Coming out is often described as an ongoing journey. As parents, it is a journey we take with our children.
For National Coming Out Day, coming up on October 11, here are a few things I’ve learned along the way.
I first came out well before I became a parent, but parenthood shone a big spotlight on our family structure. Right from the start, as we were creating our family via reciprocal IVF (my egg, my spouse’s womb), we were by necessity out to doctors, nurses, receptionists, and lawyers, not to mention colleagues and HR staff at our respective employers’ as we arranged family leave. I had been out at work, but this expanded the circle of those who knew, and I hoped the visibility would pave the way for others.
After our son was born, it would have been hard to hide even if we had wanted to. Someone would comment on how cute he was, and my spouse and I would both respond, “Thank you,” making it clear we were both his parents. Then he became old enough to shout, “Hey, Mommy and Momma!” across the supermarket aisle. I was therefore out to people I had never felt the need to share anything with, about my queerness or otherwise — supermarket cashiers, restaurant waiters, and random strangers in the park, to name a few. Kids are conversation starters, however, and I tried to get used to it.
As our son got older, I reminded myself that being unflinching in public about our two-mom family was vital to instilling pride and self-confidence in him rather than shame or hesitancy. This was a privilege we had, though, since we didn’t have jobs where we could get fired for being queer (such as the military, still under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in the early aughts) and didn’t live in places without employment nondiscrimination protections. We could be out without risking our family’s financial stability. Not everyone was that lucky, or is today, despite (in theory) greater legal protections now. There’s still work to be done.
We made a point, too, of showing up at the beginning of each school year for Parents’ Night and introducing ourselves to our son’s teachers. We didn’t say, “Hi, we’re the lesbians,” but made it clear we were both his parents. The problem was, however, that primarily, I wanted to be known as my son’s mom, not his “lesbian mom.” The commonalities of parenthood far outweighed the differences in sexual orientation. More importantly, I wanted my son to be known for his own qualities, and not be defined primarily as “the boy with the lesbian moms.” Yes, the fact that he has two moms will always be part of his identity, but I want us to be a piece of a much richer whole, not a leading indicator. At the same time, visibility can motivate teachers and schools to be more inclusive and open students’ eyes to the fact that families come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. We strove to find this balance.
I have also heard from many grown people with LGBTQ parents that when they were children, especially as they moved into middle school and beyond, they wanted to come out about their families in their own time and their own way. Even if they are not LGBTQ themselves, our children have a “coming out” process about their families. (I credit Abigail Garner’s excellent 2004 book “Families Like Mine” for first making me aware of this.) Sometimes our children will want to be more out about our families than we are comfortable with; sometimes less. This can vary as children navigate the shifting social landscape of schools and extracurricular activities. It may also depend on whether they were raised from the start by LGBTQ parents, adopted by an LGBTQ parent or parents when older, or been older when their parent(s) came out. As parents, though, I believe we need to respect our children’s feelings about this. If there are times when our amount of “outness” clashes with theirs (whether greater or lesser), we should have open, honest, and age-appropriate conversations with them so that we can better understand each other’s feelings and reasons and try to reach a workable solution.
Being out as a parent is therefore more complex than just dressing our infants in “I love my mommies” jumpers or being outed by our toddlers at the supermarket. It can vary as our children grow, exploring their own feelings about being part of an LGBTQ family and encountering the support — or bias — of others. And for parents who come out for the first time when their children are older, the issues can be different yet again, bound up with the parents’ own learnings as they take their first steps out of the closet.
Two things I’ve learned from children about closets, though, both real and metaphorical. First, while closets can be messy and cleaning them can seem like a burden, there’s a feeling of satisfaction if you take the time to sort through the clutter and get rid of the things that have been outgrown. Second, while closets are often alleged to hide monsters, this suspicion can usually be dispelled simply by opening the door.
Happy National Coming Out Day, no matter where you and your children are in your journeys.
Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian (mombian.com), a GLAAD Media Award-winning blog and resource directory, with a searchable database of 1000+ LGBTQ family books, music, and more.