Coming out to your parents: why they may take it badly, and what they should do instead
- Traditional parents, especially Chinese parents, fear social stigma and the family name dying out because there won’t be grandchildren
- A sex educator says parents should learn to accept their children for who they are
No two reactions are the same when someone comes out to their parents as gay. Some parents will be caught off guard. Others may merely feign surprise. For the child, opening up comes at the risk of losing everything if their parents don’t take the news well.
When parents react badly, it is mostly because of old-fashioned fears – of social stigma, or of losing the family name; in their eyes, if the child is in a same-sex relationship that automatically means no grandchildren.
The matter of how parents react to their children’s homosexuality was in the news last week when Etta Ng Chok Lam, the estranged teenaged daughter of film star Jackie Chan, married her Canadian girlfriend.
In a public display of defiance, Ng claimed they had been left homeless, forced to live under a bridge for a month, because of their homophobic parents.
Parents who react adversely to their child coming out may threaten to withdraw their financial support in a misguided attempt to force the child to conform.
Although harsh, it is common, because such parents see it as the only way to rein in their children. But trying to force them into submission will leave permanent scars, says Bau Chung Sze-wan, a sex educator and registered social worker in Hong Kong.
“Parents should learn to accept their children for who they are, not who they want them to become. It’s important for them to respond supportively when their children come out.
“Parents need to first listen to their children’s standpoint and talk with them openly. Be open and transparent about each other’s feelings first, and remember there is no need to reject or accept their views or pass judgment,” Chung says.
The simple act of listening is very powerful because it shows respect and signals to people that you are open-minded. It also fosters a judgment-free space, which makes it easier for others to be more forthcoming.
“Society in general, especially Chinese [society], is very much influenced by the patriarchal mindset, traditional family thinking, as well as religious teachings. The first reaction when a son or daughter comes out, especially if it is a son, is for parents to immediately assume that there will be no descendants to carry on the family name. There is also the worry about their family name being smeared by [having borne] a homosexual son or daughter ,” she says.
In traditional Chinese society, parents believe the ultimate happiness a girl can have is for her to marry “correctly”. This means marrying a man who can provide for her for the rest of her life, and give her children to carry on the family name.
However, Chung says, today’s young people believe in having the freedom to explore their sexual identity and seek acceptance in society if they choose to pursue a sexual existence that is non-binary.
“ As a sex educator, I believe that when it comes to sexual identity, it is not something that is fixed for life. We need to be more aware of sexual fluidity. That means we should accept a wide spectrum of sexual choices.
“Sexuality is fluid and changeable at different stages in life. It is natural for young people to be curious and want to explore. Parents should not worry too much; their children might be interested in a same-sex relationship now, but that doesn’t mean their sexual orientation will not change in the future,” she explains.
Parents need to understand this, allow their children the time and space to explore their sexuality, and provide them support on their journey, Chung advises.
“Someone can be bisexual or pan-sexual, and we can … fall in love with a person for who they are, regardless of their gender. It all comes down to love, and love should not be restricted by gender limitations.
“I understand parents often find it difficult to accept when their children come out as homosexual. But if they really love their children, it is their happiness that [should be] the core concern.
“The fact that your child is gay, bisexual, or queer is not the only aspect of their personality; there are other aspects of them that you love. Don’t just focus on their sexual orientation. Love them for who they are,” she says.
Most cases that Chung has come across have one thing in common: the young people she sees are prepared for outsiders to reject them, but require support and love from their parents and families, as it is from their love that they draw the strength to fight stigma and criticism.
Parents who may not be familiar with the nature of non-binary love ought to make the choice to open their minds to its possibilities. If they do, their children will trust them and appreciate their open-mindedness, and this can deepen the bond between them.
Luisa Tam is a senior editor at the Post