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.