This is the column that must be written – the topic just came out to me, you could even say. The Gay Pride March this weekend through the leafy suburbs of Johannesburg set the scene.
In seemingly unrelated acts I first bought Eusebius McKaiser’s book of thought-provoking essays, ‘A Bantu in my Bathroom’. Last night I reached the section on sexuality, and read with a great deal of interest the chapter titled ‘Don’t you just wanna try, my son? With a woman?’
And then this morning I found out that October 11 is International Coming Out Day.
So I got to thinking about coming out. And how important, difficult and often traumatic an issue it is for gay children (of all ages) and their (usually) straight families. Coming out is telling the world the world who you really are. As such it’s an important social and psychological process, a rite of passage.
McKaiser writes about his experience of coming out to his father, via a handwritten letter posted the old fashioned way through the mail. This was as a 19-year old when he was in second year at Rhodes University. He relates, with great poignancy and empathy, his father’s tearful response to this “new fact about his son- a big fact- and doing so with raw emotion, the stuff of humanity”.
But he makes it clear that while he understands that the roots of his father’s conservative attitudes are in the bigotry and ignorance that are vigorously transmitted through our culture, he refuses to be silenced or closeted by them. “I will not condone homophobia by giving someone the space to get used to me being me … I would not tolerate my friend’s, family and colleagues’ racism, so why the hell would I tolerate and negotiate their homophobia?”
Homophobia is a range of negative attitudes and feelings toward homosexuality or people who are identified or perceived as being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT), sometimes leading to acts of violence and expressions of hostility. It does seem to me that these words are hardly adequate to describe the hate crimes, a lesbian being ‘correctively raped’; a man being beaten; a child being humiliated and scorned; a student tortured, tied to fence and left to die.
An American report on FBI national hate crime statistics from 1995–2008 found that LGBT people were ‘far more likely than any other minority group in the United States to be victimized by violent hate crime’.
There are places in the world today where homosexuality is a capital offence. In most of Africa LGBT people are persecuted, vulnerable to state harassment and afforded few protections.
Even though the post-apartheid constitution in South Africa was the first in the world to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation, we experience the paradox of laws that ensure equality and dignity for LGBT people, while in practice people who are gay, or perceived to act or dress in gender non-conforming ways, still struggle to find physical safety, never mind social acceptance.
Meanwhile, in middle class urban areas people who are open about their sexual orientation are more likely to fear rejection and ridicule than actual physical harm. But feeling rejected or believing that you are tearing your family apart is hugely damaging, both psychologically and socially.
So coming out has its risks. Why do it then?
This is a question Eusebius McKaiser also poses. Why not simply evade the awkward questions asked by curious (and concerned) family members, talk about your partner in gender-neutral ways and try pass as straight?
As a psychologist the answer is clear to me. To be forced to live an inauthentic half-life, to spend all your time hiding, concealing and fearing exposure is to live a life of constant stress and distress. In the face of the historical stigma associated with being gay or bisexual or transgendered, and without strong support systems, many LGBT youngsters internalize societal homophobia and are vulnerable to extreme feelings of self-hate and shame.
Gay teenagers have higher rates of suicide, depression and substance abuse than their straight counterparts. This is not because gay people are hard-wired for more psychological problems, but because of the stress of concealing their true selves, feeling different and being rejected.
And this is where parents and families can make all the difference. When a child’s family rejects him, the odds of attempted suicide are nine times higher than the general population. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual young adults from very rejecting families are nearly six times more likely to have major depression and three to five times more likely to use illegal drugs or have unprotected sex.
I’m not saying you, as a parent, have to be thrilled that your child is gay. It may be really uncomfortable facing your own assumptions and prejudices; it is difficult accepting that your child’s path in life might be different from the journey you imagined; it is really scary to have your child face a world of bigotry and discrimination.
But you are their parent.
They need you in their corner. They need you to face the world with them. They need you to accept and love them. Because that’s what parents should do.