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Coming Out: A big moment for individuals and their families

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Today is a big day for the LGBT community, as Apple CEO Tim Cook came out as gay. This is an important and momentous moment for Mr. Cook, as well as for the corporate world and our culture at large.

At The Family Institute at Northwestern University, we strengthen and heal families from all walks of life. An important tenant of our mission and vision is that human beings live in systems, and that we impact and are impacted by those systems. We consider the family the singular most significant factor influencing identity, and are always looking for ways to recognize that influence, improve family relationships and foster positive changes within individuals.

As we celebrate this moment with Tim Cook, we’re thinking about some of the ways in which coming out can influence and impact the systems in our lives. The following excerpt comes from our Kaleidoscope blog, where our clinicians write about their own experiences and expertise on some of the issues facing LGBT families.



They Can Handle It

“I wish my parents wouldn’t have been so secretive about their lives,” says Kevin, a 22-year-old raised from birth by his two dads. “All those times when they started a conversation and all of a sudden, someone changed the subject, or I saw them give each other the look.”

What look, I asked?

“Raising their eyebrows, like, don’t go there — don’t talk about that,” Kevin explained. “I knew they were going to talk later, just not in front of me.”

What sorts of things did they avoid talking about? I asked.

“Homophobia stuff. I knew my Grandad wasn’t very happy about Dad being gay, and living with Poppa. I overheard stories about the problems when Dad came out. It was a problem at holidays and birthdays, whenever the family got together. I knew about it, but my parents didn’t talk about it in front of me. Like I didn’t already know or something …”

Kevin was voicing a complaint I’ve heard from other offspring of same-sex parents, the wish that parents wouldn’t try to hide or soft-pedal their experiences with homophobia or any kind of prejudice.

I asked Kevin, Why do you think your parents weren’t more willing to talk about this sort of thing?

“I know why. They explained it to me a last year when I was writing a paper for a sociology class. They didn’t want me to stress out about stuff they thought was their problem, not mine.” Kevin was quiet for some moments, pensive. “But I always felt the tension. They didn’t really hide anything. Anyway, I don’t think I would have stressed out. The secrets were worse, I’m sure of it. I knew that people had problems with gay people, even in our family. I think all kids with gay parents know that, duh! There was a family down the block who was homophobic. We knew it from the beginning, when they moved in, and they didn’t let their kids hang out in front of our home. My dads made up excuses, but I thought it was probably about our family being different.”

Was that talked about? I asked.

“Not directly,” Kevin said. “I remember the excuses my dads made, like the parents wanted to keep an eye on their kids and we lived too far away. Bullshit like that … I didn’t buy it.”

I suspect your dads wanted your family to look normal in your eyes, I said. I suspect they didn’t want you to be troubled by the different ways homophobia shows up in the world.

Kevin shrugged and looked sad. “I could have handled it,” he said. “They underestimated me. Parents should be honest and just tell the truth, that’s for sure.”

Experience has taught me that Kevin’s right.


To learn more about The Family Institute’s specialized LGBT services, visit our website.

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