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Parents of gay children more supportive, less afraid

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 23, 2010 - When Dean Rosen's then-16-year-old son Adam came out as gay 15 years ago, Rosen turned to a group now called Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. While Rosen sought help from PFLAG to ensure his son a "happy gay life," many other such parents considered the concept an absolute oxymoron. 

"That was a very new idea in 1995," said Rosen, PFLAG's president for the past 10 years.

Grief-stricken, terrified, embarrassed parents were the norm at PFLAG meetings in the organization's early days and into the 1990s.

But today, mothers and fathers are dealing with fewer of their own negative emotions. They're more likely to be searching for ways to support their children, who are coming out at younger and younger ages -- some even in elementary school.

"Traditionally, kids didn't come out to their parents until their early or mid-20s and later," Rosen said. "I knew at that time that coming out earlier was the next stage of the cultural revolution, and I've lived long enough to see that. And now, parents are coming to PFLAG because they want to do the right thing."

Growing Acceptance

The media provide ample evidence of the growing acceptance of people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT), who make up a community sometimes known by the umbrella terms "gay" or "queer." In 1997, Ellen DeGeneres' coming out of the closet was the door-slam heard 'round the word. But singer Ricky Martin's coming out in March of this year barely registered on the pop culture scale.

Politics -- local and national -- also tell the tale. In 2009, Annise Parker of Houston was elected as the nation's first big-city, openly LGBT mayor. St. Louis now has its first openly gay alderman in Shane Cohn, and both the state House and Senate have LGBT members. (An upcoming Beacon story will look at politics and LGBT people.)

Changing attitudes are also supported by statistics. Earlier this year, a Gallup poll showed that "moral acceptance" of gays and lesbians broke the halfway mark in 2010 to achieve 52 percent, up from 40 percent in 2001.

Coming out Can Still Be Difficult

When Cameron Hilderbrand, 20, of Jefferson County, was growing up, his mother, Paula, had lesbian and gay friends. Still, she was surprised, though supportive, when he came out to her last year.

"It took me off guard at first," Paula Hilderbrand said. "Everybody around me thought they knew, and they told me, 'He's gay, he's gay,' and I would say, 'Stop saying that, he's just special'."

"I was scared," Cameron Hilderbrand said. "I knew my mom was the most open-minded person ever, but I was still scared because in the world we live in, I was raised to be straight."

Paula Hilderbrand understands that some parents of LGBT children need time to adjust, but is baffled by the extreme reactions of others.

"The biggest feeling parents get is embarrassment," Paula Hilderbrand said. "They're embarrassed to tell their friends, they're embarrassed about family members' reactions. I was shocked that some of the parents still throw them out."

Change is Slower Among Blacks

The 50-percent acceptance figure likely doesn't hold true in some populations, especially in the black community of St. Louis and elsewhere.

"You have a marginalized people who've been oppressed and stigmatized, and the stigma that's associated with being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender is another added barrier," said Erise Williams, president of St. Louis' Black Pride organization. "Families are reluctant to embrace that because it's one more thing they have to deal with."

When 16-year-old Brandon Hull came out to his mother a year ago, it was hard for Lenora Hull to shake her religious upbringing and the steadfast beliefs of her church deacon father.

"It was a shock," Lenora Hull said. "I pinned him down physically and showed him where it was written about in the bible."

But after a lot of time spent in prayer, she realized this wasn't a situation she could change.

"Sometimes I question, 'Where did I go wrong with him? Why did he turn out this way?'" Hull said. "But then I realized this is who he is. I'm still a little conflicted but as a parent, I support my son."

Brandon goes to Kirkwood High School, known for its strong gay-straight alliance, but he still gets teased. As his mother struggles to raise five children by herself, she especially worries about the safety of her gay son and his love of cross-dressing.

"Many more people are accepting now than 10 years ago, but there is still hate crime," Hull said.

Transgender Children, Families More Visible

While the greater acceptance by moms and dads of gay and lesbian children is changing the face of PFLAG, another emerging group is also altering its complexion.

Fifteen years ago, the meetings drew no parents of transgender children, or those who feel they were born in the body of the wrong gender. Today they make up nearly 20 percent of the membership. When these moms and dads -- and their children -- first began seeking support through PFLAG, it elevated the already high anxiety level of some parents of gay and lesbian children. For several years, the organization tried to arrange its meetings so that new parent members could come at times when transgender children would not there.

"For many parents, their only conception of 'gay' is that their son will wear a dress. To see a male in a dress is their worst fear for their own child," Rosen said. "The parents have gotten past that now."

It was in an e-mail that Toni McMurphy of West County got the word that her then-13-year-old firstborn was thinking about gender reassignment surgery. "Dear Mom," the e-mail began, "I have given this a lot of thought and done extensive research."

"In the very beginning, the first few days, I felt like a little bit confused and overwhelmed," McMurphy said. "What are all the implications of this, what does this mean? I felt a little bit fearful because, while I'm very accepting, I know much of the world is not." 

McMurphy's son, Daniel Carlson, now 16 and often going by the gender-neutral Japanese name of Yuki, is considering the concept of simply being "gender-free" even while still contemplating the surgery.

For Toni McMurphy, further acceptance has come after wrestling with her initial sense of bereavement.

"I felt this mourning over the loss of something I thought would be -- that someday he would probably marry and have children, things like that that look very different with the path he's currently on," she said.

While parents work to understand their transgender children, society is also making a few, small inroads. At Washington University, for example, transgender students can identify themselves as such and choose a roommate of any gender, according to Mary Elliott, associate director of residential life.

However, the policy is not only in place for transgender students. It also allows another, formerly forbidden living arrangement: straight males and females rooming together. Such students must be at the sophomore level or higher and living in dorms away from the main campus:

"We want all of our students to be comfortable," Elliott said.

Comfort and acceptance in the world and at home are the goals of a growing number of parents of LGBT children, who urge sustained affection for children who come out of the closet.

"They're gay -- so what?" Hilderbrand said. "Don't stop hugging them, don't stop loving them."

Nancy Fowler Larson is a freelance writer, who regularly writes about theater and a variety of topics for the Beacon.

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.

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