Monday, February 8, 2010

Not like the other kids - they're gay -

Parents find support in understanding and dealing with the emotions around their LGBT child

By John Dugan, HERE Magazine
Posted: 02/05/2010 01:00:00 AM PST

Josie and her husband knew, from the second they saw their 3-year-old son in a princess costume, that something was different. The frilly lace and bows didn't make the boy look silly or out of place; conversely, he looked right at home.

“He just glowed from within,” said Josie, a Petaluma resident who asked to go by a pseudonym. “He was so happy — that was the ‘Aha!' moment for us.”

It's a moment many North Bay parents have experienced: the realization that their child is lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT). Each parent learns about it differently, and each one processes it differently — even inliberal-minded Marin and Sonoma counties.

The LGBT advocacy and counseling group Spectrum has created a support group specifically for those parents of LGBT children. The group meets on the second Tuesday of every month to give parents a place to discuss their concerns, questions, fears and hopes, and to hear from other parents going through similar experiences. The first meeting was Jan. 12; the next is Feb. 9.

“This is a chance for parents to explore their feelings, to speak more freely about what they are feeling and share their experiences,” said Cristin Brew, the program director at Spectrum. “Parents (feel) like they can exhale in the group. This was a place they can express everything they are feeling without fear that they will be judged.”

The group has been a long time coming for Spectrum. Founded in 1982, the organization has held counseling and support groups for youth and seniors, hosted professional speakers and training seminars from the beginning. But this is the first time the center has formed any sort of group for the parents of LGBT children.

“We were getting a lot of calls in recent years from parents looking for help in dealing with their emotions,” Brew said. “We've wanted to do something like this for a long time, and it felt like there was a real need for this kind of group in Marin.”

Brew said parents can feel especially confused and conflicted when their children come out. No matter how liberal or open-minded they may be, parents usually feel responsible for insuring their children have a more difficult life, Brew said.

“A lot of parents just need to know the definitions of LGBT, and the terms that go with it,” said Erin Gray, a professional therapist who helps facilitate the Spectrum parent group. “They want to know how to support their children without their kids feeling like they are being put in a box, or being saddled with a label.”

In a place known for its liberal politics, Marin and Sonoma parents can feel even more guilt over the fear and confusion their child's coming out creates, Brew said. And parents will be embarrassed to share their conflicted feelings with friends, so parents of LGBT children can often feel “isolated and alone,” according to Brew.

“Marin tends to have a highly educated populace, and we like to think of ourselves as totally open-minded and giving,” Brew said. “So there's a shock when parents first learn about their children, and they don't immediately feel fine with it. They may be accepting people, but they haven't been educated about the issues. And there's a fear of, ‘My child will live a harder life now.'

“These are all common feelings, and it's exactly the sort of thing they can discuss at the support group,” Brew said.

Josie knows all too well the confusing emotions that can crop up in even the most stereotypically liberal North Bay mind. She said she has always felt total acceptance with LGBT friends and family, and never questioned her own feelings on the subject.

While she said she has never felt anything but acceptance, love and support for her son, Josie realized quickly that there is much more to it when the person in question is your own child.

“The more I got into what it means to be LGBT and the more I learned about the terminology, I realized there is so much more to know about what my son is going through,” said Josie, whose son is 6 years old now. “Just because I'm liberal and accepting of him doesn't mean I understand how to best provide the right environment for my child. … There's still a lot to learn.”

Spectrum's Parent Support Group is not the only one of its kind in the North Bay. Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) has hosted monthly support groups in Tiburon and Santa Rosa for years. But PFLAG is a national organization that caters to anyone with concerns about an LGBT loved one. Spectrum wanted to provide a Marin- and Sonoma-specific group just for parents to discuss their feelings.

“PFLAG does amazing work, and they are beyond helpful to everyone who attends their meetings,” Gray said. “Spectrum created this group to broaden the scope of assistance and communication out there for parents to access.”

The increasing amount of information available on LGBT issues lines up with the growing number of LGBT people around the country. Conservative estimates put the number of out gays and lesbians in Marin at 10 percent, but that does not include LGBT people still in the closet or people confused about their sexual and gender orientation.

“Among teens there is a lot more knowledge about LGBT issues, but not nearly as many teens in Marin are out as the statistics show,” Brew said.

With an expanding community of out LGBT people, especially among younger and younger children, the time was right for this parent support group, Brew said.

Josie said even three years into her son's journey, she and her husband are still learning new things. She hopes Spectrum's new group can help other parents understand the facts of their child's life.

“It isn't just an outfit they're putting on or a phase they're going through. It's a frame of mind,” Josie said. “We're three years in, and there's no change with our son. This is who he is.”

— Spectrum Parent Support Group: Second Tuesday of each month, 6:30 to 8 p.m. at the Spectrum Center of Marin, 30 North San Pedro Road, Suite 160, San Rafael

— PFLAG Marin support meeting: Second Thursday of each month at 7:30 p.m., Westminster Presbyterian Church, 240 Tiburon Blvd., Tiburon

— PFLAG Santa Rosa support meeting: Fourth Monday each month at 7:30 p.m., 312 Chinn St., Santa Rosa

— Josie's LGBT blog: (Warning: some adult language)