Many parents struggle to adjust after learning child is gay, study finds

The study is one of the first to systematically examine the experience of parents raising lesbian, gay, and bisexual children.
By Tim Fitzsimons

Stacy Feintuch, a mother of two in suburban New Jersey, said she didn’t know what was wrong when her oldest daughter, Amanda, 17, began to withdraw.

“I confronted her and said, ‘You need to talk to me,’” Feintuch said: “She said, ‘It’s not what you think. I’m fine, it’s not that."

"I can’t tell you, I can’t tell you.’”

Feintuch said her mind raced: “Is she pregnant? Is she in trouble?” Finally, Amanda buried her head in her pillow and said, “I’m gay.”

“I was just dumbfounded, just shocked. It wasn't even a thought in my head,” Feintuch said. “I said, which ended up being the absolute wrong thing to say, ‘Why do you think this?’ She started screaming at me.”

“I said: ‘Take a breath, I didn’t mean anything by it. I love you. I’m shocked, I just want to talk to you about this.”

Amanda calmed down and, fortunately, they talked.

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While Feintuch considers herself an accepting person, she still faced some immediate stress and shock when her child came out to her. That’s not uncommon. A new study conducted by researchers at George Washington University found that most parents of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth have difficulty adjusting after their kids come out.

The study says it is one of the first to systematically examine the experience of parents raising lesbian, gay and bisexual children. David Huebner, one of the study’s lead authors and a public health professor at George Washington University, said his team approached the study with a question: “Can we identify the families that most need intervention to support the families and protect the kids?”

The study found that African American and Latino parents have a harder time accepting their lesbian, gay and bisexual children, as do the parents of children who come out at a later age.

The study, which surveyed a much larger sample size than previous studies, confirmed smaller studies that showed parents’ negative reactions tend to ease over time; the first two years are the hardest for parents.

There were no significant differences in reactions between mother and father, the age of the parent, or the gender of the child. The study did not examine the reactions for the parents of transgender children.

In general, acceptance seems to be growing rapidly for lesbian, gay and bisexual youth. “We see improvement in people's respect for LGBT rights, we've seen political progress, concrete political progress, and we have also seen attitudes shifting at the population level,” Huebner said. “I think for parents, when you’re confronted with your own child who you love so fiercely, I think that reaction in that moment is a very personal one, and it’s one that’s hard to predict from public opinion.”

After Amanda came out, Feintuch told her daughter that she worried her life would become more difficult after having struggled with depression in high school. "I was hoping that now your time would get easier, and your life would get easier, and it scares me that it would be more difficult."

"She's like: 'It's not like how it was when you were growing up. There’s a lot of kids in my school who are gay. Its not a big deal,’” Feintuch said. "I had to get it through my head first, and get it through my mind: 'This is how her life is going to be, and it's going to be fine.’"

"It was about a year until Amanda was like, OK, definitely 100 percent, and then she had a girlfriend and then I saw it all come together."

Huebner said his study is the first to measure these reactions and that previous studies of the parents of LGBTQ youth mostly recruited from accepting and friendly environments, like PFLAG, an organization for the parents of LGBTQ people.

“I think we have made a huge improvement here — 80 percent [of survey respondents] had never been to a support group, had never talked to a therapist,” Huebner said. “These were parents who had never before been heard from in research.”

Still, Huebner pointed to some potential oversights: “There’s reason to believe we are missing two groups of people: those super rejecting people, and those parents who were so immediately accepting that they also didn’t need the resources.”

Huebner hopes that this will allow advocates to devise materials so parents can better prepare themselves to accept and love their kids.

“Parents have the power to protect their kids, their LGBT kids, from all sorts of threatening forces,” Huebner said. “We know that when parents are supportive of their LGBT kids those kids have less depression and fewer risk behaviors.”

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