A century ago, a young woman making her debut was said to be "coming out." Today the term usually has a different meaning. A person "comes out" by revealing his or her identity as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT). Grandparents may or may not be included in an individual's initial coming out, but they are likely to get the message sooner or later. Responding appropriately is key to preserving the grandparent-grandchild connection.
To Tell or Not to Tell
The scenarios in which grandparents learn about a gay grandchild are many and varied. Usually, grandparents are not the first to be told, although they may have guessed the truth. Typically, young people come out to friends and siblings before even telling their parents. When the parents are told, they often make the decision whether to tell the grandparents. In the case of long-distance grandparents, it may seen easier to withhold the truth, and some families opt for that route. Sometimes LGBT individuals want to personally deliver the news to their grandparents. Occasionally, a grandparent will be the first to be told. In such instances, the grandparents must be especially careful about their reactions. They must appreciate the courage that it takes for such a revelation. Also, they should feel honored by the trust that their grandchild has placed in them.
What Grandparents May Feel
Still, it's natural for grandparents to have some mixed emotions upon hearing that a grandchild is LGBT.
When caught by surprise, grandparents may feel shock and disbelief. Even grandparents who consider themselves very liberal about gender and sexuality may find themselves taken aback. It's one thing to be accepting as a matter of principle and another thing to be compelled to put one's principles into action.
Learning that one has a LGBT grandchild also forces one to re-imagine the future. Although same-sex couples now marry and have families, the family pictures may not look the way that they were imagined. That's okay, but it's another thing that grandparents will have to adjust to.
Grandparents who belong to a religious group that condemns homosexuality are likely to have a harder time with this piece of news. They may want to talk to their pastor or other spiritual adviser to gain a better understanding of the issue. They should not, however, listen to anyone who tells them to reject their grandchild. When LGBT individuals are shut out by their families, depression, substance abuse and even suicide can be the result.
No matter what grandparents may be feeling, their first concern should be to reassure their grandchild.
What to Say
The words that LGBT individuals long to hear when they come out is some variation of "It's okay, and I love you." Grandparents who can't quite bring themselves to utter the first part of that message must be sure to deliver the second part. Their grandchild hasn't changed. Their love hasn't changed, either. They are not being asked for a stamp of approval. Instead they are being given the gift of an honest piece of communication.
Grandparents may want to add something along these lines: "I may make mistakes, say the wrong thing, ask the wrong questions, or use the wrong terms. But I'm trying to grow in my understanding. Please believe that I love you and I'm working hard to support you."
Of course, there are many wrong things to say. Obviously, grandparents should never say anything angry or hateful. Grandparents also err if they suggest that their grandchild may be confused or just going through a phase. They should also avoid bombarding their grandchild with too many questions. It's probably okay to ask, "Are you dating anyone?" It's not okay to ask, "So, who have you had sex with?"
Those who correctly perceived a grandchild's orientation before being told don't need to share this information, at least not at first.
It can be disconcerting for newly-out persons to feel that everyone knew their secret all along. Besides, the focus should be on the grandchild, not on how perceptive the grandparent was.
One important question to ask is whether to share this information. Many grandparents will have an easier time if they are free to discuss the news with a friend or family member. Sometimes, however, LGBT individuals come out gradually and do not want their orientation shared outside of those they have chosen to tell.
Grandparents tend to worry their grandchildren, but they may have some special concerns about LGBT ones. It's natural to be worried about their health and safety. Many LGBT individuals will face discrimination of some type during their lives, and some will be the victims of violence. It's okay for grandparents to express concern and to talk with them about how to protect themselves.
Optimally, parents and grandparents will work together to support their loved one. In cases where parents withhold acceptance, reassurance from grandparents can fill a critical need. In extreme cases, grandparents may need to provide shelter or financial support, when that has been withheld by parents. Of course, grandparents should weigh such decisions carefully, knowing that estrangement from the parents could result.
Once the extended family is aware of a grandchild's sexual orientation or gender identity, grandparents can set the standard for acceptance. They can let their grandchild know that family gatherings will be safe places where they will not be teased, bullied or preached to. They can let members of the extended family know that such behavior will not be tolerated.
If a grandchild is completely out, the grandparents must decide how much to say to others. Those who have been in the habit of sharing news about grandchildren with friends will eventually want to share this news, too. Some counselors advise parents to practice what they want to say, so that they can say it with acceptance and pride.
That is probably good advice for grandparents, too.
Special Concerns About Bisexuals and Transgenders
Many people, including a lot of grandparents, are confused about bisexuality. They may feel that a person must be either homosexual or heterosexual, that bisexuality is somehow a cop-out. If your grandchild identifies as bisexual and you aren't sure exactly what that means, educate yourself. Look for reliable sources, especially those allied with universities and medical centers. PFLAG, the organization for family and friends of LGBT individuals, has many informational resources that can be downloaded or read online.
If a grandchild comes out as transgender, grandparents may be even more at sea. Transgender individuals weren't in the public eye until the mid 1950s, and acceptance of transgenders lags considerably behind the acceptance of gays, lesbians and bisexuals. These articles may help:
Grandparents who continue to have trouble accepting a grandchild's sexual orientation or gender identity should not hesitate to get further help. Additional education can be beneficial, as can talking with a counselor or attending a meeting of a PFLAG chapter. PFLAG also operates a helpline for those who are unwilling or unable to attend meetings and to provide support between meetings.
Continuity and Change
Grandparents and grandchildren can still enjoy doing many of the same things that they did before the big reveal. Family traditions and stable relationships are important. At the same time, LGBT grandchildren won't feel accepted if their sexual orientation or gender identity is never mentioned. A good plan is for grandparents to start slowly and learn what level of openness their grandchild desires.
As time goes on, grandparents may have the privilege of meeting a grandchild's date or partner. Like parents, grandparents seldom approve of all of the choices their grandchildren make, and they may not like or approve of a partner. On the other hand, many times grandparents will find that they like the partner very much and that the relationship feels very natural and right.
Continuity and change are the twin challenges of a grandparent's calling. We seek to preserve our family ties, and yet we are constantly dealing with change as our grandchildren grow. With a little effort and openness, grandparents can meet both of these challenges with a grandchild who is lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
See Also: Gay and Lesbian Grandparents