When I first began volunteering for LGBTQ+ social resources, one of the first rules I learned was to Never tell a dependent youth that they “need” to come out to their parents or guardians. By now, those parents concerned about Alberta’s student run Gay-Straight Alliances (alternatively Queer-Straight Alliances) are likely aware that professionals and volunteers affirming LGBTQ+ youth tend to follow this rule, and now we have a law written by the New Democratic Party setting the same as policy for school administrations. The leadership of both the Wildrose and the Progressive Conservatives have gone on record to disagree with this policy, stating that they think students joining the student-run GSA clubs ought to result in a notification for their parents, along with hundreds of other community organizers stepping into the conversation to concur.
Here’s something that might shock concerned parents expecting me to disagree, considering it comes from a member of the LGBTQ+ community: I think Maureen is right. Specifically, when she says “unless a parent is grossly negligent, a parent is always the best advocate for their child.” It’s true–one of the best predictors for positive LGBTQ+ mental health outcomes is parental support.
However, I’d like to draw your attention to that one particular qualifier, “unless.” I know this will be enormously upsetting to read, but the reason LGBTQ+ advocates remain neutral on whether any given individual “should” come out is this: Despite making up 3-12% of the general population, LGBTQ+ youth make up 25-40% of youth homelessness. [additional sources: 1, 2] What these indignant parents don’t see is the safety planning that some of these youth have to do prior to coming out in case it goes poorly, and all the times it does go poorly.
“Unless,” unfortunately, is not some ephemeral hypothetical, but a very real and possible outcome. If it offends that community advocates will never presume to know whether it is safe for a client to come out to their parents, I hope you’re at least as offended that our policy is substantiated by an extensive history of abuse and neglect by other parents reacting poorly.
Perhaps you are one of the benevolent parents, someone who is already committed to loving their child unconditionally, the type of person who could look at something like Laurel’s memetic coming out cake and treasure it as a sweet memory. But given the numbers, for every three Laurel cakes, there are two Leelah Alcorns, someone for whom the response is total social isolation and intense psychological abuse, if not outright ejection from the home.
Frankly, as volunteers for resources within the community, we aren’t working with the Laurels. Success stories might need help finding other LGBTQ+ people to date, but that’s generally it. We have all the research demonstrating the ingredients that make a healthy, happy, resilient LGBTQ+ adult: Maintenance of affirming parental connections, ability to carry out life without being perceived as different or lesser, and finding genuine acceptance and encouragement of our gender identity and/or sexual orientation in our social supports, schools, and places of employment. These aren’t the sort of people you’re likely to encounter begging for help on the street, though it certainly can still happen, and they aren’t really the type to access the LGBTQ+ social safety net.
The vast majority of the people we work with came from hostile home environments, where their religious beliefs were framed as mutually exclusive with their sexual orientation or gender identity. Where the most basic of dignities were denied to them under the guise of “religious freedom.” Where the community gathered not to empower or support them, but created an entire space to paint a target on their back and shame them in front of everyone they’ve ever known. Where the peers and classmates made games out of taunting, assaulting, groping, and raping them. Where “acceptance” looks like self-flagellation on the cross, strangling this critical aspect of self, being manipulated into thinking that God can only love you if you hate yourself.
So maybe you hear “GSA” and think Laurel, and cake, and rainbow parties. But frankly, we can’t take that risk. We have no way of knowing. We want that to be the case, certainly, but when we hear “GSA” we think about trying to catch the next Leelah Alcorn before she falls. Worst case scenario, the nondisclosure policy is all those kids have between them and the ledge, the anonymity protecting those precious few hours each month where they know they can be themselves without reprisal.
If that offends you, put your effort into making a world where coming out is safe. Don’t blame the government for adopting a realistic policy that acknowledges the big picture–warts and all. Don’t blame the community for responding to widespread homophobic and transphobic abuse. And don’t blame the kids for not knowing whether they can trust their parents, when so many can’t.
Instead, make your home safe. Talk about the existence of LGBTQ+ people in society. Tell them they’re ordinary people who want the same things as everyone else–food on the table, a warm bed to sleep in, safety and comfort, the love and affirmation of a family. Take your kids to a Pride festival. Drop them a hint here and there that your love is unconditional, not affected should they question their gender identity or sexual orientation. Be an advocate, not just for your child, but for the community your child will grow up in. Look at the peer-reviewed research, and not the discredited cranks with an axe to grind. Stop fucking voting for anti-LGBTQ+ ideologues. And do all this, whether or not your kid is LGBTQ+.
Give your child the means to judge you safe, and they will not hide their questioning or their coming out. But as people outside your family, we can’t make that judgement call, nor should we have to. We’ve seen how that can go countless times before, and sometimes, the parents aren’t the solution.
Sometimes, they’re the problem. If that weren’t the case, I wouldn’t be volunteering in all the capacities I currently do.