Mom with a Problem

Friday, October 26, 2012

Question

Dear Patrick: Both of my daughters were molested by two separate boyfriends of mine. Now both of them say that they are gay because they are over 21 and have yet to find a member of the opposite sex that they find attractive. I don't mean to be offensive, but is it possible that they were so traumatized that they are afraid to give men a chance? How does somebody know they are gay? I have never met a lesbian. It is pretty rare. It seems very strange to me that both of my children would be that way. As a single (divorced) mom I want to know that I have done everything I can for my children to make sure they have a good life. Just telling me “I'm gay” is not enough. I want to have real, in-depth conversations about this, but so far my daughters are reluctant to answer any of my questions.

Answer

Sex research indicates that anywhere from 4% to 12% of women are lesbians. By “lesbian,” I am referring to a woman whose romantic and sexual interest is almost exclusively focused on other women. If we broaden our focus to include women who have had romantic and sexual experiences with both genders, that percentage goes up sharply. So we can pretty much guarantee that you have met more than one lesbian. Unfortunately, because people continue to stereotype and discriminate against same-sex experiences, many bisexual and homosexual people are careful to hide their identity unless they are in a gay-positive space.

          Research has also shown that being sexually abused does not cause homosexuality in men or women. Unfortunately, the number of women who have suffered from molestation is quite high, reaching as much as one-fourth of the population. Being sexually violated can make it more difficult to trust a sexual partner and relax enough to enjoy erotic pleasure. But it does not turn the switch from straight to gay.

          Sexual orientation may be established by the time a child is old enough to go to kindergarten or grade school. Chances are good that genetic factors are involved. But we are a long way from understanding why some people are gay, and some are bisexual or heterosexual. Doctors and other specialists have been trying to cure or change sexual behavior or sexual orientation since the Victorian age, with little success. The American Psychiatric Association no longer supports research on this topic, and views such “therapy” as malpractice.

          Conversations about sex between children and parents are always difficult (even I the children have grown up and are now adults). It's actually a good idea to have some boundaries about these conversations. I don't think it's appropriate or necessary for parents and children to share explicit information about their sexuality. You don't need to know such details in order to love your daughters and validate their choices. They may be reluctant to talk to you because they are not sure if they want to share such vulnerable information. They probably don't want to describe their failed experiences with men (if any) to you, and I don't think they should.

          The family situation is also complicated by the existence of sexual abuse. It's interesting to me that you do not express any responsibility or self-blame for your children being molested. Have you gotten any therapy to help you to cope with the after-effects of violence in your family? Your daughters may be uncomfortable with this topic, especially if it has not been handled very well in the past. I would normally suggest family counseling, but I am concerned that you will seek out a therapist who is homophobic. A counselor who wants to use the therapy to discourage your daughters' lesbianism will not be safe for them.

          You can't change your daughters. Arguing with them is pointless. It will only make them feel that criticized and disregarded. Imagine how you would feel if someone challenged your interest in men. What if someone said to you, “You've had two boyfriends who were child molesters”? Doesn't that make you feel that men are disgusting, and you should try women instead?” You would probably feel that anyone who said this was disrespectful, condescending, and ignorant about your life. This is probably how you are making your daughters feel.

          Many parents with gay children blame themselves. They feel that they must have done something wrong if their children are not heterosexual. But this is not true. You haven't done anything wrong. In fact, by responding to your daughters with love and care, you can help them to face a hostile society and have better lives. It would be understandable if you felt some fear on their behalf. Many parents are afraid that their gay children will face obstacles or be denied success. While prejudice is a reality, out-of-the-closet lesbians and gay men have far better lives than the people who feel they need to hide their sexuality and pretend to be something they are not. You wouldn't want your daughters to be in loveless marriages, constantly living a lie, only to find at a certain point that they just couldn't stand it anymore. Divorce at that point causes much more pain than coming out and being honest from the start. Being in the closet increases the risk of depression, blackmail, suicide, and other negative events.

          Being heterosexual feels so normal to you that it is understandably difficult for you to imagine being any other way. But the truth is that many people ARE made differently. Your daughters are forcing you to confront a truth that many people would like to silence or avoid. Do you have the courage to be the kind of mother who wants her children to be honest with her? Can you love them even if they don't turn out the way you imagined they would? Are your children free to seek their own vision of happiness, or must they conform to your ideals for them? When a gay man or woman comes out, every person who is close to them is also challenged to adjust their picture of reality and either grow or reject the new information. I hope that you choose to grow, and keep your daughters in your life.

          Rather than expecting them to justify their lives or educate you, seek out some information on your own. Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon wrote an excellent book called Lesbian/Woman that answers many of the basic questions. I can also recommend Richard Bernstein's personal account of how he dealt with having a lesbian daughter, Straight Parents, Gay Children: Keeping Families Together. There is a great organization, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, that does a lot of outreach to families in your situation. They have some excellent literature. You can find out more at www.pflag.org.

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