Parents, Friends and Neighbors Part II

Parents, Friends and Neighbors
Part II
By Rita Ryland

I've started this article a dozen times. I've started it with humorous quotes from a Lakewood police officer who has two children, now young adults. I've started it with the suicide account of a gay Lakewood teen. I've started it with the murder of Matthew Shepard and the recent hatchet and gun attack in a Boston bar. I've deleted them all. Simply, with no humor, no frightening vignettes, I am writing about tender lives, the lives of children who happen to be gay.

Jeanne Hoopes, School Counselor in Lakewood City Schools, said it best: "Every child has special needs." She went on to say, "If we are doing our job correctly, then we will help the child figure out how we as adults can best help them or get them the help they need." I believe her. I also believe that the climate of our larger culture is not warm and welcoming, nor is it inclusive and celebrating its diversity. No. I believe that we are often faced with, as Jim Muth, Lakewood Department of Human Services, Division of Youth, said, "a one size fits all society." And in the case of gay children, the result is the denial of their sexuality, ostracism, and abandonment by the adults who are their caretakers.

Almost every counselor I interviewed for this series reminded me that not all children who are gay struggle. Not every parent or every family with a gay child swims in a sea of angst. Some kids say, "I'm gay." That's it. Some parents say, "Okay." The child and family are united in their dealings with the greater community. But I think, at their core, children struggle with being gay. And they struggle with how to tell their parents. And they struggle in the classroom. And they learn painful lessons about how to live safely in the larger community.

Gay kids hear mean-spirited phrases like, "That's so gay," "You're gay," or other derogatory remarks. Gay kids watch gay characters on television and believe they need to be funny in order to be accepted. Gay kids watch the news and listen to reports of hate crimes.

Stephanie Boyd, a teacher at Lakewood High School and advisor to the Unity Group, a gay and lesbian student support group, said that gay teens have a higher rate of everything negative - suicide, dropping out, substance abuse, and cutting. Additional risk factors are promiscuity, early sexual behavior, anxiety, mood swings, overeating, and self-loathing - manifested by bulimia - or anorexia, especially in males.

Counselors are seeing an increase in the number of clients who cut themselves. Kids use any sharp instrument to cut themselves - a paper clip, razor blade, knife, safety pin, or soda can top. They cut shapes, words, or lines on limbs and torso, usually in places that a parent cannot easily see. Or kids hide the marks by wearing wide bracelets and wristbands, long pants and shirt sleeves. If a person cuts themselves, it doesn't mean they are gay. It does mean they need professional counseling.

Mary Hall, Assistant Director, Lakewood Department of Human Services, Division of Youth, says openly gay kids are at risk of being bullied, harassed, and beaten. A boy who is effeminate or a girl who is butch are among those children who are the most vulnerable, said Renee Althof, R.N., CNS. These children may not necessarily be gay. They may be developing their sexual identity, trying on new ways of being. Nevertheless, they are bullied, harassed, beaten into that "one size fits all." Of the child not yet out to their parents, Mika Major, Lakewood resident and Director of Programs at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Center of Greater Cleveland, said, "Some kids come to the center because they are being bullied. The child feels that they can't really tell their parents why they're being bullied if they're gay."

"Bullying may occur in common areas such as hallways where teachers may not hear what is said or see what is done," said Boyd. But she added, "It's starting to be uncool to be a bully."

Some gay kids are shunned. Classmates and friends may withdraw when they find out the person is gay. And, as I said in Part I of this series, neighbors, once happy to greet the child, are no longer friendly when they find out the child is gay. They turn their heads. They wait in their cars until the child has passed to avoid saying hello. Muth said that shunning, a form of emotional violence, is the most painful outcome of being gay. In a family system, invitations to family get-togethers may dwindle. My friend in Lakewood, whose son is now in his thirties, told me her family and friends rarely ask about her son. It hurts.

When kids feel as if they don't have a trusting parent, a safe place, they may begin to isolate themselves. The gay child, not yet out, may step further into the closet. And as Major said, "Human beings are not here to hide."

Feeling they have no one to trust, children may internalize the struggle and become depressed, self-medicate with drugs, or drop out of school believing they don't fit in. According to Major, twenty-five percent of gay kids, including transgender, drop out of school.

Some kids, in an effort to prove to themselves and others that they're not gay, may engage in promiscuous activity. Hall said that sexual activity, even casual sex, has been normalized. Developmentally, this can be a time of confusion. That alone makes one vulnerable. Hall emphasized that it is natural to be attracted to kids of the same sex. She added that today, it is more acceptable for kids to admit attraction to both sexes.

Even if a child declares that they are gay, it doesn't mean they need to or will engage in sexual activity. Counselors caution that the values held by the family are the same when there is a gay member. Essentially, the same rules apply. Just because someone is gay, doesn't mean they are sexually promiscuous.

When the counselors talk about children, they are talking about pre-teens and teens. Today, kids are identifying themselves as gay at a much earlier age. Muth said that currently kids are coming out to their friends in middle school and high school. John Farina, Development Director at the Beck Center, came out to a guidance counselor in junior high school. The counselor confirmed to John that he was okay. Farina stressed the importance of finding a trusting adult.

Unity Group membership at Lakewood High School has grown, with an increase in the number of freshman. However, not all Unity members are gay. Some have relatives or family members who are gay.

"Kids are looking to see a reflection of themselves, a sense of belonging," Major said. In Lakewood and nearby there are a number of places for children to obtain support, whether they are gay or not, and deal with some of the risk behaviors identified. The advice for kids from many of the counselors I interviewed was reaffirming and reassuring. Boyd recommended that pre-teens and teens who are struggling with sexual identity, "...take your time, don't label yourself, don't be in a hurry to come out to anyone." It's a process.

Students can talk to their counselors. If they are a student at Lakewood High School, they can talk to the advisor or a member of the Unity Group. In addition to Unity Group, Lakewood High School offers support through a Newcomers group that helps to ease the transition to the high school and a Family group for girls who have a difficult home life. This is a high-functioning, confidential support group.

The LGBT Center of Greater Cleveland is a safe place for kids with supportive staff and programs. Additionally, PFLAG Cleveland (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) has a confidential information line, literature, and monthly meetings at Trinity Cathedral. Some of the literature addresses how to come out to your parents, family and friends.

"Parental meltdown is an old story," said Major. "Parents worry, fret. All the negative stereotypes are wrong." Kris Jares, LISW, Lakewood Hospital, Teen Health Center, recommended that parents refrain from criticism or condemnation. She suggested that parents listen, be supportive, ask questions, ask questions that are not judgmental, and talk to a counselor about how to start a conversation. Kris said the response, "You're going through a phase," angers the kids.

The message for parents from the counselors is the same as for children - "You are not alone." According to Jane Daroff, mother of a gay son and founding member of PFLAG Cleveland, "PFLAG is the best ballgame in town." Every month 35-38 people meet at Trinity Cathedral. Sometimes young gay people attend. It gives the parent a chance to ask questions they may be afraid to ask their child. It gives the child a chance to ask questions they may be afraid to ask their parents. "Something magical happens." Daroff said, reassuringly. Newcomers get a large portion of the evening.

"Parents have a coming out process as much as the child does," said Tim Marshall, Director of Communications of the LGBT Center of Greater Cleveland. "Once kids come out of the closet, parents go in," Daroff said. Kids get angry because parents don't get on board readily. Kids need to give their parents time.

"It is important for the parent to seek support because this is a complicated issue at times. How are you going to help this child find out who they are?" asked Hoopes. Hall stressed, "It's so hard for parents. They beat themselves up. They need friends, family to go to and not deal with this in isolation."

Lakewood is a community filled with valuable resources. The counselors stand ready to assist you, your family, and, most importantly, your tender child as you walk through the process of coming out as a family.
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Volume 2, Issue 7, Posted 2:02 PM, 03.25.06