The Changing Ways Parents React to Their Kids Coming Out of the Closet

A conversation with the sociologist Mary Robertson on how some queer youth are pleasantly surprised with the lack of family drama the news causes.

Andreea Alexandru / AP

The story of LGBTQ youth has long been considered one of tragedy—of kids coming out to parents who throw them out of the house, of conversion therapy, of being on the receiving end of hate crimes, of considering suicide. Even as queerness has become more accepted in some ways, LGBTQ youth are still more likely than others to experience homelessness and struggle with mental illness.

When Mary Robertson, a sociologist at California State University at San Marcos, interviewed adolescents at an LGBTQ youth center, she was expecting to hear echoes of these stories. Yet the conversations surprised her: While the teens’ lives were far from perfect or conflict-free, they weren’t the tragedies she expected. In some instances, when some kids had come out, their parents in turn came out to them as bisexual. Some were pleasantly surprised by the lack of family drama their revelation caused, despite having worried about getting kicked out of their homes.

Her book, Growing Up Queer: Kids and the Remaking of LGBTQ Identity, is a testament to how much conditions for gay youth have shifted. I spoke with Robertson about her conversations with teens and what she learned about what it meant to be a young LGBTQ person in the early 2010s, when she conducted her research. An edited and condensed version of our conversation is below.

Natalie Escobar: What sort of reaction were young people in your research typically expecting from their parents?

Mary Robertson: They were expecting anger. More than one of them expected that they were going to get kicked out of their families, or at the minimum, for it to be a family crisis. And I think some of the most profound findings in the study were hearing from young people who said, “My coming-out story isn’t a tragedy.” That just shows that the expectation is absolutely that it’s going to be bad.

Escobar: How has the LGBTQ-rights movement affected the coming-out process?

Robertson: It’s important to think about the fact there was no LGBTQ movement prior to the 1970s. It’s a relatively recent thing that we call each other “gay” or “straight.” We’ve been able to kind of see and watch this thing happen in our lifetimes. For the parents of the kids I spoke to, they really didn’t grow up in the context of an LGBTQ movement. But for this generation of kids, it was common parlance. Just that difference of having it be part of your world has a really profound influence on young people today. It broadens the options of how you can name your sexual identity. If [LGBTQ identities are] not even in your realm of thinking or perspective, it’s really that much harder to imagine yourself as a gay person.

Escobar: You acknowledge that the people you talked with live in an urban and politically liberal community. How do you think that shaped their experiences?

Robertson: Clearly, we’ve got this urban-rural divide happening. But I think we’re unclear as to what exactly that is. I wonder if it’s more about where people are comfortable with the language [of LGBTQ issues]. The LGBTQ movement is an urban, liberal movement. If your social context isn’t that, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re closed to the idea of homosexuality, but maybe you don’t sort of see it the same way and use the same words to describe it. Throughout the country, you’re going to see these different pockets of how people are managing gayness.

Escobar: Parents of queer kids can often worry that their extended family or the world at large won’t be accepting, so their initial response tends to be grief and fear. How does this shape youths’ perceptions of their family and their level of acceptance?

Robertson: With the youth I interviewed, they were not very concerned about their parents’ feelings, and I think that’s a very teenager way to be. They’re concerned about their parents being mad at them, getting kicked out, or getting in trouble, but they weren’t as concerned about their parents’ feelings. But there definitely was this narrative, I want to call it the “grandparent exception.” They say, well, it’s too much for the the grandparents, or that the grandparents are conservative. They might tell the story that their parents were pretty cool and that went well, but then everybody sort of tolerates the grandparents’ intolerance.

There were a few parents who were like, “There’s nothing wrong with gayness or queerness, but you’re not gay and you’re not queer.” One thing that kind of gets lost in this conversation about coming out to parents is that talking about sex with parents is so fraught. If you are gay, you’re often forced to talk to your parents about something that has to do with sex.

Escobar: You acknowledged that the coming-out process looks different for trans and gender-nonconforming youth. Can you tell me more about the ways that those adolescents generally approach their parents to talk about gender?

Robertson: Of the people I talked to, not very many identified as transgender. But of the folks I talked to, there was this early-on assumption [about their] sexual identity. People said, “I came out as a lesbian first.” And then they realized this was something different.

[The trans and gender-nonconforming kids I saw at the center were] brought by their parents, almost exclusively. You’re seeing all of these parents kind of acknowledging their kids’ gender variance, and while that at one time might have been associated with sexuality, it’s now associated with gender.

Escobar: You talk about the importance of recognizing that queer teens’ experiences are really affected by race, class, and so many other factors. How did these factors play out?

Robertson: The study included black, Latino, and white people, and there didn’t seem to be that presence of homophobia based on race. I thought that was profound, that there wasn’t a racialized story about homophobia. I do think that it’s kind of similar to the idea of the rural-urban divide. If you scratch the surface a little bit, I don’t think that’s the story.