Carla had typical hopes for her daughter: that she'd pursue a fulfilling career, get married and become a mother herself. Then her daughter revealed that she was gay.
"I guess I was disappointed," Carla confessed after a pause. "I was not totally happy because, of course, I had a different, more traditional expectation." There were layers of confusion and concern. Couldn't things change over time? No? Well, how would she break the news to her friends? And above all, how would her daughter cope in a country that itself has traditional expectations regarding sexual identity and practice?
"Coming out of the generation that I came out of, I thought it would not be an easy road because of the societal issues… especially in a small place like Trinidad. I knew that she would experience some form of prejudice by certain people," Carla reflected.
As a young adult, Fay didn't plan on sharing her burgeoning awareness about her same sex attraction with any adult, least of all her mother. But her parent entered her bedroom one night to find Fay and her best friend huddled on the twin bed. They'd just been talking. Drama ensued nevertheless.
"All hell broke loose," Fay said. "She shouted 'you dirty so and so, what are you doing to my daughter? Get your so and so out of here'. It was the second time she disowned me. She went crazy over the phone, cursing and carrying on. She told me 'You are not my daughter… you are nasty. Get out of my house. I never want you back in my life. I am never going to speak to you again'."
The distinct first reactions of Carla and Fay's mother (shock and denial vs immediate disowning and eviction) both sit on the spectrum of common responses by parents who learn that their children aren't straight. Professor Gerard Hutchinson, head of the Clinical Medical Science Department at the University of the West Indies, says this is an issue with which many Trinidadian families experience difficulty.
"Most parents, I've found, are reluctant to acknowledge that their children might have a same-sex sexual orientation. Ones at the more neutral end of the spectrum suggest it is a phase and attempt to tolerate it on condition that it is time limited. Those who are not-so-neutral try to arrange exorcisms and demand hospitalisations as a means of dealing with it," the psychiatrist listed.
He notes that the rejection of families, together with the stigma issues gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender young people have to navigate, could have terrible fallouts.
"The family is the spring from which the society is formed so if you are rejected by your family you go out into the world expecting rejection. Dealing with that, your own uncertainty about your sexuality and the attitudes of others, has the potential to generate a lot of psychological distress," he explained. The manifestations of distress are varied: from risk-taking behaviour like substance abuse and impulsively forming relationships to social ostracism and withdrawal.
"Those things impact on your capacity to succeed academically and on the job market. You are carrying this load and when others might not be reacting to it, you think they are. These are not homosexual traits… they are the fallout of our social norms," Hutchinson said.
Fay identifies. For years she kept her sexual identity and rare romantic relationships as fiercely guarded (if frequently guessed-at) secrets. By her mid-20s the shame and loneliness began to take an emotional and physical toll. She experienced anxiety attacks and insomnia. Her work suffered. Fay's family doctor was reluctant to prescribe sleeping pills, fearing that she might deliberately overdose.
When a dear male friend asked for her hand in marriage, she decided to disclose that she was a lesbian. Finally being accepted by someone and being able to acknowledge her truth turned out to be the first step toward healing. Her relationship with her own mother inched along, progressing slowly over the years. Today her mother manages to inquire about her partner by name. It's at once a small and a huge thing.
"I'd like to say to parents that we are just who we are. We didn't bring this on ourselves… it's just there. Like everybody else we're just trying to figure out what is the next step," Fay insisted.
Hutchinson stresses that one of the biggest problems that families experience across the board is breakdown in communication.
"I think young adults and parents tend not to communicate as effectively as they should, primarily because they perceive the communication as conditional: I only want to hear stuff I want to hear, not what you want to say. If you can foster that kind of open communication and suspend judgment as best as you can, it allows for an honest exchange. Be willing to face it head-on and not try to deny it or hide from it. Recognise," Hutchinson stressed,"that the person remains your son or daughter. They don't suddenly become a different person because their sexual identity is not what the world approves of. Be willing to work with them."
That was Carla's starting point. In the early stages there was still hope that things would be different. As time passed, reality set in. Her family was predictably supportive; her friends, surprisingly so. She spoke with her daughter and her daughter's friends. And she listened.
"You have to have a trusting and open relationship with your children. Encourage them to feel free to speak and do not be judgmental," Carla advised other parents. "Yes all those negative feelings are going to be there and you can't stop them… but you also can't stay in the anger, confusion and disappointment. You have to be able to move beyond. Look for the good qualities in the child. Focus on the fact that this is somebody you love and that you want them in your life. That to me is the only way to work through it as a parent because the other option — not having a relationship — is not an option as far as I am concerned."
It can be hard parenting a gay, lesbian or transgender child. It's challenging relating to a family member who's come out, is transitioning or is still figuring themselves out. You don't have to struggle alone. Find other families as well as professional and pastoral support in understanding these issues and healing relationships. Call 484-1572 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for details.