Yesterday I posted the first half of my interview with Sarah Dopp about her gender and sexual identity. We spoke about how she defines herself and how that has developed through her life and within her social networks. Today we talk about family.
KR: Have you talked with your parents about your gender and sexual identity?
SD: Unfortunately, my dad died from a terminal illness before I was ready to talk to him about this stuff. I still wonder how those conversations would have gone. But my mom is incredible. We’ve talked so much about gender and sexuality, and every time we listen to each other, we both grow. She loves me deeply and she’s made a lot of space for me to be myself.
KR: How have those conversations gone?
SD: Now? They’re wonderful. But I’ll be honest — it’s taken a lot of work to get here. When I was fifteen and I had my first girlfriend, my mother asked me if I was a lesbian. I told her I thought I was bisexual, and she responded, “Bisexuality is bullshit.” That comment hurt me so much deeper than she intended it to. I became convinced that she’d never understand me, and I closed off the conversation for seven years after that. Later, she approached me about it again and started asking questions with openness and acceptance. Our conversations became messy and difficult, but they were always full of love, and we talked ourselves into a more healthy relationship. Her insistence on loving me exactly as I am has made it possible for me to feel comfortable in my skin today. I don’t know where I’d be without her.
KR: What about your extended family? Coming out to parents is often stressful to teenagers and young adults, but coming out to siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc can be much harder or much easier depending on the circumstances. How have those conversations gone for you?
SD: Yeah, that’s a hard one. My extended family is big and scattered. Half of them are liberal and half of them are conservative. But they all love me. Most of them have accepted that I’m ambiguously different and generally prefer not to talk about it. I’ve come out to almost all of them in one way or another — usually in the least confrontational way possible — and I’m giving them space to make sense of it. What matters most to them is who I’m going to bring home for Christmas. If I start seeing a man, then they’ll think of me as straight. If I take a female partner, then they’ll think of me as a lesbian. They just want to be happy, and in their eyes, happiness is a healthy marriage. I might never get married, but I’m not asking them to accept that right now. I’m just grateful to have a family that loves me, and I try not to mess with their heads too much. (It helps that I live on the other side of the country.)
KR: What is the best possible reaction a parent could have when their teenager or young adult child comes out as gay or bisexual? Why?
SD: Trust them to know themselves better than you can know them, and accept whatever they tell you as their truth. Even if it changes, it’s still their truth. Try to think of gender and sexuality as fluid things — they can change and evolve and that’s okay. Try not to get attached to labels. Check in with yourself, and ask yourself honestly if you love and accept your child exactly as they are. If you do, then communicate that to them every time you interact with them, and tell them it’s important to you that they love themselves. But if something about your child’s identity feels wrong or unfortunate or misguided to you, consider the possibility that you’re hearing from some of your own baggage, and that you don’t need to pass that onto your child. Find an LGBT-friendly cognitive-behavioral therapist for yourself (before you find one for your kid), and work through the parts of your reactions that feel blocked. And spend some time getting educated. Read books on the subject, or find someone who specializes in educating parents about adolescent sexuality. I happen to know a great one in Austin.
KR: What is the worst possible reaction a parent could have when their teenager or young adult child comes out as gay or bisexual? Why?
SD: LGBT youth have a frighteningly high suicide rate, so I have a very firm belief on this one: If you withhold love, acceptance, or privileges from your child in ANY WAY as a result of their gender or sexuality, you are putting their life at risk. You DO NOT have the power to change them, but you do have the power to influence their desire to live. It’s a hard and real truth. Take this responsibility very seriously.
KR: Thank you so much, Sarah! I think your insights have much to add to the conversation and to support parents of current questioning teenagers and young adults. Any last words you want to leave us with?
SD: Wow, I ended up going down some pretty serious paths there, didn’t I? That feels strange because my life is usually pretty joyful these days. I think it’s important to remember that there are as many different genders and sexualities as there are people in the world. The labels we use are just a short-hand for describing patterns, and sometimes they don’t cover everything. I believe in the inherent worth of all individuals, and I believe there’s no such thing as “too much love.” And also… when we learn to relax our grip on the categories, I’ve found that life becomes a whole lot more fun.