My 12-year-old son just told me he’s gay. How can I help him?
That’s the phrase I searched last December. All the time.
A month earlier he said to me and my older son, “I have an announcement to make to the family. [Pause for dramatic effect.] I’m gay.”
My older son said, “What the fuck! I knew it! Melissa called it!”
I said, “You’re gay?”
He said, “Are you surprised?”
I said, “No. I’m not.”
The first person we called is Melissa. She said, “Oh. Didn’t we already know that?”
When he was six he asked me if people kiss each other’s penises. When he was eight he asked where people put their penises if it’s two boys. When he was ten he started wearing makeup.
I was surprised to hear he had not been sure.
I figured not much would change. Outside of where we used to live, in very rural Wisconsin, I didn’t think I knew anyone who would care one way or the other if someone is gay.
He told his best friend, and she said, “That’s fine. I don’t care if you are gay or straight or whatever. You’re the same person to me.”
I stopped her mom the next day and relayed the conversation. I said, “Her response was perfect. Thank you so much for raising a kid like that.”
At another friend’s house he announced he’s gay at the dinner table. The dad said, “Congratulations!”
I never would have known to say congratulations, but what a lovely thing to say. I texted the dad to thank him.
Everyone he told was supportive except for one adult. My son said, “I have something to say. It’s big news. And it’s important: I’m gay.”
She said, “Are you sure? Are you just saying this to get attention?”
It’s hard for me to even write this. My stomach gets tight and my eyes water. I can remember my son looking over at me, and I knew I had to say something. I said, “That is not a good response.”
I had no idea what else to say. Even now, I don’t know what to write. She said more things, to defend her comment. Which made the situation worse.
But I learned something from my son after that. He knew it was a terrible response and that she was showing that something is wrong with her, not him. He made an eloquent speech to me about people expressing themselves through their discomforts.
I said, “Where do you learn this stuff?” And it turns out he’s been watching YouTube videos about coming out for months. He prepared himself so well.
But then one night a few weeks later he called me into his bedroom. He was crying. He said, “I’m scared of being different.”
How did I not notice that?
I hugged him.
He said, “I don’t wanna to be an outcast.”
I felt so stupid for thinking everything would be fine. Of course he wants to fit in. He’s a joiner. He’s a rule follower. He always wants to make everyone feel comfortable.
I started noticing more. He plays basketball on two local teams and a travel team, and he had always been the fun goofy kid. But now he was a wreck at basketball. He looked like what I’d expect twelve-year-old boy to look like in a roomful of girls. Even though it makes sense, it’s so striking to see the opposite happen. I had never thought of that.
And all his best friends are girls. So he is around lots of girls a lot of the time. But there was a party that was mostly girls and they played truth or dare and one of them dared him to kiss her… he didn’t want to. So he announced to the whole party that he’s gay. And the girl still wanted to kiss him. So he did it. And when he told me this he said, “It was terrible and I didn’t know what to do.”
I started searching again, trying to figure out what to do. Almost everything online was places for kids to go whose parents don’t support them. Then I found a place in Philadelphia that had stuff every day of the week after school for LGBTQ kids: The Attic Youth Center.
I knew it was a big deal to go because my son said to his older brother, “Will you come with? I don’t want to go alone.”
He said, “No! I’m not going, I’m not gay!”
I said, “You are going to support your brother.”
The three of us walked in. I paused. The kids were SO gay. Like, get-beaten-up-at-school gay. I had never seen such young kids being so obviously gay.
My son did not pause at all, so I followed.
One kid introduced himself immediately. Then another. Another kid said he’d give a tour. Other kids joined the tour. They offered him snacks. My son motioned to me and his brother to get lost, and then they all disappeared.
Thirty minutes went by. Forty-five.
He came back glowing. Self-confident like I had never seen him before. Then he asked me if we could go to a cupcake shop: “To celebrate!”
He gushed about how great the kids were. He said he felt so comfortable, and understood. He said, “They walk and talk like me, and they care about what I care about.”
He said they asked him what his preferred pronoun is.
“Really?” I said, “Do you have a pronoun?”
“I didn’t even know what a pronoun is. But they told me. So now I know my pronouns are he and him.”
While he was telling his stories he had way more affect than I had ever seen him have. The visit to The Attic freed him, and I hadn’t even known he needed freeing.
He wanted to go back the next day. So we did. But as soon as we got there they told us he is too young to be there. The laws in Pennsylvania say he has to be 14.
That was a very bad day.
I got the name of a therapist from a friend of a friend.
My son said no.
“Just go once,” I told him.
From her my son learned how to tell girls he doesn’t want to kiss them. But he also learned that it’s okay to want to kiss them. Everything is okay if it feels okay.
From the therapist I learned that everything I know is outdated. For example, I’m pretty sure kids don’t “come out” anymore, because it’s too binary. And “you’ll change when you get older” is a disrespectful response because we can know our sexual preference for right now and that’s all that matters. I learned that kids are coming out younger and younger because, as said, “Being gay is not about sexuality — it’s an outlook.”
“What?!” That’s what I said when she told me that.
And she said to my son, “I can understand why that doesn’t make sense to your mom. Does it make sense to you?”
My son said, “Yes.”
Now my son goes to the therapist alone. Once every week.
He told some basketball players, and nothing changed. Just as he hoped.
And this morning he said, “Mom, you should write a post. I don’t care who knows I’m gay. And maybe it’ll help someone.”
I worried about telling his story poorly. But actually, I’m telling you my story, of finding out my son is gay. And the story will change. Because that’s what stories do.
Other people have learned the infinite versions of one life lived from stories by Mark Twain or interviews with Susanna Kaysen. From writing resumes, I have learned that the idea of one, true story is a myth. A resume is only one snapshot of your life, and you actually have infinite ways to tell the story of your work.
The best story writers realize that no matter if the story is true or not, it’s a real story for the writer. That relieves an author of pressure to tell “the true story” or “the right story.” And the best resume writers realize that what you leave out may change the arc of the story but does not make it untrue.
I have left so much out of this story. More will come later, when it matters, perhaps. Other characters will emerge. Some will feel not so important. But for now, this is the story of how to have a son who comes out at 12 years old. How to help him. And how to leave a story behind for another mother to add to when she is searching like I did.