A recent story about a gay teenager being kicked out of his family’s home has stirred up many difficult emotions and spurred outrage from LGBT Americans. A major LGBT online publication, Queerty, first reported on the story with the headline, “Teen’s parents threw him to the curb for being gay, but just look at him now.”
The article summarizes the experience: “After his dad snooped through his phone and discovered Seth is gay, he was thrown out of the house by his zealous parents.” It goes on to celebrate the young man for being co-valedictorian of his class and pursing college despite being “made homeless” by his parents.
When I first read this article, it brought back memories of my own involuntary coming out experience. The young man, Seth Owen, and I have a lot in common in this way.
When I was 15 years old, my dad stumbled through some of my browsing history on his work computer, where I had begun to explore websites like Gay.com during moments I was alone. He confronted me later that night in a tearful and agitated rant that included the threat of kicking me out of his home and disowning me if I continued “down this path.”
The most clear and striking moment I remember today with a deep sense of pain was him insisting I would no longer be his son if I were truly “this way.” Shortly after, I was alone in my grandfather’s house a street or so over, angrily sobbing in front of the bathroom mirror and feeling overwhelmed and completely lost.
The Heat of the Moment Can Singe Our Perception
I moved in with my grandfather and we never spoke of it again until I was outed later in high school. By then my father had largely accepted the matter. While he rarely spoke of it directly, he eventually told me he had known all along but genuinely had no idea what to do or how to connect with me again.
When I was outed a year later, I was suspended from school and required to go to counseling. That counseling involved lengthy discussions about my self-perceived sexual orientation and encouragement towards reconsidering my choice to pursue a gay identity. Before all this happened, I had been a top-performing student. Unlike Owens, however, I dropped into the bottom rung of my graduating class by my senior year, and barely graduated. I didn’t go to college for another four years.
But as with Owen’s story, mine is a little more nuanced than I just described, which is how I discussed it for more than a decade. While everything is absolutely true, my perception of events is not entirely accurate.
Owen, as detailed in a local news report, was not kicked out of his family home for being gay. He explains that when he was around 15 his father looked through his phone and found a picture clearly indicating he was gay. After several hours of discussion, he was sent to a counselor: “They made it clear the intention was to make me straight. (That) was their end goal,” he said. The counseling was apparently short-lived, and he went living at home for several more years.
During this time, he held part-time jobs, excelled in school, and participated in many after-school programs and swimming. His family appears to have embraced him all along the way, and the issue of his sexuality seemly did not resurface during that time.
Feeding a Rejection Can Be Dangerous
This is where Owen and I split in shared experience. As I discussed at length in a Huffington Post article titled “What Happens When Men Have Sex With Teenage Boys,” living mostly on my own with my grandfather allowed me the freedom to pursue my sexuality unhindered. For me this translated into remarkably dangerous anonymous sexual encounters with adult men in secret as I desperately tried to find some sense of security and identity.
I hid in my grandfather’s house and lived two lives: one where I acted like a disinterested, manic, and attention-seeking teenager prone to eccentric creativity, and the other where I lived in fear and shame on the streets getting in and out of strange men’s cars in the middle of the night. I resented my family, my peers, my church, and my society for not accepting me. Every aspect of LGBT media I could find propped up that perception.
My grades suffered as I clung to the fantasy of escaping my conservative, Christian, backwards rural life into the freedom and acceptance of the gay community in some far distant city. I reveled in getting attention through ridiculous clothing, dying my hair as often as I could persuade my grandfather for a few dollars, and a flamboyant and dark humor that came off as concerning in a post-Columbine world.
Coming Out Coincided with Acting Out in Other Ways
I was outed by a friend, who told a teacher, who reported it to the principal, who called my father. I was brought into a meeting with the school counselor, my father, and several school officials and teachers to discuss my unpredictable behavior, which included coming out. I was the first openly gay student at my school and in 1998 the school had no idea what to do with me.
But I was not suspended from school and ordered to seek counseling because I was gay. The school was also concerned about my erratic behavior, extreme drop in grades, emotional instability, and sometimes disturbing goth-inspired dark humor. They gave me a week off to allow the rumors and my emotional state to settle down.
We would likely refer to my counselor’s approach as “conversion therapy” today based on her perception that my concerning behavior contributed to my new identity. We discussed my risky sexual behaviors, acting out, and seemingly sudden change in self-identity, which she felt indicated a larger issue. We discussed the legitimacy of my sexual orientation and postponing further sexual activity and identity into adulthood, but I perceived this as an attempt to “turn me straight.”
Owen’s family attended a small Baptist church and seemingly ran a strict, religious household. His choice to leave home at 18 was spurred by an argument with his father over mandatory family attendance at the church. He disapproved of the pastor’s views on feminism, LGBT behavior, and other conservative Christian positions, and no longer wanted to attend. He reported that his father gave him an ultimatum to go to church or move out. He chose to move out, although it seems he simply wanted to attend a different church.
Even If They React Badly, Your Parents Love You
Years after my own somewhat parallel experience, I can shed a little more light into how my father felt about my choices. Although my father was never really aware of my sexually risky behavior, he knew I was staying out all night and was obsessed with the Internet. He watched, helplessly, as my future crumbled around me from my hostility towards school.
Later he told me that he thought he was doing the right thing by staying out of the way. He read about how to parent a gay child, which largely recommended allowing me to pursue my own path and avoid further confrontation. He told me he was afraid that if he asked me questions or asserted any parental authority I would shut down even more and he might lose me to running away or worse.
Between my father shouting that he would disown me and me sobbing alone at my grandfather’s house, my father hugged me, crying, and told me he loved me. For a long time, however, I only remembered the anger and judgment.
LGBT media and advocacy have created an implied standard of absolute acceptance and celebration as the only way to lovingly react to your child coming out as gay or transgender. After reading frightening statistics such as 29 percent of gay teens consider suicide and 40 percent of homeless teens are LGBT, with 68 percent indicating family rejection as the reason for leaving home, parents can feel helpless in their own parenting.
But LGBT teens face other concerns that advocacy organizations are not addressing. Between 18 and 23 percent of LGBT teens have experienced dating violence, sexual violence, and rape from same-sex partners. Gay and bisexual youth between the ages of 13 and 24 account for 92 percent of new HIV infections in their respective age and gender group.
While Owen and I experienced this in different social climates, our outcomes can be compared. He may have lived in a home with religious rules and an understanding his sexuality was not accepted, but he wasn’t, as far as we know, out at 3 a.m. waiting for a stranger to pick him up for sex because he had total freedom to do as he pleased.
Let’s Have Empathy for Both Parents and LGBT Teens
There must be a middle ground, and a level of empathy and understanding for parents in this situation as well as for their often distressed teens. Today, Owen’s church is being bombarded with hateful accusations on their Facebook page due to being named in various accounts of this story. His father, who has not been quoted directly so far, is the perfect LGBT iconic villain proving their decades-long narrative of a hostile and dangerous home life for LGBT teens. The details come exclusively from the young man, who is emotionally acting out what LGBT advocacy groups insist is his only choice.
It is simply not considered that due to their faith, his family expressed love and concern for their son, an exceptionally successful young man. They clearly want the best for him. From their perspective, they have tried to give that to him, based on his own account of their actions.
As opposed to cruelly kicking him out, they set strict rules for family behavior and as an adult he is expected to make his own choices. There is no indication the counseling was of a conversion therapy nature and could simply have been an attempt to address what appeared to be a sudden and concerning shift in their son’s behavior. All of these attributes matter and must be considered when discussing these stories.
LGBT youth may very well face abuse or rejection so profound they feel running away from home is their only option. But based on the long history of LGBT reporting on these incidents, the truth often reflects the young person’s overreaction to the lack of their family’s immediate celebration of their revelation. LGBT media, advocacy, and narrative call this “hate” and the young person a “victim.” In truth, it could simply be a matter of communication and honesty.
Looking back, I often wonder what would have happened if my father hadn’t given up control and had chosen instead to impose a more strict home life for me. If he had restricted my Internet access or monitored my behavior and school work more closely, would I have rebelled, or begrudgingly developed a more stable teenage experience?
I genuinely hope Owen is able to appreciate his parents if they were honestly just trying to love him the best way they knew how. I further hope he is able to understand why his faith community views this experience in the way that they do without merely resorting to judging them as “hateful.”
Finally, I hope one day LGBT people at large can appreciate that acceptance can need time to develop, and encouraging young people to resent their families creates much of the toxic outcomes we see today. There are many sides to every story, and it is our duty to fairly consider each.