esolen’s words. I don’t believe Dr. Esolen means that simply coming out is a tragedy, but that coming out too late is. The tragedy for the father is not that he’s learned his son‘s sexuality, but that he didn’t learn it sooner, that he didn’t know this in time to help his son navigate the difficulties and confusions of budding attractions, that his son may have been hurt or made mistakes because he had to figure this out on his own.
I get this. I came out to my father two years into a confused and confusing sexual relationship, and I didn’t share that relationship with him at the time. I wish I would have been able to open up sooner. In this, I believe Dr. Esolen and I agree. Parents and their children could benefit from more open relationships.
However, I adamantly disagree with Dr. Esolen’s insistence that boys come out to their fathers before their friends, classmates, or counselors. Dr. Esolen makes a grave error in giving prescriptive counsel to persons he only knows in the abstract. It’s irresponsible. And it’s naive.
For some gay kids, this advice could lead to homelessness or emotional (or even physical) abuse. We should expect this in a culture where fathers often struggle with their sexualities just as much as their children. I know many straight adults who struggle to have healthy relationships with their sexualities. And under the influence of certain Freudian psychologies (spread by many influential Catholics), many Christian men consider fathering a gay child to be a mark of their own masculine insufficiencies, the coming out of a child to be the supreme sign of fathering failure.
For these fathers, responding to a coming out may derive more from fear and anger towards these alleged insufficiencies than authentic care and compassion towards their children. And then there are the fathers in denial about their own attractions to other men, as well as the fathers who feel shame at the thought of others discovering they have a gay child. They will not be very helpful to their children. Coming out to your father may not always be a safe or healthy or helpful experience.
Personally, I needed to have the support of my closest friends in order to have that difficult conversation with my father. I’ve never doubted my father’s unconditional love. I come from a deeply loving family, a child affectionately cared for by his parents. But I still agonized about telling them.
The conversation was far from perfect. At one point, for example, my father told me that he wanted grandkids. I don’t want to simply conflate the issues, but saying this to your Catholic son coming out as gay is like saying this to your daughter coming out as infertile. Sure, you may want it. They may want it too. But saying it cuts them to the core, places a hard finger on a fresh wound that they’ve just shared with you. But, of course, he didn’t know that. We were both navigating this for the first time.
So my advice to kids thinking about coming out to their parents: expect that they will say things that are unhelpful or that might even hurt. Not necessarily because they’re bad parents or because they don’t want to accept you, but because that conversation is hard for them, just like it’s hard for you. They’ve never done it before either. Most parents want to love their children, but they just don’t always know how. No parent knows how to parent perfectly. And that’s ok.
So be patient with them, and be compassionate, and be willing to be hurt by what you perceive as insensitivity but may actually be confusion and insecurity. And be strong. Be strong for yourself, and for your parents. Children need to be loved by their parents. But parents need to be loved by their children, too.
For another take on Dr. Esolen’s post, see this piece by Simcha Fisher.
And if you haven’t seen it, Rod Dreher had a recent post with a wonderful story about being reconciled to his father.
Gabriel Blanchard also responds to Dr. Esolen, drawing largely on his personal experiences, here.
More on Catholicism and homosexuality here.