September 14, 2022

Meaningful conversation: Professor’s research explores parent-gay son communications around sexual identity

A father has a conversation with his son.

Experiences of others help shape recommendations for parents, children

For many youth and young gay males, talking with their parents or parental figures about sex and sexual identity can be uncomfortable. Broaching such sensitive topics effectively, though, can strengthen lines of communication and open doors for future conversations, express support, and contribute to deeper understandings for both parents and their gay male children.

J. Lloyd Allen, assistant professor in Wayne State University’s School of Social Work, conducted a qualitative study focusing on parent-gay son communications regarding sexual identity after coming out. Allen spoke with 19 self-identified gay or queer men between the ages of 19 and 30 about conversations with their mothers and fathers about their sexual identities. His paper “The typology and content of parent-gay son communication about sexual identity: A qualitative content analysis” was published in the Journal of Gay & Lesbian Social Services and provides recommendations to help guide parents and children through these sensitive conversations.

Historically, coming out – defined as the process of recognizing one’s own sexual orientation, and later disclosing to others of these sexual and emotional attractions to either someone of the same, or both, genders – is a complex and anxiety-inducing process. Allen’s study found that these sensitive conversations could be classified as discouraging, dismissive, indifferent, supportive or affirming. Positive conversations – those classified as supportive or affirming – focused on inclusive sexual health and safer sex practices, while the more negative conversations – those classified as discouraging or dismissive — were connected to harsh words and actions intended to initiate a reversal of a gay son’s sexual behavior or sexual identity to a more “acceptable” heterosexual one. It was also noted that conversations improved as parents learned more about sexuality or engaged in more conversations with their sons. 

While the conversations included in Allen’s study ranged in nature from discouraging to affirmative, the young men who shared their experiences recalled becoming more empowered to live authentically and having improved self-esteem after sharing their sexual identities. Allen, who has also explored mothers’ and fathers’ similarities and differences in their approaches to conversations about sexual orientation and behaviors, said that there isn’t a singular “right” way for parents and children to discuss sensitive topics, but that it's important that they do so – for both parties.

Based on his study, Allen offers the following recommendations to facilitate conversations between children and their parents around sexual identity:

For parents

  • Address that talking about sexual identity and sex with your child(ren) is difficult.
  • Seek support outside of the conversation, research timely and age-appropriate resource materials, and become comfortable in sharing those resources.
  • Recognize, respect and acknowledge the general gender and sexual identity continuum.
  • Be mindful that coming out is a potential major outcome of these conversations, but understand that your child’s actual coming out moment may happen before, during or after these conversations.
  • Be conscious of blending together related content – sexual behavior, sexual identity, sexual orientation, HIV/STIs/STDs, and relationships with family and friends.
  • Be aware that almost everything in the conversation carries feelings of ongoing uncertainty, anxiety and ambivalence for your child.
  • Don’t be afraid to openly and honestly say what you know and don’t know.

For children

  • Be willing to slowly engage in open and upfront conversations about sexuality.
  • Be open to understanding parents’ perspectives.
  • Table and address emotional issues and concerns before and after these conversations.
  • Be conscious that parents may not be familiar with the GLBT+ spectrum.
  • Reassure parents that they did not do, or say, anything to impact your sexuality.
  • Allocate time and effort for open conversations.
  • Understand that the process and struggles of sexual identity in today’s society will influence much of the conversation.
  • Don’t be afraid to address your own sexual health.

Allen’s full paper is available online.


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